History of Westmoreland County
Volume 1
Chapter 45

Miscellaneous - New Court House - The Evans Execution - The Year of the Frost -
Visit of Lafayette

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In the last decade of last century the courthouse which was built in 1854 was not only greatly in need of repairs, but was found to be entirely too small, and inadequate in every way to accomodate the rapidly increasing court business of the county. It was believed also that the old building could not be remodeled economically so as to meet the demands of the county. On May 19, 1894, the grand jury recommended the erection of a new courthouse, and several other grand juries made the same recommendation. On January 30, 1897, the court of quarter sessions approved a recommendation to that effect made by two successive grand juries. The county commissioners at once called for plans and specifications for a new structure. Those of William Kauffman, of Pittsburgh, with some important changes from the original, suggested by the judges and the committee of the bar, were finally adopted by the commissioners, and approved by the court on June 29, 1901.

On August 2, 1901, a contract was awarded for the removal of the old building, and on August 10 the court directed the removal of the records to a structure on South Main street, which had been provided for their reception and for a temporary courthouse. On October 23 a contract was awarded for the excavation and foundation of the new structure. On April 28, 1902, a contract for the erection of the courthouse was awarded to the Lindsey Construction Company, but it was not approved by either of the judges. On September 26 two of the commissioners awarded the contract to Caldwell & Drake, the other commissioner dissenting. This award was not approved by the judges. On June 8, 1903, after advertising for and receiving bids, the commissioners rejected all bids and advertised again. On July 23 the commissioners awarded the contract to Messrs. Miller & Sons, of Pittsburgh, and the contract was approved by one of the judges. In all but the last, the contracts failed because the proper agents of the county did not agree on the business propriety of concluding them, having in mind the best interests of the county.

Exceptions to the method of letting this contract were taken by the controller of the county. The matter of the exceptions was heard by the common pleas court, and by writ of error it was carried to the superior and thence to the supreme court of the state. Each court sustained the contract. The questions involved need not be repeated here, for they are found in the superior and supreme court reports. The last decision was not rendered, however, till 1904. Almost at once after that, the work was begun by those to whom the contract had been awarded. The structure is now nearing completion, and will be ready for occupancy early in 1907. It stands on the northwest corner of Main and West Pittsburgh streets, occupying the same ground used for that purpose since Greensburg became a county seat in 1785.

(photograph of Fourth Court House, Built 1905-6.)

The new courthouse is a magnificent and imposing structure, its golden dome towering high above the surrounding buildings. Its architecture and finish would not be discredited if compared with those of the best buildings in our largest cities. It is claimed to be the finest rural courthouse in the United States. The large cities have larger structures, but none of them are more complete nor more elegantly built than the new Westmoreland courthouse.

The building occupies a space 157 feet long and 87 feet deep, with a central pediment flanked by two circular bays, projecting eight feet six inches from the body of the building. This central pediment contains the main entrance lobby of the first story, fronting on Main street. The building contains a basement and sub-basement, above which are five additional stories and a mezzanine story. The main entrance to the basement is situated on West Pittsburg street, and is two steps above the pavement. There is also an outside entrance to the basement on Main street.

The main, or first story, contains the principal offices of the county officials, with annexes, or transcribing rooms, in the basement and storage rooms for records in the mezzanine stories. The first story is also connected with the jail by a bridge. The second story contains the two main court rooms, also the orphans' court room, law library, attorney's, witness and consultation rooms, judges' chambers, jury retiring rooms, grand jury rooms, etc. The third story contains one court room, jury rooms, and dormitory, the offices of the jury commissioners and county superintendent of schools, etc. The fourth story contains three court rooms, jury and witness rooms, judges chambers, etc.

The rotunda in the centre of the building is situated directly under the dome, and extends up through all the stories, receiving light from the four large semi-circular windows in the dome. This rotunda contains the stairways and elevators. Entirely separated from this public rotunda and stairway is a private hall and stairway, to which the public have no access, and which communicates with all the court rooms, jury rooms, and with the bridge to the jail, thus enabling all official business, such as the going and coming of jurors, and the transferring of prisoners from the jail to the courtrooms, to be transacted without interference with the public.

The building is equipped with all the most modern appliances for use, convenience and comfort, such as a complete system of telephone services with private exchange, combination electric and gas lighting systems, most appoved system of steam heating and mechanical ventilation and temperature regulators, best of sanitary plumbing, with public lavatory and private lavatories for officials, ice water on each floor, mail chute, high-speed elevators, etc.

The public hall and rotunda have walls finished with English veined Italian marble with colored inlaid panels; the floors and ceilings are finished with colored marble mosaic in ornamental designs. The grand stairway is constructed of marble, other stairways and elevators are of bronze. The first and second stories are finished in Saint Jago and San Domingo mahogany; the remainder of the building in quartered white oak. All the furniture is of special design to harmonize with the various rooms and apartments. All the file cases, book racks, etc., are constructed of metal.

The building is strictly fire-proof in every respect. It is designed on classic lines adopted to modern requirements, each facade having a central pediment flanked by wings. The entire mass is surmounted by a central dome the top of which is 175 feet above the pavement. The exterior walls are faced with a light grey granite quarried at North Jay, Maine. The small domes crowning the circular bays and the main central dome are covered with ornamental glazed terra cotta, the roof being made of pure gold leaf with ornamentation, enrichment, high lights, etc., glazed in old ivory tone. The roofs of the remainder of the building are covered with red vitrified Grecian pan tile. The tympanum of the front pediment on Main street is enriched with sculpture carved in granite in bold relief, representing Art and Industry, under the protection of the Shield of the Nation. The pediment is crowned with a group of statues in terra cotta, composed of three female figures, the central figure representing the Goddess of Justice, the other two representing Law and the People. Upon the face of the two large cartouche, between the arches over the main entrance, is carved the seal of the county of Westmoreland and the seal of the state of Pennsylvania.

Not being completed it is impossible to give the entire cost of its construction. It will approximately be one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

Few events in our county have been so long remembered and so much talked of as the hanging of Joseph Evans on April 20, 1830. The event for nearly two generations marked an epoch in our history. A half a century afterwards old men, in talking of the past, would speak of incidents as having occurred before or after Evans was hanged. Large crowds of later dates were compared with that which assembled here when Evans was executed. It did more, it fixed the year of 1830 in the minds of our people so that they inadvertently referred to that year when Evans was neither mentioned nor thought of. It was indeed a great event in the county. It was the first and the last public execution in Greensburg. It is quite probable that for fifty years at least there was not so great an assemblage of people here. They came in wagons, on horseback and on foot, from all sections of the county and from all the surrounding counties. Many came of foot a distance of thirty miles to witness the execution. The country people seemed to abandon their work at home and make long journeys in order to be present. The idea of attending the hanging seemed to pervade the entire county. Young men and women caught the spirit and came with the middle aged and old, all bent alike on witnessing this great event. Two young girls of good family, living about twenty miles from Greensburg, were prohibited by their parents from attending, most likely because the conveyances were all in use that day. But they stealthily arose about three o'clock in the morning, stole away from home and walked all the way to Greensburg to witness it.

At the time of his execution Evans was about twenty-two years old. In 1829 the Pennsylvania canal was being constructed and he came to our country as a day laborer, on that part of it which passed through Derry township. One Sunday evening he had a dispute with a man named Cissler about stealing a pair of shows, but they became good friends again over a pint of apple brandy. On the night before Christmas he amused himself by whistling "Boyne Water," in the presence of three Irishmen who at once attacked him vigorously. Evans fought, defending himself and with success, but from that came his undoing. On the day before New Year he and others were preparing for the approaching holiday by drinking whisky and playing cards. Evans was in company with Cissler and with the Irish with whom he had quarreled. A general fight soon ensued, in which Evans was almost alone, for he was unpopular and disliked by most of his associates. To defend himself he seized a shovel, and swung it back and forth before him to keep them away from him. Cissler was not in the fight against Evans at all, but interposed to stop the quarrel. Unfortunately he came too near and received a blow in the forehead from Evans' shovel. Cissler fell heavily and struck the back of his head on an iron kettle. Whether he was killed from striking his head against the kettle, or from the blow of the shovel, is not known. He breathed but a few times and died without having spoken.

Evans made no attempt to escape. A large crowd surrounded him and attempted to tie him. This he resisted so violently that they were glad to let him alone. He then took the rope and tied his own legs, whereupon the mob began to beat him. Upon this he untied the rope, and again defended himself by slashing around indiscriminately. Finally he was taken to Bairdstown for a hearing before Squire Scott, upon whose commitment he was lodged in jail in Greensburg, on January 2, 1830. In February following he was tried before Judge John Young, and found guilty of murder in the first degree.

On April 14, 1830, he made a confession, or, more properly speaking, a statement, which was published in the Westmoreland Republican, issued April 23, 1830. From this statement it is learned that he was naturally of a wild disposition, but perhaps no worse morally than his associates. He confessed that he had repeatedly engaged in fights, and had assisted in tarring and feathering and riding on a rail two disreputable men. He also shaved the mane and tail of a horse belonging to a Methodist preacher, and he says that he so "lathered" the preacher that he was laid up for two weeks. He comments very severly on some of the evidence against him, and affirms that it was entirely false. In all probability Evans' statement contained much more truth than the testimony against him. Public opinion long ago vindicated him against being a real murderer.

By our law then he was publicly executed. The execution took place on the hillside east of the old borough limits, near a cluster of oak trees which stood on the line now occupied by the Southwest Pennsylvania railroad. The exact spot is said to be four hundred and fifty feet south of the junction of Brewery and Urania avenues. Great preparations were made in Greensburg for the entertainment of the multitude and for the execution. At one o'clock p.m. on April 20, the Westmoreland Artillery company under Major John B. Alexander, and the Greensburg Blues under Captain Morrison Underwood, appeared in front of the court house. John Klingensmith, Jr., was the sheriff, and brought Evans from the jail. He was attended by Revs. Steck, Hacke, Laird and Meckling, and also by many county officials and leading citizens of Greensburg. A hollow square was formed by the military companies, and the procession moved slowly to the place of execution, with the condemned man walking behind a cart which contained his coffin. Evans was perfectly composed throughout the entire proceedings. He addressed the people from the gallows, and attributed his unfortunate end to drinking and gambling. He admonished all his hearers to abstain from these evils. The assembly was also addressed by Revs. Laird, Hacke and Steck, and at Evans' request all joined in singing a hymn. With his last words he asserted his innocence of intending to kill any one, and, least of all, Cissler. He also again stated that great injustice was done him by the witnesses against him, whom he, however, forgave, he said, as he hoped for forgiveness. After he was hanged his body was interred under the gallows, but it is supposed to have been taken from the grave the night following.

In the early days of June, 1859, came a few days of unusually cold weather for that season of the year. The spring had been an early one and vegetation of all kinds was far advanced. The evening of June 4th was remarkably chilly and many a careful housewife covered her tender plants lest they might be frostbitten. The next morning when our people stirred from their houses they found that the cold of the night before had so increased that all vegetation was totally destroyed. For almost a generation after that the year was designated not as 1859, but as "the year of the frost." It was in reality more than a frost: it was a regular freeze, almost like one would expect in the latter part of winter. It covered a region reaching from the Northwestern lakes, southeastward through northern Indiana and Ohio, and, crossing western Pennsylvania, spent itself in Maryland and northern Virginia. It did not extend east of the Allegheny Mountains nor south of the Ohio river.

All fields of wheat, rye and corn were cut down and in an hour or so after the sun came up every blade, stalk or sprout had withered and died. These plants were entirely destroyed, even their roots being killed. In many instances, fields of wheat, corn or rye were plowed up and sowed with buckwheat: others were planted with potatoes.

A great depression prevailed in all this community. It was the gloomiest day most of the farmers had seen in all their lives. They believed a great famine must generally prevail. Many talked that it was probably the beginning of the end of the earth, and as we had had "rumors of wars," and now an inevitable famine, it was a very easy matter to prove their forebodings in some degree, by quotations from the Bible. And they were acting in good faith, too, as far as the famine was concerned, for many of them invested all they had in grain. Many borrowed money to invest in flour, which at once began to sell at exorbitant prices. In some instances the object was to speculate, for they purchased much more than they could possibly use. But many others laid up a stock sufficient, as they hoped, to tide them over the famine till another crop could be planted and harvested. Some men who were wealthy were broken up by the venture, and were not pitied very much by their neighbors. In a few days it was found that the granaries of the west were full, and those who had purchased flour, of any grade, so that it was flour, found they had a musty stock on their hands which they could not dispose of at any price. Flour which they had paid twenty to thirty dollars per barrel for was found to be musty, and they were glad to sell it at any price, even at two dollars a barrel.

All garden vegetables were frozen beyond sprouting, the same as grain. All fruits of the orchard were likewise killed and the wild fruits of the woods met the same fate. It was indeed a very gloomy outlook for a few days until news of plenty in other states and that the frost was but a local event, came to cheer the drooping spirits of our people. The loss of our crops scarcely changed the markets of our community, for even then our facilities for transportation were such that an abundance to supply every one was soon on its way to the afflicted district. Had such a misfortune come upon our community ten or twenty years earlier, when our best method of transportation from the west was by wagons, it would indeed have likely resulted in a famine. It has been said moreover, that we never had better crops of potatoes, buckwheat and all plants of late summer growth, than we had that summer, as though nature tried in part to atone for her affliction of June 5th.

A great event in Westmoreland's early history was the visit of Lafayette as he passed through on his way to Pittsburgh. The sacrifices which he made during the Revolution that he might aid the great struggle for freedom in America, are too well known to need a repetition here. Nearly fifty years had passed away since the war had ended. Lafayette's life had since been scarcely less notable in France than it had been with us during the Revolution. He came to America in 1824, this time as an elderly man of sixty-seven, and made a complete tour of our country as it then existed. Throughout the entire Union our people vied with each other in turning out to do him honor. There was no man living after Washington's death who was so deeply revered as Lafayette.

Passing through the eastern states and cities first, he came west from Washington City and first visited Uniontown and Fayette counties, and came into Westmoreland on Saturday, May 27, 1825. He passed down the river on his way to "Braddock's Field." Major John B. Alexander, with his artillery company on horseback and two field-pieces, left Greensburg the night before, so as to be there when the revered French patriot would first cross the line of our county. They went about eight miles, and then encamped till morning. Early in the morning they were joined at General Markles' by a part of Captain Pinkerton's company with another field-piece. They were joined by many private citizens from the surrounding country, and all were under the command of Major Alexander. They halted at Lebanon schoolhouse at about eleven o'clock. The three field-pieces were placed on the hill immediately back of the school house. Men were placed on the surrounding hills who signalled from one to another the exact time when the nation's guest passed over the county line, upon which thirteen guns were fired. In a short time General Lafayette and his suite, escorted by fifty or sixty citizens of Fayette county, all mounted, arrived. Lafayette reviewed the troops, shaking each by the hand, after which all partook of refreshments, provided by General Markle. Many hundreds of people were introduced to and shook hands with him, and among others was an old Revolutionary soldier named Sterrett, of Rostraver township, who had fought under Lafayette at Brandywine. His meeting with this old veteran was said to be most interesting and affecting. Lafayette examined the brass four-pounder belonging to Major Alexander's artillery corps and said that, while it was evidently a Spanish piece, it had not been used by the British at the battle of Saratoga, as was generally supposed. The great Frenchman paid his respects to a number of ladies who had assembled to see him. Fresh horses were then hitched to his phaeton, and he was escorted to Beazel's tavern, where the party journeying with Lafayette were entertained with further refreshments. From there they were escorted to Elizabeth, where he and his party embarked in a four-oared boat, and were rowed down the Monongahela to Braddock's Field, reaching there about sunset.


Source: Page(s) 615-622, History of Westmoreland County, Volume 1, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed October 2000 by Che Zuro Whiting  for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Che Zuro Whiting for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)

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