Potter County, Chapter 4, Courts and Bar

Created: Tuesday, 21 October 2008 Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 February 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel Print Email





THE early history of the courts and bar of McKean county contains many names connected with Potter. In 1833 the two counties were organized as a separate judicial district with the place of meeting at Smethport. In 1835 a change was made which placed Potter county on an equal footing with McKean, and under this new law the first term of court ever held in Potter county was opened September 28, 1835, Associate Judges Timothy Ives and Seneca Freeman being present. The pioneer lawyer, O.J. Hamlin, moved the admission to the county bar of John E. Niles, Hiram Payne and L.B. Cole, while Niles moved the admission of Horace Bliss. In December following James Gamble was admitted to the bar.

The first grand jurors were Chester Prouty, Hezekiah Bently, George W. Daniels, Isaac Jones (foreman), Uriah Briggs, Edward Brace, Jesse Lewis, Simeon Cannon, Lemuel V. Lovell, William Atherton, Anthony Jones, Richard Chappel, David Henry, Philander Post, John Leary, Ashabel G. West, Henry Kulan, Clark Haskins, Samuel W. Stone, Lyman Nelson, Thomas Kinyon, Ezekiel S. Main, James S. Lamb. Traverse jurors were John Taggart, Almon Woodcock, John Nelson, Jr., John Reed, Silas Nelson, George Rossman, H.A. Nelson, Rufus A. Freeman, Noah Hallock, Nathan Miles, Hector Atwood, Lyman K.S. Crum, Elijah Gridley, Orange A. Lewis, Levi Stone, Giles T. Hurlburt, Thomas Crittenden, Palmer Briggs, Ashabel West, Erastus Mulkin, Peter Campbell, John Post, Jr., Alexander Lamphere, Joshua Thompson, Amos Lewis, Cornelius Ives, Chester L. Corsaw, Mathew Ostrapder, Jeremiah Hall, James Whiting, Asa Coon, David Wilber, Jacob Bump, Reuben Card, Francis L. Metzger and Benjamin Wilber. The first constables to appear at the first session of court, September 28, 1835, were David B. Smith, Pike; D.F. Ellsworth, Jackson; Stephen Outman, Harrison, and Mathew Ostrander, Hebron. The first case was Commonwealth vs. William Caldwell, defendant discharged without trial. The first civil case was John Earl vs. V. Dickenson. This was continued as were all of the cases on the list.

May 23, 1836, F.B. Hamlin, Benjamin Bartholomew and Joseph Nilson were admitted to the bar. The matrimonial state seemed to be no more agreeable and secure in those old days than now. The first divorce case that came before the court was filed May 23, 1836- Samuel Fosmer vs. Dorcas Fosmer, which was followed upon the next day by a plea from James Hawley against Catherine, his wife. At this term of the county court the first hotel license was granted. It was given to Samuel B. Strait, of Coudersport. In the year 1837 the first criminal case was tried in the county court, February term: Commonwealth vs. Abel Cummings, larceny. The jury were Joseph Carpenter, Elijah Carpenter, Nathan Main, George W. Lewis, Jesse M. Greenman, Charles Gill, Orry Millard, William Carson, Horace Nelson, Joel C. Fessenden, Hezekiah Kibbe and Walker Smith. A verdict of not guilty was returned. From 1835 to 1838 the several courts of Potter county had been held by the associate judges. Now for the first time a president judge appears upon the bench- Nathaniel B. Eldred. At the above mentioned term of court A.V. Parsons, of Jersey Shore, was admitted to the bar, and the old law circle was complete.

For ten years the circuit lawyers visited Coudersport, winning some accessions. L.F. Maynard was admitted in 1840, after coming from Tioga county, Penn. He practiced here twenty years, moved to Indiana, where he died. John S. Mann read law in the office of C.W. Ellis, and was engaged here in all the affairs credited to him in the general and local history. Wales C. Butterworth studied also in Ellis' office, was admitted in 1842, and practiced here until his death. Charles B. Cotter was also admitted in 1842. In June, 1844, Isaac Benson was admitted at Warren, Penn., where he studied law under Struthers & Johnson, and has been in active practice down to the present time; he came, in 1845, to Coudersport, and has been one of the leading citizens of the borough. He is the senior lawyer of the old district, unless Henry Sherwood, of Wellsboro, may be considered so. Edward O. Austin, who studied under Mr. Benson, was admitted in 1848. Judge Olmsted studied in the office of J.S. Mann, and was admitted to the bar in 1850, when he was chosen the first district attorney. Twelve years later he was elected representative, and during his last term was speaker of the House. In 1868 he was elected State senator, and, after his term expired, was appointed president judge of Bucks and Montgomery counties; in 1874 he was Republican candidate for lieutenant- governor, but was defeated; eight years after he was chosen additional law judge of the Fourth district, and in 1883, president judge of the Forty- eighth district, comprising Potter and McKean counties. Prior to Judge Olmsted's admission to the bar, Judge McCalmont attended court here, and Horace Williston was president judge at the time (1850), having been appointed in 1848. F.W. Knox studied in Judge Knox's office at Wellsboro, Penn., where he was admitted in September, 1850, and in 1851 he came to Coudersport to reside, having previously taught the academy here, in 1848. He has done much for the commercial advancement of Coudersport, and is now president of the C. & P.A.R.R., a short line, but a very prosperous one. P. Wetherbee, who studied under Mr. Knox, was admitted in 1851. Crosby W. Ellis, who came from Wayne county, was admitted here, and practiced for twenty years, when he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he died about 1870.

B.C. Rude, of Allegany county, N.Y.,was admitted to practice here in 1871; Conrad Hollenbeck studied under Isaac Benson, was admitted in 1871; C.J. Curtis, who studied under Olmsted & Larrabee, in December, 1870; Frank M. Johnson, who studied in Isaac Benson's office, same year; Silas L. Greenman, who studied in the same office, in 1869; Jefferson Harrison, in 1873; P.R. Cotter and John V. Leach, both of Tioga county, were permitted to practice here in 1874; C.H. Seymor was admitted in 1864; D.C. Larrabee, in 1866; Frank D. Leet, 1866; Arthur B. Mann, 1867; Seth Lewis, in Olmsted's office, 1867; M.W. McAlarney, in I. Benson's office, 1867; John C. Johnson, studied in F.W. Knox's office, 1866; Thomas B. Tyler, 1857; F.B. Hackett, 1860, in A.G. Olmsted's office; John H. Jones, 1857; J.O. Parker, 1869; Silas S. Greenman, in I. Benson's office, 1869; Joseph James and William H. Metzger, in I. Benson's office, 1873; Harry Lord, in I. Benson's office, 1873; J.C. Strong, 1868; John Ormerod, in J.S. Mann's office, 1877; James L. Knox, 1874; S.W. Smith, 1874; F.G. Bishop, 1876; Frank F. Drake, 1875; T.C. Saunders, 1876;. Eugene E. Mullin (permit), 1876; W.A. Stone (permit), Lyman H. Cobb, 1876; W.I. Lewis, 1878; Horace B. Packer, 1878; C.L. Peck (1872), 1877; George W. Merrick (permit), Harry A. Scoville, in I. Benson's office, 1879; Delano R. Hamlin, 1879; M.E. Olmsted, J.M. Judd and N. Hiblich (permits), M.L. Foster, 1880 (the latter in I. Benson's office); S.E. Cheeseman and O.L. Snyder, 1880; Edson Hyde, in I. Benson's office, 1880; F.N. Newton, in Olmsted's office, 1881; J.T. Gear, 1881; A.L. Cole, 1881; C.F. Huntington, 1879; L.B. Siebert, of Austin, 1882; D.W. Baldwin, 1883; L.A. Hollenbeck, in I. Benson's office, 1883; Clark Metzger, 1881; Amos Hollenbeck, in I. Benson's office, 1882; George King, in John S. Mann's office, 1882; R.J.C. Walker, Benjamin R.P. Allen (permit), 1880; N.T. Arnold, 1884; James B. Benson, in McVeigh & Bishop's office, Philadelphia, 1884; T.A. Morrison, 1884; N.J. Peck, 1885; Barney McAlmont, of McKean county (permit), in 1883; Chester Howe, in I. Benson's office, 1885; W.B. Brightman, in Olmsted's office, 1884; S.C. White, 1885; I.P. Collins, 1885; H.C. Dornan, of McKean (1869), 1883; John T. McNeil, 1886; John S. Ryan, 1886; Bush Culver, 1886; F.C. Leonard (1885), 1887; Henry A. Ashton, J.E. Rounseville (in I. Benson's office), S.C. McCormick, George B. Tassell, W.L. Lillibridge (permit) and F.M. Leonard, 1888. Oscar D. Knox, who studied under his father, was admitted to the bar in 1870, but in April, 1871, moved to Bolivar, Mo., was appointed trial lawyer for the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad Company, but while pleading before the circuit court of the district, in 1885, was attacked by brain fever, and died within five weeks.

In 1851 Robert G. White was appointed president judge, and served for twenty years, until succeeded, in 1871, by Henry W. Williams. A year later the business of the courts called for an additional law judge, and S.F. Wilson was appointed, Mr. Benson refusing to oppose him. In 1881 A.G. Olmsted was appointed additional law judge, and when, in 1883, Potter and McKean counties were erected into the Forty- eighth judicial circuit, Judge Olmsted was honored with the presidency of the district, Judge Morrison being the second judge.

The following are lists of the associate judges, prothonotaries, district attorneys and sheriffs up to the present time:

Associate Judges.- 1835, Timothy Ives, Seneca Freeman; 1851, O.A. Lewis, Joseph Mann; 1856, Joseph Mann, Gaylord G. Colvin; 1861, G.G. Colvin, C.S. Jones; 1866, Woolsey Burtis, John P. Taggart; 1871, Lyman Nelson, J.M. Kilbourne; 1876, N.C. Hammond, Atlas Bennett (Bennett died without qualifying), Samuel Beebe appointed by the governor in A. Bennett's place; 1877, E.W. Chappel; 1881, E.N. Hammond; 1883, Burton Lewis; 1886, Consider Stearns, whose term expires in. 1891, and, 1887, H.T. Reynolds, whose term expires in 1892, are the present associate judges.

Prothonotaries.- 1839, Isaac Strait; 1842, Samuel Haven; 1851, H.J. Olmsted; 1854, Thomas Tyler; 1857, H.J. Olmsted; 1875, P.A. Stebbins, Jr.; 1878, Orson H. Crosby; 1881, W.A. Crosby; 1887, W.A. Crosby.

District Attorneys.- 1850, A.G. Olmsted; 1853, F.W. Knox; 1859, L.F. Maynard; 1861, W.B. Graves; 1868, Seth Lewis; 1871, C.J. Curtis; 1874, W.M. Metzger; 1877, J.L. Knox; 1880, L.H. Cobb; 1883, John Ormerod; 1886, H.A. Scoville; 1889, W.B. Brightman.

Sheriffs.- 1835, Ansel Purple; 1838, Miles Thompson; 1841, Orange A. Lewis; 1844, Miles Thompson; 1847, Miles White; 1850, Frank Jones; 1853, P.A. Stebbins, Sr.; 1856, Alva Taggart; 1859, William T. Burt; 1862, D.C. Larrabee; 1865, W.W. Brown; 1868, H.T. Reynolds; 1871, S.P. Reynolds; 1874, Walter Wells; 1877, J.M. Covey; 1880, Daniel Monroe; 1883, E.S. Worden; 1886, Daniel Monroe; 1889, William Daniels.

The first murder in the county was committed on the morning of August 11, 1838, in the township of Genesee, by Joshua Jones, who killed his wife in her bed, shooting her through the head with his rifle. After committing the deed he laid his rifle upon the bed by the side of the body, and coolly went after his cows. Perhaps he hoped that some of the neighbors might happen to come in, and the deed be looked upon as a case of suicide. After returning with his cows he alarmed the neighbors with the report that his wife had shot herself, but his story was not believed and he was arrested. Jones was brought to trial December, 28, 1838, found guilty of murder, and sentenced at the February term, 1839, to be hung May 31, 1839. He afterward confessed his crime, and sold his body to Dr. Amos French, of Coudersport. It is said that he bought luxuries with the money paid for his body, and became fat while in jail. It seems that when he sold his body to Dr. French he had stipulated that the doctor should endeavor to resuscitate him, and this idea is given in a doggerel poem, which appeared some time after the hanging, purporting to have been written by Jones' "ghost." On the evening of May 21, 1839, Jones, who had got possession of a file by some means, relieved himself of his shackles, and, breaking the lock of his cell door, escaped. This was supposed to have been accomplished early in the evening. His disappearance was not discovered by the sheriff, Miles Thompson, until the next morning. The sheriff offered a reward for the recapture of Jones, the advertisement being as follows in the Potter Pennant of May 23, 1839:

$200 REWARD.

     Broke jail on Tuesday night the 21st inst. Joshua Jones, convicted of the murder of his wife at February court, last, and to have been executed on the 31st inst. Said Jones is about five feet nine or ten inches high, of slim build, light complexion, projecting forehead, black eyes, dark, curly hair, a downcast yet scrutinizing expression of countenance, and a very soft and slow manner, of speaking. Had on, when he left, a black, straight bodied coat, a pair of grey pantaloons, with patches on the knees, a single- breasted vest of the same material, a high- crown, narrow- brimmed hat, considerably worn, and coarse cowhide shoes with nails in the heels. $200 reward will be given for his apprehension and delivery at the jail in Coudersport, or $100 reward if lodged in jail where he can be secured.
                                                             MILES THOMPSON, Sheriff.

Coudersport, May 22, 1839.

The editor of the Potter Pennant in the same issue announces by postscript to an editorial notice:
     Since the above was in type Jones has been taken and safely lodged in jail. He was found in Genesee township in the woods near Mr. VanNorman's, about twelve miles from this place. Much credit is due to the sheriff and his posse for their indefatigable perseverance in his apprehension.

The two men who took Jones were William Hill and Almeron Nelson. He was hung as sentenced, May 31, 1839, in the court- house square. The scaffold was erected about midway of the present court- house, on the west side, just beyond, toward Second street where the band stand is now. The hanging was witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. Dr. Amos French was the attending physician at the execution. The sheriff became nervous and sprung the trap sooner than was expected, which came very near dropping Dr. French through the trap with the condemned man. The body of Jones was handed over to Dr. French, who took it to Whitesville, and in conjunction with Dr. Thorp, of that place dissected it. The skeleton is still in Coudersport, the property of Dr. C.S. French, a son of Dr. Amos French, and who is a practicing physician here. This was the first and only execution that ever took place in this county. Other murders have been committed, but the perpetrators have thus far escaped with their necks unencircled by the hangman's noose.

During the later years of the war the central portion of the county was overrun by a band of thieves known as the "Widger gang "- in fact, two gangs- which were more or less united in their deeds of darkness. One of these parties was headed by an ex-officer of the Union army, Capt. Widger, who, it is alleged, was dishonorably dismissed from his position in the army. On his return to Potter county, he, in connection with a brother, organized a band of outlaws. The other branch, headed by a man by the name of Howard, was known as the "Howard gang." There were two brothers by the name of Howard with this band. Their stealings were of a varied nature, as they seemed to be impelled to take anything that touched their hands. It is said that they began by stealing honey, then sheep and cattle. This last business was carried on in a very thorough manner, slaughtering the animals stolen, and selling the meat at lumber camps or shipping it, and salting down barrels of meat which they could not dispose of in a fresh state. The robberies extended to washings from clothes lines, dry goods, hardware and cutlery. At last people became suspicious of some of the members of the gang, and when William McDougall's store at Oswayo was burglarized of a quantity of dry goods, etc., a search was instituted, which resulted in the finding of the stolen goods in a box sunk in the ground at the head of a narrow valley back of where the Widgers lived, above Nelson Clark's place, a little over two miles north of Coudersport. Ephraim Bishop discovered a quarter of mutton stolen by one of the gang, by moving the chair that the thief's wife sat in, much against her will, the mutton tumbling from beneath her skirt. He also helped to find some beef buried in the garden of another of the gang, and was also with the party who found the case of stolen goods in the woods. A grindstone stolen from Hon. J.S. Mann was also discovered. The entire band was captured, and one of them turned State's evidence, which testimony sent the remainder of the gang to the penitentiary.

It is thought by many that the murder of an army chaplain, by the name of Patterson, lay at the doors of the Widger gang. This alleged murder took place about the third year of the war. Chaplain Patterson had returned from the front with from $1,500 to $2,000 of soldiers' money sent by them to their friends at home. Patterson was last seen starting from Moore's hotel in Olean in a cutter with a stranger. He was supposed to have been killed by the Howard division of the Widger gang, and buried near the Five Corners in Hebron township. Sarah Cole, a daughter of Hon. L.B. Cole, while digging spignet in the woods, near this point, shortly after the disappearance of Chaplain Patterson, came upon a spot which she always thought was the grave of the murdered man. Digging into it, a stench drove her back, and the supposition that it might be the burial place of Patterson so frightened her that she ran from the place and did not return.

In addition to the murders of Mrs. Jones and Chaplain Patterson there are others as follows: May 1, 1867, Charles Razee killed Henry Young with a club, near Ulysses. Razee was indicted by the grand jury June 18, 1867, and convicted of manslaughter at the December court of the same year; was sentenced to the State prison for five years and nine calendar months, but was pardoned after three years. George Haynes and Mrs. Susan Graves were charged with the poisoning of Mrs. Graves' husband, H.P. Graves of Millport, Sharon township, June 24, 1874. All of the parties bore a. bad reputation. It is alleged that Haynes had purchased the permission, to use Mrs. Graves as a mistress, of her husband, the spring before the murder, for the consideration of a razor and razor strop and one day's work. Haynes was sent to the penitentiary to serve out a life sentence. Mrs. Graves, after a protracted trial, was discharged. George Chisholm, of Hector township, shot William Watrous October 2, 1882, Watrous dying October 4, 1882. Chisholm was found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to the State prison at Pittsburgh for four years, at the March term of court, 1883. He was pardoned after two years. The body of a man was found in a mill pond at Galeton, with the throat cut, in May, 1885. This last murder remains a mystery. The victim's remains were identified as those of a man who had worked at the tannery at Galeton, but his murderer is unknown.

Source: Page(s) 1012-1019 History of Counties of McKean, Elk and Forest, Pennsylvania. Chicago, J.H. Beers & Co., 1890.
Transcribed March 2006 by Mary Bryant, Published 2006 by PA-Roots