THE LAW COURTS AND CRIME
Source: The Early Life of Lexington [KY] before the Year 1820, Mary Estelle Delcamp, A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Transylvania College in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts June, 1916
In 1788, on the first day of March, there was let to the lowest bidder the contract for a courthouse. The commissioners, who looked after the erection, were: Edward Payne, Robert Todd, Levi Todd, Thomas Lewis, Robert Johnson, James Trotter, and William Campbell (Feb. 16, 1788).
The next court house was erected in 1806. The detailed plans and measurements were as follows: 'the dimensions of the entire building were 60 by 50 feet; the foundation was of stone, three and one-half feet below the surface, and one foot above the building; the building was three stories high; the first story, 14 feet high, had walls of brick three feet thick; the second story, 12 feet high, had brick walls two and one-half feet thick; the third story, 10 feet high, had brick walls two feet thick. On the first floor were two offices, each 16 by 20 feet, and arched over with brick. The fronts of the house were of stock or sand brick laid with lime, and sand mortar. All the structure was topped by a pavilion roof with good poplar shingles, which were 18 inches long, and one inch thick at the lower part' (Jan. 16, 1806).
The following directions were given for the courtroom: 'the floor for the bar and judge's seat, 20 feet long and two feet higher than the pavement, with sleepers three by 15 inches, and 12 inches apart. The judge's seat was to be three feet higher than this floor, in a circular form with panel work, with lawyers' bar, sheriff's boxes, and a chair for the judge of the court in neat work; the lawyer's bar, judge's seat, and two jury boxes were to be bannistered in front; a box for the criminal was to be placed near the center, and back of the lawyer's bar; the clerk's table was to be oval, placed between the two jury boxes, and bannistered in; a bench made for witnesses was to be placed in front of the lawyers' bar (Feb. 6, 1806).
In 1811 a lottery was held to enclose and ornament the court-house yard (Nov. 19, 1811).
In 1797 commissioners, appointed by the court of Fayette to superintend the building of a jail, met at Mr. M'Gowan's to receive bids from contractors (Mar. 25, 1797).
Among the courts mentioned in the files of the Gazette, these few were noted: court of enquiry (Nov. 15, 1788), court of the district of Lexington (June 11, 1802), court of quarter sessions of Fayette (Feb. 1, 1803), and the Fayette circuit (Mar. 20, 1804). In 1796 the district court of Lexington met on the third Monday in March, July, and November. The quarter sessions in Fayette were held on the second Monday in March, May, August and November (Dec. 31, 1796). In 1806 Fayette circuit court took an additional four weeks' term for the trial of chancery cases alone (June 23, 1806).
Some of the cases tried were for rape, counterfeiting, horse stealing, and larceny. For the first of these crimes the man was sentenced to ten years' hard labor in the penitentiary house (Mar. 20, 1804); in the second case the accused was freed because of his good character; in the third the sentence was four years; in the last a woman received six years (Aug. 23, 1788).
In 1788 great complaint was made of the poor roads, which were especially bad in rainy weather. This forced men to stay at taverns during terms of court, altho very few could afford. Delayed justice and an overburdened clerk were some of the other ills (Aug. 23, 1788).
In 1804 the Hibernian visitor described the courtroom in this language: "court houses ever exhibited an unfavorable example of republican order. Judges sitting as silent spectators, attorneys wrangling and disputing among themselves within the bar, parties often clamorous, witnesses pertinacious and contemptuous, and what may be called the people, some sober and others drunk--laughing, talking, sometimes shouting, and not unfrequently brawling and fighting in the presence of the court--composed motley groups truly novel and burlesque to a man acquainted with the order of the European courts" (Mar. 22, 1804).
In 1803 the office of the clerk of the county and the quarter sessions court was entirely burned down with all the records and papers (Feb. 1, 1803).
Stealing was a common crime of the day. Often this was the petty theft of a watch, a coat, a saddle, or even a violin (Jan. 18 & 28, 1797; Sept. 3, 1805). In the case of a half-worn blue coat, which had been stolen, the owner was willing to buy it back from the person who had purchased it from the thief, 'in order to bring the villain to justice' (Apr. 12, 1788). Sometimes the robberies were very serious offences. When Thos. Skillman's printing office was broken into and part of the type carried off, the trustees of the town considered the crime great enough to offer $150.00 reward for the apprehension of the thieves (Mar. 24, 1814). Even after thieves had been caught, the townsmen were not certain of bringing them to justice, for many escapes were made from the jail (Mar. 15, 1803).
The merchants of the time had to be on guard against counterfeit bills. In several instances bogus $5 and $10 bills on the United States bank were passed (June 31, 1804). Letters found on one of these counterfeiters left no doubt that there was a numerous gang of such lawbreakers in the region (Aug. 25, 1800). In 1810 the citizens were warned against forged $3 bills on the Trenton Bank (Apr. 10, 1810).
Sometimes citizens aided the regularly appointed officers in bringing law-breakers to justice. In 1805 a body of townsmen, with the magistrate and sheriff, proceeded to a house in which a wheel of fortune had been publicly exhibited for some time, seized it, and burned it in the court house yard. It was reported that the proprietor had cleared about $4,000.00 (Mar. 12, 1805).
Transcribed February 2001 by pb