The Superior Court is donating items to the San Diego History Center, some dating to the 1800s.
By Dana Littlefield | 12:42 p.m. April 13, 2016
SAN DIEGO — Some time ago, a local landowner filed a lawsuit in San Diego court to recover a debt from an unnamed owner of five black sheep.
The amount: $9. The year: 1877.
The complaint, handwritten in cursive curlicues that faded a bit with time, are contained in a book of Justice Court records that were once stored deep with the Superior Court building in downtown San Diego. Court authorities donated the book and several other collections of documents, photos and artifacts last week to the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.
A spring cleaning of sorts is underway as the Central Court prepares to move to its new location, only a block away at West C and Union streets, early next year. Meantime, court officials and staff are sifting through the stuff to find some that could be valuable — in a historical, informational or maybe even a personal sense — and figure out what to do with them.
“We’re finding all kinds of rooms which we may or may not have the keys to, where people just stuffed things in until they filled up,” said Michael Roddy, the court’s executive officer. He said the items given to the history center had been tucked away “in nooks and crannies” in the courthouse, most of them in the basement.
“We’re finding records that go back 20, 30, 40 years, some of them completely irrelevant and some of them may have some value,” he explained last week. “That’s why this is a good opportunity to try to preserve those things that may mean something because, you know, once you throw it away its gone.”
Among the items set aside for the center were two large and very old books containing Justice Court records of action — the equivalent of civil court minute orders that would be electronically imaged and posted online today — and small claims records from the Municipal Court of El Cajon.
There was also a heavy stamp used to seal and emboss documents with wax, scrapbooks put together by former court employees and eight to 10 boxes of old documents filed in the District Court in the late 1800s against unnamed individuals who were delinquent on their taxes.
“These I haven’t seen before,” said archivist Jane Kenealy, as she sorted through the tax records — each one folded neatly and tucked into an individual envelope.
However, she said, the 100-year-old tax documents would not be particularly useful to the center, because they don’t provide much information about the parties involved and don’t appear to be associated with any particular court case. Rather than referring to the people in those records as John and Jane Doe, the common placeholder monikers for those whose identities are unknown or withheld, they are listed in the documents as Richard and Phoebe Roe.
“When I’m looking at the new materials, I’m looking for anything that relates to what we already have, but also things that make sense in isolation,” Kenealy said, adding that the center already has a large collection of documents from the Superior Court, County Court, District Court, Justice Court and Court of Sessions.
She said the books of civil court and small claims records contained the type of information that would likely be more useful to the grade-school students, researchers, history buffs and scholars who use the center’s resources regularly.
“It’s interesting for the actual case itself, but it’s also interesting for the people,” she said. “Obviously, we’re trying to preserve the history of San Diego.”
Flipping through the old books, Kenealy recognized some names that were prevalent in 19th century San Diego: Joseph S. Mannasse and Marcus Schiller, both merchants; Abraham Klauber, a businessman who also served as chairman on San Diego’s Board of Supervisors from 1878-1880; and John Capron, who ran one of the stagecoaches that ran from San Diego to Yuma until 1912.
“These were the records that the public could come in and look at,’ Roddy said. “If you needed to find an order or judgment, you’d go to the judgment book and leaf through her to find what you were looking for.”
As Roddy perused one of the books, he said: “The processes that we use today have their roots back here.”
On Nov. 12, 1877, the landowner who sued the owner of the black sheep reported later that he was able to locate the man, who paid the money he owed. Accounting for inflation, that $9 debt would be the equivalent of roughly $200 today.
The docket entry, which notes that the case was ultimately dismissed, is signed by John R. Porter, justice of the peace. Court costs are listed in the margin of the page: 25 cents to file the complaint, 50 cents for docketing and $1.80 for copies of the summons.
The total: $4.30.