Surprises on the Trail of Dusty Old Records

What comes to your mind when you hear the words historic county records? Darkened warehouses? Moldering paper? Dusty shelves? How about stories of tragedy, courage, and compassion?

Old records filled with surprises.

Old records filled with surprises.

Since the middle of January, I've had the honor to work with three current or former students from the University of the Pacific taking an inventory of historic San Joaquin County records. Yesterday, while working with one of my colleagues in downtown Stockton, I came across a large leather-bound volume that bore the title Separate Property of Married Women.

I'm still at a loss to explain fully why this volume exists. Why focus on married women? What about married men? Is this simply one more example of the sexism I often see embedded in other historic documents?

Maybe. However, the stories I found inside suggest something a bit more nuanced.

Take, for example, the case of Theresa Grace Wriston, the wife of Charles Ransom Wriston. In May 1914, Mrs. Wriston applied to the court for permission to run a boarding house in her own name. According to the records, her husband had "wholly failed" over the past two years "by reason of his habitual intemperance and dissipation" to support Mrs. Wriston and their two young daughters, aged four and twelve.

Divorce wasn't an option, at least not in May 1914. According to the records, Mrs. Wriston still hoped at that point that her husband—described in the application as "strong" and "able-bodied"—would "again become a useful member of society."

Did he reform himself? We'll probably never know. However, we do know that the judge approved Mrs. Wriston's application. She proceeded to buy a boarding facility in her own name on North Hunter Street, in Stockton, with capital furnished by her brothers. Soon afterward, she reopened it as the Boston House.

Did Mrs. Wriston succeed? The volume doesn't say. Nor does it reveal whether she and her husband ever ended their marriage. The story ends suddenly, leaving a string of unanswered questions.

Separate Property of Women doesn't promise to tie up all the loose ends. Instead, it teases us with intriguing glimpses. In the case of Mrs. Wriston, it parts the curtains slightly for a brief look into the life of a gutsy and determined woman, and it allows us to witness her navigating the legal system of her time—effectively—to protect herself and support her children.

Never judge a book by its cover, I've been told. Who could have ever have predicted that dusty old records would contain such nuggets?

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