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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

NARA: Criminal Case Files 1863-1917

Part I  
By Martha Wallace and Cath Trindle

When does a criminal case end up in Federal Court rather than a state court?  The answer is definitely not that it was more serious.  In fact a great number of the cases found in this record set are for such weighty crimes as not paying taxes on the sale of friction matches, not having a liquor license, or cutting trees on federal land for personal gain. The criteria for ending up in Federal Court is that the crime violated a federal law, therefore we find tax cases,  civil rights cases, admiralty cases and the like.

Take for example the selling of those friction matches without a tax stamp.  By the 1870's the friction matches that were manufactured in the United States were most often the type referred to as drunkard's matches, an improvement on parlor matches. Parlor matches combined white phosphorous, paraffin among other ingredients on wooden sticks that were generally left attached at the bottom.  Drunkard's matches were created when the bottom of the match was dipped in a non-flammable substance. An 1877 article in Popular Mechanics, Matches, by John A Garver A.B. describes the manufacture of matches in depth.

A tax on the sale of friction matches had been imposed by the Internal Revenue Act of 1864 (Sec 168) and amended in 1866.  (repealed by the Tarriff Act of 1883). The law required that a stamp be placed on each packet of matches that sold.  The cost was $1 for packages of up to 100 matches, and an additional $1 for each 100 matches or portion thereof.  There were generic stamps that could be used by anyone, and also proprietary stamps that were used by individual companies.  To put this tax into perspective, just those matches exported in 1879 brought in nearly $380,000 in tax revenue.  The article mentioned above also discusses the stamp tax and the effect it had on match manufacturing in the United States.

In November of 1877 James Schyler of Half Moon Bay was charged with possession of twelve (12) packages of matches for which the tax had not been paid. Half a year later the charges were dismissed against not only Schyler but against a number of others charged with the same crime.  But not everyone was so lucky.  William Olden, who had been manufacturing the matches, was sentenced to a fine of $500 or 30 days in the Alameda County Jail.  Those who pled guilty for the most part received a $100 fine or between 1 and 6 months in jail.  Some went to trial and were found not guilty, others found guilty received sentences similar to those who pled guilty.


In 1887 there were a number of indictments surrounding fraudulent public land surveys, against those who benefited by the surveys and those who swore to their authenticity. Towards the end of this record set there are a number of murders at sea with varying decisions and punishments.

With over 2000 case files, in 63 boxes and two docket books, this database just might provide some color for your family history.  Watch the SMCGS Blog for more on the Federal Criminal Court records at NARA.


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