Aldrich History Project

Chapter IX

Public Buildings And Courts

Plan of the County Seat--Lots Donated for Public Buildings--The Old Log Jail--The Jail Built in 1841-2--The Present Jail-Its Cost--The First Court-House--Description--Important Cases Tried Therein--The Now Court-House Built--Courts in the Old Church-Court-House Remodeled and Additions Built--Some Leading Causes Recalled

WHEN the commissioners appointed by the governor determined to fix the seat of justice of the newly created county upon lands of Abraham Witmer, the latter at once caused a plot of the whole locality to be made, and laid out intersecting streets and alleys and intermediate squares of building lots. Market street, the main east and west thoroughfare was laid upon the old "Milesburg road," and the town extended two squares north and south from that road. Walnut street formed the south, and Pine street the north boundary of the town, the intervening streets being Locust, Market, and Cherry, and aIleys having no name. The streets running north and south were named, commencing at the river, Water street, near the river bank; Front street, afterward called First street ; Second street, Third street, and Fourth street. The river formed the west, and Fourth street the east boundary.

 The lot donated for the erection of county buildings was located on the northeast corner of Market and Second streets, and was known on the map as number seventy-five; the market-house lot fronts on Market street and is known as number eighty; the jail lot was located on Locust street, and cornered on an alley, and is number ninety-one. On this lot now stands the dwelling house of Mrs. David Sackett. The three lots donated for the erection of an academy lay in the extreme southeast corner of the town, on the corner of Walnut and Fourth streets, and are numbered one hundred and sixty-two, one hundred and seventy-seven, and one hundred and seventy-eight, respectively. These were found to be impracticable for the intended purpose and were exchanged for lots on Front, or First street, between Market and Cherry streets, a much more desirable location.

Although the dedication of the several lots above mentioned was made by Mr. Witmer in the year 1804, the deed for them was not executed until March 8, 1813. The conveyance was made by Abraham Witmer, and Mary, his wife, of the township and county of Lancaster, Pa., to Robert Maxwell, Hugh Jordon, and Samuel Fulton, commissioners of the county of Clearfield, or to their successors in office, in trust for the said county of Clearfield, for the purpose of erecting public buildings thereon.

The lot donated for the erection of the jail on Locust street was never used for that purpose. The old jail was built on the site now occupied by the residence of Dr. J. P. Burchfield, on Second street, and was torn down at the time the residence was built. Some of the old timbers were used in the construction of the house. The jail was built of hewed logs, with a shingle roof and heavy wooden door. The windows had iron bars across to prevent escape. Although primitive in design and construction, this prison served the purposes of the county until the erection of the more substantial county jail on the site now occupied by the opera house block. For this structure land was purchased of Martin Nichols, sr., at the price of three hundred dollars. The building was of stone, two stories in height.

The front part was tastefully fitted up for the sheriff's apartments, and the rear arranged for jail purposes. It was built by Martin Nichols, sr., and Jonathan M. Nichols, of Clearfield at a cost of about thirty-five hundred dollars.

The present county jail was built by George Thorn, of Clearfield, in the years 1870-1-2, on lands purchased from Hon. William Bigler, at the lower end of Second street. The material used in construction of the walls, both for the building and yard enclosure, was white and yellow sandstone. The front, on Second street, is occupied by the sheriff as a residence, the place for confinement of prisoners being further back. The main hall is fourteen feet in width and about seventy feet long. The cells are constructed on both sides of this hall, twelve on each side, six below and six above. The cost of this structure, as per contract, exclusive of the price paid for the land, was sixtyeight thousand dollars. Other work, coming under the head of " extras," brought the entire expense of the structure to a much greater figure. The land cost seven thousand dollars.

  The first court-house of the county was built by Robert Collins. It was modeled after the Lycoming county court-house, which was built by Mr. Collins early in the present century. Soon after the organization of this county he was induced to come to Clearfield, and the fact that a court-house would soon be erected here, hastened his determination, although the building was not commenced until some years later. In the year 1814 the work was commenced, and completed in the following year. No data is obtainable showing the precise time of commencement, or completion of this court-house, but the dates given may be considered reasonably correct. Collins was awarded the contract at the agreed price of three thousand dollars. The building was two stories high, built of brick, with rooms for county officers above, and the. courtroom below. The roof was made of shingles, and a small cupola rose above the building proper. There was no attempt at ornament in its construction, as the scarcity of money at that time would admit of no unnecessary expenditure.

The first court was held at a term commencing October 21, 1822. From the Quarter Sessions docket some extracts are made. At a Court of Quarter Sessions of the Peace, a court of Common Pleas and Orphans Court, began and holden at the town of Clearfield, in and for the county of Clearfield, before Hon. Francis W. Rawle and Moses Boggs, esqs., justices and judges of the said courts.

The acts of Assembly organizing Clearfield county for judicial purposes, being read, and the courts being duly opened, the commissions of the said judges, F. W. Rawle and M. Boggs were presented and read. The commission of Samuel Fulton, prothonotary, of the said Court of Common Pleas, and clerk of the said Court of Quarter Sessions and Orphans Court, were also presented and read, and also the commission of Greenwood Bell, sheriff of the said county of Clearfield, and writ of assistance, were presented and read.

On motion of W. R. Smith, esq., Moses Canan was admitted and sworn as an attorney of the courts, and on the motion of Moses Canan, esq., the following named gentlemen were admitted and sworn or affirmed as attorneys of the same courts, namely, William R. Smith, Daniel Stanard, Joseph M. Fox, John Blanchard, James Hepberton, John Williamson, Hugh H. Brady, Thomas White, William J. Christie, John G. Miles, and Samuel M. Green.

Samuel M. Green was appointed by the attorney-general of the State as deputy attorney-general of this county, and he was now sworn into office.

The returns of the constables were then made; Valentine Flegal representing Bradford, Hugh Caldwell, for Lawrence, and William Hepburn, for Pike township. William Shepherd also appeared for Gibson township, but made no return.

The first petition presented by sundry inhabitants of the county, praying that a road be laid out from the Cambria county line to intersect, near the house of John H. Turner, in Beccaria township, the road leading from Gallager's mill to Turner's mill. The court appointed Adam L. Keagy, William Wright, Amasa Smith, James Rea, Thomas Jordon, and Robert Patterson commissioners to view and report to the court upon the necessity of this road. The road was laid out and report confirmed at the March Sessions in 1883.

Upon the presentation of petitions, licenses to keep tavern were granted to Thomas Hemphill, Robert Collins, and William Philips, all of Clearfield town, This concluded the first day's business, whereupon court adjourned until the following day.

After the adjournment, as the story goes, the newly-made lawyers, with the judges and a party of friends, repaired to a convenient hotel, where they celebrated, in truly royal fashion, this great event Their great joy led them so far that, with a single exception, every soul of them became overcome by circumstances--and water from the Susquehanna River. The narrator of this event said there was one person who did not partake of the festivities of the occasion, but was perfectly clear in the statement that he was not that one.

On the morning of the 22d, at the opening of court, Hon. Charles Huston, president judge of the Fourth Judicial District, appeared and took his seat as president judge of the court.

On motion, William Potter was admitted and sworn as an attorney of the courts. William Wilson received the appointment of county auditor in place of Martin Hoover, resigned. Alexander Caldwell was made deputy-constable of Lawrence, and Isaac Ricketts constable of Beccaria township.

Petitions were received and filed, praying for the laying out of roads, one from Clearfield bridge to Widow Ardery's; one from James Green's to the county line, in Fox township; one from Turner's mill to Karthaus bridge; one from Elijah Meredith's to the Fox Company's mill, in Fox township; and one from the inhabitants of Pike and Beccaria townships, to be laid therein. All, except the last, were subsequently confirmed.

The first term of court at which a grand and traverse juries were called was held in December, 1822, with Hon. Charles Huston, presiding.

The grand jurors summoned on that occasion were Thomas Reed, foreman; Alexander Dunlap, Caleb Davis (absent), John McCracken, John Henry, A. B. Reed, esq., Joseph Irvin, John Stugart, Jacob Hoover, Hugh Hall, esq., Hugh McMullen, Henry Mead, Consider Brockway, Robert Beers, James Iddings, Joseph Mason (absent), John H. Turner, John Bloom, Thomas Lewis, Benjamin Smeal, Joseph Davis, Thomas Haney, Samuel Turner, James McNeil.

After having been in session about three days, they presented "true bills" as follows: The Commonwealth against Alexander Osborne, indicted for keeping a "tippling-house." On payment of costs a nolle prosequi was entered. Commonwealth versus Hugh Coleman and Thomas Lewis, supervisors of Gibson township, for nuisance in highway. On motion of Thomas Burnside the indictment was quashed. Commonwealth versus James I. Thorne, blasphemy; bailed for future appearance. Commonwealth versus Isaac Rodden, keeping a tippling-house; nolle prosequi ordered. Commonwealth versus Absalom Timms, tippling-house; nolle prosequi ordered. Commonwealth versus Jonathan R. Ames, passing counterfeit money; bailed to the United States Circuit Court.

Alexander B. Reed was appointed county treasurer December 19, 1822. The first traverse jurors summoned in the county were for attendance at this court. They were: William Wright, Richard Shaw, John Irvin, Samuel Tate, George Brown, John Fullerton, Thomas Dent, James McKee, Alexander Read, James Rea, James Wright; Matthew Gile, Abraham Ross, William Ross, Anthony Wright, Joseph Turner, Robert Ross, jr., James A. Read, jr., James Wilson, Samuel Ardery, Christian Straw, George B. Dale (absent), Jacob Flegal, Hugh Frazier, Crawford Gallager, George Ross, Jacob Hoover, John Swan, Lawrence Monahan, Orris Hoyt, James Young, Jonathan Hartshorn, Moses Norris, Jason Kirk, John Moore, Robert Wilson.

It will be unnecessary in this chapter to go further into detail regarding the first court, or the proceedings thereof. The jury lists will serve in a manner to show who were some of the old residents of the county, and the records will suffice for a description of the first judicial proceedings had in the county. The old court-house building, which, in its day, was as pretentious, and perhaps more substantial, than any surrounding buildings of the town, is now a thing of the past; yet, it has left its history in the many memorable cases, civil and criminal, that have been tried within its walls. Among the hundreds and thousands of cases in litigation, tried during the sixty years of time in which the court-house was in use, a few may be recalled as specially momentous. The case of the Commonwealth against Lawrence Allman, indicted for the murder of his brother Godfrey, in a fit of jealous passion. Judge Woodward was then on the bench, and the. trial created the most intense excitement throughout the entire county. Allman was convicted of murder in the first degree. but a new trial was granted, which resulted in a verdict of "guilty of murder in the second degree." The prisoner was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment.

The peculiar Plunkett case was another that caused much excitement and still more comment, on account of the impossibilities regarding it.

One Campbell was perhaps as conspicuous an offender as ever was arraigned for trial in any court. The whole catalogue of offenses and misdemeanors, less than capital crimes, were chargeable to this person, and it is estimated that he was arraigned at least twenty different times. He certainly enjoyed the notoriety of being called an habitual criminal.

The famous libel suit of Dr. W. P. Hill versus Dr. Loraine, was another of the celebrated causes tried in the old court-house.

Karthaus versus Wiggins, an action for trespass, was the longest trial on record in the county.

These are but a few of the many cases that were tried in the courts of this county prior to the year 1860 But, as years passed and the population of the county increased, a new and larger building became a necessity. The subject was agitated and discussed by the officials and people as early as 1845, and when the project was sufficiently advanced to take some definite shape, a new feature was introduced. The citizens of Curwensville, and residents in the south part of the county, were anxious that the county seat should be removed to Curwensville. Naturally and vigorously was this opposed by the Clearfielders and residents of the lower part of the county. The champions of the project of Curwensville offered to donate the lands and erect the necessary buildings free of any expense to the county, and even went so far as to ask for legislative action in interest of the change. Here the Clearfield residents had the advantage. The most influential political workers were in favor of retaining the buildings, as in former years, and they were successful. The commissioners entered into a contract for the erection of a substantial brick building upon plans submitted by Cleaveland & Bachus. The contract was awarded to George Thorn, of Clearfield, at the agreed price of $16,500, and to use the material of the old building in the erection of the new so far as could be utilized. The work of tearing down the old court-house was begun in March, 1860 and in a few days' time no trace of it remained. In its stead, however, there gradually arose a structure more complete, more imposing in appearance, and better calculated to meet the growing necessities of the people of the county.

During the interval between the demolition of the old, and the completion of the new building, courts were held in the old Methodist Church edifice, on Cherry street, between Second and Third streets; but this, too, is now gone, and in its place stands a substantial double frame dwelling, constructed in part from the material of the church building.

Among the causes tried in the Cherry street building, that attracted some considerable attention, was the indictment of Sarah Brenniman, for infanticide. Although the prisoner had confessed the crime, she was acquitted.

James Hauckenbery was tried for the murder of John Thompson, better known as ''Devil" Thompson, a dangerous character. Hauckenbery pleaded self-defense; that at the time he was in fear of his life. The court held and the jury found that the shooting was too severe an act to resort to, to be entirely justifiable, and the prisoner was sentenced to four years imprisonment, He was pardoned, however, before the expiration of his term of sentence.

Another, and probably the most important case, was that of John Cathcart, the wife murderer. He was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged Arrangements were making for the execution of the sentence, and Sheriff Frederick G. Miller had ordered the erection of the scaffold, but Cathcart defeated the ends of justice by hanging himself about two weeks prior to the day fixed for the execution.

The comer-stone of the new court-house was laid on Monday, the 4th day of June, 1860. There was no public ceremony on the occasion. Within the stone was deposited a tin box containing the names of officers of the Federal, State, county, and borough government, ministers of the gospel residing here, a copy of the Bible, and a number of newspapers of the past and (then) present. Although the work of constructing the building was commenced in the spring of 1860 the building was not completed until nearly two years later.

When partly completed it became necessary to rebuild a portion of the tower owing to a miscalculation on the part of the architect, an uneven pressure on the columns being the result. The interior arrangement differed materially from that of the old court-house. Instead of having the court-room downstairs, as was the case of the old building, that room was located in the upper story, and the county officers' rooms arranged below, except the surveyor's office, which is in the tower over the main entrance. On entering the front one goes directly into a long, wide hall, extending the entire length of the building. On the right, first the prothonotary's office is reached, then the county commissioner's rooms, and beyond this the treasurer's office, the latter being in the addition built in 1882-83. First on the left from the front entrance is the recorder's office, next the old arbitration room, now used as a justice's office, then the office of the county superintendent, and last the district attorney's offices, one of which was formerly used as the sheriff's office. The floors are of asphaltum in the halls above and below. The clock was placed in the tower mainly through the efforts of citizens of the" borough. The first bell placed in the tower was found defective, and was replaced by another, which although smaller than the first, was of much better metal.

In September, 1882, a contract was made with Messrs. Thorn & Burchfield for the construction of an addition on the rear of the court-house, and remodeling the roof and upper part of the former building. By this addition, the sheriff's present office, the large arbitration room, part. of the district attorney 's office, and closets were annexed on the ground floor. On the floor above there was added the grand and traverse jurors' rooms, attorneys' rooms, with a library room above, reached by a spiral iron stairway, witnesses' waiting-room, and closets. Changes were also made in the roof to the old part, and the whole is now slated. The county officers' rooms are provided with a fire-proof depository for records. The building is heated throughout with steam. The price paid the contractors for the additions made in 1882-3 was about $35,897. The upper floor is reached by three stairways, one on either side in the front of the building, and one in the rear leading to the attorneys' and jurors' rooms. The exterior presents a plain, neat, and tasteful appearance without evidence of any elaborate architectural display. The building was constructed with a view to utility and convenience rather than outward appearance and show.

Many are the important causes tried within its walls, which have called here some of the ablest lawyers of the State; and among these suits, civil and criminal, a few may appropriately be recalled.

Pruner and Burleigh vs. Dr. David Houtz was several times tried here and in Centre county, and also in the United States Court. Dr Houtz will be remembered as the founder of Houtzdale. The plaintiff was represented by John G. Miles, esq., of Huntingdon county, one of the leading lawyers of the State, and Hon. Joseph B. McEnally, of Clearfield. For the defense were Hon. William A. Wallace and Hon. H. Bucher Swoope. This was a land case and involved a large tract in the vicinity of Houtzdale. The final determination was a verdict in favor of the defendant.

In 1867 was tried the celebrated forgery case, the Commonwealth versus Daniel Polhamus. Judge Barrett presided by special request of judge Samuel Linn. William A. Wallace for the Commonwealth, and H. Bucher Swoope for the prisoner. Polhamus was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary, but subsequently pardoned.

About the same time the Hagerty will case was tried. Hagerty was an eccentric person, and possessed a large amount of lands, two thousand acres or thereabouts. He made large bequests to religious and charitable societies, but died within thirty days after making his will. This made the instrument voidable. One bequest to the Presbyterian Church society at the "Cross Roads," was made on condition that they, in church meetings, should sing only Rouse's version of David's Psalms. The will was contested, Judge McEnally appearing for the contestants, and Senator Wallace and H. Bucher Swoope for the executors The suit was brought in equity, and judgment and decree rendered in favor of the contestants'. An appeal was taken to the Supreme Court, and the judgment of the lower court affirmed.

The Commonwealth versus Mary Miller, indicted by the grand jury for the murder of her husband. This case was tried before Judge Samuel Linn and a jury. William M. McCullough and H. Bucher Swoope for the people, and William A. Wallace and J. B. McEnally for the prisoner. Mrs. Miller was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was executed in the month of October, 1867. Mary Miller was the first person hanged in Clearfield county. Cathcart, the wife murderer, was formally convicted and sentenced, but suicided before the day fixed for execution of the sentence.

The largest verdict ever rendered in the county was in the case of Ynicencio Casinova versus the Derby Coal Company, an action growing out of a coal transaction. William A. Wallace appeared for the plaintiff, and Hon. George R. and Walter Barrett for the defendant. Although the cause was an important one from the amount involved, it did not attract much attention from the public. The verdict for the plaintiff was the sum of $285,000.

No case tried in the county has caused such widespread comment and excitement as that known as the conspiracy trial. In all there were fifty-six persons, miners in the Houtzdale region, who were organized strikers. They were indicted for conspiracy from force of numbers by overawing the people. Riotous acts were proved. The first case against John Maloney and fifty three others was tried in 1875, before Judge Orvis and a jury. Wallace, Krebs & Fielding for the Commonwealth, and Hon. George R. Barrett and Walter Barrett, esq., for the prisoners. They were all found guilty. Four were sentenced to one year's imprisonment, eight for six months, and sentence suspended as to the balance. As every member of every organized labor society was interested in the result, the events of the trial and verdict were telegraphed all through the country.

This was followed by the trial of the remaining two offenders on that occasion, John Siney, and Xingo Parks. Siney was not one of the strikers, but was known as a State organizer. He came to Houtzdale and delivered an inflammatory address, for which he was arrested. On the trial Siney was acquitted, but Parks was found guilty of inciting unlawful assembly. He was sentenced to one year's imprisonment, but pardoned within a month from the time sentence was pronounced. Judge Orvis presided. Wallace, Krebs & Fielding for the Commonwealth, Hon. Mattew Carpenter, of Wisconsin; ex-Attorney General Frank Hughes, Hon. George R. Barrett, and Walter Barrett, esq., counsel for the accused.

The Commonwealth against Martin D. Turner, for the murder of Maria Waple, the divorced wife of Thomas Waple. The case was tried before judge Orvis and a jury, at the March Sessions, 1877. Counsel for the Commonwealth, Thomas H. Murray, Frank Fielding, and William M. McCullough. For the accused, William A. Wallace, David L Krebs, George R. Barrett, and Walter Barrett. Verdict guilty of murder in the' first degree. The prisoner was sentenced to be hanged, but on an appeal to the Supreme Court, the judgment was reversed and a new trial ordered. The place of trial was changed from Clearfield to Clinton county, and, on the trial thereof, the jury rendered a verdict of "not guilty." In Clinton county Judge Mayer presided. 

The several suits of Bascom versus Arthurs, and the cross-suits of Arthurs versus Bascom, in their day created some comment, and occupied the time and attention of the courts for several terms. They were all controversies relating to land titles. They became prominent through the eminent counsel engaged on the trial. Bascom was represented by Hon. George R. Barrett, Hon. J. B. McEnally, and in the early stages of the litigation, by Hon. Isaac G. Gordon, of Brookville, Pa., and Hon. H. Bucher Swoope. The Arthurs interest was championed by Hon. George A. Jenks, of Brookville, and the law firm of Wallace & Krebs.

The last case of special importance was the Commonwealth versus John A. Nevling, on an indictment charging him with the murder of Samuel Pennington, at Houtzdale, on the 17th day of February, 1880. Nevling was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was executed by Sheriff James Mahaffey, on the 24th day of March, 1882 at Clearfield. Judge Charles A. Mayer presided at the trial. The counsel were, for the Commonwealth, District-Attorney Joseph F. McKenrick, assisted by Mr. Chase, a local lawyer, then living at Houtzdale; and for the prisoner, Messrs. McEnally & McCurdy, of Clearfield.


Source: Pages 73-82, History of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, edited by Lewis Cass Aldrich, Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., Publishers, 1887.
Transcribed April, 1999 by Dorcas J. Moseley for the Clearfield County Aldrich Project
Contributed for use by the Clearfield County Genealogy Project (

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