Monday, February 5, 2018

A Case of Embezzlement

William S. Dance served as clerk for the court in Powhatan County, Virginia, from 1816-1858. His long tenure inspired such trust that no one questioned his decisions and he was given special privileges as clerk and keeper of the public square. And as far as is known, he never violated the public trust and was an extraordinary public servant. Not much was written in the county records about Dance's office until Reconstruction. A report filed in March 1869 found all the records, such as wills and deeds, "neatly recorded and indexed." The register of vital statistics were all in order, as were the docket books of records of executors. At the conclusion of the report, the auditors noted, "we report generally that the clerk's office is in good condition and the records thereof well taken care of and in a good state of preservation."

There was a shaky period during the Reconstruction era when Samuel Maddox and his father, E. J., were briefly clerks of the court. Mr. R. F. Graves replaced the Maddoxes and according to reports got clerk's office back into shape except for some records which were simply never found. When Clerk Grave's gave up the job, one of the early commissioners of the clerk's office, Dr. A. S. Mayo, took over and served through the remainder of the 1870s and into the 1880s. His tenure was one of the biggest scandals in the county.

Powhatan County Courthouse built in 1848-1849, c. 2007; courtesy of

Author Richard T. Couture tells the story in his book entitled, Powhatan: A Bicentennial History.

"On 2 August 1886, the county court entered the following item:

'Whereas A. S. Mayo, Clerk of this Court has left the County for parts unknown after he had been arrested on a criminal charge and having made no provision to supply his services as clerk of this term or during his absence, the Court doth appoint Willis B. Smith to act as clerk during this term...'

The following day the court ordered Mayo, who had fled, to appear at the court on 14 August to show cause why he should not be removed from his office on malfeasance, misfeasance, and gross neglect of his official duties. Since the court already knew that Mayo was not in Powhatan, they added: 'if he be not found at his usual place of abode, by delivering a copy hereof and giving information of its purport to his wife.' So we learn Clerk Mayo left his wife behind. The indictment charged not only neglect of office, but also embezzlement on three counts.

Headlines in the Richmond Dispatch 8 August 1886; courtesy of the Library
of Virginia 

When the 14 August court met, William Pope Dabney was the judge. Judge Dabney had a long record of service to the community and had served in the Virginia House of order was given for an examination of Mayo's books and a new clerk was placed under bond.

The report, dated 17 August 1886 covered eight pages of material and became an exercise in thoroughness. The final tally showed that Mayo had over an eleven-year period been unable to account for fines, deeds, suits and writs totaling $1,612.63. However, the auditors noted they only had time to perform a "casual examination."

The grand jury was called by Judge Dabney and met on 6 September 1886. This special grand jury of inquest returned eight counts of perjury. On the same day another jury panel returned 46 charges of embezzlement. The cases were to be tried on 1 November 1886. Court records included the entire list of charges and subsequent postponements.

Then, on 10 December 1886 Mayo and his attorney appeared in court! The defense moved to strike all the charges but the court denied the motion. The next mention of Mayo in the court records is on 2 April 1888 when Mrs. Mayo paid the Auditor of Public Accounts $1,600. The next year she paid the remaining balance and in 1894 a note in the court record indicated the Attorney for the Commonwealth declined to prosecute further.

So many questions! Why did he return to the county to face charges? Did Dr. Mayo spend time in jail?

I was captivated by this case after learning that James E. Jennings sat on the grand jury that returned the 46 counts of embezzlement. He was the son of Daniel Oscar Jennings and Susan A. Bowles. I do not know if Daniel is related to "my" Jennings line, but I suspect he is. And his family, friends, associates and neighbors, are some angles I am pursuing in an effort to learn who the parents of my four times great grandfather, Benjamin Jennings, Sr., (c1740-1815) were. Another Jennings researcher once thought Daniel Oscar Jennings was the grandson of "my" Benjamin Jennings and the son of Daniel Jennings and Martha Watkins, but death and marriage index records proved that was not the case.

Daniel also married a Bowles, which was a name familiar to me after transcribing Powhatan Chancery Court case 1806-03, where a Henry and Arthur Bowles were deposed for the defendant, Benjamin Jennings, Jr., my fourth great uncle. More investigation is required.

And an embezzlement story is always a good yarn!

A Horse Tale: Panky v. Jennings
Daniel Oscar Jennings, Are You Related to Benjamin?

No comments:

Post a Comment