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Smithsonian Associates tour Jefferson County Courthouse

March 20, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • 23rd Circuit Judge David Sanders points out details about the Jefferson County Courthouse during a tour Saturday in Charles Town, W.Va.
By Richard F. Belisle/Staff Writer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — In the years leading up to 1801, when Jefferson County was created, two local slaves, John and Robert, were severely punished for stealing a vest and two yards of calico.

They were sentenced to “be burned in the hand and receive 20 lashes.” Their crimes and fate appear in a history of Jefferson County and its courthouse.

On Saturday, nearly 50 members of the Smithsonian Associates from Washington, D.C., were bussed to Charles Town for a guided tour of the courthouse by 23rd Circuit Judge David Sanders, whose courtroom is on the second floor.

The first courthouse was built in 1803.

The tour was led by noted historian Ed Bearss. It included stops at Harpers Ferry and the Kennedy Farm, where abolitionist John Brown assembled his men for their raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859.

Sanders began the tour outside the courthouse with some early Charles Town history, how then-15-year-old George Washington came to survey the area. Charles Town was named after his younger brother, Charles Washington, who laid out the town. He named the first streets after himself and his siblings — George, Samuel, Lawrence, Augustine and Mildred, and donated the four lots on the town square “for public use.”

The courthouse sits on the corner of George and Washington streets.

In 1800, citizens in the southern part of what then was Berkeley County petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for permission to create their own county.

The issue was slavery.

The northern section, made up mostly of people of German and Irish descent from Pennsylvania, had 1,547 households and 488 slaves. The southern section, which was to become Jefferson County, had 1,452 households and 1,357 slaves, according to a local history.

Few Jefferson County citizens sympathized with the north during the Civil War, Sanders said.

After the war, Virginia sued to have the three Eastern Panhandle counties go back to Virginia. Andrew Hunter, a local attorney, argued the case for Virginia before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Hunter became a local hero in Jefferson County,” Sanders said.

His portrait is the only one that hangs in the courtroom.

Sanders told the associates that major trials — John Brown’s and his co-conspirators’ in October 1959, and the West Virginia mine wars in 1922, in which more than 730 defendants were indicted, were held in the courthouse.

Brown’s trial “was the most important trial in the country up to that time,” he said. “Media came from all over. People came in by railroad and stagecoach for the trial and his execution.”

Brown, because of his willingness to die for his cause, “was able to change the trial from being about himself to being about the country,” Sanders said.

He said John Wilkes Booth and Edward Ruffin, a South Carolina journalist who, it is said, fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, were in town for the trial.

On the day of his execution, Dec. 2, 1859, the streets leading to the gallows were lined with militia to keep citizens away.

“They were told to stay in their homes and protect their property,” Sanders said.

Bearss said Brown’s raid and trial “aroused great emotion at the time and still does today.”

The current courthouse was built in 1836. The second floor was added in 1872. At that time, Sanders said, a balcony was built as a “suitable place where the ladies could watch trials.”

Linda Griffith of Rockville, Md., a Smithsonian Associates member, said it “was helpful to see history interpreted where it actually took place. It was very special.”

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