Declaring bankruptcy wasn’t easy

It’s never good being broke, and it’s worse if you have a wife and three children, as did early 19th century Johnstown resident Tunis Kershaw in 1828. Poor Tunis lived when bankruptcy was still a crime, punishable by imprisonment.

Today we recognize that imprisoning debtors is non-productive, since prisoners are powerless to relieve their situation. Fortunately, by the early 19th century, some debtors, if they had sellable possessions, might emerge from jail by cooperating with authorities to pay down their debts.

Tunis Kershaw was one.

Sometime during August, the unfortunate Mr. Kershaw, probably because of creditor’s complaints, was seized and thrown into Johnstown jail, but apparently he wasn’t jailed long, as one of his listed debts includes, “One dollar, twenty-five cents owed to Henry Cook of Johnstown for writing a bail bond, for which he has a note from me.”

Another of Kershaw’s debts was a note “to Abijah Enos, one dollar for fees due to Constable (jailer).”

It should be explained that in those old times, prisoners often were required to contribute to their keep, rather than be housed for free by the county, thereby keeping taxes lower.

Part of Tunis Kershaw’s downfall was apparently his willingness to sign too many of these promissory notes around the county. Although small, they added up, like someone stretching his credit card beyond sensible limits, and upon release from jail, Kershaw soon signed another — amount not filled in — “To Andrew Mitchell, Esq., of Johnstown for services as a lawyer” which he certainly needed.

It was Mitchell’s duty, probably with little expectation of early payment, to plead to the court that the nature of Kershaw’s case made him qualified for release from jail via the state’s bankruptcy relief act known as, “An Act to Abolish Imprisonment for Debt in Certain Circumstances, passed April 7th 1819.”

This act contained the state’s first get-out-of-jail opportunity for debtors who admitted their debts, listed their possessions, and agreed said possessions could be auctioned off to satisfy at least part of their debt.

In return, the debtor or ‘insolvent’ might be released from jail so he could emerge from bankruptcy and start over.

Once lawyer Mitchell took Kershaw’s case, his main responsibility to Kershaw was to help him draft a petition to the court that met the bankruptcy law requirements.

Compared to the harsher conditions debtors faced before this 1819 act, Tunis Kershaw received a good deal.

Gazing down the long list of Kershaw’s obligations, one observes sums that today are laughably small: his two largest debts were only $30 each, but $30 in 1828 money, according to an internet site, ‘The Inflation Calculator’, today translates to $679.33.

His total 1828 listed indebtedness amounted to $203.09, which doesn’t sound like much, but again, in terms of inflation, Kershaw was actually $4598.84 in the red.

The only positive news was that several people also owed Kershaw money, which, if the court could force them to pay up, would offset more of his debt.

John Fisher, for example, was indebted to Kershaw “to the sum of three dollars for board, housekeeping, and drink.”

While most of Kershaw’s several other debtors owed him little by modern standards, there was one big one. Kershaw declared, “Barnabas Flint of Canajoharie is indebted to me for about two hundred dollars for money taken out of my desk, who stands indicted for stealing the same.”

Loss of this $200 through theft was very likely the straw that broke Kershaw’s financial back and forced him into bankruptcy, and if Barnabas Flint was convicted, no doubt the bankruptcy court would exercise legal gusto to make skin-flint Flint pay up.

Perhaps they did, as Flint also declared bankruptcy the following year.

The 1819 bankruptcy law allowed debtors to retain certain household items, but only the most basic necessities. All property had to be listed so the court could determine the estate’s overall value before handing it all to the sheriff to auction. Kershaw also had to swear he had, “neither in law or equity any possessions remaining in reversion or expectancy, either in my own right or in the right of my wife, any personal estate.”

Among possessions Kershaw listed were, “one table, nine chairs, one rocking chair, one set of andirons, shovel and tongs, a tea kettle, wash tub, looking glass, cradle, six knives and forks, twelve cups and saucers, six dining plates, two tea pots, one stone churn, six tin pans, one toasting iron, one bible and psalm book, one desk, two lanterns, one barrel of cider, another of soap, a pickle tub, six tea spoons, two flat irons, two beds, an axe, hoe and pitchfork, six table cloths, two suits of clothes for self, wife and children, one military coat, and lastly, one pair of pistols and holsters.”

Of all these possessions, the unfortunate Kershaw family was allowed by law only to keep “the beds, bedding, and wearing apparel listed in the insolvent’s inventory.”

Aaron Harring, First Judge of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, assigned supervision of the sheriff’s auction of Kershaw’s property to William Wells.

After the sheriff auctioned Kershaw’s goods, Wells tasks were to distribute the money realized among Kershaw’s debtors and give Judge Harring a final accounting. Then Harring could close the case. Wherever the Kershaws went with their remaining clothing, beds and bedding, and how they rebuilt their lives, we’ll never know.


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