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.

Justice Elkin of the PA Supreme Court Decides in Favor of Brewery

The Indiana Brewery was built in 1904 by a Pittsburgh contractor, and received its first wholesaler’s license in 1905. Trouble arose three years later when the brewery applied for its annual manufacturing license.

Judge Stephen Telford, of the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas, denied the license. The reasoning behind his decision was the company was guilty of seven district offenses in violation of the liquor laws of Pennsylvania and because of the 5,000 reputable citizens of Indiana County, through petition, declared the Indiana Brewing Company unfit to have a license.

The brewery had operated throughout 1908 under a limited state license. In January 1909, Telford again denied the request for the annual manufacturing license. The case moved through the appellate system to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and in October 1909, they upheld the county court’s decision. But that was not the end of the Brewery Saga, it was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Justice Elkin wrote the majority opinion which reversed the lower courts. The reasoning, Justice Elkin wrote in his opinion that the evidence that was presented against the brewery – mainly the petitions – were not sufficient to force the closure of the brewery. The vote of the PA Supreme Court was a 4-3 vote. Justice S.L. Mestrezat wrote a strongly worded dissent which argued that the Court’s decision wrongly took away from the local court the right to grant beer licenses.

The brewery encountered further judicial problems from Telford, but it stayed in operation until the early 1920s. It is interesting to note that years prior to this decision, Justice Elkin worked for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors.

Justice Elkin: Politician, Lawyer, Community Leader

There are many professions that are held in high-esteem, one of those professions is the legal profession, and in the history of Indiana, the members of the legal profession show up frequently in the history and founding of many of the organizations and schools around the area. If you are familiar with the town of Indiana you have probably come across the Elkin Mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery, one of the focal points of the Cemetery. The name Elkin has a long history in Indiana, including having the name dedicated to one of the buildings on IUP’s campus. The story behind John Pratt Elkin is one that deserves a closer look.

John Pratt Elkin’s life began humbly as many in the early days of Indiana County; he was born January 11, 1860, in a log house in West Mahoning Township. He was the son of Francis and Elizabeth (Pratt) Elkin. The family moved to Smicksburg in 1868 where Francis opened a store and a foundry. Elkin, 8-years-old at the time helped in the store and also attended the local school. In 1873, the family moved again, this time to Wellsville, Ohio; it was here that his father and several others established a tin mill, where young John worked, but by the end of 1874, the venture failed.

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Justice John P. Elkin

The family returned to Smicksburg in the fall of 1875 where John (only 15 years old) began teaching after passing his teacher’s examination, and when the school closed in the spring of 1876, he enrolled in the Indiana Normal School (now IUP). He continued teaching and his schooling in the summer months; after this he borrowed some money so that he could remain in school a full year and graduated in 1880.

After teaching for a year, John entered the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, graduating in 1884. Elkin was enrolled in a class of about one hundred twenty-nine students, and he was ranked among the leading students of his class. It was during his law school career that Elkin decided to be a candidate for the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives for the Republican primary and conducted his campaign by correspondence. A week after graduation, Elkin won the nomination. It was at the same time that he married Adda Prothero, a daughter of John P. and Sarah (Clark) Prothero. Elkin won the election in November 1884 and served two terms in the House representing Indiana County in 1885 and 1887.

On September 14, 1885, Elkin was admitted to the Indiana County Bar. It was during the first session of the House in 1885, that he framed and introduced a bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine (a fatty substance extracted from beef fat and used in the manufacture of margarine) and it was successfully enacted into law.

In the 1887 session, Elkin was chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Reform and worked for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. Interestingly enough, in his later life as Justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Elkin authored the majority opinion which enabled the Indiana Brewery Company to obtain their liquor license (see a future blog post).

Elkin also served as a delegate to the state Republican Convention in 1887. Just the previous year, he was named a trustee of the Indiana State Normal School and continued in that capacity for the rest of his life (29 years), the last 17 years he was vice president.

It was in 1887 that Elkin also began business as a partner with Henry and George Prothero, opening up mines in the Cush Creek area. Elkin always believed in the profitable operation of the coal lands. The partners also secured a railroad from Mahaffey to Glen Campbell and sold part of the coal lands to the Glenwood Coal Co.

Elkin’s political career however was not over. Elkin served for five years as chairman of the Republic State Committee and in 1898, he conducted the successful campaign of William A. Stone for governor. He was appointed Deputy Attorney General in 1899 and served until 1902. Elkin himself was a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 1902, unfortunately he was defeated by Samuel W. Pennypacker.

After serving as Deputy Attorney General, he returned to Indiana County to practice law. It was in April 1904 that Elkin received the nomination for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and in November 1904 he received overwhelming support, with his majority being 425,000 votes over his Democratic opponent. On January 1, 1905, Justice Elkin began his term as associate justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in which he served until his death on October 3, 1915. Justice Elkin was also favorably considered by the President for a seat on the United State Supreme Court in 1912, but was not chosen. Justice Elkin was considered as a candidate for the United States Senate seat in 1915, but at the time Elkin was serving on the PA Supreme Court and when asked about this possibility Elkin stated “As you know I am on the bench and am out of politics. Just now I am busy writing opinions on cases before the supreme court and have no time to even think of such matters. I am out of politics.” And John P. Elkin would never return to politics.

Justice Elkin, passed away on October 3, 1915, his funeral services were attended by hundreds of people from all over the state and nation. More than 5,000 people lined the roadway in Indiana as the Elkin funeral passed, this included many students from Indiana Normal School. It was after his death that the Elkin Mausoleum was erected in Oakland Cemetery.

Elkin Mausoleum
Elkin Mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery, Indiana, PA