The Poor People’s Petition: Four Uses of Habeas Corpus Among the Poor in Washington and Missouri in the 19th Century
Four examples of how the poor used Habeas Corpus Petitions to challenge unlawful arrest, confinement and custody disputes.
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- [00:00:00.750]Hello, my name is Jacquelyne Leon-Flores.
- [00:00:03.300]I am a Sociology and Social &
Criminal Justice major at Coe college.
- [00:00:07.530]Thank you for taking the time
to watch my presentation today.
- [00:00:10.500]The Poor People's Petition: Four Uses of
Habeas Corpus Among the Poor in Washington
- [00:00:15.270]and Missouri in the 19th century. This
summer I was able to work with Dr.
- [00:00:19.590]Katrina Jagodinsky and the Center
for Digital Research in the Humanities
- [00:00:23.700]transcribing and encoding hundreds
of Habeas Corpus petitions from 1812
- [00:00:28.530]to 1924 in the American
West. Habeas Corpus petitions
- [00:00:33.630]are used to challenge an unlawful
arrest or detainment. Reading
- [00:00:37.410]these allows for us to see how those
who were at a disadvantage due to their
- [00:00:41.370]socioeconomic status,
- [00:00:43.200]managed to use the law to petition
for their rights and freedom.
- [00:00:48.300]For my presentation,
- [00:00:49.440]I decided to focus on the four ways
in which the poor used the law to their
- [00:00:53.280]advantage to either petition
for their freedom against
- [00:00:57.120]One- slavery, two-
- [00:00:59.940]in custody disputes,
- [00:01:01.320]three-against Vagrancy Laws
and four-from poor defense.
- [00:01:08.190]The first example I will talk
about is Dolly v. Young. Dolly,
- [00:01:12.240]a woman restrained of her
liberty by John Young,
- [00:01:15.810]who forcibly took her, a free person,
and forced her into slavery under his
- [00:01:20.130]supervision for six months.
- [00:01:22.290]This was until she was able to petition
to the court, where she had to ask for
- [00:01:26.010]permission to sue as a
"poor person" through the
- [00:01:29.460]1818 Missouri Freedom Statute,
- [00:01:31.710]which granted her permission to sue. Her
- [00:01:34.530]writ was granted by the court and she
was able to proceed with her case.
- [00:01:40.170]Thinking about this case in today's world,
- [00:01:42.180]Dolly would be provided with proper legal
aid to help her through the process to
- [00:01:46.980]sue Young, rather than
to have to petition
- [00:01:50.760]to sue as a "poor person" first.
- [00:01:55.590]Alice McKay V John and Della
- [00:01:57.780]Kevan is an example of a custody
dispute in which the mother used
- [00:02:02.490]habeas against a couple,
- [00:02:04.860]the Kevans, who unlawfully had
custody of her daughter, Mary McKay.
- [00:02:10.110]Alice McKay had petitioned for
custody of her daughter before,
- [00:02:13.740]but was seen as too poor to
care for her by the court.
- [00:02:18.270]She states that there is no
legal adoption from this couple,
- [00:02:22.230]that she is a fit and capable person
to be granted custody of her daughter.
- [00:02:26.790]During this case,
- [00:02:27.960]she is often questioned about her
economic status during testimonies,
- [00:02:31.710]and is portrayed as poor by the defendants
in order to discredit her and
- [00:02:35.970]her ability to be a fit.
- [00:02:37.230]parent. We see,
- [00:02:39.630]not only in this case,
- [00:02:40.800]but in many other custody disputes that
mothers are often portrayed as too poor
- [00:02:44.910]to try to discredit them
- [00:02:46.710]as parental poverty is something
that comes up a lot during these.
- [00:02:51.480]disputes. Since time,
- [00:02:53.970]there has been the creation of programs
and social services and ensure that
- [00:02:57.930]poverty is not the main reason in
which a parent loses custody of their
- [00:03:03.430]along with reform to help these parents
be able to provide for their children.
- [00:03:08.860]The next example is Washington v.
Mary O'Neill. O'Neill was charged with
- [00:03:13.630]vagrancy and is restrained of her liberty,
- [00:03:17.350]but has not confessed to
any crime at the time.
- [00:03:21.250]She was given the option of paying a fine
of a hundred dollars or serving three
- [00:03:25.300]months in the county jail. After
filing a Habeas petition,
- [00:03:29.140]she was granted release by the
court for this particular case,
- [00:03:33.040]but we read later on that
Mary was arrested multiple
times for the same crime of
- [00:03:37.720]Vagrancy, where instead of petitioning
- [00:03:42.250]for a writ, she
- [00:03:44.230]confesses to the crime
and serves the time.
- [00:03:47.530]We see in the Washington statute, that
Vagrancy did not only mean homeless,
- [00:03:52.030]rather, it had
- [00:03:53.260]a pretty large range of people
who officers were granted
- [00:03:58.090]permission to arrest and bring them
before the court, where they either had to
- [00:04:02.290]pay in which most cases,
people could not afford,
- [00:04:08.080]or serve the sentence
- [00:04:09.970]which was usually around three months.
- [00:04:12.640]These laws increased
- [00:04:14.110]the policing and incarceration of poor people
who then use habeas to petition the
- [00:04:18.130]accusations made by
- [00:04:19.300]the court. Today, this
- [00:04:21.520]is not a crime that one
can be charged with,
- [00:04:23.980]but these Vagrant laws were
around until the 1960s,
- [00:04:27.790]which targeted poor people
in the streets until then.
- [00:04:32.200]William Warden v. Butterfield is an
example of an indigent petitioner
- [00:04:37.570]with poor defense.
- [00:04:39.820]Warden was restrain of his liberty
without a warrant or process of the law,
- [00:04:43.660]where he states in his petition
- [00:04:45.010]that he was a poor man who does not
have any means of being able to pay for
- [00:04:49.540]fines, court fees, or such legal aid,
- [00:04:53.830]like an attorney.
- [00:04:55.780]He has no property or any other
means to afford these fees.
- [00:05:00.160]After spending time in jail,
without being convicted of a crime,
- [00:05:04.330]his writ was granted, where he is released
and does not have to pay any fees.
- [00:05:10.270]For those whose writ is not granted,
- [00:05:12.160]they must pay the fees
that come with petitioning.
- [00:05:15.940]Today, although
- [00:05:17.200]not nearly a perfect system,
- [00:05:18.910]there is the creation of public
defenders for indigent people.
- [00:05:22.750]The Supreme court case of Gideon v.
Wainwright was a movement that required
- [00:05:26.320]states to provide public
defense attorneys for
those who cannot afford one.
- [00:05:31.540]This would prevent those, who are in
similar situations as a Warden,
- [00:05:35.920]who are held in custody, but
are not convicted of a crime.
- [00:05:42.160]Significance and Conclusion. Looking at
these cases gives us a better insight as
- [00:05:46.810]to how the poor, despite
facing many obstacles,
- [00:05:50.230]use the mechanisms of the law to
find their way to freedom or custody.
- [00:05:55.420]Individually encoding and using digital
research methods allows for
- [00:05:59.990]researchers to analyze
thousands of petitions for
evidence of the poor people's
- [00:06:04.880]use of the law. This could suggest
- [00:06:06.960]new insights regarding the nature
and origin of legal reform movements
- [00:06:12.530]that help address the concerns
and obstacles poor people face.
- [00:06:17.780]We know that these changes
did not happen overnight,
- [00:06:20.210]but a lot comes from the constant
push of these petitioners,
- [00:06:23.600]some being poor, to
- [00:06:26.120]push for social change
through the use of the law.
- [00:06:32.380]I want to thank you again for taking the
time to listen to my presentation and
- [00:06:36.370]another, thank you to Dr.
- [00:06:39.130]the CDRH and the GSEF program. Thank you.
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