The Chester County Courthouse in Chester built in 1724 still stands in the 400 block of the Ave. of the States. It is the oldest courthouse in the U.S. The above picture is from the 1850's.
Some early trials in Chester from the 18th century
Note: From it's opening in 1724 the courthouse was part of many major trials in Penna. early history. Delaware Co. was created from Chester Co. in September of 1789
When the Courts of Chester County first formally occupied the 1724 Courthouse in Chester, George I, whose coat-of-arms hung conspicuously above the arch over the Judge’s bench, had ruled Great Britain less than ten years. William Penn, the Founder of the Commonwealth, had been dead less than six years. Benjamin Franklin poor and friendless, a lad of eighteen landed in Philadelphia in search of fame and fortune the same year the cryers’ Oyer proclaimed that the first Courts ever held in the building were in session; John Morton, whose life was closely connected with its story, was born the same year that saw the completion of the building; eight years were to come and go before George Washington entered upon the Stage of Life; less than fourteen years later Benjamin West, born in Springfield, was subsequently to win in foreign lands, immortality, while it had scored twenty years when Wayne, “Mad Anthony” who is associated with its history was born within the County over which its Courts then exercised jurisdiction All of these illustrious men, save the English King and Penn, to a greater or less degree were connected with the history of the old building which is the central theme of my talk tonight.
The influence the trial of William Battin had in aiding in the ultimate erection of the old Court House was important. The case was heard by the Great Provincial Chief Justice, David Lloyd, who will be ever memorable in our City’s annuals; two years before the old Court House was built Lloyd had read law with Geo. Jeffreys, a well-grounded lawyer, but devoid of all morals, honest and humanity, who is now generally remembered only as the “Bloody Jeffreys” of the English Rebellion of 1633. The Battin case, so far as I have knowledge, is the first instance in our State’s legal annals where the punishment of death was supplemented with gibbeting. William Battin, a mere lad of seventeen, a redemptive, whose time had first been purchased by John Hannum of Concord, but who after a year’s trial, had disposed of the incorrigible boy to Joseph Pyle of Bethel. One day when his master and mistress were absent, leaving their three children in his care, the degenerate, feeble-minded servant fastened the children, on a mere babe, securely in the house to which he deliberately set fire and they were burned to death in the destruction of the dwelling He was tried for arson and convicted. He was sentenced by Chief Justice Lloyd to be hanged and “hung in chains in the most public place at such times as the Governor may appoint. The sentence was carried into execution August 5, 1722. After he was pronounced dead his body was enclosed in a crude network of iron straps, running from the head under the feet, and hoops were drawn at designated places, such as the knees, waist and neck, as you would strap a bale of cotton. The longitudinal straps at the head were drawn into a loop which was welded to a chain about three feet in length. An upright post planted in the ground, with an arm extending from the top, known as a gibbet, was erected at a conspicuous place, usually where two main roads intersected. Here the body hung, gradually decaying as a spectacle and a warning for the public. There it remained undisturbed until rust ate the chain or caused the cage itself to give way when the authorities were only too glad to hide underground the ghastly thing that for months had polluted the air and offended the sight of the many. I have been unable to locate the place where this gibbet stood, but I believe it must have been set up at the intersection of Edgmont and Providence Great Road, a locality which afterward on account of the many executions which had occurred there, was popularly known as Gallows Hill. While I do not state as a fact that the gibbeting of Battin was the first time that additional punishment was inflicted in Pennsylvania, it is well known that Thomas Wilkinson, convicted of piracy in 1781 was the last instance in our legal history where it was inflicted. He was gibbeted on Mud Island, were is now Fort Mifflin. The body hanging “in chains on the north and of said island” was so placed that it might arouse terror in the minds of sailors leaving the port of Philadelphia for the high seas.
A REMARKABLE CASE – The great case of Creug, against the Earl of Anglesy, which began in the Court of Exchequer, Ireland, on November 11, 1743, aroused intense interest throughout the English-speaking world. It is remarkable in the annals of judicial history, because it consumed two weeks in its hearing, the longest trial up to that time, in the history of Great Britain, and because in it for the first time was laid down the rule that what is proposed to be proved by a witness when called to the stand, can be demanded from the side presenting him. The question really involved was whether James Annersly was Lord Anglesy, who had been kidnapped by his uncle and sold as a redemptioner in Pennsylvania. The incidents in this case were still fresh in the minds of the public when Smollett, in 1748, published “The Adventures of Roderick Random,” founded upon James Annersly’s story, which under the title “The Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman,” had shortly before been issued from the press. Sir Walter Scott, in 1816, gave to the world “Guy Mannering,” founded on Annersly’s adventure, which is acknowledged in Scott’s life, by his son-in-law, Lockhart, who, in an appendix, gives in substance Annersly’s story. In 1818, three years later, Lady Sydney Morgan, issued her “Florence McCarthy,” an Irish tale, founded on the Annersly narrative and Charles Reade’s “Wandering Heir,” in 1870, openly acknowledged the sources of his novel and later produced a very successful drama founded on the like incidents. Burke’s “Celebrated Trials Connected with the Aristocracy,” accepts the narrative of Annersly without question, and in5thHowell’s State Trials, almost five hundred double column pages are given to the Annersly trial. This man’s connection with the Old Court House in Chester can be briefly stated. When a lad of 13, on April 3, 1728, he sailed for the Colonies and on landing in Philadelphia in June following, he was sold for seven years as a redemptioner, to one Drummond, a planter in New Castle County, Delaware. I shall not follow his narrative only as it relates to the Old Court House. Some two years subsequent to his arrival he escaped in the night time and lost his way. Three days later, weak, half famished, and foot sore, he overtook two men and a woman near Columbia, Lancaster County, and shortly after they were all arrested in a hue and cry; carried to Chester, where the next day they were placed on trial on a capital charge of robbery. The girl was the daughter of a rich merchant in this town. She had eloped with her lover after robbing her father, in which a servant of the family had taken part. The hue and cry had all along traced three fugitives but here was a fourth party. The jury found a verdict of guilty as to all the defendants. When Annersly was asked “Prisoner at the bar, what have you to say why the sentence of the law should not be imposed upon you?” the stripling in reply told his story. He had never before been in Chester, had never committed robbery and declared that nothing in the testimony involved him, save that he was in company with the others when arrested. The Chief Justice (I think I can show it was Isaac Norris, for David Lloyd had died a short time before), was so impressed with the lads plea in arrest of judgment, that he immediately sentenced the three to death at a date to be set by the Governor, while Annersly was remanded to the custody of the Sheriff. The next day the Court ordered that he should be set in the pillory, which then stood at the southeast corner of Market Square, on each market day, Thursdays from dawn till noon with a paper affixed to his breast requesting all who should read it, to report to the Court whether the boy had ever before been in Chester, and if there was anyone who could corroborate his statement. For five weeks, every Thursday, he stood so exposed in Market Square. On the fifth market day, he saw Drummond in the crowd and, although he beckoned and at last shouted to him, his master paid no attention and James heart sunk when his owner turned and walked away. Later, however, Drummond appeared at the jail, for he had established his ownership of the lad; the truth of hiss statement and his servant was delivered to his master’s keeping. Next morning, Friday, the girl and the two men, were hanged and Drummond compelled Annersly in witness the infliction of the extreme penalty of the law, as an example which might deter him from attempting in future, to escape. I have given but a brief synopsis of the incidents in the case that associates the wandering heir with our Old City Hall. It is my intention, at some future time, when I have command of more data, to consider this trial in detail.
NOTED TRIALS – While the act creating such a tribunal, was passed January 121, 1705-6, (for a former act of like tenor, was disallowed by Queen Ann;) it had been on the statute books of the Province fifty-six years before such a Court was held in Chester. The provisions of the act assuredly were offensive to the Friends, because it made any judge appointed to such office, or any of the six most substantial free holders of the neighborhood to assist in its proceedings; who should “neglect or delay to serve as a member of the Court” liable to a fine not exceeding five pounds, while the High Sheriff was ordered “duly to execute the sentence” of this Court, “on pain of being disabled to act any longer in that post or office.” The first court of which John Hannum and John Morton were commissioned Judges, and six of the most substantial free holders of the neighborhood, sat I the old Court House, May 27m 1762. Abraham Johnson, a Negro slave belonging to Humphrey Marshall was arraigned on an information exhibited by Benjamin Chew, Attorney General, charging the defendant with “murdering a certain negro man named Glascow, the slave of Alexander Boyd.” For the first time in the legal history of the Commonwealth, so far as I have knowledge, it was in this case that the Court assigned Counsel for the defense. In this instance, it was Joseph Galloway, one of the foremost lawyers of his day, who in the Revolutionary struggle was attainted of treason, and his property, which was large, confiscated. At all events, it was a lucky assignment for Johnson, since, as the record reads, the “Court finds the defendant not guilty of murder but that he is guilty of homicide di defend,” and thereupon, discharged the prisoner from arrest on the information, but held him for payment of costs.
A second special Court was held March 2, 1764 before the same justice and Josiah Preston, Elisa Price, David Cowpland, John Salkeid, George Grantham and William Sevalfer, six of the most substantial free holders of the neighborhood, before whom Negro Phebe was put on trial for “feloniously and burglary breaking and entering the mansion of Thomas Barnard” (of Aston) and stealing therefrom, divers goods and chattels, the property of the said Thomas Barnard. Attorney General Chew presented the information, the Court found Negro Phebe is guilty of felony and burglary aforesaid in manner and form, etc. and thereupon it is further considered and adjudged by this Court that the said Negro Phebe be led in the prison from whence she came and from there in the place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until she be dead.” This sentence was carried out for while I cannot fix the date of execution, I find that under authority of the Act of March 5, 1725-6, providing that slaves executed by law should be valued and such sum should be paid to his or her owner out of the Colonial Treasury. Joseph Richardson was paid fifty-five pounds, the value at which Phebe had been appraised.
A special session of the Court was held March 1, 1770 before Judges William Parker and Richard Riley at which Negro Martin the slave of Thomas Martin was convicted of an attempted attack on a white woman. He was sentenced to thirty-nine lashes “to be branded with the letter R on his forehead,” and to be exported out of the Province by his master within six months on pain of death to the slave. This time was allowed so that his master might find a purchaser for his chattel, but the branding was done in open Court in the presence of the judges. High Sheriff, Jesse Maris, or his deputy, heated the iron on portable furnace and the prisoner being bound, the red hot brand was applied to the flesh and held there, notwithstanding the agonizing screams of the victim, until the letter “R” had been indelibly affixed. This special court was abolished by the Assembly March 1, 1780.
TRIAL OF FITZPATRICK – The trial of James Fitzpatrick, who was arraigned on September 15, 1778 on an indictment for burglary. I have given much space to the trial in my History of Delaware County” and I now allude to the case merely to draw attention to it as another literary link in the old buildings’ annals. Bayard Taylor, in the Story of Kennett, makes Fitzpatrick an important figure in that novel in the character of “Sandy Flash,” and Mitchell in “Hugh Wynn” makes mention of him, but that author represented him as an ill-looking ruffian, while all other authorities describe him as of handsome personality of which he was excessively vain.
The County authorities, March 18, 1788 sold the old public buildings in Chester to William Kerlin for £415, provincial money, which was in value half that of a pound sterling. The residents of the Eastern section of the County succeeded, largely through the activities of General Wayne – tradition tells us, and in having the Act passed September 28, 1789, erecting Delaware County. Governor Mifflin appointed Henry Hale Graham, the first president, judge of the new Judicial District, and Kerlin on November 3, 1789, sold the Court House and the jail to the County for £603, 3s. 8d, which was a comfortable business transaction for the vendor.
As the western end of the County grew in population and wealth, much complaint found voice regarding the inconveniency to which the people of the remote sections or as it was termed the “Back woods” were put to in attending the quarterly Court in Old Shire Town. As early as January 28, 1706, petitions were presented to the Assembly, asking that the Courts be removed to a more central location, but the oncoming storm of the Revolution held the subject in abeyance until March 20, 1780, when an Act was passed, creating a Commission of seven men with power to purchase a site and erect a Court House and jail in a more central location. This was the beginning of troublesome times and much conflicting legislation, received the approval of the Assembly and Governor, but finally the Removalists were victorious and on September 25, 1786 Sheriff Gibbons removed the prisoners in the old jail at Chester to the new jail in Gotham Township, now West Chester, and not a few believed that the sun of the ancient town had set forever.
Old Chester had lost the Court, but its citizens had no end of merriment over a case tried at the New County Seat, November 29, 1788, when John Tulley was convicted of horse stealing and sentenced “to stand one hour in the pillory, between the hours of 9 and 1 o’clock tomorrow morning; to be whipped with twenty-nine lashes on the bare back, well laid on; to have both cars cut off and nailed to the pillory and to be imprisoned six months,” beside the payment of a fine and costs. The jest consisted in the fact that the Act of September 15, 1786 two years prior to the trial, had abolished the punishment of the pillory. But it was no jest to John Tulley, who was to learn that Judges like Kings can do no wrong.