Lost Records Uncovered By Newton Gresham Library
June 23, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins
Lost items always have a way of turning up when we least expect them to.
At least this was the case for a set of death records belonging to Montgomery County that had been missing for over 40 years before surfacing again at Sam Houston State University’s Newton Gresham Library (NGL).
“Fact is stranger than fiction,” opined Montgomery County Records Administrator Ellen Collins after discussing the 45-year journey the records took, only to end up right back where they belong.
While neither Collins nor Sara Forlano, a technical writer for the Montgomery County Clerk’s Office, were with the government entity 45 years ago, a retired clerk offered insight on how the records disappeared in the first place.
“We have a statement from a clerk that retired in 2001,” Forlano said. “She told us that, in 1977, there was a man who came in searching for a particular death record who seemed rather suspicious. The next morning, a window was broken and the book was missing. It was the only thing stolen.”
Why the thief would risk a breaking and entering charge to obtain one set of death records is anyone’s guess, but the book ultimately found its way to a flea market in 1978. Shortly thereafter, it was donated to the Sam Houston Regional Library in Liberty. This would be its home for the next four decades.
NGL on SHSU’s main campus, meanwhile, is part of the Regional Historical Resource Depository with the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
“Basically, our library is a depository for local counties and their records,” Trent Shotwell of SHSU’s Special Collections and University Archives said. “When they run out of space or need some of their records to be stored off site, we take those. We do this for about nine different counties, including Montgomery County.”
NGL has been storing certain records for quite some time. When they run out of space, however, they are typically stored at the Liberty location. Forlano had recently inquired about the only set of her county’s records that she knew to be stored in Liberty, which were sent off about 10-15 years ago.
While inquiring about this set of unrelated records, the librarian mentioned to her in passing that they had discovered a death records book from Montgomery County that had been found at a flea market in 1978 and was then donated to the location as part of a personal papers collection.
“I knew these records had been missing, but I thought that this could not be the same book,” Forlano said.
But it was, in fact, Montgomery County’s missing death records from 1937-1949.
They were discovered during a thorough inventory process before being sent to NGL, where they remained for roughly a year. After speaking with the Liberty location, Forlano called Shotwell in April and asked him to see if they had received their missing book. Despite its poor condition, Shotwell found the records and Montgomery County began going through the proper bureaucratic channels to retrieve it.
The transfer was officially approved by State Archivist and Director for Texas State Libraries and Archives Commission Jelain Chubb on May 30. Forlano, Collins and Montgomery County Chief Deputy/Court Administrator Darin Bailey picked up the records book from Shotwell at NGL Thursday morning.
Ironically, one week before Forlano discovered the location of the book, a citizen had requested a death record from the set. It would be the last time Montgomery County personnel would have to explain they no longer knew the whereabouts of the lost records.
Photo: (L to R) Ellen Collins, Darin Bailey, Sara Forlano, Trent Shotwell.
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