Paul K. Graham

Certified Genealogist SM

Accredited Genealogist ®

The Search for Fulton County’s Stolen Records

Originally published in the Georgia Genealogical Society Quarterly 45, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 217-221.

Stories of missing county records in Georgia often begin with a variation on this theme: “When Sherman came, he burned….” Despite the common refrain, only a handful of record-destroying fires can be attributed to the general. The vast majority of courthouse fires occurred outside the Civil War period and most were started by arsonists in the middle of the night. In addition to fire, Georgia records have been lost through floods, tornados, and theft. Fulton County’s records survived the destruction of Atlanta in 1864, but seven record books were stolen in 1882 and never recovered. This is the story of the theft and the search for those records.

The first official report of Atlanta’s destruction in 1864 was filed by General W. P. Howard. [1] All of the state property was destroyed along with most of the downtown business buildings. Of approximately 3,600 houses in the city, only 400 were left standing. One significant exception to the destruction was the area around City Hall and the churches along Washington Street (the current state capitol building stands on the location of the old Atlanta City Hall).

According to Howard’s report, when Father O’Reilly of the Catholic Church refused to vacate his parsonage, Catholic soldiers in the Union Army volunteered to protect him. The Yankees would not let any of the adjoining houses be fired for fear that a blaze would spread and endanger the church. This episode probably explains why Fulton County’s records escaped the fires, since they were stored in City Hall at the time.

On Tuesday, 27 December 1882, Morton Smith, an attorney and brother of Hoke Smith, requested Deed Book B from the clerk, but the volume could not be found. While a search was underway for Smith’s book, requests were made for Mortgage Book E and Execution Docket C, both of which were also missing. Judge Cicero H. Strong, Clerk of Superior Court, immediately called for all books to be placed in the safe so that an inventory could be taken. The search revealed that seven books were missing: Deed Books B (1855-1857), F (1861-1863), and H (1863-1866); Mortgage Book E (1874-1876); Execution Docket C (1869-1874); Superior Court Minutes Book F (1867-1869); and Homestead Book A (1854-1858). [2]

The clerk’s office had been closed as normal on Saturday evening. On Sunday morning, Judge Strong received word that his brother had died. He left for Buford that day, took the remains to Cumming for a funeral on Monday, and returned to Atlanta Tuesday morning. Because of Strong’s absence, the Superior Court office was not open on Monday. Judd Glenn, a clerk, worked in the office for a short while on Monday but did not open the safe. Park Woodward, a deputy clerk, had gone home sick on Saturday and did not return until eleven o’clock on Tuesday morning, after the theft had been discovered.

Investigators were thoroughly confused by the event. Candle wax from the thieves had dripped on the safe, showing that they operated with minimal light. According to the Constitution, none of the offices in the building used candles. Also, the books were so disconnected that no one could think of any particular court case that involved all of them. If they could identify such a case, it would easily lead to the culprit. Third, the thieves went to the effort of opening a locked safe, rather than taking books and records that were easy targets. The safe was too small for all the records and about half of the books were kept in the office area.

Everyone had their own theory of the motive for the crime and four were mentioned in the newspaper. Lawyers generally agreed that the books were taken to destroy a particular record, and each one had his own theory about which records were the target. Some people believed that the burglary was conducted by people opposed to Judge Strong and that the loss of records would weaken his position in the upcoming election. A third group of people believed that the theft benefited the legal office of James Collins, because he had a complete collection of record abstracts, although this theory was quickly discounted as improbable. The fourth theory was that the books were stolen in the hopes that a reward would be offered. No single theory ever survived: “Out of all the numerous theories there are but few fixed opinions concerning the robbery. As soon as a man’s mind is made up another theory is advanced that is quite as plausible as his own, and accordingly his belief is shattered and other theories divide his judgment.” [3]

A reward was offered, in the substantial amount of $500, but no one came forward. A policeman was posted at the city hall building at night and the combinations on the safe locks were changed. Before the theft, at least twelve people knew the combination, but only three were given the new one. It was widely understood that the safe was bought for its resistance to fire rather than burglary. County officers looked forward to fireproof offices and large safes that would be available in the new courthouse that was then under construction.

On the one-month anniversary of the theft, Judge Strong was clearly exasperated by the whole experience. Public interest had died down and no one was any closer to figuring out what had happened to the stolen books. When asked if he was going to increase the reward, Strong replied, “I will say this much to you. I am tired of fooling with this thing and I am going to make a change in my offer. I see no reason why I should keep the reward standing. Any citizen is liable to fall a victim to thieves, and why should I have to keep up this offer perpetually? It is strange, after all that has been written and said, that so many people do not remember what books were stolen.” [4]

In 1885, construction for the new state capitol building had begun on the site of the old Atlanta City Hall. While digging for the new foundation, the crew of contractor Mike Maher found an old cistern, full of dark, stagnant water, located on the south side of the block. It was in the way and Maher ordered his workmen to destroy it.

After a short while knocking away the old bricks, the foreman called out, “Mr. Maher, here’s your stolen records, or something else.” [5] What looked like the back of a large book had floated to the surface, and Maher told the men to fish it out. Confirming that it was the back of a book, he contacted Judge Strong. George B. Forbes, a clerk, was sent to verify the find.

Examining the book backing, Forbes found the area that was embossed for the title, clearly identifying the book as “Record of Deeds,” letter “F,” of “Fulton County.” Another fragment had the letter “B.” News of the find spread quickly and people from all over the city began making their way to the capitol grounds.

On the agreement of Lemuel Grant, of the board of commissioners, and Judge Strong, the cistern was drained. At first, the fire department was called in. Lowering a suction hose, the engine made quick work of it, pulling most of the water out in less than thirty minutes. However, the hose was too short and two feet of water was left in the bottom of the hole. Judge Strong stopped work for the day and posted a guard for the night.

The next day, workers returned to the cistern to recover what they could. Removing a pile of bricks and then bailing out the remaining water, workers uncovered the back of another book. Thomas F. Scully, owner of the Fulton Paper Mill and paper expert, had been brought in to help with the recovery effort and he went down into the cistern.

Bringing out the first book, Scully found that the end of the string used to bind the pages to the cover was even, meaning it had been deliberately cut. Four more books were found, matching the seven missing volumes, and all of them had cut strings. “It’s no good to hunt in that cistern for those books. The books have been cut out and the backs have been thrown in.” [6] According to Scully, the book pages were high quality and would not have rotted. “Whoever stole them books wanted the books and not the backs. He cut the books out, and then knowing that this cistern would be torn up, dropped the books in. He believed that the backs would be found, and everybody would think that the paper had rotted, and that would end the stolen record mystery. But I can tell you those books never were in that cistern.”

Of all the theories advanced in 1882, one person was apparently correct. John E. Rapp, a policeman, had fished around in the cistern and claimed that the books were there. He asked the county commissioners at the time to drain the cistern but they had declined. Rapp showed up at the cistern with a plan to sue for the $1,000 reward if it was not paid to him. Maher, the contractor, also stated that he was going to claim the reward. There was no confirmation in the newspaper about whether the reward was paid.

The last mention of the stolen record books in the Constitution came on 8 February 1889. At their meeting that week, the county commissioners discussed the usefulness of continuing to offer a reward. The sentiment of Commissioner George W. Adair was apparently shared by those present: “I don’t know whether these rewards will bring them or not, but we are determined to give whoever may have them a chance to return them.” [7]

The original homestead records, court minutes, and executions had been kept in the clerk’s office and were recorded in new books. A call was made for people with original deeds and mortgages to bring them back and have them recorded with no charge. Many of these re-recordings can be found in later deed books. The index to deeds was not stolen and the entries for the three deed books are included in the current index volumes.

Three unanswered questions of 1882 are unanswered today. Who stole the books? Why did they steal those particular seven volumes? What did they do with the pages? The books have not been recovered and only the improbable recovery of the missing pages will shed new light on this mystery.

1. Macon Weekly Telegraph, “Atlanta As Left By The Enemy,” 10 December 1864: 2.
2. Atlanta Constitution, “Records Stolen,” 28 December 1882: 1.
3. Atlanta Constitution, “The Missing Records,” 29 December 1882: 7.
4. Atlanta Constitution, “The Missing Records,” 27 January 1883: 7.
5. Atlanta Constitution, “The Missing Records,” 24 April 1885: 7.
6. Atlanta Constitution, “The Stolen Records,” 25 April 1885: 7.
7. Atlanta Constitution, “The Missing Records,” 8 February 1889: 8.