This third building is referred to as the "Old" Courthouse. Stephen A.
Douglas was a presiding judge in Fulton County. W.C. Goudy, who later became one
of Chicago's leading lawyers; S. P. Shope, who later became Chief Justice of the
Illinois Supreme Court; Leonard F. Ross; Edward Dickensen Baker and General
James Shields were attorneys in Fulton County and pleaded cases in this
Courthouse. General James Shields later became the only U.S. Senator to be
elected from three different states.
On August 17, 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave his eulogy on the Declaration of Independence as he stood between the pillars of the "Old" Courthouse in Lewistown. These same pillars are still standing in the Oak Hill Cemetery at Lewistown.
The "Old" Courthouse burned an December 14, 1894 from an unknown origin. Only the offices of the circuit and county clerks, which were in a fire-proof building on the west side of the main building, remained. Construction of the fourth courthouse began in February, 1897, and the building was dedicated on May 4, 1898. It is this fourth courthouse, located on the same lot as the first three courthouses, which is presently serving Fulton County.
2nd Courthouse 1826-1838
3rd Courthouse 1838-1894
4th Courthouse 1894-20xx
The years 1997 and 1998 will be milestones for Fulton County. For 100 years
ago, construction began on what was to become our fourth court house here
in Fulton County. Construction would continue through those two years and
in 1898 dedication ceremonies would take place.
The county deserved a new court house as the old one, the third one had been destroyed by fire back in December, of 1894. In the interim, county business was taking place in various buildings such as schools, churches and wherever. This was done while planning and arrangements were taking place.
At times it must have been a time of turmoil and confusion, for all involved. As the courthouse, was indeed burned to the ground. There were questions as to where it should be built. There were those wanted it elsewhere, which had been a thorn in the sides of many for just as many years.
BUT; before getting into that time of trial and turmoil for our residents of Fulton, we must go back further to the beginnings and to our very roots. Thus, we must go back to 1823, and the formulation of the county as a county seat of government.
Fulton County was formed by an act of the state legislature in the month of February of 1823 following the actions of our founder Ossian M. Ross, is where it stands yet today.
With that in mind, back in 1823, a log structure was built for all legal transactions on the county level. This log building stood for approximately three years, and it was replaced by a rather simple frame structure that also served the needs of the county, until it too, fell into disrepair and had to be replaced. The county seeing fit, in the years of 1837 and 1838, replaced that structure with a more modern and spacious facility designed by Major Newton Walker of Lewistown.
It was a beautiful structure, constructed of stone and materials from the area of the Spoon River bottoms. Oxen with the names of "Buck & Pride" conveyed the huge stones and materials into town and the task of providing the county with a proper place of government ensued. The above mentioned facility was to stand until the last decade of the 1890\'s.
The third courthouse would remain for nearly 56 years, serving well the needs of the county and as a landmark here in the county seat. However it did not stand without strife, greed, and jealousy - the very elements that would bring it down.
"In 1878 or thereabouts, the Fulton County Board of Supervisors determined that the 1838 sandstone and cement courthouse building was deteriorating, was inadequate in size, and needed to be replaced by a new structure.
At this time, a controversy had begun among the supervisors and the people of Fulton County on the location of the county set. A faction from Canton felt that the county seat should be located in Canton since it was the largest town in the county and more centrally located. A small faction from Cuba insisted that it should be Cuba since it had formerly been known as Centerville and the faction from Lewistown insisted that the Continental Congress had designated Lewistown as the county seat in 1821 and therefore Lewistown should remain the county seat. This controversy festered for 12 years.
Construction of the new courthouse was delayed for the 12 year period due to the foot dragging of the Board of Supervisors, the bickering , fighting and arguing over the location as is usual among politicians of that era and now!
In 1890, the political faction from Canton managed to get a referendum on the ballot for the people of Fulton County to determine the location of the county seat. Analyzing the electorate the Lewistown politicians', calculated that the voters from Canton, Orion, Joshua, Fairview and Farmington townships would vote for Canton as the site. The balance of townships' would probably favor Lewistown or Cuba. During the previous 12 year period Cuba had lost interest, and was no longer a candidate.
Because of the populations, this made the Lewistown politicians feel that it was about an even draw.
The Lewistown politicians needed a plan to swing the referendum their way.
The Lewistown politicians' faction determined that the two Liverpool townships to the east of Lewistown and to the south of Canton were probably about evenly split since they were about equal distance from both communities. The shrewd Lewistown faction also realized that the citizens of the Liverpool townships were mostly Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants to Fulton County. These people were strong minded, frugal and industrious people whose religion forbid the taking of spirits of any form. Realizing this, the plan was formulated.
A week before the election five drivers, buggies and horses set forth, under the cover of darkness, to Liverpool townshipsfrom Lewistown. The drivers were instructed to stop at selected residences, announce that they were from Canton and they were there to ask the residents to vote for Canton as the site for the new courthouse. To further show their appreciation, they would leave them a small cask of whiskey. This was done, and at election time the two Liverpool townships voted enmasse for Lewistown as the site. This swung the referendum in favor of Lewistown.
The Canton politicians were furious and not about to take this lying down. They once again managed to delay the decision on the new courthouse and again get the referendum on the 1894, election ballot. The Lewistown faction recognized that the "Whiskey Trick" would not work again. So other means had to be devised to direct the election results and maintain Lewistown as the county seat.
Many schemes were proposed and hashed over to the Lewistown group. A more ingenious member of the Lewistown faction secured the insurance policy that covered the courthouse building. This policy stated that the insured structure must be rebuilt on the exact same site or the claimant would suffer a 70 per cent reduction in the claim. The court house, being insured for $93,000.00 at that time, meant a reduction in the claim of $65,100.00 or a net claim of $27,900.00. And the die was cast.
If the structure burned to the ground, the county would have little option but to rebuild the courthouse on the same location.
So, the Lewistown delegation sought out Chase Henry (Silas Dement in the Spoon River Anthology), Oscar Baughman and Ellis Brown. The three were hired to set fire to the old courthouse, and burn it to the ground. The three were paid a fee of $15.00 and a bottle of good whiskey for the deed!
On December 13th, 1894, late of hour, the deed was carried out. The newspaper accounts of the fire said;
"The Lewistown Fire Brigade and local citizens, fought gallantly to put out the fire long into the next day, but all was lost but the pillars from the front of the old courthouse where Lincoln had delivered his "Back To The Declaration" speech before the Lewistown townspeople during his campaign in August of 1858".
Mysteriously, all the records and much of the furniture had been removed from the old courthouse before the fire. No explanation of this phenomenon was ever forthcoming.
Chase, Oscar and Ellis were all arrested. Chase was found guilty of the deed September 27th, 1895. However, because the law officers had unlawfully imprisoned the defendants, had abducted the defendants and dragged them off to Chicago to interrogate them and had questionably made them confess to the crime there, Judge Orr found them not guilty of the deed. Chase Henry adamantly charged that people from Canton had hired them to do the deed, though no proof was offered. The members of the Lewistown faction that planned this deed were never disclosed. It has always been thought that a banker, was almost certainly one of the culprits. Truly, Chase Henry should be held in high esteem by his fellow citizens of Lewistown because (though accused of burning the courthouse) he in effect; saved the county courthouse for Lewistown!
It was after the fire, the citizens of Lewistown collected donations for the county board to help in the rebuilding the courthouse. The new courthouse would cost far in excess of the insurance claim. Many Fulton County citizens donated to the cause. It is said; there is yet a time capsule buried within the court-yard with a complete list of contributors to the new courthouse that was finished in 1898.
As any good country lawyer will tell you, there are two sides to every issue. Then, there is the truth. Perhaps this is the case in the solving of the burning of the courthouse.
Judge Albert Scott, of Canton has a version he once published in a pamphlet type of publication that I secured from my collection, for this story. Thus, I give full credit to judge Scott for the following information and relate to his story and I quote..
"In 1891 the sixth circuit re-elected Judge Scofield and elected two new judges. Oscar P. Booney of Quincy, and Jefferson Orr of Pittsfield. Jefferson Orr presided regularly at Lewistown from his election until the end of this term in 1897.
It was during is term that turbulent times were the rule rather than the exception in Fulton County. On the cold winter night of December 13, 1894, the historic courthouse was destroyed by fire. Fortunately the fire proof, recording offices on the West side of the courthouse lot were not injured, so very few records were lost. The debris of the fire had hardly cooled, however, when the hue and cry was heard that arson was the cause of the fire.
There was more than simple justification for such a charge because for sixty years there had been periodic fighting in Fulton County over the location of the courthouse to either Canton or Cuba. Lewistown had been successful in all these fights but as natural resentment and animosity against the proponents of a "courthouse removal" existed in the minds of many people. Lewistown\rquote s prominent newspaper stated; "That there has never been a time when our (Lewistown\rquote s) property has not to a greater or less degree been paralyzed by the fear of a courthouse removal. No one doubts that Lewistown would today have been a close competitor with Canton in population and wealth but for the "Pandora\rquote s Box" of evils - this nightmare that for 60 years has troubled and discouraged our people."
The burning of the courthouse only embittered a thousand-fold the minds of those who had in the past been embroiled in the many courthouse fights. Many in Lewistown believed that the plot to burn the courthouse was formulated and promoted by the citizens of Canton under the leadership of C. E. Snively, a politically powerful newspaper editor from that city.
Cantonians in turn attempted to prove; the burning was instigated by city officials in Lewistown, who harbored the hope; that after the deed was done, public-opinion would be in sympathy with Lewistown.
Some time in July 1895, Frank, alias Chase Henry of Lewistown, was arrested in that city in a drunken condition, and while in that drunken condition made statements, that indicated he was guilty of burning the courthouse. Chase Henry stated that C. E. Snively offered him $200 to burn the courthouse.
In the month of August, 1895, Chase Henry, Oscar Baughman (an alderman of the city of Lewistown) and Ellis Brown, an ex-city Marshall of Lewistown, were all inducted to go to Chicago and there in a saloon they were interrogated by private detectives by the name of Farley and Clark. Before their release each of these individuals made written statements and verified confessions, that they had entered into a conspiracy to burn; and that Chase Henry did in fact - burn the courthouse. The confession implicated Pike Ross, Mayor, of Lewistown; Dr. Alexander Hull and Dr. Randall of Lewistown.
Henry stated further that while Brown held it, he climbed the ladder with a can of coal oil and bundle of waste and threw it into the garret of the main building. For doing this Henry stated that; "he was paid by Baughman the sum of $197. Baughman in his alleged confession stated he received the money from Dr. Randall, who borrowed it from the National Bank. He explained that the exact amount was $197.50 rather than $200.00 because at the time of the loan the bank retained $2.50 for interest and discount.
In the alleged confessions it was further stated that; prior to the fire a public - subscription; was being made in order to provide Chase Henry with the necessary funds to obtain treatment for the pox. That sixteen dollars was raised in that manner, and that after the fire on December, 1894; Henry took the $16 and $197 and left for Hot Springs, staying there until the following March. Chase Henry, Oscar Baughman and Ellis Brown were also subjected to a trial in which they were charged with committing the crime of arson. Jefferson Orr presided and P. W. Gallagher, states attorney, prosecuted the case.
The trial took place in the latter days of September 1895 and the courthouse was thronged with spectators from Canton and Lewistown. On Friday afternoon September 28,1895. Judge Orr, in a scathing opinion, denounced the methods that had been used in obtaining the confessions and the evidence.
The opinion stated; "That C. E. Snively and Meredith Walker of Canton were indeed guilty of assisting in the abduction of the defendants and unlawfully imprisoned them in Chicago for the purpose of obtaining their confession. After his opinion the judge orally instructed the jury to find the defendants not guilty. The jury followed the judges' instructions and the defendants were discharged.
The following day's issue of the Canton Daily Register; the editor C. E. Snively; was far from pleased with the results of the trial and clearly illustrated that a number of years would have to pass before the animosity between Canton and Lewistown would subside.
Following this trial C. E. Snively of Canton, Joseph Farley, proprietor of a detective agency; Ed Clark, a detective from Chicago and Ben Buckley, a Galesburg detective, were indicted for imprisonment to compel confessions. Farley and Clark were the only ones tried on this charge and then after they had take a change of venue to McDonough County.
Clark was acquitted, but Farley was found guilty and fined a thousand dollars. This verdict was set aside by Judge Charles J. Schofield, and the case was never reheard and the charges against the defendants were dismissed."
The burning of the third courthouse is vividly portrayed in Edgar Lee Masters "Spoon River Anthology" under the title; "Silas Dement."
The present court house, now One Hundred Years old; was designed after one seen in St. Joseph, Michigan, and a sister courthouse was built in Eureka, Illinois. Ours has seen many remodelings and additions to it. A Plaza was added in time for our nations Sesquicentennial and our counties' observance of it, in 1976.
The time worn dome has changed drastically over the years, as has the cupola. The beautiful rotunda style railings are now gone, replaced years ago by an elevator, in the name of convenience. The dome is now also facing a dim future, as nature has damaged it perhaps beyond repair. Groundwork has kept the lots looking as a historic structure should look. And, the old coping is still used by young and old and it has been used for many generations and the home under the dome still looks secure.