• Alex Colvin

Update: Hooper Criminal Case File Received From NC State Archives.

Updated: Jan 20

It's always a good day when digitized originals of documents written nearly two centuries ago arrive in the mail from a state archives.

In this case, it's the seven pages that have survived of the criminal case against Alfred Hooper, a "free negro man," (c. 1796 - c. 1860) of North Carolina, and Elizabeth Suttles, (c. 1810 - 1880, ) a white woman who were separately and jointly charged with "adultery" for being married.[1]

What has survived of the case is, essentially, the Superior Court clerk's recording of the case by Superior Court clerk, J. M. Webb. The Superior Court case, was eventually appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court which overturned the lower court's finding for the defendants that their marriage was valid. The appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court was brought by the State Solicitor, John G. Bynum. Solicitors like Bynum were court jurisdictional-level attorneys, of which there were several corresponding to the "circuit" regions of the State Superior courts. The case file also includes a verbatim transcription of the original indictment.

My next steps will be to transcribe Webb's reporting in order to understand both the sequence of events and the fuller context as they played out. The transcription process itself is time-consuming, thus to aid this task, I will first re-shoot each page on a plain background with a flash setting on a DSLR camera to brighten the page then save it as a large .jpg which allows me to enlarge the image, a necessary element when transcribing handwritten documents from a period when capitalization and punctuation were not yet strict features of written English.

It was customary in 19th century recording standards, for example, to use a good deal of abbreviations and hyphens. One always hopes the clerk has a legible hand. In this case, the clerk who summarized the Supreme Court case writes very legibly but whose identity is unknown owing to missing signature sections of his summary at the bottom of the page. (See inset.)

Fortunately, because I read a good number of 19th century documents routinely I am comfortable with transcribing them. Better still, in the Hooper case, all the documents are "clean" without blotches or ink spills, and the clerk's hand is legible. This is especially welcome since, in many cases, and particularly with antebellum census and legal documents, the clerks and enumerators were often working by candlelight while making duplicate copies of multi-page documents. However, "clean" doesn't automatically translate to easy. In Webb's case, he's also obviously rushed, (or perhaps weary,) judging by the hasty, slanted penmanship. Which makes deciphering some words difficult.

The document I'm beginning with ( shown) is the legal summary for the North Carolina Supreme Court case, and while that court reporter in unknown, more is known of James M. Webb, the lower court reporter and whose hand, while legible, is also much more elegant. Anyone familiar with Rutherford County, North Carolina might recognize the name: James Milton Webb who, in addition to his clerical duties at the Superior Court in Rutherfordton, the county seat of Rutherford County, was also a Baptist minister and had served in the House of Commons. His home remains preserved in Rutherfordton, Rutherford County outside of which is a large engraved bronze plaque announcing its former owner's historic contribution to the area.

Undoubtedly, a careful review and transcription will reveal a good deal about this particular criminal case and especially how this antebellum mixed-race couple were treated.

[1] Xerox copy of microfilmed original, “Alfred Hooper & Suttles v State,” North Carolina State Archives.