The Ejectment Suits

Something profound happened here in the Spring of 1868. It utterly dominated the news.

What would possess a serious daily newspaper, the Sacramento Daily Union, to devote nearly one-quarter of its print space in the May 2 edition? What could possibly have been worth allocating the entire front page and almost 97% of the back page?

Lawsuits. An enormous and detailed list of lawsuits.

Something huge happened that April. I don’t know what it is yet, but I just found a big clue. On the same day the new Land Laws were printed out for readers, William Muldrow unleashed a rather phenomenal legal earthquake, which seems to have torn the community apart. (more on that soon)

It had been building for a couple of weeks. On April 17th came the announcement of Muldrow’s suits. Then for several days the lead story for the “City Intelligence” column (always on p.3 col.1) was the Ejectment Suits. More and more people piled on..

And then there was this enormous list covering the outside of the May 2 edition, to show the community how serious the problem was. It wasn’t enough to give a casual tally, like we expect today. They listed the whole mess, as well as they could. Keep in mind that this is before the days of large headlines and images to fluff up the paper. Tens of thousands of tiny letters had to be set.

My initial count indicates 143 plantiffs (with some overlap where individuals are listed multiple times with various co-plantiffs filed around 700 lawsuits, mainly during a two week period. Some of these suits were brought against very large numbers of people. For example

In at least some cases, the plaintiffs didn’t even seem to know who they were suing. Cases 12,437 and 12, 439-12,453 each sued “John Doe and 2 (others)” for 23 separate properties including an entire city block.

I cannot yet say how many property-holders were involved, and I calculate it would take many hours to tally them.

Researching this and laying it out took a tremendous amount of energy, to say nothing of the overwhelming burden put on the legal system’s employees. It appears that the Union tried valiantly to keep the community informed (in great detail!) before stepping back and trying to help the community grasp the immensity of what had just happened.

The legal system had no such luxury, and that may be why there seems to be a substantial amount of information missing. I think the people who ran the law were simply overwhelmed. I don’t quite understand this incident yet, but I’m working on it.

UPDATE 8/6: I just got a peek at the old legal ledgers and have started to unravel this knot. IT seems that Muldrow basically filed a bunch of suits, changed lawyers a few times, and then – get this – didn’t show up for court. Most of the suits were simply dismissed by June. However, at least some suits continued into May and June of 1870. Perhaps later, but that’s how far I got in the records.

So basically Muldrow seems to have tweaked the legal system with at least two years of after-effects. And while he seems to have lost every single one of his suits, others that apparently were inspired by him did continue. In any case, I found an 1878 newspaper reference to the incident, indicating that Muldrow’s mess had lasting effects. It isn’t fair to blame him for all of this, but in any case, the Union was still talking about his “blackmail” a decade later.

More to come…

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