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Chancery Courts as a Window on Social History

By Shannan Kain

The Court of Chancery comes from the Lord Chancellor of Old England. He had the right to determine cases for the king based on “fairness” when more strict prescriptions of the law were not available. Equity is a name given to situations where the existing law was too harsh or not applicable to the case at hand or could not provide for a fair decision or a satisfactory remedy, equitous decisions were made by judges. In Walla Walla County of the 1860s equity cases usually offered a monetary remedy.

Equity cases are concerned with the equity available from an asset. For the purposes of justice, equity is the amount of money a person has invested in an asset and the amount of money to be awarded to the plaintiff suing for restitution. What started out as a project built on seemingly insignificant cases turned out to be an interesting study of economy and cost of goods. My research sent me on a virtual shopping spree in Walla Walla of the 1860s.

Essays

Courts of Chancery-Cases of Equity.” Discusses the origins and scope of the Chancery Court. Defines cases of equity and the instruments (documents) employed in Chancery Court. Specifically discusses the Pleading, and the Interrogatory.

Consumer Goods In Walla Walla County: Bring A Bunch Of Cash.” This essay discusses the availability of consumer goods in Walla Walla of the 1860s. It is a catalog of the advertisements that ran in the Washington Statesmen and seeks to define some of the more archaic terms. While this essay certainly does not include everything it may be surprising as to how many goods were available.

The Relative Value of Money.” discusses the economic indicators that make it possible for us to determine the value of a dollar in historic times. It names a ratio for the 1865-dollar versus the 2008-dollar and gives a comparative example.

Civil War: All Tied Up.” What is a Beauregard or a McClellan tie? How do they differ?

Documents

Overview: Documents can appear on the surface to be rather dry and single purpose. On the contrary, documents reveal many things about the past. One can uncover trends from an earlier period and possibly predict or justify future developments as well. In the case of my research I was led to a consumer culture I found surprising in that profits were huge and supplies also vast. Walla Walla County turned out to be much less stagnate then I had original imagined and all this was gleaned from advertisements and documents.

Restraining Order-Temporary Injunction” Following is an example of a restraining order. As we know them to day, restraining orders prevent people from approaching another. They are often drawn up at the request of a battered wife or a mother of children involved in a custody hearing. Less often it is a battered man or father that instigates the court order, This document caught my attention because it restrains a man from disposing of or in any way “interfering” with land he owns due to a court judgment in the amount of $46, 888.03, a sum worth approximately 2.3 million dollars by today’s standard. This document is also referred to as a temporary injunction.

Bail Bond” I found the 1864 “Bail Bond” to be of special interest. I assumed the bonding agent would be “licensed” or connected to the court and held liable for all defendants he bonded. As I discovered, each case that required a bail bond, also required a separate and unique contract of liability to be drafted.

The Summons to the Defendant” is interesting. Like early equity cases in England where the defendant was penalized financially not to give back to the plantiff what he had lost but to repair the wrongthinking of the defendant’s innate being and to correct the defects and rescue the defendant’s soul. Two hundred years later the Summons still makes mention of spiritual matters when the” prayers of the plaintiff will be answered.”

Bill Of Court Costs” What follows is a transcription of a bill for court costs, I have been unable to determine what sometimes a fee for the justice (judge) is levied and other times there is no recorded fee. Bt today’s standard the fees seem quite reasonable. A handwritten folio produced by the court clerk costs only 20 cents. For the sake of illustration, let us say a folio was only two pages in length (one page I think would not constitute a folio). If the clerk wrote very quickly a folio could be produced in 30 minutes making their hourly worth 40 cents. Conversely, official documents came at a much higher price. A subpoena was $2.25 and a judgment cost $1.50.