Just-discovered court documents 'are a living part of history'

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DURHAM -- Covered with soot and coal dust from the heating fires of a bygone era, a batch of 19th- and early 20th-century legal records has emerged from a courthouse cubbyhole to weave a human drama involving long-dead drunkards, adulterers, businessmen, stable keepers and ordinary people in crisis. There are tales of bawdy houses, financially encumbered horses, business disputes and broken marriages, not to mention -- in the words of one document --"tippling, whoring, fighting and cursing."

"It gives you a sense of perspective on humanity," said Durham Clerk of Superior Court Archie Smith, who recently found the yellowing, timeworn documents while rummaging around his office area.

"These papers exhibit the full gamut of human emotions," he added. "They prove that two age-old sources of conflict applied back then, just as they do now. I call them the nances: romances and finances. It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Normally an ebullient man, Smith is transported to new heights of enthusiasm when talking about his precious discovery.

"Any person sensitive to history will treasure this," he said. "These papers are superb vignettes of life as it was lived long ago. They are tangible, physical monuments to the past, a living part of history. They can't be duplicated."

The documents are written in longhand script and bound together with straight pins and various other fasteners from the days before staples.

A few of the papers are in faded envelopes with 2-cent stamps still attached. Back then, the fee for filing a civil complaint was $18, compared to at least $70 today. Witnesses in 1883 were paid 5 cents a mile for travel to and from the courthouse.

And when someone wanted a divorce on grounds of adultery or any other complaint, he or she had to take the case before a jury -- a requirement that vanished decades ago.

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