- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - With blue latex gloves on her hands, Amber Gowen slid to a page in a large bound book with ornate handwriting from the early 19th century.

“Indictment for murder,” the notes state.

The writer is Hugh McGary, the city’s founder, and he’s detailing the court hearing behind the city’s first murder trial on May 25, 1818.

On trial was McGary’s brother, Jesse. The victim; Hugh’s sister-in-law, Catherine.

“He held court at his house, served as the judge and he also served as the Circuit Court Clerk,” said Gowen, the archivist for the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s office. “He was also the postmaster and he had the main store in town that people would hang out at.”

Jesse McGary said he accidentally shot his wife while aiming for a dog. The verdict? Not guilty.

The order book with the case notes is but a sliver of the historic collection the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s office has on file. Gowen and University of Evansville interns poured over thousands of documents and miscellaneous boxes to preserve and catalog some of the county’s rarest documents and history.

To show off some of the more interesting pieces of Evansville history and to let public know what it has, the Clerk’s Office has a free presentation at 2 p.m. Saturday at Browning Room B of Central Library in Downtown Evansville.

It started with Clerk Debbie Stucki wanting an inventory of what the office had in its off-site warehouse on Buchanan Road.

Other than various court records, the archive includes marriage licenses, professional licenses, estate records, election materials, war veteran catalogs and industry-related documents.

“We can’t preserve what we don’t know we have and the public can’t use what they don’t know we have,” Gowen told the Evansville Courier & Press (https://bit.ly/1dCTbj9 ) .

There are gaps in the document history as things have slipped through the cracks through the years. And, as the gloves indicate, the documents are sensitive. The 19th century paper files are stored without humidity or temperature control, so some are frail and brittle.

“For every piece we lose there are puzzle pieces we’ll never be able to put together after that. These are irreplaceable,” Gowen said.

For class credit, UE interns were deeply involved in the project. Junior and history major Jessica Newell traced the story of Evansville man Henry Roettger after she stumbled on his name in a rare, large bound volume of a soldier pension registry from 1890.

The book details residents who served in the military, mostly in the Civil War but some in the Mexican-American war, including names, regiments, addresses and other information.

What caught her eye was Roettger’s injury - a cannon ball fell on him at Harpers Ferry. From that she traced his military and post-military life.

“I was able to piece together his war experience and try to make a more personal connection with what you find here in the book with what he actually went through,” Newell said.

The archive team was often surprised at what they’d find - the license application for the city’s first female dentist, immigration records and other bits of Evansville trivia.

“You never know what you’re going to find, and it’s not just court papers. It’s tangible, like, parts of people’s lives that you don’t really expect to find,” she said.

“I love that connection to people to the past that you get with this. When it was written they were standing in front of them writing down their story. I just find it powerful.”

Gowen said it’s the details that grabbed her.

“For Jessica it was ‘Why did a cannonball fall on this man?’ There’s a thousand stories. That’s what I think is so amazing about the archival documents. In each one of them you can pull out 20 stories and connect them.

“Then all of a sudden you have this clearer picture of the past of Vanderburgh county or the history of the nation,” she said.

___

Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com

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