Indiana County Judicial System Part II

As time progress, so did the court system in Indiana County.  To recap from last week’s blog post, Indiana County was part of the newly created Tenth Judicial District, which included Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset, and Westmoreland County.  Jefferson County, which then included parts of present Elk and Forest Counties, was also attached to Indiana County for judicial purposes.  In 1818, Somerset County was transferred to the 14th District.

Because of the size of the Judicial District, it was essential to have justice of the peace districts, which were in general, arranged according to townships.  Indiana County consisted of: Conemaugh (264 taxable inhabitants, had 2 justices of the peace), Blacklick (213 taxable inhabitants and 2 justices), Wheatfield (277 taxable inhabitants and 2 justices), Armstrong and Centre (including the South part of Indiana, 303 taxable inhabitants and 3 justices), Washington (including the north part of Indiana, 167 taxable inhabitants and 3 justices), and Mahoning (135 taxable inhabitants and 2 justices) Townships.  This gave Indiana County 6 districts and 14 justices in 1814; by 1827 there were 11 districts and 20 justices, this trend continued in later years as new townships were organized.

Since the Court’s jurisdiction included four, and later three counties, court was only held in Indiana four time a year; it began on the second Monday and later it was the fourth Monday of March, June, September, and December.  “Court weeks” were an important occasion in town, as many visitors came to Indiana.  Civil actions were heard in the Court of Common Pleas, and criminal chargers were heard in the Court of Quarter Sessions.

John Young was appointed as Indiana County’s first judge, along with him there were two associate judges, Charles Campbell and James Smith.  It is interesting to note that associate judges were not required to be learned in the Law.  Judge Young resigned at the end of the November Term 1836, after serving on the Bench for thirty years.  His successor was Thomas White, who was appointed in December 1836.

The following is a list of Associate Judges and the time period of their service: Charles Campbell (1806-1828), James Smith (1806-1818), Joshua Lewis (1818-April 25, 1828), John Taylor (1828-1836), Andrew Brown (1828 – September 29, 1830), Samuel Moorhead Jr. (1830-?), Dr. Robert Mitchell (1836-1842), Meek Kelly (1842-May 14, 1843), James McKennan (1842-?), John Cunningham was appointed in 1843 succeeding Kelly.  In the early days of the judicial system, all those in the judiciary – judges, associate judges and even justices of the peace – were appointed by the Governor, unlike being elected in later years.  Since they were appointed by the Governor, he could also remove appointees from office for cause.  This happened on February 28, 1828 when Governor Shulze revoked the commission of James Dunn as justice of Wheatfield Township because of a “misdemeanor in office” of which he was convicted in December 1826.

Occasionally judges were brought in from other districts, as occurred in 1842 when notice of a special court session was advertised to begin on August 1, 1842, presided over by Judge Robert C. Grier of Allegheny County, for the trial of cases in which Judge Thomas White had been concerned as counsel.  Later, Judge Grier was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President James K. Polk, and he served on the nation’s highest court from August 10, 1846 until January 31, 1870.

Prosecuting attorneys for criminal cases were appointed from outside the county, and usually represented the Commonwealth as deputy attorney general for several counties.  Prosecuting attorneys included William H. Brackenridge, Henry Shippen, Thomas White, a Mr. Canon, and W.R. Smith.  Ephraim Carpenter was appointed deputy attorney general on March 23, 1824; he lived in Indiana and served for 12 years until William Banks was appointed on March 1836.  August Drum was appointed on March 25, 1839 and was replaced in June 1842 by Thomas C. McDonald who only served a year when Thomas Sutton was appointed on June 26, 1843.  Sutton also only served a little over a year when he was replaced by Thomas C. McDowell on September 25, 1844.

At the time, the sheriff and his deputies, or the local constables, had a lot of power; they were entrusted with arresting criminals, executing judicial orders, subpoenas, etc.  Thomas McCartney was the first Indiana County Sheriff.  He was followed by Robert Robinson in 1809, James Elliott in 1812, Thomas Sutton in 1815, Clemence McGara in 1818, Thomas Sutton in 1821, Henry Kinter in 1824, James Gordon in 1827, James Taylor in 1830, Joseph Loughry in 1833, James Kier in 1836, William Evans in 1839, and David Ralston in 1842.  For a time the chief law enforcement officer was called the “High Sheriff,” later being shortened to just sheriff.

The first two jails in Indiana County were the hickory log jail and the stone jail of 1807.  The third county jail was built at the corner of North Sixth Street and Nixon Avenue, it was also made of stone.  This structure also had its faults as an editorial in the Indiana Republican in 1846 reported: “a pretty specimen confined in it, Sampson like, carried off the gates and made his escape!”  George W. Robinson was another jail-breaker, he was confined on a charge of bigamy, and escaped on May 17, 1841.

To get a sense of how busy the court system was, take the following data for Indiana County from the decade of 1823-1833:

Number of prosecutions for homicide: 4

Cases in which Grand Juries returned bills: 3

Cases in which Grand Juries found no bill: 1

Acquittals of First-degree murder: 3

Acquittals of Second-degree murder: 2

Convictions of First-degree murder: 1

Convictions of Second-degree murder: 0

Convictions of manslaughter: 0

Acquittals of manslaughter: 0

In 1835, Robert Herrin was killed in a fight with Thomas Jones, both were African-American and from Blairsville.  At the trial before Judge John Young, a verdict of second-degree murder was brought against Jones, and he was sentenced to twelve years in Western Penitentiary.

Other early murders in the County were committed along the Pennsylvania Canal.  In 1830, the confession of Joseph Evans was published.  Evans came from to Blairsville from Maine in 1829 and started working on the construction of the canal.  He was under contract by Hugh McCrea as a cook most of the time.  During a drunken brawl he accidentally killed John Cissler.  There were others involved in the brawl including David Linsebigler, John Ball and a fellow called “Dublin.”  Evans confessed that he struck Linsebigler in the ear, kicked him in the pit of the stomach and jumped on him across his shoulders with both feet. He then struck Ball on the side of the head and caught “Dublin” by the hair and also kicked him in his stomach, let him fall and then kicked him twice more in the side.

Another canal murder was Commonwealth v. King Hewit, Mr. Hewit was tried February 20, 1844 at Greensburg.  He killed James Halferty, Captain of the boat Clipper at John Moonshower’s lock between 4-5 miles east of Blairsville in a 4am fight over who should enter the lock first.  The verdict was second degree murder.

Another type of crime that has since been replaced by car theft was horse stealing.  The Indiana County sheriff advertised in the Westmoreland Republican for two horse thieves, Amassa and Alpha Latimore, who were imprisoned December 5, 1819 and had broken out of jail.  There was a $100 reward for their capture, or $50 for either one.  There were also petty and unsolved larcenies.

The progression of time was causing the judicial system to grow, as the town grew so did the need for judicial system.  Not only with general business, but also with the increase in criminal activity.

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The Beginning of the Indiana County Judicial System

During the early years of Indiana County, access to the Court system was very difficult.  On January 30, 1804, James McComb, a resident of Indiana County in the General Assembly, presented to the House of Representatives four petitions signed by citizens of the provisional county of Indiana which stated the inconvenience to have to attend court in Greensburg.  This difficulty was on account of the distance and the difficulty in crossing the Conemaugh River.  The purpose of the petition was for Indiana County to be organized for judicial purposes.  On March 5, 1804, Mr. Allshouse of Westmoreland County offered a resolution that Indiana be organized for judicial purposes.  The resolution was tabled and Mr. McComb again presented another petition on March 9, 1804, but it was to no avail.

It was not until February 6, 1805, that Mr. McComb presented another petition for judicial organization of Indiana County.  House Bill 73 “An Act to organize the provisional counties of Indiana and Cambria” was introduced on February 8, 1805.  The bill passed the House and went to the Senate on February 21, but the Senate voted to postpone the matter until the following session.

It was in December 1805 that the first sale of lots in Indiana had occurred and again the time came to finally complete the organization of the county and fully admit it to the membership of the Pennsylvania counties. This time, Senator Joseph Hart, Senator from Bucks County, introduced Senate Bill 127 “An Act to Organize the Provisional County of Indiana,” on January 24, 1806. The bill was considered and amended on February 20, and it was passed the next day and sent to the House which also passed the bill on March 3. The Governor signed the bill on March 10, making the measure law.

Just prior to the time upon the passage of the law, the General Assembly had created the new Tenth Judicial District by Act of February 24, 1806, with John Young being commissioned Judge on March 1, 1806. This new district included Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset, and Westmoreland Counties.

The Act of March 10, 1806, provided for the first election of county officials to be held on the second Tuesday of October to choose “two fit persons” for Sheriff, two for Coroner, and three commissioners.  Further, the first Monday of November, Indiana County was to enjoy the same rights and privileges as other counties, and all Court actions that were still pending in the Westmoreland County Courts were to be transferred to Indiana County.  This meant that the Prothonotary of Westmoreland County was directed to prepare a Docket of all pending Court actions and transfer them to Indiana County.  The newly elected Commissioners of Indiana County were authorized to erect a Court House, prison, and other public buildings and they had the power to obtain a house in or near the town of Indiana, where the courts could be held until a court house could be erected, and if they were not able to obtain a building they could erect temporary buildings for that purpose.  The Courts, Commissioners, and other officials of Indiana County were also given authority over Jefferson County’s 1,203 square mile area, which included parts of Forest and Elk Counties, extending to present places of Ridgway, Johnsonburg, St. Mary’s, Marienville, Cook’s Forest, Clear Creek State Park, and a large part of Allegheny National Forest.

Thomas McCartney was elected as the first “High Sheriff” with Samuel Young as the first Coroner. The first Commissioners were: William Clark, James Johnston, and Alexander McLain. James McLain was appointed by Governor McKean to serve as Prothonotary, Clerk of Courts, and Register & Recorder on October 2, 1806.

The first Court convened on December 8, 1806 on the second floor of Peter Sutton’s hotel and tavern near the corner of Carpenter Avenue and Philadelphia Street. Judge John Young presided and being assisted by Associate Judge Charles Campbell. The jurors chosen were each paid $2 for their services.  The first ten cases heard in Quarter Sessions (criminal) Court, nine of them were for assault and battery. Number 7, Commonwealth v. Margaret Walker, was for an indictment for fornication and bastardy, this case has heard along with Commonwealth v. John Campbell for bigamy. There were only three civil case to come before the court during that first term. Also during this first term came petitions for roads, one from Newport to Indiana and another from David Fulton’s to Brady’s Mill, but there was no action taken. The attorneys at bar were: George Armstrong, John B. Alexander, Samuel S. Harrison, James M. Riddle, Samuel Massey, and Samuel Gutherie; but none of them resided in Indiana County.

The second term, in March 1807, Judge Young was not present, and the reason was unknown, but Associate Judges Charles Campbell and James Smith president; this being the first time Smith appeared on the Bench. The case load was growing: 37 civil and 11 criminal cases. This was the first time that Attorney Daniel Stanard appeared; Stanard being the first resident attorney.  All the criminal cases except one were assault and battery or surety of the peace charges. William Evans, the defendant in Commonwealth v. William Evans, was required to post $200 bond on a fornication and bastardy charge pending the appearance of Sarah Evans at the next term. There were recommendations to the Governor for tavern licenses from Henry Shryock, William Bond, and James Moorhead. Other types of business included applications for naturalization and petitions for roads. There was also a report and draft to divide Armstrong and Conemaugh Townships, which was approved by the court.

The following terms were held on the second Mondays of June, September and December, with similar cases being heard. On October 19, 1807, on the motion of James M. Riddle, Daniel Stanard was admitted to the Bar before Associate Judges Campbell and Smith.

The first public building to be erected was a crude jail measuring twenty feet square which was built by the first Sheriff, Thomas McCartney and was assisted by Conrad Rice. It was constructed from shell-bark hickory logs with a clapboard roof. The first prisoner incarcerated was Patrick Short, an Irishman, but he escaped by digging underneath the jail never to be found.

In 1806, construction was begun on a stone jail and completed in 1807. The contractor was Rev. John Jamieson. The building was 36×30 feet, with the lower story being nine feet high and the upper floor eight feet high; it stood at the corner of Sixth Street and “Clymer Alley” (now Nixon Avenue). James Mahan was the stone mason, Thomas Sutton was the carpenter and the first Jailer was Samuel Douglass.

The first Courthouse was begun in 1807 and not completed until late 1809, with John Huey as the contractor. It is unknown what the total cost of the first Courthouse and jail, but it was reported that the proceeds from the auction of town lots from the 250-acre tract donated by George Clymer were more than sufficient to meet the cost.

Once construction of the Courthouse was begun, a row of one-story brick offices for the county officials was erected along Philadelphia Street and next to the Courthouse.  The early years of the Indiana County judicial system were primitive, but an important start to laying the foundation of law and order in Indiana County.