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Jury Duty

Rummaging around in a manuscript collection of the Institute for Regional Studies at the NDSU Archives the other day, I was surprised by the contents of a folder of correspondence labeled “Jury Duty Requests, 1893-97.” This was in the papers of Sheriff Oscar G. Barnes, of Cass County.

I suspect most of you have the same attitude toward things like taxes and jury duty that I do—we don’t welcome these obligations, but we will fulfill them, even if a little grudgingly. I suspected this folder to be full of appeals from prospective Cass County jurors to be excused from duty—but I was way wrong. It turns out, jury duty was a much-sought-after privilege. How was this?

Here’s a letter to the sheriff from a local man named Henry Denison on 21 April 1893: “Is there not a possibility of one getting on a jury, there,” he writes. “Since I broke my arm Dec 19th I’ve nothing. I want some light employment of some kind.”

Well, that’s honest. As was E. B. Brockman of Tower City, who wrote to Sheriff Barnes on 6 October 1893. He explains he is a Civil War veteran whose “wife has been very sick for several years. I do not ask you to put my name on your list because I am anxious to get there as a juryman. But because it would be a chance for my sick wife to pass the winter in Fargo.”

As with another fellow from Tower who pleads, “My family is large and times very hard and no money to start into the winter.”

Likewise the fellow, Anson C. Thomas, for whom the city clerk of Wheatland writes in November 1893 to request favor. “You probably know him,” appeals the clerk, H. A. McConville. “He is crippled and has a large family.”

So jury duty had a sort of social-welfare function, especially in a time of economic depression such as the 1890s. On the other hand, there were other fellows who sought jury duty just for their own amusement.

P. W. Armstrong of Buffalo writes Sheriff Barnes on 30 December 1893, “I would like to go down on jury for February term. . . . It is very monotonous up here in winter.”

More insistent is F. W. Scott of Durbin, who writes the sheriff on 2 February 1894, “We have been having a rousing hard winter thus far. Find something for me to do for the love of goodness. This is confidential between you and me.”

Many made it plain they considered jury duty the political spoils of office. “I am doing all that lies in my power for you in the coming election,” writes A. K. Boyd of Lucca on 16 September 1894. “Times are hard and if I could get on the jury it would help me out most wonderfully.”

A man in Tower City writes on 9 November 1894, “Times rather slack here now and prospects for work of any kind are not at all flattering.” Tower, he assures the sheriff, will return “a good republican majority.” A few days later, after the election, P. C. Karrouse of Tower affirms, “We did all we could for you here. Now what I want is for you to give me a chance to work for the county the next term of court. Just fix it up so that I can get on the jury.”

For pure brass, however, you have to love M. W. Spencer of Mapleton, who writes Sheriff Barnes on 15 October 1894, “I have taken a notion that I would like to be a juror. Could you use your influence in my favor?” This fellow, at least, sounds like he would make an impartial juror!

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