WINCHESTER (AP) All Michael Bryan was looking for was a deed. What the local attorney eventually found was a bit of a mystery — one nearly 169 years in the making — with a possible solution that involves spirits.
Bryan was seeking the deed for the property that housed the Winchester-Frederick County jail and Starting Point Detox Center for years but could not find the document.
Records in the Winchester Circuit Court Clerk’s Office included older deeds for the parcel at 317 S. Cameron St., but he could not find the 1843 document transferring ownership of the property to Frederick County and the corporate municipality of Winchester.
City property records indicated it was on page 456 of deed book 71, but that information didn’t match courthouse records.
“It puzzled me,” said Bryan.
After trying everything he could think of for about a day, Bryan decided to search Frederick County’s records. There, on page 456 of book 71, was the deed.
The document outlined the transaction that occurred on May 12, 1843.
John W. and Harriet R. Miller and George B. and Camelia E. Deiffenderfer, two married couples, had sold the property for $450. The sum was paid by “the said Justices of Frederick County and the said Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen of the Corporation of Winchester.”
Rebecca Hogan, clerk of the Frederick County Circuit Court, said occasionally city documents are found in county records and vice versa. Fixing that problem is simple — a copy is made and transferred to the proper office.
With this deed, though, nothing would be simple.
“The problem,” Hogan said, “was that it was in a bound book and was handwritten in, and it was in a big book that couldn’t be easily copied.”
Her solution was manual labor. Seeking peace and quiet for the task, Hogan took the deed book home one weekend and spent a few hours deciphering the document and typing a new one.
“I’ve never before had a clerk willing to hand-type a document,” Bryan said.
Hogan’s task wasn’t easy. The deed is faded in spots. The script handwriting is difficult to decipher, with “p’s” that look like “f’s.” It featured phrasing and terms considered arcane nowadays.
“I wouldn’t want to do that for a living,” she said of interpreting the deed. “If somebody comes to me with a book and wants me to type one, I’m going to run the other way.”
The document twice used a version of the term “enfeoff.” Hogan didn’t know what it was, but Bryan was familiar with it.
“It means delivery of possession,” said Bryan, who said he’s searched thousands of deeds since he began practicing law in 1976. “It used to be a person taking a handful of dirt from the property and handing it over to the buyer.
“I learned it from law school at the University of Virginia, but it’s the first time I’ve had to use it. My property law professor would be proud that I remembered that.”
The document also chronicled a practice discontinued long ago. Two justices of the peace certified that they met with Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Deiffenderfer “privately and apart from their husbands” to explain the deed to them and insure that they understood and agreed to the sale.
Also included in the deed was a provision that a 9-foot-wide alley be kept open to give “the lot now owned by Maria Weaver, a free mulatto woman, communication with Cecil Street ….”
Bryan took steps to verify that the lot the property described was, indeed, the one being sold by the Winchester Economic Development Authority behalf of the city and county.
A survey shows the 9-foot alley that opens onto Cecil Street. Also, an old plat of what then was the town of Winchester shows a jail on lot 200; the deed refers to the parcel as being lot 200.
To be certain the deed was correct, Hogan said she had it proofread by two of her deputy clerks, former deputy Janet Lowery, and Michael Foreman, Winchester’s clerk of the court for 28 years.
“It might have a word that doesn’t make sense to us,” she said, “but we’re very confident we’ve got a good copy.”
The re-created deed was recorded in Winchester, and the property’s sale to Anne Palmer of Winchester is expected to close by April 30. Palmer plans to turn the building into a spa retreat.
Earlier this year the Economic Development Authority unanimously approved selling the property for $395,000. The money will be split between the city and Frederick County, which jointly owned the old jail, which was most recently an inebriate center.
While the mystery of the deed’s location was solved, how it got there hasn’t been explained.
Foreman, ever the local historian, offered a couple of theories.
Originally, the former court clerk said, Winchester’s southern border was Cork Street. It also was a only a town, not a separate city, and it contracted with Frederick County to house arrestees in the county jail.
Up until 1870, he said, minor offenses were tried in town courts but felonies had to be heard by the Frederick County courts.
“I think the real reason was that the land was in Frederick County,” Foreman said, “and therefore there was not any legal requirement to record it in the city.”
Still, the fact that previous deeds for 317 S. Cameron St. were in city property records left him puzzled. It could be, he said, that the practice was to record such deeds in both the town and county offices and simply wasn’t followed in this instance.
That led Foreman to surmise another possible explanation — poor record keeping, perhaps caused by spirits.
He said that years ago, the handling of records locally was somewhat suspect. Lawyers would drop documents by the clerk’s office, and they might sit for days before being filed.
While in office, he found documents indicating that an order once was issued for someone to come to Winchester to straighten out its clerk’s office.
In those days, Foreman said, it was common for court officials to be intoxicated while on the job.
“The clerk could’ve been drunk, the lawyer could’ve been drunk, they both could’ve been drunk. Regardless of which is the case,” he said, “I’m sure it was the lawyer’s fault and not the clerk’s.”
- By Vic Bradshaw