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Catfights and Coffins: Stories of Alabama Courthouses “THE COURTHOUSE IS AN OUTGROWTH OF CIVILIZATION. It may be said that erection of a courthouse in new and virgin territory signified the establishment of a stable government dedicated to law and order.”1 This comment by a historian writing about the early Montgomery County Courthouse is reflected in the actions of settlers in all parts of Alabama. In colonial times on the Eastern seaboard there were usually two public buildings in most settlements: a church and a tavern. Both of these were often used by circuit-riding judges to hold court.2 In pioneer Alabama it is probable that this practice was common, but there is also evidence that a building devoted to the conduct of judicial affairs was an early priority for settlers. One of the first actions taken when a county was established was the selection of a site for the county seat and the building of a courthouse. On early maps you will find town names such as Chambers Courthouse, Fayette Courthouse, and Dale Courthouse, showing the importance given to the location of these structures. Even though emphasis was placed on a building dedicated to the law, many counties had judicial business to conduct before they got A N N E H E R B E R T F E AT H E R S Anne Feathers is a retired speech-language pathologist living in Greenville. The author would like to thank the editors of The Alabama Review, Robert J. Jakeman and Carey E. Cauthen, and Norwood Kerr, Frazine Taylor, and the research staff of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. In addition to those listed in the references, the author is extremely grateful to all those who helped in gathering courthouse lore. Some of these are: Inez Barnett, Ed Bridges, Susan Cranfield, Wayne Deloach, Ralph B. Draughon Jr., Sandra Fowler, Shannon Hall-James, Patricia Blondel Harden, Doshia Harper, Davida Hastie, Bert Hitchcock, Mary Frances Jones, Gene Kerlin, Dot Moore, Steve Murray, Phyllis J. K. Owens, Ranee Pruitt, Frances Robb, Margaret Clayton Russell, Bobby Joe Seales, Mary Jane Skinner, Lori Smith, T. Larry Smith, Judy Taylor, and G. Sidney Waits Jr. This presidential address was read at the annual meeting of the Alabama Historical Association held in the Shoals (Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia), April 19, 2008. 1 National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Alabama (CDA), Early Courthouses of Alabama, Prior to 1860 (Mobile, 1966), 52. 2 Nancy Means Jackson, “I’ll Drink to That,” American Spirit, September/October 2007, 33. T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 164 around to building a shelter in which to conduct this business. Legend has it that the first court hearings in Baldwin County were held with the judge sitting in the forks of a huge live oak, with jurors gathered on his right and spectators on his left. The tree was ever thereafter known as “court oak.” Another old tree, known as the “hangman’s oak,” grew nearby and was used to carry out executions.3 The first courts in what would become Butler County were held at Fort Dale under the “sheltering branches of several oak trees.”4 The first judge in Walker County sat on a “big rock near a larger rock on which sat the jury.”5 These rocks can still be seen in Jasper. When the first court in Randolph County was convened in 1833, the judge “presided over the opening session sitting on a log and leaning against a large oak tree.” The first commissioner’s court was held under a mulberry tree near the ferryman’s house. The next year the first indoor court was held in the dwelling of Chief Wedowee. Even after a place to hold court was found through the courtesies of the chief, a place to hold prisoners was still a problem; a prisoner in the first jail, a hollow log on the river bank, had come “near to drowning when a sudden rise in the Tallapoosa floated him off in his prison.” After that episode, the jail...


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