[To read the first part of this series of blog posts on Pasquotank County miscellaneous records, go here.]
Unprocessed records from any Clerk of Court usually come to us in the filing system adopted by the clerk’s office. This material was no different. If you have never seen a file it is usually housed in a shuck which is about the size of a piece of letter sized paper folded in thirds (like you would place in an envelope). If there is no shuck, no outer file sleeve, then the clerk generally folds all the materials of a case inside one another and to that same dimension. One of the first things to do is to unfold all those cases so that the materials may be stored flat. I found myself chuckling while doing this lengthy process of unfolding, particularly when there were multiple papers folded inside one another. What made me chuckle was the thought that they were like Russian nesting dolls – you keep opening one only to find yet another piece inside the unfolded one.
Even before unfolding records, however, I was able to break them down into some large sub categories – several bundles of materials were clearly marked and tied together by the clerk. Among these bundled subseries there was one that caught my eye – Coroners’ Inquests. In the 19th century, a coroner was called to look at a dead body and take depositions from the folks who found it or lived near the deceased, etc. It required lots of self-discipline to merely set those records aside and continue to sort the other materials rather than just chuck the whole project and dig right into those inquests. What fortitude it takes to be an Archivist! Finally, I was able to turn my attention to the Coroners’ Inquest material.
The Coroners’ Inquest packet was bundled together and was, roughly, six or seven inches thick. The clerk placed a cover page over the whole bundle (“Coroners’ Inquest 1868” was written in dark brown ink) and tied the lot together with string. I cut the string and removed the wrapper. At the bottom of this small pile I saw a file almost an inch thick and indulged my curiosity to open that packet first.
The packet was dated 1867 with the notation of “evidence in the murder of John Markham” and was, I realized, a folded piece of note paper completely sealed by glue on every edge. In other words, no one had seen the contents of this evidence file since it was sealed in 1867. I opened the file and gently pulled the contents from the packet. In the middle of this inch-thick stack of papers was a piece of brownish cloth.
Oh no! I thought. Please do not tell me this is a bloody piece of cloth from this man’s murder.
I started to unfold the cloth and in turning back the first flap revealed a partial hole.
Good grief! I thought. This is the bloody piece of shirt with a bullet hole in it.
Slowly I unfolded the cloth and when it was fully unfolded a string attacked to either side fell out from the bundle. I gently grabbed the strings with either hand and held the cloth up by the strings. SHAZAM!
It wasn’t a bloody bullet ridden piece of cloth.
It was a MASK, complete with two eye holes.
Cold chills ran down my spine and all the hairs on my arms stood on end. The thought struck me – this was the mask the killer used while committing the murder. A check of the depositions revealed that to be the case. A masked intruder shot John Markham and fled. Somewhere near Markham’s house the killer lost his mask and it was found the morning after the murder.