Indiana County Judicial System Part IV

In 1894, Judge Harry White came up for reelection; he had been on the Bench since January 1885. White was reelected, but by a narrow margin, and despite numerous efforts to put himself in a favorable light, as discussed in a previous post, Judge White had a controversial career, and he tread a thin line between ethical and unethical actions. However, White was unable to erase the memories of 1894-95, because when the election of 1904 came around, he was defeated for a third term, and never held an elective public office again. He was succeed by Stephen J. Telford who served until January 1916, when Judge Jonathan N. Langham took over his seat.

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Judge Stephen J. Telford

During the late 1800s and early part of the 1900s, Indiana County was fortunate to have the honor of having two of its native sons on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Justice Silas M. Clark (who died November 20, 1891 in office and was eulogized during a moving funeral) and Justice John P. Elkin, who after serving as Attorney General of Pennsylvania from 1899-1903, was nominated in 1904 for the PA Supreme Court, was elected and took his place on the bench in January 1905 serving until his death on October 3, 1915.

The period from 1891-1916, saw an increase in crime, due in part to a “Wild West” climate in some of the new mining towns; there were numerous murders and other crimes and disturbances. This can been seen in 1898 in Glen Campbell and in Whiskey Run in 1911 which resulted in four deaths.

By 1920 the courthouse was showing its age at 50 years old. When it was constructed, electricity and modern toilet facilities were unheard of, therefore remodeling needed to be completed at various times. In 1917, there was a $3,370 contract for public “comfort stations” to be put in in the courthouse basement. Then in 1929 it was decided to complete the basement, it was previously divided into rooms but never finished because the space was not needed. A street-level entrance to the basement was provided, which eliminated the former steps on the Sixth Street side to the first floor. The toilets on the first floor were removed and two toilets were provided in the basement, along with eight office rooms.

Another addition was begun in December 1917 and completed in the spring of 1918: the “Bridge of Sighs” connected the courtroom with the jail.

By the time the Depression hit, the courthouse needed painting and maintenance, estimated at a cost of $600; the labor was to be provided by the Civil Works Administration. Officials and attorneys contributed $290 toward the cost. Another incident during the Depression Era, was the leaning of the courthouse tower which was noticed by June 1936; an option discussed was the removal of the clock tower, but this was met with protests from citizens. Other plans during this time included the removal of the stone wall and the iron fence surrounding the courthouse, cleaning and painting the exterior, raising the roof and constructing an additional story, remodeling the interior to provide much needed office space, and the installation of an elevator. The Grand Jury approved the project, with labor to be done as a W.P.A. project. By late July, the local WPA office approved the repainting of the courthouse and jail, and Washington also gave its approval on September 11; but the commissioners cancelled the project due to the impending cold weather and the cost of scaffolding. In December the Grand Jury were presented with reconstruction plans, but postponed the matter for further study.

It was in 1923, that women began serving on juries. The Indiana Evening Gazette reported on May 1, 1923 that 73 women accepted to serve on the grand petit and traverse jurors along with 131 men. To put this in perspective Congress passed the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919 and being ratified on August 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote.

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Jury Chairs 9 and 10

It was also during this period that an amusing incident occurred on January 5, 1924. The story begins when everyone in the courthouse began to cry, investigators found two rapidly emptying tear gas bombs in the corridor, and the mystery as to why everyone was crying was solved. It seems that outgoing Sheriff J.R. Richards had the bombs to use in a scattering a mob, and two practical jokers thought it would be fun to release them, that is until they were among the ones weeping. The windows and doors to the building were opened, and the gas weakened, but they had to be closed at the end of the day and the fumes began to collect again. On Sunday morning, the Lutherans, entered the building to worship in while their new church was being constructed; however, they were almost forced to leave due to the fumes.

The final era of the judicial system that we are going to look at is moving into the modern era, mostly after the 1950s through the 1980s. Starting in the 1950’s the grandeous courthouse was described as an “eye sore” and there was a proposed modernization of the building which was estimated to cost between $800,000 and $850,000, but these proposals got no further than the planning stage. Then on October 29, 1962, plans were announced to construct a new courthouse at the rear of the old courthouse, but the Gazette ran several editorials in November which disagreed with the choice of a site and urged that the Pennsylvania Railroad station site (on the corner of Eighth Street and Philadelphia) be chosen. Bids were advertised around January 1, 1965, but it wasn’t until December 7, 1966 that the Commissioners chose the PRR site.

The public got a preview of the new courthouse on June 3, 1967 when the Gazette published a picture and plans. By August the Indiana County Redevelopment Authority purchased the entire PRR property for $300,000 and transferred a portion of the property to the county for a courthouse. On December 6, the Commissioners approved a $2 million bond issue to finance the problem. Construction contracts were signed on January 3, 1968 and ground-breaking ceremonies were held on January 10. Construction continued through 1969 and by the beginning of 1970 contracts for new furnishings were awarded. The last session of court in the old courthouse was held on November 2, 1970; and on December 17 the last county office, the prothonotary, moved out and the doors were padlocked soon afterward.

The Commissioners announced on April 22, 1971 that the old courthouse would be sold in the near future. This set off a history of the old courthouse. There was an auction of the furnishing held in June. In May 1972 there was a survey related to the distribution of the courthouse with three choices: retain the buildings and the property, retain the land, sell to the highest bidder. A large majority desired to keep the old courthouse. By the end of the year the National Bank of the Commonwealth (NBOC) made a proposal to lease and restore the building for bank purposes.

Renovation work began during the summer of 1973, starting with the placement of the old courthouse on the state and national registers of historic places. An “Open House” was held on October 1974.

The new courthouse proved to be less than ideal. There were some people felt that the colonial design was inappropriate, because Indiana did not exist during that period. Moreover, the structure proved to be poorly insulated, heating cost exorbitant, and expensive corrective measures had to be taken. In 1987, at an estimated cost of $200,000, asbestos was removed.

Ground-breaking of a new jail took place on September 9, 1972 and the $1 million 3-story facility was dedicated on September 28, 1973 but not occupied until the end of October. The issue of jailbreaks did not end, and the first occurred on September 21, 1974, followed by three more on November 3. The jail was referred to as the “Ninth Street Hilton.” There were suggestions to put bars on the windows, on November 4 the Commissioners voted to proceed with the installation of bars immediately.

The justice-of-the-peace system was replaced by the District Justices, first elected in 1969 and taking office in January 1970. The first district justices were: James Lambert, Geraldine M. Wilkins, Louis J. Nocco, and Albert Cox. Mrs. Wilkins was the first Indiana County woman to hold the post of District Justice. Judy Monaco was sworn in on May 3, 1971 as the first female member of the Indiana County Bar Association and the first to be admitted to practice in the new courthouse.

Another big change during this period was the elimination of the indicting grand jury system, which was authorized by a 1973 constitutional amendment. The last Indiana County Grand Jury closed its work in December 1978.

The Indiana County Judiciary system is continually changing, with the election of new judges, new District Judges, and the admission of new attorneys to the Bar Association.

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Indiana County Judicial System Part III

The development of the judicial system of Indiana County continued into the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it was during this period that there were many significant changes.  The old courthouse was demolished in 1868, but until the time that a new courthouse could be built, the county officials had to find temporary offices.  The prothonotary moved to a store room of Edward Nixon on North Sixth Street adjoining the old jail.  The Register and Recorder and Sheriff moved to George Bodenhamer’s “new office” in the back of Sutton & Wilson’s store which was on the south side of Philadelphia Street at the corner of Carpenter Street.

The Judges

Judge Joseph Buffington of Kittanning continued to preside over the courts of Indiana County under the old Tenth Judicial District, which comprised Armstrong, Indiana, and Westmoreland counties.  Judge Buffington continued to preside until 1871 when he resigned due to his health.  James A. Logan of Westmoreland County was appointed to fill the vacancy until the next election in October of 1871.

It was during this time that judges began to be elected to the bench.  Silas M. Clark was the Democratic candidate and the Indiana Progress reported his selection as “The Democratic Scuffle.”  The reason for this was because H.K. Sloan, who was favored for the State Senate nomination, but could not be nominated because conferees from other counties would not be happy on two district candidates coming from the same county.  Clark was confirmed on July 9 at the Democratic Conference in Pittsburgh.  The Indiana Progress reported that it was rumored that a few Republicans in Indiana contemplated voting for Clark for Judge because “he [wa]s a very clever gentleman.” In the end Clark was defeated in the district by a vote of 3,944 for Logan and 2,613 for Clark.  A possible reason for Logan’s lead was that he was solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and on election day trains were sent to haul voters to their polling places free of charge.  In later years Clark declared “Judge Logan was a good, able and just judge.”

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Judge Clark

Judge Logan served as judge until the Fortieth Judicial District was formed, which under the new Pennsylvania Constitution, consisted of Indian County alone.  The provision made counties of forty thousand people or more separate judicial districts.  In the election in November 1874, John P. Blair was the Republican nominee for judge, running against Judge Logan.  Blair was elected and took office on January 4, 1875.  When he took office there was a backlog of cases, which had been delayed for several years because the previous judges just found it impossible to keep up the case load of three counties.

The new constitution abolished the office of Associate Judge.  John K. Thompson and Peter Sutton were replaced in 1866 by T.B. Allison and Joseph Campbell, who held the office until 1871 and was succeeded by Peter Dilts, Jr. and James S. Nesbit.  Nesbit resigned in February 1874.  The last to serve as Associate Judge in Indiana County were William Irwin (who succeeded Nesbit), serving until January 1, 1875; and Peter Dilts, Jr. When his term ended in 1876.

Judge Blair left a clean docket when his term ended in 1885 and was succeeded by Harry White.  It is said that none of Judge Blair’s decisions were reversed by the higher courts, which is aspiration of many judges on the bench.  Judge White was elected in November 1884, defeating A.W. Taylor, who ran as an independent, by a vote of 4,200 to 3,787.  Judge White’s twenty-year career on the bench was controversial, even questionable; he was very active politically, and at times his political conduct was extremely partisan, undignified, and treaded a thin line between ethical and unethical actions.

New Courthouse

James Allison - Murder Trial Indiana County 1880

In 1867, two consecutive grand juries urged that a new courthouse be built, and with Court approval, they instructed the Commissioners to proceed with building a new building.  The reasoning behind this push was that the old courthouse seemed to be inadequate.  The plan was presented by Mr. Drum of Brookville, and the Commissioners adopted the plan in March 1868.  The cost was estimated to be $80,000 (to put that in perspective, that would be about $1.4 million today).  The Commissioners then requested an Act by the legislatures that would authorize the county to borrow the money to construct the new courthouse.  As with any large project, there was opposition to the construction of a new building, and there were even protests against the passage of the act, which was likely done to delay the taxation that was sure to follow to pay for the building.  Despite the opposition, the Commissioners advertised for sealed bids to be received by July 16.

On Sunday, August 9, 1868, a final religious service was held in the old structure, and demolition of the building was begun on August 11.  The contractor, J.T. Dickey, encountered financial problems, and his bondsman, Irvin McFarland, was forced to take over the contract in association with Philip Shannon, a former Jefferson County sheriff, in ordered to save himself.  There was some excavation and foundation work that occurred during the winter of 1868-69, but there was little other work completed.  In April 1869, courthouse architect, James W. Drum, moved to Indiana and work resumed.

Although work resumed, there were some other problems that arose.  On July 6, 1869, the stone cutters struck for higher wages.  It seems that one or two people took advantage of the excitement of the Fourth of July celebrations to induce the party to go into a strike.  However, about half of the force went back to work on July 7.  McFarland refused the leaders of the strike further employment.  Also, in July, a rope in the lifting apparatus broke, and a stone block weighing several tones fell and broke in two, this also caused damage to the steps at the west entrance.  The Mahoning sandstone blocks came from a quarry in the Tearing Run area near Homer City.  An advertisement on August 5, placed by McFarland, offered $2 per day for Laborers.*  The stone cutters struck again at the end of October or early November, but the cause is unknown.

The stone and brick work neared completion by August 19, 1869, and by November 3 it was thought that a few more days of good weather that the roof would be in place; however, this did not get accomplished until nearly the end of the month.  That winter, work proceeded on the interior of the building.  But there were still more problems, in February 1870 the county bond book was stolen.  The Commissioners offered a $50 reward for its return, and printed new bonds to be exchanged for the old ones.  In December 1872, James B. Work was convicted of forging County Bonds while serving as clerk to the Commissioners, and Judge Logan sentenced him to one year, eight months in the Western Penitentiary on February 2, 1873.

On May 16 and 17, 1870, a bell that weighed 2,480 pounds was placed in the tower.  It was cast in Pittsburgh by A. Fulton & Son and cost $1,017.87.  Later a large clock manufactured by the Howard Clock Co. Of Boston and Springfield, Ohio, and was installed by J.R. Reed & Co. Of Pittsburgh.  The clock faced in all four direction and a 75-pound weight operated the clock. By July 14, 1870, the scaffolding around the building was being taken down.

On September 10, 1870, the editor of the Indiana Democrat got a look at the inside of the new courthouse.  The courtroom was nearly completed at this point, although the stained glass windows that cost $1,000 were not yet installed.  The iron fence which surrounded the courthouse was completed around October 13.

The Commissioners took formal possession of the structure and settled with the contractor on December 3, 1870.  In January 1871, an accounting of the new courthouse was published: the cost of the courthouse and fitting of offices $136,093.38; furnishing $3,524.58; bell and freight $1,017.87; laying pavement around the courthouse $1,557.50; a total cost of $142,193.28.**

In the beginning the courthouse was heated by bituminous coal stoves and lighted by artificial gas manufactured in Indiana.  About 1884, the Commissioners chose to use anthracite coal, which lasted at least three years.  In April 1888, Sutton Brothers & Bell was given a contract to install a steam heating apparatus.

Jail Problems

During the mid-1800s, the old 1839 jail continued to be used, even though it had been branded “a most miserable sham” in 1866 when four prisoners escaped on March 9, 1866.  Richard Clawson, Samuel Ray and Lewis and Frederick Smith were arrested for “Outrageous Behavior” on February 16 – their behavior included drunkenness, rioting, assaulting people, and breaking into homes and damaging property.  Their escape occurred by raising a board in the floor, pushing down a stone in the cellar partition wall, entering the cellar, and then entering the street.

George Johnston escaped on February 27, 1868.  Then on July 15, 1875 six more prisoners – J.S. Lydick, David McCardle, D.L. Spealman, Archie Pounds, J.D. Reed and Hadan – escaped by cutting a hole through the plank on the top of the stone wall surrounding the jail yard.  Five more escaped in August 1876, and Jim Myers escaped in March 1877, followed by three more on May 14, 1877.  This was during Sheriff William C. Brown’s tenure, hence the jail became known as “Fort Brown.”  There were many more escapees than just those mentioned here.  In June 1880, the situation got so bad that Sheriff Daniel Ansley was forced to post a guard outside the jail day and night to secure three men who were “residents” of the jail being accused of murder.

Finally the on December 10, 1885, the Grand Jury found that jail was unfit for its intended purpose and recommended that a new jail be constructed, but not to cost more than $50,000.  Another recommendation from the Grand Jury was that the county need either employ watchmen to guard the prisoners or send them to another county.  This proposition was endorsed by another Grand Jury in March 1886.

On March 16, 1887, the plans for a new jail were published which included a residence and office for the Sheriff along with a two-story jail with a mail ward of ten cells measuring 42 x 52 feet, a female ward of two cells, 20 x 24 feet; a boys ward of two cells, 17 x 20 feet; a hospital room 20 x  22 feet; and a prisoners’ counsel room 7 x 22 feet.

The old jail was razed in April 1887.  The new jail was completed and accepted by the Commissioners on October 30, 1888 and the following day payment was authorized to Mr. Hastings, the contractor.  Total cost for the jail: $50,793.73.***

*This would be about $37 today.

**In today’s money the cost of the courthouse would be about $2.9 million.

*** In today’s money the cost of the new jail would be about $1.3 million.

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.

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.

The First Hanging in Indiana County

The first hanging in Indiana County was the execution of James E. Allison for the murder of his father, Robert Allison, but a grave error was made in the guilt of the executed.

Prior to 1877, Robert lived with his family on his farm in Washington Township, but owing to fights and quarrels with his wife and children, particularly James, he left home around January 1, 1877 to live first with his sister and then his brother, Alexander. Robert’s home was about a quarter of a mile from Alexander’s home.

Robert tried to return home, but was thrown out by James, and was assaulted by him, this occurred on March 13, 1880. The assault was set for trial on June 17, 1880. The two agreed to a peaceful settlement, and the left for home with the understanding, that the dispute between them should be submitted to amiable arbitration.

The following set of facts was submitted at trial:

On the Friday following the return from court, at dusk, James Allison asked a neighbor boy to tell his father that Alonzo Allison (Robert’s son) wanted to see him at the road at dark. The boy delivered the message and returned home.

Robert immediately went to the road, and a few minutes later John Allison (another of Robert’s sons) heard shots. He ran to the road and saw James fleeing and Robert lying on the ground. Robert reported that James shot him.

Leon Smeltzer, a neighbor, heard the shots and voice which he took to be James cursing to the person to whom he was talking. John also heard shots and heard Robert yelling out that James was shooting him. Earlier in June, Alonzo overheard James threaten to shoot his father if he met him at court. Many witnesses heard Robert exclaim: “For God’s sake, don’t kill me, Jim, this time,” and after the shooting, they heard the expression, “You damned old son-of-a-b***, how do you feel now?” The last expression was recognized as James’ voice.

James did not resist arrest the following day, at which time he was working in the cornfield with the murder weapon found on his person. James was taken to the Indiana County Jail. Robert died the following Monday, June 21, 1880 at 5:00 pm.

At the September court session charges were filed against James for the murder of Robert Allison. The case was continued until March 1881, when it was tried. The trial began on March 15, 1881. The Jury consisted of: John K. Myers, James A. Black, W.S. Linsenbigler, Alfred Lovelace, William J. Elwood, James Neely, James M. Creps, William Wachob, Joseph Atkinson, William McConnell, Isaac Warner, and Valentine T. Kerr.

The District Attorney M.C. Watson, Harry White and Joseph M. Thompson presented the case for the Commonwealth, and Silas M. Clark, H.K. Sloan, and J.C. Ruffner were represented Allison. Judge Blair presided over the case.

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Silas Clark, attorney for Allison

Testimony closed on Saturday March 19, 1881. The case was argued on Monday and the jury was sent out on Monday evening. The jury remained out overnight and returned with the verdict of guilty of murder. A motion was made for a new trial and in arrest of judgment. The motions were argued on May 20, 1881; they were overruled and the James Allison was sentenced to hang.

As with any murder conviction, a writ of error was taken to the October term of the PA Supreme Court. On November 14, 1881, the opinion of the PA Supreme Court was delivered, affirming the conviction.

A record of the case was sent to Governor Hoyt who ordered the execution to take place on February 17, 1882. An application was made to the Board of Pardons sitting in Harrisburg on January 15, 1882, for a change to the sentence for life imprisonment, but that application was refused.

James was visited by all ministers of Indiana, between the time of reception of the warrant for his execution and the day set for carrying it out. They attempted to impress upon him the seriousness of his crime and the necessity for a quick and sincere repentance, but James was unmoved.

On Wednesday night, February 3, 1882, James was alone in his cell. He was heard pacing the floor and stirring the fire frequently. He only slept a short time.

On Thursday morning, the building of the scaffold for the hanging was begun. The majority of the day was spent completing it. On Thursday evening, Sheriff Jamison requested that James put on a new suit of clothes which he had gotten for him. James refused to accept the suit, despite the fact that his clothes were dirty and ragged.

That evening, James had a hearty dinner, but did not seem excited about the events of the following day. There was no explanation why there was a change of the date of the execution.

That evening the guards, H.S. (Barney) Thompson and John Sherman, stayed with James. He talked with them freely until midnight, but made no reference to the execution during the conversation. Again, James did not sleep much; at eight in the morning he had a hearty breakfast.

Later Monday morning, James was visited by his mother, Alonzo and a sister; he turned them away when they entered his cell and refused to speak with them. He told Sheriff Jamison to take them away, stating they were no friends of his.

The Sheriff selected the following as witnesses to the execution: George R. Lewis, C.C. Davis, Dr. J.K. Thompson, James Johnston, G.W. Bodenhamer, G.T. Hamilton, William McWilliams, J.A.C. Rairagh, William Mabon, Dr. W.L. Reed, J.B. Sansom, and Johnston Miller.

As was customary in the day, a crowd had gathered in front of the jail by ten a.m. It was shortly after ten, when the front door of the jail was opened and those having tickets were admitted. At four minutes before eleven, the Sheriff and his assistant went for Allison; James said he would not go. The Sheriff told Allison that he would have to order H.C. Howard and John W. Brooks, to take him to the scaffold.

The Sheriff and Henry Hall walked in front, the others followed, marching slowly in to the courtyard and up to the scaffold. Allison was visibly agitated and trembled. After a brief time, the Sheriff asked Allison whether he had anything to say why the sentence should not be executed. James stated he was not guilty. It was at that point that the execution took place and a short time later, James Allison was pronounced dead. The body was lowered, a shroud put on it, and then placed in the coffin. The crowd that had gathered in front of the jail, was given a chance to the view the corpse, which they did as they passed through the hall and out of the side entrance. The body was taken in charge by his relatives and taken to Plumcreek church for burial.

Some years later, Mary Allison, widow of Robert Allison, became quite ill. As she lay on her death bed, she confessed that on the evening of the murder, she dressed in James’ clothes and shot her husband.

The first hanging in Indiana County may have been a grave error. Was the execution a mistake? Was James Allison guilty? These are all questions that you must answer for yourself based on the facts of the case.

Allison v. Commonwealth, 99 Pa. 17 (1881).; Clarence Stephenson 175th Anniversary History.