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On Describing the Law Library’s Hispanic Legal Documents Collection

This is a guest post by Patience Tyne. Patience is working in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress as part of the Library of Congress’s Junior Fellows Program. The program’s focus is to increase access to our collections for our various patron groups.

Twenty-one document boxes housing part of the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection

Twenty-one document boxes housing part of the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection

The project that I am working on in the Junior Fellows Program this summer is called the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection Description Project. Seventy-five years ago, the Law Library of Congress purchased a massive collection of Hispanic legal documents from a dealer in Barcelona. The collection contains a broad selection of documents from Spain and its colonies during the 15th-19th centuries. It includes correspondence, civil, criminal, and ecclesiastical legal proceedings, newspapers, royal decrees and seals, educational promotions, charts, maps, and other previously inaccessible rare documents housed in 96 document boxes. The purpose of the project is to create metadata for these Hispanic documents. This means that I have been asked to go through the documents in the collection and record certain targeted pieces of information about each one that will help future researchers estimate the documents’ research potential. The description I provide includes a summary, location, date, personal names, signatures, stamps, and other pertinent information. The information will later be compiled to create a finding aid that will make these documents, which until now have been mostly invisible to researchers, visible.

Pages from an item in the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection, Law Library

Pages from an item in the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection, Law Library [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

The project has presented me with some real challenges and opportunities to learn. Since the collection is mostly made up of handwritten documents, the first obstacle in describing them has been interpreting and reading the historic handwriting styles. The distinct handwriting styles of the documents reflect the styles of their eras. You can find in the collection handwriting samples showing a wide diversity of letter-forms, spelling variations, and ornate abbreviations. I was able to interpret these with the use of the Library’s holdings on Spanish paleography. No less of a challenge was the content of the documents, which proved much more difficult than I had anticipated. In this area also, thanks to unlimited resources available at the Library of Congress, I found materials to help with my research.

In addition to creating metadata, I had the opportunity to present items from this collection at Display Day. Display Day is the culmination of the Junior Fellow internship program during which fellows from every participating division in the Library of Congress present interesting collection items that they found in the course of their projects. In my selections for the display, I tried to represent the significant categories of documents that you might find in the collection I am working with. The overall theme of the presentation I put together was “Threats to the Public Tranquility.” Here are the items I presented: State Department correspondence concerning local bandits in Michoacán (1848), treasury allocation for military expenses in Veracruz (1822), an imperial tax decree from Córdoba (1757), a civil case recorded in ornate handwriting (1607), a nineteenth century handwritten map of Chihuahua, and the record of a criminal investigation of a licentious priest with a scandalous portrait (1849).

Pages from the dossier recording the investigation of Presbyter Acosta of Morelio over allegations of adultery, Hispanic Legal Documents Collection

Pages from the dossier recording the investigation of Presbyter Acosta of Morelia over allegations of adultery, Hispanic Legal Documents Collection [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

The last of these items, the investigation of a licentious priest, is especially interesting. It surrounds accusations in the late 1840s that Presbyter Crecencio Acosta of Morelia, Mexico, was engaging in immoral liaisons with the wives of several members of his parish. The investigation, at which several counts of the criminal charge of adultery were alleged against Acosta, took place in the criminal court of Morelia, with notaries taking the testimonies in Santa Clara. The documents associated with the investigation include twelve letters, some formal and some informal, that accompanied the court documents as they circulated among the court officers during the pretrial phase, and a series of documents recording the testimony of the persons concerned in the accusations against Crecencio.

Over the course of a series of affidavits, this story unfolds like a modern telenovela. The first testimony is the most intriguing, as well as the most risqué of the investigation. Francisco Saenz, one of Crecencio’s parishioners, had heard rumors about Father Acosta’s frequent visits to the homes of women in the community. However, his suspicion increased when he saw the priest one day wearing a ring identical to one Francisco had given his wife engraved with her initials. After a frenzied search of his wife’s jewelry box, Francisco confronted Acosta demanding to see the ring. But word of Francisco’s suspicions must have gotten to Acosta who now wore a different ring, while his wife’s ring mysteriously had been returned to the box. Francisco now was on high alert and when sometime later he saw Acosta caress his wife’s face, he devised a plan to catch them in the act. Announcing that he had an obligation across town, he pretended to leave the house but instead doubled back and hid by a hole in the wall waiting to see whether they would take advantage of the opportunity to meet. His testimony covered everything that he witnessed. In one letter to the court, Francisco mentioned a painting that Crecencio had given to his wife, describing its contents: a colorful champagne ad that was “very indecent, very lascivious, very scandalous” as it depicts a woman in a revealing dress drinking champagne and is captioned in French, saying: “Champagne with dessert promotes folly, and a woman who is a little foolish is always more lovely”. Nine other townsmen testified similar stories accusing Acosta of flirtatious behavior, but Francisco’s wife María Castañeda testified in favor of Acosta and swore that her husband was confused and crazy. Ultimately, the tribunal acquitted Acosta of the criminal charges because even with the overwhelming evidence, the husband and wife had created reasonable doubt with their contradictory testimonies. The bishop ordered Acosta to be transferred to a nearby parish and decreed a monition to end his vices.

Patience Tyne presides over the display she created for Display Day, July 27, 2016

Patience Tyne presides over the display she created for Display Day, July 27, 2016 [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

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