Police Court during Reconstruction

…as gleaned from Book A Minutes
        Russell B. Guerin
 
Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War is generally considered to cover the years 1866 to 1877. It was formally begun when Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, dividing the South into five military districts. Hancock County was in the 21st Military District.
 
This analysis covers the years 1866 to 1873, hopefully rendering a glimpse into how our county weathered those trying times. While difficult, the endeavor was one of peace, not war.
 
Board of Police Minutes, Book A
Called Book A, Hancock County Ms Board of Police Minutes, this is the first of many volumes in our courthouse archives recently found by our Clerk of Court and his staff.  Subsequent volumes run through letter Z and then they pick up again at A-prime.
 
There is so much information that it is necessary to restrict this study to Book A, at least for the moment.  It is essentially a follow-up to what we were fortunate to be given out of the Hilda Hoffman collection, that being the minutes of the Police Court during the Civil War. Specific years covered were 1863 to 1866. The earlier study can be found on my web site, www.russguerin.com, titled “Minutes of Hancock County’s Police Court, 1863-1866….a Civil War activity.”
 
On balance, the initial observation of these documents was that here existed a welcome piece of evidence that the various governmental organizations had not all shut down during the war years. In fact, many of them had, including to some degree the court system. But here was one body which continued not only to function, but to do some of the hard work of dealing with vital things like roads and bridges, and indeed, the survival of many made indigent by the war.
 
That first study reveals details of some of those important activities, such as the awarding of some amounts of money paid to families of soldiers active in the Civil War. Those left behind were often in dire straits, some starving. The minutes often mention certain people as being “paupers,” for whom a special fund was kept.
 
There may have been many destitute people around during and after the war.
 
While such repetitive procedures may be dull reading, at least several observations important to our history were explored. One such was the connection of a one-time board president, George Holloman, being one and the same as the Captain of the Citizen’s Committee. As reported in the Koch family letters, that was essentially a self-appointed group to do extra legal activity to stop the plundering of Pearl River families. It is not a stretch to consider that they were essentially a vigilante group.
 
This also is discussed on my web site, under title of “Letters of Two Families” and “New Study: How the Civil War Affected Hancock County
a follow-up to the Police Court article.”
 
The inference is that possibly the members of the Police Court were also members of the Citizens Committee. This calls into question whether there were certain unspoken duties that were deemed not to be recorded. Indeed, often monies were distributed – sometimes relatively large amounts – without explanation.  The fact that several pages were removed from the original document is disturbing.
 
Regardless of what the war-time minutes do not tell us, it is evident that the Board of Police was an active organization. Many of the names of the officers, the overseers, their hands, etc., are familiar and have come down to us as the leaders of the community.
 
Post War Activities of the Police Court
Book A Minutes tell of the workings of the Police Court as it continued after the war in much the same fashion as before. There were, of course, distinct differences: the earlier account tells of how things were done in wartime; the next tells of a functioning government partly hamstrung by lack of money and to some degree the terms of Reconstruction. These were serious people, and nowhere can any indication of dissatisfaction with their current lot be found.
 
As the first study shows, the activity of the Police Court was often about routine matters, such as appointments of those overseers whose responsibilities include caring for the county’s roads and bridges, and the naming of their available workers, called “hands.”  As before, overseers and their hands were periodically named and replaced.  Bridges still needed to be fixed, requiring bids and warrants for the necessary money.
 
The source of the Board’s income is not clear, except that it was limited. We know that taxes were being assessed. They were usually calculated as a percentage of what the state was collecting. Warrants for payment, perhaps more like IOUs, continued to be made for salaries and reimbursements. In some cases, particularly in the case of judges, payments were made in arrears. In one example, a probate judge was paid $300 for his services during the years 1863 to 1866.
 
The pauper fund remained in use.  An interesting item is included in the April 1866 term. It was ordered by the Board that “a special Freed man pauper tax of one dollar be levied upon each male Freed man between the ages of 18 and 60.” While it is noteworthy that these folk were being considered, it is also curious that the term “Freed men” was still in use after the war.
 
Some substantial warrants that were made in war years were still carried on the books. In order to wipe them clean, appointments were made to certain individuals, giving them the authority to pay off the outstanding amounts, but only if they could be settled for fifty cents on the dollar. It is not clear whether Confederate monies had been involved, but new money was obviously more valuable than the previously written warrants.
 
While the organization continued with periodic activity, it is difficult to discern the regularity of that activity. Board meetings fell into two categories: regular and special. Most regular meetings were held in January, April, July and September. However, that is not to say that there were meetings in each one of those months. In fact, sometimes there was no regular meeting for periods of several months. Other meetings, called “Special,” were sometimes held on those months which would have been “Regular” in the normal sequence.  Sometimes Special meetings were held back to back, and in one instance, three months in a row.
 
Overseers were appointed in the months of April in 1866, 1867, and 1868. For at least the next three years, that pattern ceased being followed.
 
The term of office for president also was not regular. In the beginning, the first set of minutes being for October 1866, Joseph Martin appears as president. He continued in office through the October 1867 meeting. The next meeting was in the following January, and Sam White was then heading the board. Curiously, an examination of the October meeting discloses nothing about an election of a new president.
 
Sam White continued as president through June 1870, and in that month was re-elected but this time as president of the “Board of Supervisors.” In July 1871, White resigned and GW Holloman was again elected president.
 
Beginnings of the Board of Supervisors
Prior to June of 1870, the minutes were consistently those of the “Police Court.” That meeting was a special meeting and one might assume that the name of the group was officially changed.  Also, in the next meeting the name was “Board of Supervisors.” However, in between it was called  “Supervisors’ Court” on a couple of occasions. Once more, in March of 1871, “Board of Supervisors” was the name used, but it became the “Supervisors’ Court” in July. From August 1871 on, the title seems to have been permanently changed to the “Board of Supervisors.”
 
For all the back-and-forth of the names, it may well be that the secretary who wrote the minutes did not see any one name as being agreed upon. Nonetheless, it may well be that it was about this time that members informally agreed that they should no longer be listed as a Police Court, but that henceforth they should be known as Supervisors.
 
Times were changing.
 
The Courthouse
Meanwhile, changes were being made in the location of the courthouse.
 
Initially, meetings were still being held at the courthouse in Gainesville. Judging from the meetings held during the Civil War, it may be that the 1853 fire had not totally destroyed the courthouse, and there was even some discussion about getting an estimate of repairs. On the other hand, it may be that whatever structure was being used after 1853, it was called the courthouse.
 
On March 19, 1867, in a Special meeting of the Board, it was clearly stated that “under a recent act of the Legislature…for the purpose of selecting a County Seat of Justice for said county,” it had been “further to the satisfaction of the Board that Gainesville received the highest number of votes.”
 
However, in another Special term, this one being on the 6th day of May, 1867, the Board of Police met “at the Courthouse in the City of Shieldsborough.” There it was stated Shieldsborough had “received the majority of legal votes.” It was further noted that the order that had been given in the March meeting “was cancelled and amended.”
 
 Whether there is an inference that at Gainesville there had been some not-legal votes is open to discussion.
 
The actual location of the building being used as a courthouse is not given, but it is clear that in a meeting in March 1868 it was decided that the Masonic Lodge in Shieldsborough was declared the courthouse of the county. It was a temporary decision, as one month later, the following proposal was made:  “The Board of Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Shieldsborough have made a proposal to exchange a lot of land now claimed or owned in said City by the County of Hancock for one lot of land belonging to said City for the purpose of erecting thereon a Court House for said County.”
 
Earlier, in May 1867, William R. Seal was directed to do a survey of county property in Shieldsborough and to make a report. This turned out to be a plat of the courthouse lot (see above) for which Seal was paid ten dollars.     
 
In a follow-up meeting in June, the plan was restated in a more formal way, the drawing of a deed was agreed upon, and other details were discussed such as who may use the facility when completed.
 
Perhaps due to lack of money actual construction was slow in coming. Two years later, in a November 1870 meeting, it was determined to give Sheriff DC Stanley $49 for lumber to build benches for the courthouse, presumably still the Masonic Lodge.
 
In December of 1871, another move was made. The narrative is told in the minutes of that Special term, beginning with the payment of $12 to John A. Mordeau for the rental of two rooms used as offices of the Clerk and Sheriff. Next, $14 was allowed Mrs. R. Eager for four days of hire of her horse and cart to remove the Clerk’s and Sheriff’s offices from the City Hall to the Sea Side Hotel, and from there to the Moreau house. It was then decided that the Moreau house, being used as a Courthouse, was “by no means sufficiently secure for the safekeeping of the archives of the County.  It is therefore ordered by the Board that the house known as the Sea Side Hotel be and the same is hereby designated as the Court House of Hancock County until otherwise ordered….”
 
There is no mention of a move by August of 1872, but the Board authorized $11 to be paid to James A. Ulman for making desks etc. for the Clerk’s office. In the same meeting, it was mentioned that the court room was frequently used for exhibits by strangers without charge, and the sheriff was ordered to begin collecting fees. Any money generated was to be applied to buying chairs for the courtroom.
 
The Jail
Meanwhile, the Board had other considerations besides the courthouse. In the January 1867 term, the Board ordered that a special meeting be scheduled for later in the month to consider the building of a jail “in this county.”
 
At that special meeting, a bid was accepted from WJ Poitevent to construct such jail for $2,100. In a regular meeting held in July 1867, it was ordered that he be allowed $47.50 for “repairs and carpenter’s work” on the existing jail in Shieldsborough.
 
Although more than a year and a half had elapsed since Poitevent had been awarded the jail contract, it was not until an October 1868 meeting that a warrant was issued for payment of the amount of $2,100. The order specified that “the County jail” had been built at Gainesville.
 
It appears that Poitevent’s contract was not inclusive of some costs, and so in a January 1869 special meeting, a number of vouchers in small amounts were ordered. These included cleaning and whitewashing the County jail, blacksmith work, lumber and labor for the jail. The word “labor” is curious, as it would seem to have been included in Poitevent’s commitment, but in this case it was only for ten dollars.
 
Perhaps not related to the jail issue, it is noteworthy that in the January meeting, a warrant was issued in favor of Poitevent for $600 for “county paper” which he had delivered for cancellation, but the amount surrendered was not shown. It is probable that he was being paid for one of the promises made during the war.
 
In one case, a new warrant was issued in the amount of $10 for $50 of “city money.” In another, $605 was paid for $1,270 of warrants.
 
Certainly confusing in the matter of the jail is that in September of 1869, the Board ordered the President (Samuel White) and DR Wallace “to confer with City authorities in regard to building a jail, and also to call for specifications and estimates for building a jail similar to the one burned in May last….”  A search of minutes of meeting since May does not disclose any discussion of a fire; moreover, it is not clear whether the City was Shieldsborough or Gainesville.
 
Subsequent meetings do have mentions of a jail, but only with regard to repair of a jail house door and the payment to a blacksmith.
 
It may be significant that in November of 1870, the City of Shieldsboro authorized Hancock County to use the city jail as the county jail. Presumably, then, it was the Gainesville jail that had burned in May of 1869.
 
Disappearance of Treasury Money
FH Seal appears as Treasurer in April 1868, when he gave his report of the fund for “destitute widows, orphans, etc, of deceased soldiers, amounting to $266.66.” The report was accepted, and Seal was ordered to distribute as required by statute.
 
At the October 1868 meeting, a simply worded paragraph reveals that “a fine of $200 be imposed upon the County Treasurer for his non attendance at the regular meetings of the Board and failure to make a report of the finances of said County according to law.” Seal was not mentioned by name.
 
A fine of that size was enormous, considering the times.
 
In a special meeting of December 1868, the Board passed a resolution to cite Seal, requiring that he appear the following month for the purpose of settling accounts. In addition, it was resolved that a committee of three be appointed to investigate all officers of the county who might have had custody over the funds and their distribution.  
 
More serious action began in the special term of January 1869. First, the Board said that it had ordered Seal to appear on the first Monday, the 4th day of January, 1969, to make his final report, “and he has failed to appear and make his final report as said by said citation.” It was then ordered that suits be brought immediately on each of the Bonds given by the said FH Seal, as such Treasurer, against himself and all of his securities for the full amount of the penalties of said Bonds.”
 
JC Monet was appointed to institute such suits.
 
Nothing more is evident in this matter until the June 1869 term when it was reported that county warrants of $1,166 were turned over to the present treasurer, Jasper White, by FH Seal, former treasurer, and that those warrants were to be “received, cancelled and filed away for future actions.”
 
Three years later, at the June 1872 regular meeting, JC Monet was paid $363 as attorney for the county in the case of the State of Mississippi vs. FH Seal et al, and that a warrant or warrants be issued for the same in accordance Sec. 1385 of R Code 1871.
 
Board minutes for the months of May and June of 1872 seem to be silent as to the disposition of the suit, but another source tells the final outcome. A separate document, called Enrollment Document, records that on May 13, 1872, defendants FH Seal et al were ordered to pay Hancock County $6,956.10.
 
Healing Comes to Hancock County
Facts of a functioning legislature are in evidence, even though the county was perhaps hemmed in by scarce money and dependence on the 21st Military District. Actions were taken in accordance with the Mississippi Revised Code of 1871. The county had been restored to order. People were finding jobs and building things.
 
Although tax bases were limited, taxes were being collected, usually as a factor of the schedule of state taxes. When necessary, school funds were borrowed.  A fund was maintained for distribution of amounts to widows and orphans of deceased soldiers. Roads and bridges were is dire need of repair, as some were called impassable, but money was somehow found to buy lumber and materials to repair infrastructure; indeed, even some new roads were recommended, like the one to Toulme’s Station at the New Orleans, Mobile and Chattanooga Railroad. The Whitfields were applying for a license to open a new inn; Poitevent, Favre, Mauffray, and Smith Sr. petitioned for licenses to sell spirits, even though limited as to quantity. A grocery came to Pearlington.
 
Meetings were accepted as serious endeavors. Elected members were expected to attend and absentees were fined – usually five dollars, a substantial amount in that day. Board business often carried over to another day, and sometimes went on for several days. New warrants were given as payment, while other, older ones were being cancelled at a discount. Periodic appointments of overseers were made and their hands were listed name by name, and all were expected to do the job of maintaining the roads.   Grand and petit jurors were regularly appointed, and the courts heard cases involving both criminal and civil matters.
 
The Board’s minutes reflected happenings outside normal business. People died – some by drowning; some were strangers, and the coroner was paid for inquests. John Lizanna made coffins for ten dollars.
 
 The jail needed fixing: $4 for whitewashing; $14 and $23 to Hoffman for feeding the prisoner; $4 to the blacksmith; $10 to Ulman for lumber and labor; $1.50 to “Hampton freedman” for cleaning. Poitevent sued his neighbor who did not want a road running through his land; settlement came from the High Court of Errors and Appeals. A reward was offered and paid for the capture of an escaped prisoner.
 
Summary
During the period covered by the minutes in Book A, all of the Confederate states had been readmitted to the country once again known as the United States.  In Hancock County, we can see a body of governing officials evolving from a Police Court to a Board of Supervisors. It was a committee of active citizens standing ready to repair roads and bridges, to build new a new courthouse and jails, and to approve new business permits sought by enterprising people.
It was a county in the process of rebuilding itself.