Best place to bone up on Chicago’s legal history

Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court archives

In the viewing room of the archives, visitors can peruse files of famous court cases, like the 1886 trial of the accused Haymarket bombers, the 1920 trial of the White Sox who were charged with throwing the previous year’s World Series, and the lawsuits against the builder and architect of the Iroquois Theatre, in which more than 600 died in a fire in 1903, shortly after it opened. But the less-renowned cases are also illuminating, archivist Phil Costello says. The collection includes files from more than a century of criminal, probate, domestic relations, and civil cases. “It’s the collection as a whole that tells you something,” Costello says. “The courts tell you how society was set up—how it was run, how people lived.”

A recent researcher has been studying 19th-century cases in which women were indicted for murder. There’s also plenty of fodder for biographers. “I’ve seen authors write biographies of Chicagoans, and they never came in to look at the court records,” Costello says. “I’m thinking, ‘I know we’ve got a probate file on that guy.’ ”

Most visitors come to research family history or find a document they need for legal purposes. Costello recommends that prospective visitors call before coming, because many records are located off-site, and retrieving them may take two to five days. The archives are open 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM weekdays.