Friday, September 3, 2010

Governors' "Papers" - Should Genealogists Care What Happens?

NYS Gov Benjamin Odell (1854 - 1926)
Periodically, the New York State Legislature introduces and passes a bill requiring the state’s governors to turn over their public papers to the New York State Archives at the end of their terms.  So far, every governor who has found one of those bills on his desk has vetoed it, usually hiding behind the magic curtain of fiscal responsibility.

“Too expensive”, he says.  “Not so,” say the archivists, “we can do it with existing space and staff.”

Nearly every newspaper in the state has urged the current governor to sign the current “Governor’s Papers Go To The Archives” bill now on his desk, but most believe he will not, despite all the compelling reasons why it might be a good idea.

The most compelling reason - all these papers concern public things done on public time with public resources and public employees to achieve public purposes - doesn't seem to ever hold much water with any of the governors.

They all seem to cling to the idea that these are their own very personal and private papers.

Right now, outgoing governors can clean out their desks and files (and those of their office staff, like their appointments secretary, who vets all gubernatorial appointments) and take it all home. Or to the landfill.

For many genealogists, this is probably a big “ho-hum” story. After all, what possible relevance to family history could “governors’ papers” have? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry, like vital records access?

Well, consider what governors do, and remember that a lot of it is that kind of “behind the scenes” work that rarely makes it into the news.

For example, governors are at the end of the line in the legislative process. All kinds of things come across their desks, including any number of bills that affect individual citizens (special pension legislation, commission appointments, memorial resolutions, etc.), along with supporting documentation that often contains dense biographical information.

Then there are things relating to “bad guys”. So, if you have any black sheep in your family (and even if you don’t), consider the case of Squire Tankard.

Tankard, who was from Chautauqua County, shot his sister-in-law Margaret Beaumont with a revolver.  He was convicted of murder in Jamestown and sentenced to death in November 1899.  His sentence was to be carried out on January 15, 1900.  They didn’t lollygag much in those days.

The method of execution was to be the newly introduced electric chair, which would soon acquire the nickname of “Old Sparky”.  The gentleman who had the job of pulling the switch was euphemistically known as “The State Electrician”.

Tankard, however, spent the spring of 1901 in prison.  Why?  Because Gov. Theodore Roosevelt had granted him what is known as a “respite” less than a week before his execution, on the grounds that he may have been insane when he shot Mrs. Beaumont.  Later, Roosevelt’s successor, Benjamin Barker Odell, Jr, commuted Tankard’s sentence to life imprisonment in the State Prison for the Criminally Insane.

That’s one of the things governors do – respites, commutations and pardons. And all the background paperwork that is presented during the decision-making process becomes part of the package known as  “governor’s papers”.

For Tankard, we have documentation of Roosevelt’s actions, since he allowed the printing of the high points of his gubernatorial career in a set of volumes titled “The Public Papers of Theodore Roosevelt, Governor”.  The Tankard respite, found on page 227 in the 1900 volume, is below.

However, printed excerpts and highlights are not the same thing as “papers”.

Imagine what great family history detail could be gleaned from the actual Squire Tankard file, and the hundreds of others that Roosevelt reviewed!

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