Inside the San Luis Obispo Police Department station, in Chief Steve Gesell’s office, is a leather-bound record of local law and order almost 150 years old.
Displayed prominently in a dark wood and glass coffee table, the ledger, hand-written in 1871, provides a glimpse of residents’ transgressions, and how law enforcement dealt with them.
But it also tells the stories of long-gone residents who may otherwise have never left a trace, as well as economic trends, and exactly where people came from before arriving — and getting into trouble — in San Luis Obispo County.
The ledger is but one of 36 historic police and court ledgers dating from 1870 to 1978 recently gifted to Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library thanks to a move by the City Council on July 15.
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Thanks to the deal — which has been years in the making, since former Chief Deb Linden began looking for ways to preserve the ledgers — they will now be digitally scanned and archived at the Kennedy Library.
For decades, the ledgers sat in a dark closet in the offices of the San Luis Obispo Police Department. Today, they are surprisingly well-preserved, save for some fading here and a few rips and tears there.
The ledgers contain things one might expect from a police and courtroom log. There are dates, descriptions of offenses, names and origins of offenders, and dispositions and penalties, all in elegant ink handwriting.
One thing Gesell and Capt. Chris Staley noted as they flipped through pages on a recent afternoon is that when it comes to local crime, some things never change.
“Drunk. Drunk. Fighting. And here we have vagrancy,” Gesell noted as he ran his finger down a page. “Aside from things like riding horses on the sidewalk, these are the same things we deal with today.”
“It’s just amazing that we have these things and that they survived all these years,” Staley said.
Though it’s been some time since the ledgers have seen the light of day, they haven’t been ignored. The documents helped volunteer Paulette Staley — the department’s unofficial historian and mother of Chris Staley — when she drafted the department’s history for its website.
It took months, but she and her husband Richard, also a volunteer, made their way through the collection, noting the passing of jurisdictions between vigilantes, the U.S. Marshall’s Service, and finally to the city’s first police chief, W.F. Cook, in May 1911.
“It’s so neat to know the history. Any Old West town is going to have its own colorful history and San Luis Obispo is no different,” Paulette Staley said. “And these (ledgers) are a huge part of the history and culture of San Luis Obispo.”
“Living in Phoenix so long, I just revel in anything older than the 1950s,” Gesell said. “This is the story of the last days of the Wild West.”
There are plenty of stories in the books.
There was the incident on Sept. 12, 1882, when a San Luis Obispo resident by the name of Hugh Rafferty went to trial for assault with a deadly weapon. He waived his right to an attorney and told the judge he was “as ready as (he was) ever going to be” to face the music. He was convicted, sentenced to an unspecified amount of jail time, and ordered to pay a $50 fine.
In another incident, a resident was arrested for hitting another man over the head with a violin.
Gesell displays the ledger proudly. In fact, after conducting his final interview with new department hires, Gesell shows them the artifact and then has them sign their agreement of employment on the display table.
Under the agreement with Cal Poly, that oldest ledger will be digitized first and then will be returned to Gesell’s office on permanent loan from Cal Poly. The others will be stored in the Special Collections room on the fourth floor of the Kennedy Library.
Jessica Holada, director of the Special Collections and Archives Department of the Kennedy Library, said she and her staff are ecstatic about the deal.
“The city was looking for the best way to preserve these while also allowing access to the public,” Holada said. “We think it was a win-win for everybody.”
The ledgers will join other historical law-enforcement documents from the Sheriff’s Office already at the library. Over the next few months, the ledgers will be digitized with a specialized overhead scanner used for delicate artifacts. It may take through the winter to scan and archive all 36 ledgers, Holada said. But eventually anyone across the world will have computer access to the logs.
Laura Sorvetti, reference outreach and instruction specialist at the department, said there is more that can be gleaned from the records than interesting anecdotes.
“Things like tracking how far away people traveled to come here, economic trends — there are so many disciplines these can affect,” Sorvetti said. “There are probably uses for them we’re not even aware of now.”
Back at the San Luis Obispo Police Department, asked how he feels about the possibility a researcher someday may pore through the current San Luis Obispo Police Department’s records and logs, Gesell said it would be an honor.
“I think it would be great having people remember the things you’ve done,” he said. “But it’s hard to imagine how what we’re doing now can ever be old.”