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NEWS-SENTINEL GUEST COLUMN: Allen County courts history dates back 195 years

Don Doxsee

Our first Allen County court was held in a primitive log cabin tavern at the corner of Superior and Barr streets. As I sat one day in the ornate Circuit Courtroom in our present courthouse, I wondered how we got here from there. I wondered who were those early lawyers and judges. How did they get here and what did they do to get us were we are today?

I knew that when Allen County was established in 1824, it was alone in the northeast corner of the state, reachable only by its rivers and narrow trails. There were no other counties within 100 miles. Finding the answers required research into the beginnings of the county. It also included interviewing local attorneys for their remembrances.

In discussions with attorneys Stan Hood and Judge William Lee it was realized that there was a need to preserve the old stories of the practicing bar and the history of our courts. This led to the writing the book entitled A History of the Allen County Bar and Courts 1824-2019, subtitled A Light in the Forest, published by the Allen County Bar Foundation.

A major find in the research was discovering the old original 1824 Circuit Court docket books at the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library. These large heavy books described what happened each day of court. They were handwritten and difficult to read. From the docket books I learned the names of our first lawyers and judges and what legal business was available.

The docket books revealed that the first court was opened by two side judges, Samuel Hanna and Dr. Benjamin Cushman. Neither were lawyers. The presiding judge, a lawyer, could not make it until the next session of the court in June of 1825. The first business of the court was to admit Charles Ewing and his brother William Ewing as the first attorneys. They would have a lock on the local legal business until the arrival of Henry Cooper in 1825 and David Colerick in 1830. Unfortunately, the only legal business was some real estate matters, a few minor crimes and a divorce.

In the early days, judges and lawyers rode a circuit. In 1824 Allen County was in a circuit of 13 counties ranging from the Ohio River to Fort Wayne. Attorney A.O. Smith tells of his ride from Richmond, Indiana to court in Fort Wayne with the circuit judge and another attorney. The ride was on the Quaker Trail. It took at least three days, crossing rivers (no bridges), streams and numerous bogs and swamps. At one point they lost their horses and had to walk to the one lodging place between Richmond and Fort Wayne. It was a hundred-mile trip on horseback. Allen County would remain in a circuit until 1875.

Fort Wayne’s first newspaper was in 1833, but there are no copies prior to 1844. The newspapers are an important source of information on local crimes, murders and trials. One such story told of quick early justice. Poor Lewis Laurient was murdered by Sam McDonald March 22, 1883. McDonald was indicted on April 7, tried and convicted on May 17th and hanged on June 12th. Less than three months.

Both the newspapers and stories from the local lawyers provided interesting stories about the local justice of the peace courts, the old city court and other stories. Local justices of the peace Jack Lawson, Norman Snow and Tim Conner told of having their constables select jurors from the street and presiding at shotgun weddings. Attorneys like Dan Roby, Ken Scrogham, Howard Chapman and others, who had practiced in the old city court, told of ladies of the evening and some physical fights between lawyers.

Local attorney, now retired, Jeanne Miller tells of a happening in 1949, shortly after being admitted to the practice. When she presented her membership dues to the courthouse law librarian, she was told that admission was only open to “real lawyers,” meaning no woman could be a real lawyer. Needless to say, Jeanne got this quickly corrected. The first female lawyer in Allen County was Carina Warrington in 1915. City directories and old telephone books revealed the names of several other early local female lawyers.

The book is available for purchase on-line from the MT Publishing Company of Evansville, Indiana.

– Don Doxsee is a Fort Wayne attorney.

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