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.

judge telford
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.

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.