SEX, MAYHEM AND MORALITY IN 19TH CENTURY ONTARIO COUNTY by Hans-J. Finke, Ph.D. (The following talk was presented in conjunction with an Archives Week Exhibit at the Ontario County Records and Archives Center. Since many of my colleagues have asked me for copies, I finally weakened and gave in. Please note that the presentation is impressionistic, and definitely not the final word on the topic.) Everyday, when we open the newspaper, we find the most depressing stories, ranging from murder and assault to child abuse and prostitution. The more mature members of society can only shake their heads and bewail the disintegration of morality. After all, we know that our generation was always more mature, honest and moral and that only the younger generation is responsible for all the ills of society. What ever happened to the sophistication we exhibited in our younger days - we danced the bunny hop, the twist, and listened to such immortal lyrics as "You ain't nothing but a hound dog." Well, those of you who are in total despair about modern society, take heart! Our ancestors in the "good old days" of the first half of the nineteenth century had a few problems of their own. We are in the process of arranging Court records of the nineteenth century to make them accessible for research. The documents which you have seen in the new exhibit are just some of the examples of the darker side of history. We have found that the modern trend to sue our neighbors, our doctors, and even our lawyers is nothing new. The favorite past time of our ancestors was to sue everybody possible for everything possible. Law suits became big business in Ontario County from the very beginning. To be sure, most law suits involved the recovery of money or property. In many respects, the way our ancestors thought of money and property was tied to English tradition and more specifically to Puritan ethics. To be a freeholder - a person with money and property - gave standing in society and before the law. Despite the fact that credit and debt became a necessary evil in a growing economy, debt was something not quite moral. If a debtor was unable to repay his debt, he became an immoral outcast of society. Although there were already the rudiments of bankruptcy laws, a debtor still wound up in jail for anywhere between thirty and sixty days. Only after 30 days could a debtor petition to be freed from jail under the Insolvency Law, and the most convincing argument was that his family would have to be supported by the County unless he could work for the wife's and children's support. Court records of the first half of the nineteenth century are a valuable resource for the study of Ontario County history and society. The court cases show how society differed from the ideal. We often think of the "Good Old Days" as a period when people had happy family relations, went to church, helped their neighbors, were moral and upright, and spent most of their time working for the good of society. A goodly number of our ancestors fell into this category - just as a majority of people do now. However, just as in 1994, a minority of our nineteenth century ancestors rejected the laws and mores of the majority and clogged the court system with cases ranging from incest and prostitution to assault, theft and murder. The official guardians of morality of early Ontario County resembled the officials in our present day County government: They strove to protect the individual from bodily and financial harm, and they wanted to keep the taxes as low as possible. From the beginning, the county budget showed a substantial portion spent for social welfare programs. There was the Poor House, the Idiot Assylum, and various other institutions designed to take care of the less fortunate members of society. However, the attitude toward the poor was much sterner than it is today. Although the sick and physically or mentally disabled were cared for, the able-bodied man or woman was expected to work and contribute to the good of society. Vagabonds - those who showed no visible means of support - were sentenced to the Poor House at hard labor. Children who had lost their parents became wards of the Poor House and were apprenticed out to farms and businesses to pay for their upkeep. In the exhibit you will find one case where the father was dead and the mother was in jail. Before the boy was sentenced to spend six months in the Poor House, he had no choice but to beg for his food. Non-residents, who showed no visible means for their support, were shipped back to the county from which they came from. By the middle of the century, the Poor House was no longer used as an alternative to jail. Attempts were made to control vagrancy and idleness by imposing monetary sureties of good behavior. Since the surety or bail bonds were rather high, the people without a profession usually wound up in jail. I'll just give you three quick examples from 1846: John Kennedy was convicted as a disorderly person and drunkard without visible means of support. Since he had no money, he was thrown into jail until he could come up with surety money. Thomas Ziely was convicted as a disorderly person without profession or calling who supported himself through gambling. Evidently he was not a very lucky gambler since he could not come up with $200. Justice of the Peace Robert Stoddard particularly differentiated between the worthy poor and the incorrigible vagrants. He convicted Charles Hinckley as a vagrant "for he is an idle person without visible means of supporting himself (who) is running about the streets, sleeping in barns and sheds." Stoddard considered Hinckley unsuitable for the Poor House and threw him into jail for a period of 20 days. The Overseer of the Poor was one of the most important - and most powerful - individuals in the County. In addition to actually supervising the poor, he saw to it that the County was liable for the support of the poor only if absolutely necessary. For example, illegitimate births were relative common in the early history of Ontario County. Quite often, the Overseer of the Poor brought suit against the men who got the poor girls pregnant. In July 1829 a girl from the Town of Seneca gave the following "voluntary" disposition: ...Eve Haskins of the Town of Seneca who being duly sworn before the undernamed Justice of the Peace of said County says that she now is with child and that the child of which she is pregnant is likely to become a Bastard and to become chargeable to the Town of Seneca of Ontario aforesaid and that Nimrod Bennett of Seneca aforesaid is the Father of said child. N. Hastings, Overseer of the Poor, ordered the Justice of the Peace to proceed against Nimrod Bennett according to the Act for the Relief of Cities and Towns from the Maintenance of Bastard Children. During the first half of the 19th century, Ontario County was relatively violent. Partially, I suspect, cheap alcohol was responsible for much of the violence. We also have to remember that Ontario County was a frontier county and as such attracted misfits of society. Again, the Overseer of the Poor attempted to prevent alcohol abuse by bringing charges against those who sold unlicensed liquor. As early as 1806, the Bloomfield Overseer of the Poor brought charges against Nathan Brian for selling illegal alcohol. A Court case on 1818 will give an indication on how much alcohol was produced in this area: Oliver Rose complained that William G. Taylor absconded with "two barrels of Whiskey, five hundred gallons of Whiskey, ten barrels (empty) and ten barrels of Whiskey with a total value of $500. According to Rose, he "casually" lost the booze and Taylor took it, fully aware that it belonged to Rose, and then disposed of it. The Court found for Rose - $ 452 plus $27 Court costs. I'd love to know the real story behind this! Throughout the first half of the 19th century violence against women was a common occurance. Since we are just in the process of arranging Court records, I don't have accurate statistics. However, I have come across enough cases of assault, rape, and incest to get the impression that women were no safer during the 19th century than they are now. I have chosen only a few examples to give you a feeling for the age. In June 1846, Hiram S. Beach was charged for violently assaulting and beating Mary Nevins. He was fined ten dollars. Evidently at least one person thought that the fine was not punishment enough and Alonzo Chase was charged with assaulting and beating Hiram Beach. Chase had to pay a fine of one dollar. In the present exhibit, you will find a case in which Phebe Lewis beat up Henry Allin on July 16, 1846. Phebe was thrown into jail for 30 days. Ten days later, Henry Allin beat up Phebe Lewis and received only an eight dollar fine. The difference in punishment does not seem fair, but perhaps Phebe did a better job on Henry than vice versa. The first rape case in the County that I was able to find was in 1798 by Oliver Willcocks against Rebecca King. One of the strangest rape/incest cases was the case of The People vs. Solomon Davis, who was charged with raping his daughter. While Davis was in jail, the Sheriff's Office started to serve the necessary subpoenas to witnesses. Lo and behold, the main witness, the daughter, had disappeared. Either friends or relatives moved the girl from location to location to keep her from testifying against her father. She was finally discovered in the village of Gasport after having been hidden away for over six weeks. In the exhibit, you will find several cases of prostitution. Again, you have to remember that this was still a frontier society and that single men significantly outnumbered single women. Generally speaking, prostitutes were required to put up sureties for good behavior for a period of one year. However, the surety bond was stiff, ranging from $50 to $200, and most prostitutes did spend time in jail because they were unable to come up with the money. Just a few examples: Eliza Hinckley was convicted for being a common Prostitute and drunkard, is idle, has no profession or occupation to support herself. Eliza was supposed to find two sureties of $100 each for her good behavior and had to remain in jail until she could come up with the money. This was in April, 1846. By July of the same year she was convicted again for the already mentioned charges plus for keeping a house of ill fame in Geneva. An attempt was made to close down houses of ill repute, and there are numerous cases such as that of David and Nancy Abram who were jailed for keeping a bawdy house. When we become involved in arranging Court records, it often seems that the entire County population was engaged in the favorite past time of beating up its neighbors. In one case, Hamlet Hickox jumped on Jonas Atwell, struck him, pushed him down 3 or 4 times and badly hurt him. Samuel Featherly and others were convicted of assault, battery and riot. A dozen or so people were convicted for "riotously assembling to disturb the peace of the School of District #2. The list of assaults and batteries goes on and on and included the use of clubs, guns, knives, teeth, and whatever other weapons the assailants could find. So much for the theory that television is responsible for all our violence. In conclusion, I would like to caution any would-be historian or researcher that sex and mayhem are only part of the story. The nineteenth century was also a period of tremendous religious revival; it was an era where individuals and families contributed to the building of Ontario County as a nice place to live. I chose the court records because they are part of our history - a part which is usually ignored in your history textbooks. Our newspapers tend to emphasize the sensational, the darker side of society. I hope by now you will realize that society has not changed that much, and that will survive even our present crisis in morality.
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