York County, seller at odds over centuries-old ledger

Greg Gross

York County may face an uphill battle getting a two-century-old court ledger back since there is no Pennsylvania law that specifically forbids private ownership of government records.

"There is no law that compels a person to return to government a government document," said Howard Pollman, spokesman for the state Historical and Museum Commission.

County officials learned recently that it's missing a county Court of Common Pleas ledger from the 1820s after it turned up for sale on the online auction site eBay.

Tom Griswold said the docket was purchased at auction a few months ago by his wife, who is a bookseller specializing in older and rare books. The book advertised as being included in the auction well in advance of it being held in October.

"We acquired it legally," he said. "It's our legal property."

The book: The leather-bound, handwritten ledger, which is a record of court cases from 1819 to 1821, may have fallen into private hands just after the last entry was made in it.

John Gardner, an attorney from the era, somehow obtained the ledger and it was passed down through his York area family for generations until it was put on the auction block, Griswold said.

That's when Griswold's wife bought the ledger and then posted and ad for it on eBay. One notable name in the ledger is that of Thaddeus Stevens, an outspoken opponent of slavery

The Bucks County seller, who was asking $1,600 for the ledger, agreed to not sell the book after assistant county solicitor Don Reihart contacted her.

Ownership: Since there's no law requiring a private owner of a government record to return it, Pollman said government entities have had to turn to the courts in attempts to get records back.

But, the courts have generally sided with private owners in the past. In order for a government entity to get a favorable court ruling, it would have to successfully argue the private owner unlawfully obtained the record.

"That's tough to do," Pollman said.

State records have turned up in privates hands in the past and the state has had to pay to get them back, he noted.

In the case of the court ledger, the county and Griswold are attempting to settle the matter without heading to court.

Options: Griswold, however, has two options for the county to acquire the ledger. One is they would give the county a digital copy of the ledger for free, allowing them to keep the original.

The second option is for the county to pay for the ledge, with a $500 finder's fee tacked on. That would Griswold's wife can recoup what she spent for it at auction.

Griswold said they haven't heard back from the county about their proposals.

"We ultimately want to see this going to the right place," he said. "We're trying to do the right thing and it's falling on deaf ears."

The county has not yet responded to the proposals, Griswold said.

Carl Lindquist, the county spokesman, said he's empathetic to the plight of the seller but added paying for the ledger would set a bad precedence.

"The community should not spend its own resources on something it already owns," he said. "It's our position that it's County of York property."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.