Jefferson County Courthouse
The present courthouse has been in use since 1836. Image obtained from the Library of Congress.
Interior of the courtroom. Image obtained from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
The courthouse became famous for hosting the trial of John Brown October 1859. For the entire trial Brown was confined to a stretcher due to his injuries. Image obtained from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
A marker stands in front of the courthouse today commemorating the trial of John Brown. Image obtained from waymarking.com.
In 2017 a fierce debate was launched over the presence of a Confederate memorial plaque at the courthouse. It was ultimately decided to keep the plaque in place. Image obtained from the Spirit of Jefferson.
Backstory and Context
Jefferson County was created from portions of Berkeley County by the Virginia legislature in 1801. Charles Town, named after George Washington’s brother Charles, was designated as the county seat. Charles, who had died in 1799, stipulated in his will that a portion of his property would be donated for use as the town square. A modest two-story courthouse was soon constructed on the site in either 1803 or 1808. The demands of the new county soon outgrew the small building, and in 1836 a new courthouse was constructed on the same site. The brick structure was designed in the Georgian Colonial style and was modeled off a Greek Doric temple. This same building remains in use as the seat of county government today, although it has been renovated and expanded over the years.
The Jefferson County Courthouse became permanently embedded in American history when it hosted the trial of John Brown in 1859. On October 16, Brown and a group of followers attempted to seize the federal arsenal in nearby Harpers Ferry and instigate a slave insurrection. The raid, which received nationwide attention, ultimately failed and Brown was brought to Charles Town for trial. Local district attorney Andrew Hunter served as the prosecutor. The trial only lasted five days from October 26 to October 31; Brown was swiftly pronounced guilty and sentenced to execution. After his conviction Brown gave a speech declaring that the teachings of the Bible legitimated his actions. He was hanged a few blocks away on December 2, 1859. Today a marker stands in front of the courthouse acknowledging it as the site of John Brown’s trial.
Charles Town changed hands multiple times during the Civil War, and the courthouse suffered as a result. On October 13, 1863 a battle between surrounding Confederate troops and Union troops barricaded inside left the building badly damaged. For the rest of the war it was used as a stable. Meanwhile the county seat was transferred from Charles Town to Shepherdstown under the new West Virginia government. The seat was finally returned to Charles Town in 1872, and the courthouse building was restored and renovated. From 1873 to 1912 it also served as the home of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
In 1922 the Jefferson County Courthouse became the scene of another sensational trial, this time involving coal miners. Attempts among miners to form a labor union in Logan County were met with fierce resistance from mine operators. Thousands of armed miners from around the region marched towards Logan County to force unionization. Local police forces and mercenaries hired by the coal companies confronted the miners, resulting in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The miners were forced to back down, and hundreds were eventually detained and tried. In order to ensure a fair trial and prevent more violence, many were moved to the courthouse in Charles Town. Among those tried were union leader Bill Blizzard. The trials were later moved again to Morgan, Greenbrier, and Fayette Counties.
In 2017 controversy arose over the presence of a Confederate plaque near the front entrance of the courthouse. Installed in 1986 by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it honors Confederate soldiers from Jefferson County in the Civil War. Several locals submitted a letter urging the plaque to be removed in the summer of 2017, arguing that it is offensive to African Americans. Other locals defended the plaque, arguing that it memorializes history. After much publicity and debate in local meetings, the Jefferson County Commission voted not to remove the plaque.
Belisle, Richard. “Jefferson County Commission votes to keep Confederate plaque in place.” Herald-Mail Media. September 7, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2018. https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/tri_state/west_Virginia/jefferson-county-commission-votes-to-keep-Confederate-plaque-in-place/article_c24659f0-4166-5a15-8297-a29ad077c1a4.html
Brammer, Robert. “The Jefferson County, West Virginia Historic Courthouse - Pic of the Week.” In Custodia Legis blog. July 12, 2013. Accessed October 6, 2018. https://blogc.loc.gov/law/2013/07/the-jefferson-county-west-Virginia-historic-courthouse-pic-of-the-week/
Cook, Tim. “Jefferson to consider landmark status for courthouse.” The Journal (Martinsburg, WV). December 29, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2018. http://www.journal-news.net/news/local-news/2017/12/jefferson-to-consider-landmark-status-for-courthouse/
Heim, John. “No resolution in sight for Confederate plaque on West Virginia courthouse.” The Washington Post. November 23, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/no-resolution-in-sight-for-Confederate-plaque-on-west-Virginia-courthouse/2017/11/23/9db14632-cfa2-11e7-9d3a-bcbe2af58c3a_story.html?nodirect=on&utm_term=.311ff12b38b2
“History of Jefferson County, West Virgina.” Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission. Accessed October 6, 2018. http://www.jeffersoncountyhlc.org/index.php/education/history
“A History of West Virginia Courthouses: Jefferson County.” West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. Accessed October 6, 2018. http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/ch/jefferson.html
McGee, Ted. “Jefferson County Courthouse.” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. March 7, 1973. Accessed October 6, 2018. http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/nr/pdf/jefferson/73001910.pdf
McMillon, Dave. “Emotions run high over Confederate plaque in Jefferson Co.” Herald-Mail Media. November 2, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2018. https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/tri_state/west_Virginia/emotions-run-high-over-Confederate-plaque-in-jefferson-co/article_0f86db6d-3ede-5e96-9b49-c11937e1a104.html
Perks, Dough. “History in Brief.” City of Charles Town, WV. Accessed October 6, 2018. https://www.charlestownwv.us/?SEC=34C2969E-6CBC-4119-8C59-B78A2D0EBB77
Sanders, David. “A Brief History of the Jefferson County Courthouse.” County of Jefferson, West Virginia. Accessed October 6, 2018. http://www.jeffersoncountywv.org/about-jefferson-county/courthouse-history
Image 1: https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2013/07/the-jefferson-county-west-Virginia-historic-courthouse-pic-of-the-week/
Image 2: http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/ch/jefferson.html
Image 3: http://www.wvculture.org/history/jbexhibit/HW02-03.html
Image 4: http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMQ23R_Jefferson_County_Courthouse_Where_John_Brown_was_Tried_Charles_Town_WV
Image 5: http://www.spiritofjefferson.com/article_dd0fac4a-9d8b-11e7-a04a-8760fae8c840.html