Truman students help preserve county court records

A visiting historian's outrage over not being able to find the court records to a 19th century murder case has inspired the Missouri Secretary of State's Office, Truman State University, and the Shelby County Circuit Court to collaborate to get many of their court documents in order.

The collaboration is being called "The Local Records Preservation Project." It's apart of the Missouri Secretary of State's "Northeast Regional Records Preservation Program." The program involves Truman State students, who will work as interns, earn college credit, and get hands-on experience on how to clean, prepare, process and index court records. While interning, they'll sort through pre-1900s court records and summarize them. Once they're finished, State Archivists will microfilm and digitize them. The microfilm will eventually be available at Pickler Memorial Library at Truman State University and in the State Archives Office. The original court records will be held at the Shelby County Circuit Court.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan said the project will help Missourians learn more about their history.

"There's so much rich history in our state and North Missouri has a great treasure trove of that so this is a way to instead of having all of these historic documents buried in the basements of courthouses, to actually bring them alive and to have it so people can access them and learn more about what happened," said Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, (D).

Since January, four students have participated in the project, while earning college credits. They said they have sorted through eight boxes, accounting for more than 500 court cases. According to them, the most intriguing cases are the divorce settlements. One of the interns, Stephanie Fritz, said a divorce case where the husband accused his wife of setting up a brothel in their home has been the most interesting to sort through.

"A husband was filing for divorce because his wife went out of town for a little while and it was abandonment," said Fritz. "She came back but had befriended the local prostitute, that's what everyone called her, and then invited the prostitute into their house so he was filing for divorce on abandonment and for turning his living quarters into a brothel."

Shelby County was chosen for the project because back in the late 1800's, the courthouse caught on fire. When that happened, State Archivists said court documents were literally thrown out the windows. The archivists said when they were put back into the courthouse, they were placed wherever they could find room, but not back in chronological order.

Thus, when a visiting historian, hired by the family of the late Larkin Bentley, came to Shelby County to locate the murder case files, the Shelby County clerks could not find them. State archivist Lynn Morrow said the historian then called the State Attorney General's Office and cited the Sunshine Law, irate that they could not gain access to the court documents. After Shelby County Clerk's Office got a call from the Missouri Attorney General's Office, the staff searched the courthouse up and down and finally found the court records. Morrow said they were simply not put in the right place.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan said the collaboration is the first of its kind in the state. If it's successful, she hopes to use it as a model for the rest of the state.