Schuyler County was organized and given a civil government while the State of Illinois was yet in the formative period, and the early history of her courts brings out clearly the inevitable result of the experience and development of the legal profession in the State. In those early days the courts had few guiding precedents, save the fundamental principles of the English common law, which formed the basis of legal jurisprudence. The statutes of the State were not then burdened by the numerous and conflicting acts of an over-zealous General Assembly, and each Judge was in a measure a law unto himself and unto his court, and in their decisions they marked the legal trail in the frontier State.
In reviewing the history of the Schuyler courts, it will be noted that many of the Judges and attorneys, who played a conspicuous part in the early day, were men of strong personality, versatile scholars and profoundly versed in the law, and that they afterwards attained positions of distinction and honor in the State and nation.
It was the old custom for lawyers to accompany the court and cover almost the entire State in their practice. This brought to Rushville many of the brightest lights in the legal profession, and their names and memory are today familiar to every one. In those days there were no court stenographers, no printed forms, no legal digests, but the practicing lawyer had wider scope for personal effort, and many of these pioneer lawyers deservedly rose to high distinction.
Four months after Schuyler County was organized, the first circuit court was convened in the cabin of Samuel Turner at Beardstown, the county-seat. This was on November 4, 1825, and Judge John York Sawyer was on the bench and John Turney was Attorney-General pro tem. Other lawyers present were James Turney, Jonathan H. Pugh, A. W. Cavarly and David Prickett.
One of the first acts of the County Commissioners when they me on July 7, 1825, was to select grand and petit juries for that term of court, and we find the following named gentlemen assigned for that service:
Grand Jury–Abraham Carlock, Cornelius Vandeventer, Isaac Vandeventer, David E. Blair, Hezekiah M. Hobart, William Pennington, James Vance, Peter Perkins, Philip Spoonamore, Ephraim Eggleston, Nathan Eels, Jesse Bartlett, James H. Smith, Henry Green, George Green, Henry Green, Jr., John Green, John Ritchey, Martin L. Lindsey, James B. Atwood, James Lammy, Amos Waddle, Charles Tracey and William Spoonamoore.
Petit Jury–Lyman Tracy, John Osburn, George Naught, David Wallace, Samuel Gooch, Riggs Pennington, Willis O’Neal, George Stewart, William H. Taylor, Calvin Hobart, Asa Cook, Jonathan Reno and John B. Terry.
An indictment was returned against Orris McCartney, Sheriff of the county, for selling liquor without a license, and he plead guilty and was fined $12 and costs. Samuel Gooch plead guilty to assault and was fined $5 and costs. In the case of the People vs Bird Brewer, indicted for perjury, a jury was called, which was made up as follows: John B. Terry, Asa Cook, Benjamin Chadsey, John Orton, Jacob White, Willis O’Neal, Oliver Lund, George Stewart, James Lammy, Edward White, Levin Green and Joseph Jackson. They returned a verdict of “not guilty.” Mr. Brewer was defended in this case by A. W. Cavarly and in lieu of a cash fee, he gave his attorney a barrel of honey.
Court etiquette was free and easy in those pioneer days, as may be imagined from the following story told by Jonathan D. Manlove: “At the first term of the Schuyler County circuit court, held near Pleasantview, where George L. Greer now resides, whilst Bird Brewer was having his trial, I saw Jonathan Reno present to James Turney, Esq., a tin quart cup filled with whisky. Mr. Turney took a swig, handed it to the jury and they took a swigger; he then gave it to the Judge, he swiggled it; again the jury swiggled a second time and there was no more left to swigger.” Mr. Manlove further states that court was held in a log cabin that measured 14×16 feet.
The second term of court was held October 12, 1826, Judge Sawyer presiding. Benjamin Cox was admitted as Chancellor. At this term the grand jury returned five indictments and Orris McCartney, Sheriff, was cited to appear at the next term of court to answer an indictment for slander. He was twice tried on this charge, the jury failing to agree.
Judge Samuel D. Lockwood presided at the terms of court held in 1827 and 1828, and Jonathan H. Pugh was Prosecuting Attorney. The first divorce case in the county came before the court at the October term, when Stephen Osborn asked to be divorced from his wife, Phebe Osborn, whom he charged with adultery. The case was proven most conclusively, as the officer who made the return of the service papers stated he had served the same on Mrs. Phebe Toney, formerly Mrs. Phebe Osborn, in Vermillon County.
David Wallace, who figured prominently in early court records as a litigant and defendant in criminal cases, was indicted at this term of court for sending a challenge to fight a duel. The case was tried twice and each time the jury failed to agree.
The court records of those early days tell a wonderful story of the strenuous times of the pioneer settlers. The country was then sparsely settled, but indictments made by the Grand Jury outnumbered those of the present day and included every offense known to criminal law. The Grand Jury was looking for trouble in those days, and many of the most prominent pioneer settlers were called before the bar of justice. Even the court officers did not always escape, as was shown by the indictment of Sheriff McCartney and again, in 1828, when Hart Fellows was indicted for omission of duty. There does not appear to have been any basis for this charge, as the case was dismissed when presented to the court.
From 1825 until 1829 Schuyler County was in the First Judicial Circuit, but in January of the latter year there was a rearrangement of court circuits, and Schuyler was placed in the Fifth District. Richard M. Young was chosen by the General Assembly as Judge of his district, and he presided at the Schuyler courts until 1837, when he resigned to take his place in the United States Senate, where he served one term. He was afterwards one of the Supreme Court Judges of Illinois.
While counted a stickler for court etiquette and known as an austere and impassionate jurist, Judge Young gave free vent to his convivial tastes when among his associates, and his wit and good nature made him the natural leader among all classes of men. Many interesting stories are told of his escapades and eccentricities, but withal he seemed to have always held the confidence and respect of the people.
About this same time another person appeared as lawyer in the Schuyler Circuit Court, who was destined to achieve high distinction. Diminutive in size, and unassuming as an orator, he yet exhibited judgment and talent of promise. He was Thomas Ford, Prosecuting Attorney for Schuyler County, and afterwards Governor of Illinois.
There were intellectual giants practicing in the courts of that early day, and among the lawyers who were regular attendants at the Schuyler courts were: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, William A. Richardson, Orville H. Browning, P. H. Walker, Cyrus Walker, T. Lyle Dickey, E. D. Baker, William Minshall, Robert Blackwell and other who, later, were at the head of the legal profession in the State and leaders in the two political parties.
When Richard M. Young retired from the bench of the Fifth Judicial Circuit James H. Ralston was commissioned to succeed him. In 1839 Peter Lott presided and he was followed in 1841 by Stephen A. Douglas, who served from 1841 to 1843. In the years from 1843 to 1849 Jesse B. Thomas, Richard M. Young, Norman H. Purple and David M. Woodson served as Judges of the Circuit Court. In 1849 William A. Minshall, then a resident of Rushville, was elected to the circuit bench. He was succeeded in 1852 by P. H. Walker, also a resident of Rushville, who, in 1858, was appointed by Governor Bissell to the Supreme bench of Illinois. He was elected the same year for the full nine year term, and served for more than a quarter of a century in the State’s highest tribunal. T. Lyle Dickey, another resident of Rushville and a practicing attorney in our courts in the ‘thirties, was later elected to the Supreme Court from the Northern Illinois District.
From 1858 to 1861 John S. Bailey presided in the circuit courts of Schuyler County, and he was succeeded by Chauncey L. Higbee, who presided over every term of court held in Rushville for the next sixteen years, and whose record as a jurist is an illustrious one. He was first elected Circuit Judge in 1861, and re-elected in 1867, 1873 and 1879, and continued on the bench until his death, which occurred at Pittsfield, December 7, 1884.
In 1873 Schuyler County was placed in the Sixth Judicial District, and Chauncey L. Higbee, Simeon P. Shope and John H. Williams were elected Judges. They were succeeded in 1885 by William Marsh, Charles J. Scofield and John C. Bagby. The last election held in the old Sixth Judicial District was in 1891, and Oscar P. Bonney, Jefferson Orr and Charles J. Scofield were chosen for a term of six years.
The General Assembly of 1896-97 made a new apportionment of the judicial districts and, while Schuyler remained in the Sixth District, where were many changes made. From this new district in 1897 there were elected Harry Higbee, Thomas N. Mehan and John C. Broady. In 1903 Judges Higbee and Mehan were re-elected with Albert Ackers as their associate, and upon the death of Judge Mehan in 1907, Guy Williams was elected to fill the vacancy.
In 1900 two additional terms of court were granted Schuyler County annually, and in June and December of each year the attention of the Judges is given to chancery cases exclusively, while the regular jury terms are held in April and October.
Probate and County Courts–Hart Fellows, who held all the county offices of Schuyler County at one time or another by self-assertion and common consent, was the first Judge of Probate in Schuyler County, and he took the oath of office before Judge Sawyer of the Circuit Court at the October term, 1826. The first record of business in his court begins with July 28, 1827, when “in pursuance of the statute in such cases made and provided,” a court of probate was begun and held at Rushville in and for the county of Schuyler. At this session the first business transacted was the appointment of a guardian for Anderson Walker, and the court appointed John Thompson to act as such.
The first estate settled in probate was that of Solomon Stanberry and the appraisement showed personal property to the amount of $159.75. The first will recorded was that of Roswell B. Fenner, which was admitted to probate December 14, 1832.
Henry R. Bertholf succeeded Hart Fellows as Probate Judge and served from 1833 to 1837. He in turn was succeeded by Adam Dunlap, who served until 1847, and James L. Anderson, whose term of office was from 1847 yo 1849. These two later judges were known as Probate Justices of the Peace. By the adoption of the new State Constitution, and on the organization of the County Court, the County Judge was given jurisdiction of probate matters. William Ellis’ term of service was 1849-1857; DeWitt C. Johnson, 1857-1861; James L. Anderson, 1861-1865; Ephraim J. Pemberton, 1865-1882; John C. Bagby, 1882-1886; S. B. Montgomery, 1886-1890; H. C. Schultz, 1890-1894; D. L. Mourning, 1894-1898; Herschel V. Teel, 1898-1906; William H. Dieterich, 1906 to the present time.
Excerpted from Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Schuyler County, 1908, edited by Howard F. Dyson.
Transcribed by Robin Petersen for Schuyler County ILGenWeb.