John Estes Goes to Jail – 52 Ancestors #265

Estes jail Claiborne.png

I wasn’t even looking for John Estes – either one of them. There were two, of course, living in Claiborne County at the same time, both my ancestors. This couldn’t be simple, could it?

I was reading the unindexed court notes page by page, from 1829-1842, 13 long and miserable years, looking for the deaths of or details about 3 ancestors who, it turns out, died between 1833 and 1840. As luck would have it, they are all twisted into this story kind of like a kudzu vine – because these families were all near neighbors in Claiborne County, Tennessee and intermarried.

And there was drama…so much drama.

John Campbell died in September of 1838. About 1795, he had married Jane Dobkins, the daughter of Jacob Dobkins who died in March of 1833.

I actually started reading the Claiborne County court notes searching for information about John Campbell and Jane Dobkins’s other daughter, Jane Campbell, who married Johnson Freeman – then got divorced – unheard of in that day and time. Whoo doggies, that’s some story and will get an article all to itself.

John Campbell and Jane Dobkins’ daughter, Elizabeth Campbell, had married Lazarus Dodson about 1820, but predeceased her father, John Campbell, sometime before 1830.

When John Campbell died in 1838, a guardian was appointed for Elizabeth Campbell Dodson’s children because they had an inheritance from their grandfather. Yes, their father Lazarus Dodson was still living. I thought for years that he had died, but he hadn’t. The court records never say “deceased” after his name and I found him later, remarried and living elsewhere. Subsequent court records indicate specifically that the Dodson children inherited through “Elizabeth Campbell, deceased.”

No, I don’t know why Lazarus Dodson wasn’t appointed guardian, but I’d wager it had something to do with the ever-present drama in this extended family. I suspect because those children were being raised by their grandmother, Jane Dobkins Campbell. Several of Elizabeth Campbell Dodson’s children married spouses who lived near the Campbells on Little Sycamore, adjacent the Liberty Church today. You can’t marry who you don’t see to court.

Estes jail Liberty to Cumberland.png

Their father, Lazarus Dodson lived several miles north near Cumberland Gap.

The Receipt

John Y. Estes, born in 1818, married Rutha (Ruthy) Dodson, daughter of Lazarus Dodson and Elizabeth Campbell on March 1st, 1841 in Claiborne County, Tennessee. Rutha was also a legatee of her grandfather’s estate and in fact, on September 5, 1842, John Estes signed a receipt for $54.35 for receiving money from her guardian. He signed at the same time that he received $1.50 rent from that estate for 1841, and also acknowledged the balance still owed was $56.61.

Back then, that was a LOT, LOT, LOT of money. Enough to purchase a farm – but John didn’t. In the 1850 census John and Rutha are listed as living beside William Devenport and in 1851 a deed is conveyed between land owners noting that William Devenport and John Estes live on that land – but neither were owners.

There’s something else odd about that 1850 census. John and Rutha were married for 9 years and had only one child, Lazarus, age 2. There should have been roughly 4 children by this time. Yes, death was a constant companion, but there might have been something more.

This receipt is important, but I’m getting ahead of my own story.

Let’s step back in time.

Two John Esteses

John R. Estes (1787-1885) and wife, Nancy Ann Moore left Halifax County, Virginia about 1820 when their son, John Y. Estes, was about 2 years old. John R. Estes had served in the War of 1812.

In Claiborne County, in 1826, John R. Estes made a land entry, but appeared to sell the entry after it was surveyed but before it was completed.

In 1850, John R. Estes is listed as a shoemaker with no land, and in 1860, a miller with no land.

John applied for bounty land from his 1812 service in 1850, but apparently sold that land claim to his son George who moved to Missouri. He sold a second claim some years later too.

To the best of my knowledge, John R. Estes never owned land. He lived very near or perhaps even beside John Campbell along Little Sycamore Creek.

John appeared to live a pretty quiet life. He’s never in the court records as a juror, because jurors are required, among other things, to own land. But of note, he’s also never found in the court records for anything else either – although the Claiborne County notes are incomplete.

John, like his father, George Estes, lived to be a very, very old man. John died in 1885 at approximately 98 years of age.

In 1842, John R. Estes would have been about 55 years old. His son, John Y. Estes would have been 23, turning 24 that December.

Court Minutes

When I read court notes at FamilySearch, which I try NOT to do very often, I read for any of my family names of course.

I thought that I had already told the story of both John Esteses and frankly, I didn’t expect to find anything more than a footnote to add to their existing articles, if that.

Sometimes I peruse court notes late at night. They are calming, so calming, in fact that often they put me to sleep.

With the political drama the past few months in our own lives, sometimes I need that. I was well into year 13, thousands of pages already read, nodding off that evening, trying to keep my eyelids open.

Suddenly, I glimpsed something that woke me right up.

John Estes’ name in the court notes.

I shook sleep off and started back at the beginning of that page again. It wasn’t a typical entry which formed a predictable pattern.

No, this was something different.

October 3, 1842

Estes jail 1842.png

Alexander Fullington jailor for Claiborne County be allowed the following sums for the following purposes to wit: the State vs John Hodge $32.50 for 76 days board and 4 turn key. The State versus Thomas Ursery(?) $32.87/2 for 85 days board and 2 turn keys. Also the State vs John Estes for $36 for board and turn keys and that he have ticket to the county trustee for the same.

What? John Estes in jail?

If Alexander Fullington is being paid for these prisoners, where was the trial in the court notes? Had I missed it?

These court notes seem to be mostly civil suits and domestic things like road orders and maintenance combined with sporadic estate settlements. Although some trials are mentioned, that only seems to happen when a jury was called.

Noticeably absent are criminal prosecutions. But something had obviously occurred, because the jailor obviously petitioned for reimbursement. So did other county officials, regularly, in this court.

Not all “state” (versus civil) cases say why the person is being tried, but the few I’ve found that do during this timeframe are mostly for lewdness and one for usery. Lewdness, by definition in the legal documentation of the day pertains, for lack of a better description, to sexual relations between a man and woman outside of marriage.

My next thought was maybe that John wasn’t actually IN jail. The record states the number of days for the other men, but given that John’s amount is MORE than the other 2 men, that’s unlikely. Why else would the jailor be petitioning for reimbursement if John wasn’t IN jail. So much for that idea.

How long was John Estes in the clink for? John Hodge’s cost per day was 43 cents and Thomas Ursery was 39 cents. But Hodge had more turnkeys than did Ursery. Did turnkeys cost extra, and what was a turnkey anyway?

Research into other cases about this time tells us that Fullington was allowed 50 cents per turnkey, so we need to reduce the total by that amount to obtain the daily board rate per prisoner.

I googled for turnkeys, but the best I could find was that a turnkey was the person, or guard, who literally turned the key to release prisoners. Reading other Claiborne County records, I determined that the number of turnkeys related to the number of times the person was removed to be taken to court. I’m unclear whether the final turnkey is the last time the door was opened, meaning the time they were released.

Using the 38.5 cents average amount per day for lodging, minus turnkeys, John Estes probably served about 94 days.

The Margin Note

But then, there’s a pesky margin note that says the following:

“ticket 2nd for Estes amt $36 6 Octr 1842”

Three days later, the court added the second ticket to this same note. Oh boy.

Which suggests that there is ANOTHER ticket for John Estes – for ANOTHER 94 days.

Was that two of the same offense, or two separate offenses?

This means that John spent roughly 6 months in jail during 1842. But was John’s jail time actually during 1842?

I looked back at the other entries for Alexander Fullington in the court minutes and discovered that he submitted tickets for payment regularly: April 1841, July 1841, October 1841, January 1842, April 1842 and July 1842.

If John Estes had completed his sentence by July 1842, probably either of them, Fullington would have submitted his claim by then. This tells us that very likely, John Estes was in jail from about April 1842 until about October 1842. If I’ve misunderstood this note and there was only one sentence for 94 days, it still tells us that John got out of jail sometime between July and October 1842, given that Alexander apparently submitted his bills every 3 months.

Jail Time

What was jail like during that time? In some cases, jails were actually enclosed areas, or yards, in which prisoners were confined and trusted not to step over the line.

Was that the kind of jail John was in?

Nope – this was John’s jail.

Estes jail Claiborne distance

By Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The old Claiborne County jail, built in 1819 was in use until 1931. Yep, it’s this building where John Estes spent roughly six months of his life.

The National Register of Historic places provides the following information:

Built in 1819 the jail is composed of stone on the first story and brick on the second story. The jail also features metal grating over the window and door openings.

The two-story jail is rectangular in shape, with a front gable roof. The entrance faces west towards the highway. The gable ends of the jail are twenty-six feet across. The sides of the building (north and south) are thirty-two feet long. The first level is constructed of cut limestone rocks and mortar. The walls are eighteen inches thick, with the length of individual stones measuring up to five feet. The roof is covered with metal and a brick chimney rises from the peak on the west half of the building.

The west façade features a central entrance to the building that measures two feet wide and six and one-half feet tall. The door on this entrance is of a grate design, consisting of two-and-one-half inch bands of metal running horizontally and vertically within a metal frame. A rounded bolt head protrudes at each juncture of metal bands. This metal grate is an original feature. The second story of the jail is brick laid in common bond. In the center of the second story is a door-sized opening, enclosed with vertical board shutters. A circular vent opening with a metal “X” grate is located in the peak of the gable.

The north and the south elevations of the jail each have four window openings, two on each floor. Each opening is covered with a framed metal grate matching the front door, and vertical board shutters. Some of the grates are original, and some are (historic) replacements. These openings measure two feet wide and between four and six feet tall. A couple of the shutter boards have become detached and currently lean against the building. Large metal bolts protrude from the brick walls in the back two-thirds of the second story. The east (or back) elevation of the jail is solid stone across the lower level; the brick second level has one window with an original metal grate covering and vertical shutter boards. A circular vent, matching the design of that in the front gable, is located at the top of the east gable. A short, brick chimney rises from the metal roof at approximately one-third of the distance from the front of the jail.

At the jail’s entrance, one step leads down into the front portion on the first floor, with a stairway on the south wall. This portion of the building is ten and one-half feet deep, or approximately one-third of the building’s depth. The floor of this section is brick, and the walls of this room are of mortared, cut limestone.

A door-less opening leads to a larger back room. To the north of this doorway, a fireplace has been removed, but its flue is still intact. The back room historically consisted of a central hall flanked by smaller units to each side. Local historian Mary A. Hansard wrote in 1979 that the jail had “a large stack chimney in the center, with two fireplaces on the lower floor and two on the upper floor. There were two rooms on the first floor. One was used as a kitchen and dining room, and the other as a dungeon in which to confine criminals.

Hansard wrote that “[t]here were three apartments on the second floor, all nicely plastered.”

As on ground level, the individual rooms of the second floor have been removed. The back, larger portion of the second floor is open. Local historian Alexander Moore Cloud noted that the jail was built with double walls. “The inside walls were of wood while the outer walls were made of stone.”

Some of the original interior wood siding remains; vertical slats of wood still hang on the east and west walls of the rear section on the second floor. The metal bolts visible on the exterior, protruding from the north and south elevations, can be seen on the interior walls. These bolts were installed for reinforcement of the jail’s security; as explained by a descendant of Josiah Ramsey, a member of the committee that undertook the building of the jail, the bolts held wood siding to the interior of the brick walls, preventing prisoners from chipping out the mortar. As noted previously, the north and south walls have two windows with original metal grid coverings. The original wood floor remains. The ceiling is open, revealing exposed rafters and the under side of the metal roof.

According to early records of the Claiborne County Court, debt was one of the most common offenses. Debt, and other non-violent offenses, drew the punishment of lashing at the county whipping post, which was located between the jail and the courthouse and consisted of a yoke, similar to an oxen harness.

The county jail contained a room, eighteen square feet in size, specifically for debtors; it was one of the units on the second floor. There, the sheriff held people who made no attempt to resolve their indebtedness. It was the sheriff’s responsibility to take debtors, two at a time, from the jail to the post for whipping until they promised to find work that would pay off their debts. Crimes of assault and battery also appeared frequently; legal disputes between individuals were also common. Trespass, libel, and murder were rare charges. A more serious crime, such as horse theft, was punishable by branding (“H.T.” on the thumb), practiced as late as 1822. The court frequently listened to cases of “bastardy,” an offense, assumingly by a male, of fathering a child and refusing to support that child.

During the period between from the 1830s to the Civil War, very little specific reference to the county jail exists other than that it was, of course, in use.

Estes jail Claiborne side.png

The court records a page or so after John’s mention give us a rare glimpse when the jailer asked for repairs including an iron door’s hinges to be fixed, handcuffs, etc.

Estes jail 1842 jailer.png

Report of the ail commissioners to with: We the commissioners of the jail of the town of Tazewell report to your worships now in session do say that the jailer so far as he is concerned has done his duty for we have examined the jail from time to time when the prisoners were in jail and making great complaints against the jaelor but when we examined into the matter we always found that the prisoners got a plenty to eat and drink as the law directs.

Estes jail 1842 jailer 2.png

And further we report that the jail ought in our opinion to be repaired as follows to wit:

First the meddle door ought to be hung and made sufficiently strong so that when any of them transgress to put them back into the dungen and keep them there till they do better.

Estes jail door.png

Here’s that metal door that clanged shut behind John Estes.

Further we believe it would be better to have the inside bord seasoned oak plank one inch thick and tong and groved together this ought to be done on the floore as well as the wall and furthermore we wish the court to appoint 5 commissioners to superintend? the work and let it out to ? able persons that will have the work done in proper manner so that the jail will be secure this 4th day of October 1842.

Jail would be glum in the best of circumstances. Obviously, it’s meant to be punitive, a place to be avoided.

Estes jail Claiborne inside.png

Jimmy Emmerson took these two photos of the inside of the Claiborne County jail, making them available, here. Thanks Jimmy.

This would have been John’s view of the world, every day for 6 months – and that’s IF he wasn’t in the dungeon.

Estes jail Claiborne inside 2.png

I wonder if John was one of those “residents” complaining about the jailor and conditions. It makes me wonder since this entry in the court record occurred immediately after the request for reimbursement for board for John and two other prisoners.

Estes jail front.png

The local newspaper reports that at least some hangings were carried out from the upper window, here, although I have my doubts.

Joe Payne writes about the jail here, with some interesting old photos.

Fullington’s Records

I read Alexander Fullington’s submissions for payment to the court with the hope of obtaining enlightenment into cases during that timeframe.

Monday April 5, 1841 – ordered by the court that Claiborne County pay to Alexander Fullington the following state claims for turnkey and board as jailer to wit:

  • State vs Benjamin Young $13.36
  • State vs Edward Slavens $5.50
  • State vs Obediah Norris $15.37/5
  • State vs Jas Asberry $24.87/5
  • State vs Thomas Cox and wife $7.62/5

July 5, 1841 voted that Fullington be allowed:

  • Sum of $1 for 2 turn keys receiving to jail Ruth Collins

October 1, 1841 Alexander Fullington allowed for keeping:

  • Azariah Watson in jail 83 days and two turn keys the sum of $33.12/5
  • John Hodge in jail 7 days two turn keys/holter chain and steeple the sum of $5.62/5

I could not determine what a holter chain and steeple was, but I’m wagering it was a restraint.

January 3, 1842 Fullington allowed the following fees:

  • Jessie Lyndsey in jail 36 days and turn key $17.50
  • Ruth Collins ditto and turn keys $19.75
  • Ditto Zachariah Hicks 7 days and 2 turn keys $3.62/5

April 4, 1842 – Fullington allowed:

  • Ruth Collins, 2 turnkeys – $1

Ruth seems to have been a frequent flyer.

July 4, 1842 – Fullington allowed:

  • Azariah Watson – ludeness
  • Steven Ouseley – usery
  • Burdren Bussell and Sarah Baltrip – ludeness – 41 days in jail $53.79 and 6 turn keys
  • Jacob Pike and Elizabeth David in jail 9 days $3.57/5 and 8 turn keys 4.00 – acquitted

October 4, 1842 Fullington allowed:

  • 103 days boarding Sarah Nunn in jail @ 2/3 2 turnkeys @3 – $39.62
  • Bartley (or Barthey) Nunn in jail 60 days at 2/3 and 2 turn key @3 – $23.50
  • Veyena (or Verena) Nunn 67 days at 2/3 2 turn key at $3 – $26.12/5

This tells us that Fullington is allowed 50 cents per turnkey.

I sure wish they had recorded their crimes.

Why was John in Jail for 180+ days?

I wish I knew.

Most of the cases, above, don’t have a corresponding trial record, nor do we have a crime listed with Fullington’s report. The very best I can do is to note that during this timeframe, there are only two crimes found.

Usery, which is an illegal form of lending. John clearly wasn’t doing that.

The only other specific crime is lewdness which, as I understand it, requires two people.

It’s unlikely, especially given that John was married, that he was engaged in lewdness with a woman not his wife. Furthermore, there is no corresponding female being prosecuted.

If couples married in a situation where the female became pregnant, it doesn’t appear that they were prosecuted for lewdness.

These court notes are more concerned with running the county – in other words, paying the jailer. I have to wonder if there is another set of court records someplace, then or now, that we’re missing.

Which Doggone John?

Do we have ANY clues at all as to which John might have been in jail?

It’s possible.

Let’s look at their history. John R. Estes was older, 55 years of age, and had never, to the best of my knowledge, been in trouble before.

John Y. Estes was young and his life seems to have been somewhat troubled.

Unlike other young men, John never bought land.

In the 1860s, John volunteered for the Confederacy. It’s unclear how he wound up in the hands of the north, but he did after being reported as a deserter.

Most of the soldiers from Claiborne County fought for the North, but John didn’t. This would likely have driven a wedge between John and his wife’s family along with neighbors. Having said that, this region was clearly split over allegiances.

After his release from the Northern prison camp, John walked from Illinois back to Tennessee, only to subsequently deed all of his property to his son, Lazarus, only 17 years old and living at home with his parents. Given John’s absence, it’s quite likely that Lazarus has been shouldering the brunt of the work. John did not own land, but deeded his sheep, horse, hogs, cow, etc. to his son.

What happened next isn’t quite clear, because in 1870, John is still living with his wife and they have another baby, and another would be born 1871.

In 1879, John Y. Estes signed a deed granting two men access to create a road across his land to access the land they had just purchased from Lazarus Estes, John Y.’s son. This is the first hint that John owned land, and there are no deeds to back that up.

However, in 1880, Rutha is living with her 5 children and is noted as divorced in the census. John has walked to Texas on a bum leg, is boarding with someone, and lives the rest of his life there, dying in 1895.

John’s life seemed troubled beginning in 1842. That’s sad because it includes his entire married life to Rutha Dodson. She became disabled with arthritis the last 22 years of her life, dating to about the time John Estes left for Texas.

We find potential hints about this situation with John in the court notes having to do with the settlement of Charles Campbell’s estate relative to the Dodson children.

On July 5, 1841, Wiley Huffaker made settlement with the heirs of Lazarus Dodson and reported to the court. Generally, settlement was made once a year until the child was no longer a minor, or all of the minor children were of age.

However, the next year, we find something different.

July 6, 1842 – “That Wiley Huffaker have until next term to make settlement as guardian.”

August 1, 1842 – “Ordered that Wiley Huffaker guardian to the minor heirs of Lazarus Dodson have until the next turn of this court to make settlement as guardian.”

Was this because John Y. Estes, as Rutha’s husband was legally the recipient of her portion and was in jail?

September 5, 1842 – “For satisfactory reasons appearing it is ordered by the court that Wiley Huffaker guardian to the minor heirs of Elizabeth Dodson decd have the further time until the next term of this court to make settlement as guardian aforesaid.”

Note that John Y. Estes signed the receipt that he received a portion of his wife’s inheritance on this same day, September 5th, stating additionally that he was paid for the land rent for 1841, along with how much was outstanding.

October 3, 1842 – “A second settlement made by the clerk of this court with William Fugate one of the administrators of the estate of John Campbell decd which was examined by the court and ordered to be filed and recorded.”

October 4, 1842 – “This day came on the settlement of Wiley Huffaker guardian to the minor heirs of Elizabeth Dodson decd which settlement was by the court examined and ordered to be filed and recorded.”

The actual detail of the filing is recorded in the Probate book, but does not add any previously unknown information.

If John Y. Estes was the John in jail in 1842, he would have still been incarcerated in July, or Fullington would have submitted his receipt for payment at that time.

We know that John was out by September 5, 1842. If he was in jail for 94 days, twice, and got out the first part of September, he would have gone to jail the last part of February or the first part of March.

He was roughly in jail from either January through June, or from March through August, or sometime in-between those dates.

John and Rutha were married on March 1, 1841. If Rutha got pregnant immediately, their first child would have been born in the end of November. If she got pregnant shortly after their marriage, their first child could have been born while John was in jail.

Rutha was likely pregnant before the end of 1841, so gave birth to the child while John was in the clink. Regardless, this would have left a wife and newborn child during planting season in unknown and precarious circumstances.

That child did not survive to the 1850 census, so could have died at birth or maybe shortly thereafter.

Not a good way to start a marriage. No wonder the marriage eventually ended in what she noted as divorce on the census – although no divorce records exist.

John volunteered for the Civil War as well, probably in August of 1862, leaving Rutha to farm and raise their children for 3 long years. Given what appeared to be an icy reception upon his return by signing his worldly goods over to his son, they appeared to have a rocky relationship. The ice apparently thawed for a least some time, because the next child was born in February 1867.

Perhaps tied into that somehow was that Rutha started life with a bonus, meaning her inheritance from her grandfather. Yet, they didn’t own land on any census. At that time, men made those types of decisions and woman had little if any input. Where did that money go, and why?

Sadly, they never seemed to be happy, as best I can tell from what I can see peering through a keyhole from a distance of 150+ years.

Of course, after all of this tying the breadcrumbs together, I could still be quite wrong about which John was in jail. I only have a combination of coincidence, this circumstantial evidence and speculation.

It’s unlikely that I will ever unravel this knot. The only thing I know for sure is that John Estes was, indeed, in jail, probably for more than 6 months, and the only two John Esteses in Claiborne County at that time were both my ancestors.

If only those jailhouse walls could talk.



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7 thoughts on “John Estes Goes to Jail – 52 Ancestors #265

  1. Can I say that Lazarus Dodson sounds like a epic name for someone who should be a drummer in a heavy metal band? Lead singer could be my 7th great-grandfather, Zebulon Drew.

    They had some seriously epic names in ye olde days. Great blog as always!!

  2. I have family history connected to a jail in Rock Island County, Illinois, a cousin sent me this years ago–Edgar is my great grandfather, Cyrus was his wife’s father. Edgar and Frankie were married in 1888, this jail time would have been a few years later:

    Cyrus Gordon’s life—he had quite a variety of jobs. I do know that he worked as the sheriff–that is probably how Edgar became a jailer for the Rock Island County jail. My great-grandma (Marian) often joked that she was born in jail. Apparently they lived at or near the jail. Edgar was the “turnkey” there. His wife, Frankie, cooked for the inmates.

    My cousin’s gr-grandma was my grandma’s older sister.

  3. I’m distantly related to you through another line, however your family stories from eastern Tennessee remind me of my Mom’s family from Scott County, Virginia & south eastern Kentucky. I love reading the stories since I have also had issues tracking down ancestors.

  4. Have you ever considered that our ancestor’s unpaid and unpayable debts might have spurred their moving about, and their westward migration? If men did not own land, it was harder to find them.

    Playing at least 5 games of online Solitaire helps to quell feelings from political drama. Thanks for the tip about reading court records.

  5. Hi! I may have the answer to why he was incarcerated! My grandmother recently passed away and was very meticulously into genealogy. While cleaning out her home, I found a few piece of information about the Estes which seem to be my great grandmothers family if I’ve read her work correctly. In her things I found photos and news article clippings from them stating to a John Estes having confessed to murdering a man and his wife. When I get a chance, I’ll look more at it!

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