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.

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