By Caroline Preston

    The Essex Institute, originally founded as the Essex Historical Society in 1821, is one of the oldest and largest independent historical societies in the United States. The primary focus of the Essex Institute is the history and culture of Essex County, Massachusetts. The Institute’s library contains approximately 300,000 books, pamphlets, broadsides, and maps, as well as 4,000 linear feet of manuscripts.

    The Essex Institute has a substantial quantity of manuscript material pertaining to the development of law in colonial Massachusetts. These can be divided into four categories: 1. Court Records; 2. Justice of the Peace Records; 3. Notary Public Records; and 4. Lawyers’ and Judges’ Records.

    I. Court Records1686

    In 1980 the Essex County Superior Court temporarily deposited all pre-1800 court records at the Essex Institute. These include the Norfolk County Court Records, 1648–1680; the Essex County Court Records, 1636–1694; the documents of the 1692 Court of Oyer and Terminer; the records of the Essex Court of General Sessions of the Peace, 1692–1827; and the Essex Court of Common Pleas Records, 1692–1800.

    1. County Court (Norfolk County)

    Old Norfolk County was defined in 1643 as the area north of the Merrimac River. It included Haverhill and Salisbury in Massachusetts and Hampton, Exeter, Portsmouth, and Dover in New Hampshire. The county was divided into two Court jurisdictions; Dover and Portsmouth formed one and the other towns formed the other, with Salisbury as the shire town. In 1680 the four northern towns joined the royal province of New Hampshire, and the towns of Haverhill and Salisbury were added to Essex County. The records on deposit at the Institute are those from the southern jurisdiction. The old Norfolk records contain two records volumes, 1648–1680, and one box of court file papers, 1654–1679. Transcriptions of the Norfolk records volumes were included in Records and Flies of the Quarterly Court of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1636–1686, ed. George Francis Dow.

    2. County Court (Essex County)

    The 15 County Court records volumes cover the period from the Court’s inception in 1636 to its dissolution in 1692. There also are 57 boxes of file papers which include presentments, depositions, correspondence, deeds, wills, inventories of estates, contracts, apprentice indentures, inquests, writs, and executions. Transcriptions of the records books were compiled in Records and Files of the Quarterly Court of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1636–1686, which was edited by George Francis Dow, and published by the Essex Institute in 9 volumes. The file papers were transcribed and indexed by the W.P.A. in the 1930’s. This 54-volume set of unpublished typescripts is also on deposit at the Institute.

    3. Court of Oyer and Terminer

    By far the most significant early court records at the Institute are the legal documents of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the special court formed in 1692 to hear the Salem witchcraft trials. The Essex County Superior Court placed 527 witchcraft documents on permanent deposit at the Institute in 1980. The documents include declarations, arrest warrants, indictments, examinations of the afflicted and the accused, summonses, mittimuses (writs instructing jailers to hold prisoners), and a single death warrant. Transcriptions of all extant Salem witchcraft documents in the possession of the Essex Institute and other repositories were published in The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1602, Vols. 1–3, edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (New York, 1977).

    4. Court of General Sessions of the Peace

    In 1692 the Court of General Sessions of the Peace was formed to handle criminal and administrative business. The General Session Courts were superseded by 1827 and replaced by the County Commissioners. The Essex County records consist of 13 record volumes, 1692–1795, 22 boxes of file papers, 1701–1795, and 14 boxes of administrative papers, 1792–1862.

    5. Court of Common Pleas

    The Inferior Court of Common Pleas was formed in 1692 to hear civil cases. The Essex County Common Pleas records contain 21 docket books, 1721–1800; 19 extended records volumes, 1686–1800; 200 boxes of file papers, 1693–1799; and approximately 220 boxes of non-entered writs and miscellaneous material.

    II. Justice of the Peace Records

    The Essex Institute has the records of numerous Essex County justices of the peace dating from the colonial and early federal period. These are: Thomas Bancroft, J. P. Records, 1776–1803; Joseph Bowditch, J. P. Salem, Records, 1753–1762; Edward Bowen, J. P. Marblehead, Records, 1790–1795; Nathan Bowen, J. P. Marblehead, Records, 1782–1817; John Choate, J. P. Ipswich, Records, 1788; A. C. Cleaveland, J. P. Topsfield, Records, 1788–1790; Samuel Curwen, J. P. Salem, Records, 1756–1773; Nathaniel Lovejoy, J. P. Andover, Records, 1787–1795, 1797–1800; Isaac Mansfield, J. P. Marblehead, Records, 1787–1799; Nathaniel Marsh, J. P. Salem, Records, 1796–1800; Daniel Noyes, J. P. Ipswich, Records, 1787–1793; Isaac Osgood, J. P., Records, 1788–1795; John Perkins, J. P. Lynnfield, Records, 1787–1788; Edward Pullin, J. P. Salem, Records, 1786–1790; William Pynchon, J. P. Salem, Records, 1746–1789; Ichabod Tucker, J. P. Salem, Records, 1787–1812; and unidentified J. P., Records, 1776–1784, 1787–1789.

    III. Notary Public Records

    Two early volumes of Salem Notary Records primarily concern marine protests and contain descriptions of shipwrecks and other disasters at sea. Volume 1, covering the period 1696 to 1722, was kept by Salem notary Stephen Sewall. Volume 2, covering the period 1723 to 1769, was kept by notaries Samuel Sewall, 1723–1725; Mitchell Sewall, 1727–1748; James Jeffrey, 1749–1754; and Jonathan Notting, 1757–1769. Transcriptions of the early Salem Notary volumes were published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, Volumes 42–48.

    IV. Lawyers’ and JudgesRecords

    The Curwen Family Papers contain one folder of records of Judge Jonathan Curwen (1640–1718). Curwen was a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, 1690–1708; Judge of Probate, 1698–1702; and Judge in the 1692 Court of Oyer and Terminer. The legal papers reflect his tenure as a Judge in Salem and include depositions from Salem residents and a 17 January 1692 letter from Reverend Samuel Parris concerning a parishioner’s loss of estate. The Bowen Family Papers include one volume of Court of Common Pleas minutes, 1762–1767, kept by Nathaniel Bowen, Sr., of Marblehead. The Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant (1731–1791) Papers record the legal activities of the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. The one-box collection contains court minutes, 1770–1794, for the Superior Courts at Springfield, Boston, Barnstable, Ipswich, and Worcester, and legal notebooks and notes.

    The Institute has one box of the papers of Beverly lawyer Nathan Dane (1752–1835). The collection contains a book of executions, 1782–1817; a ledger, 1825–1834; and two office day books, 1800–1823.

    John Prince (1782–1848) was a clerk for the Essex County Courts, a notary public, a justice of the peace, and an attorney active in Salem. The John Prince Collection contains 7 boxes of professional case files, 1770–1825, which concern administration of estates, cases of debt, bankruptcy, and spoliation cases. Prince’s professional papers contain legal correspondence, case notes, and background material relating to legal cases.