Defendant Jackets, Legal Abbreviations, and Aliases, Oh My!

Today’s post is written by Stephanie Stegman, the special media projects volunteer at the National Archives at Fort Worth.

What exactly is a “defendant jacket”?  What does the charge “RLD” stand for?  How do you find the records of a defendant if he or she had an alias or was charged with multiple co-defendants?

These are just some of the questions faced by archivists, researchers, and volunteers working with Fort Smith’s criminal case files from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas (Record Group 21).  Answers to these questions and more are now available on the “Research Guide to the Criminal Case Files of Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1866-1900.”

The court’s busy caseload and unusually large jurisdiction (74,000 square miles) make these records rich in stories from western Arkansas and the Indian Territory, today Oklahoma.  The criminal case files from Fort Smith contain over 300,000 pages of court-ordered writs (arrest warrants, subpoenas, indictments, etc.) and other related court documents.

Yet, the court’s original filing system made these Wild West court cases difficult to search.  Court papers from a defendant’s case file were stored in a pigeon-hole cabinet together with their co-defendants as well as other defendants with the same last name.  Over time, when the pigeon holes became full, court employees transferred the contents to a numbered system of files or “jackets.”  Thus, each defendant jacket contains multiple defendants and spans years.  The “jacket number” became an important identifier to reference and to locate individual case files.

Two further potential problems for users were legal terminology and abbreviations found in the writs and other papers.  Brushing up on your legalese will help you to identify the types of documents in a case file.

For instance, this document below comes from the case file of Bandit Queen Belle Starr and her co-defendant/husband Sam Starr.  On the reverse side, the printed Latin word CAPIAS tells us it is an arrest warrant.  Issued July 31, 1882, the warrant shows Deputy Marshal L.W. Marks found the pair two months later near Bird Creek in the Cherokee Nation and arrested them on September 21, 1882. [Online catalog identifier 7064406]

Legal abbreviations like “RLD” often appear in sentencing records.  RLD stands for “retail liquor distributor.”  Selling liquor in the Indian Territory was illegal, and this plus other liquor-related crimes were frequent at the Fort Smith federal district court.  [Online catalog identifier 7064465]

Charges that came before the court’s long-serving “Hanging” Judge Isaac Parker ranged from illicit liquor distilling, which came with a fine and a six-month stay in the federal jail in the courthouse’s basement, to capital crimes like murder and rape.  Regardless or the crime or the date of the trial, the first stop for researchers looking at cases from the Fort Smith court is the criminal case files on Ancestry.

Search for Eliza Alexander OR Mary Young, and you will get defendant jacket #214, which shows Eliza Alexander (alias Mary Young) indicted for adultery in 1889.  Interestingly, charged with her, William J. Cooper, is not listed as a co-defendant; he has a separate file (defendant jacket #216).  During their trials, both were found guilty.  Eliza received four months in the Fort Smith federal jail (later reduced to 93 days).  William was sent to the state penitentiary in Little Rock, AR for a longer term of eighteen months. [Online catalog identifiers 7063615 and 7063616]

However, since co-defendants share a case file, usually searching under the name of one defendant will yield documents with the names of their co-defendants.  A good example is the infamous Dalton Gang, which consisted of brothers Grat, Bob, and Emmett Dalton and their friends.  They appear multiple times in Fort Smith court records before the shoot-out in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892, which left only Emmett alive and headed to the penitentiary. [Online catalog identifier 7064463]

Obviously, this process is a little confusing.  In a pre-digital age, volunteers and staff at the National Archives at Fort Worth created several helpful guides to make searching for information easier: a defendant name index (with aliases), a victim name index, and a list of deputy marshal oaths.  They compiled related records, like the court’s Sentence Record Books, to help give a more complete picture of the case files, which can contain just a single page or 60 plus pages.  Thanks to a collaborative effort years in the making, the digitized images from the case files now can be used alongside these older resources.

Links to all records and indices can be found on the National Archives at Fort Worth’s new research guide website.