SIDNEY – While looking at Shelby County’s earliest records, documents that date back 200 years, Sheriff John Lenhart found comfort in knowing the principles from the county’s founding remain intact to this day.
“It just shows that our basic form of government, how good it is and how many years it’s been intact,” Lenhart said. “It’s changed some but not changed much. It kind of reassures, at least me, that America is still strong in our fundamental values and our Constitutional values.”
Lenhart, Clerk of Courts Michele K. Mumford, Prosecutor Timothy S. Sell and and Common Pleas Judge James F. Stevenson all gathered Monday afternoon in the Shelby County Courthouse to inspect some of the county’s earliest documents. On the first page of the county’s first minute book, dated 1819-1824, are the names of their earliest predecessors – Clerk of Courts Harvey Foote, Sheriff Daniel Dingman, Judge Joseph Crane and Prosecutor Henry Bacon.
“I’m pleased that those records are still intact,” Lenhart said. “That’s wonderful. (Mumford) guards them.”
Shelby County’s first officials all were appointees rather than elected officials. The county commissioners were appointed first then they selected the clerk, judge, prosecutor and sheriff until the first elections were held about a year and a half later, Lenhart said.
The documents including the first minute book and the first appearance docket, which was from 1821, revealed some of the issues those first county officials had to address. Among the cases in the 1820s were ones involving adultery and slander.
“I think there were more of biblical laws, a big part back then, more than they do today,” Mumford said.
There also were cases involving horse thefts and a man named John Blake who was fined $5 in 1821, almost $100 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation, for bartering liquor to Indians.
“Instead of bartering liquor to Indians, we worry about opioids and that kind of stuff,” Lenhart said. “We don’t have many horse thefts.”
Lenhart and Mumford agreed the cases in the county’s earliest days seemed to occur less frequently and tended to be less severe than what Shelby County sees today. The early court heard more civil trials while today the focus has shifted to more criminal trials.
“For whatever reason, there was some violent crimes but not like today,” Lenhart said.
The officials also marveled at the handwriting that was used in the early records.
“I think the unique thing about it is look at the writing compared to what we do today,” Lenhart said. “I don’t know of anybody that writes cursive. It’s print or computer. But the handwriting is still beautiful.”
The early documents also were more concise, Mumford said. Today’s documents are longer as more laws and more lawyers filling appeals has led to more paperwork for the clerk’s office.
“The cases seemed to be more, I want to say, more open and shut kind of thing,” Mumford said. “They didn’t drag on. The cases today are several pages long.”
Even though there were fewer appeals in the county’s early years, they still were a part of the United State’s justice system. Shelby County’s first trial was a woman found guilty of grand theft, Lenhart said. She did file an appeal and was found guilty again during a second trial.
Shelby County’s early records are kept in a safe in the Clerk of Courts office. Mumford discovered them approximately 15 years ago in the Courthouse’s attic, she said, then brought them to her office to ensure they were preserved.
“We were looking for other records and I come across these upstairs, and I thought, yeah, they don’t belong upstairs,” Mumford said, adding she wasn’t sure how long they were in the attic. “We wanted them down here so they don’t get any more deteriorated than they already are.”
Shelby County maintains records from throughout its history, which are available for the public to inspect.
“We have a lot of people that do genealogy or just curiosity, the neighbor coming in to see somebody’s record of whatever,” Mumford said. “It’s all public record.”