In the beginning of each of our early settlements the first item of business was a governing body in order for life to run as smoothly as possible. Therefore, the earliest forms of government were a sheriff, jail and Courthouse. The sheriff was to see that citizens lived in harmony, the jail was “home” for those who did not want to live in agreement and the Courthouse became the center of government business, including trials for lawbreakers.
It has been said that “crime doesn’t pay,” and I am sure that any number of people who had broken the law during the early days of Washington would be quick to agree if they were alive today! As we know, crime has always been with us, but the method of punishment has changed over time.
According to my research, two Court Houses and two Jails were built during the first twenty years Washington was the County Seat of Rhea County. On June 27, 1812, the Board of Commissioners for the Town of Washington met and made a proposal for a Court House to be built. This first Court House was to be thirty feet square and eighteen feet high, from sill to eave; it was to be paneled out of good timber and to be built upon a wall of stone two feet high and eighteen inches thick. The House was to be weather-boarded with good plank three-fourths of an inch thick, and the roof to be of chestnut shingles nailed on good sheeting. The building was described in great detail, even to the shutters of the Jury Rooms to be well hung with lock and key.
Also, the work was to be finished and ready for occupancy in eighteen months; the contract for building and finishing the Court House was offered at sale to the lowest bidder, who happened to be James C. Mitchell. He offered to build and finish the Court House in agreement to the plans drawn by the Commissioners for the amount of nine hundred thirty-six dollars and twenty-five cents. Since no one else bid on the project for a sum less than Mitchell, the contract was awarded to him to be completed before January 1, 1814.
On this same date (June 27, 1812) the Board of Commissioners also decided that a Jail needed to be built on some part of the Public Square. A vivid and complete description included the following: a foundation to be laid on a solid wall of limestone and mortar of the full size of the outside wall of the building, to be one foot under the surface of the earth at all parts and one foot above the surface at the lowest part when leveled, on which is to be placed the side sills. Inside of those sills the floor was to be laid close, and was to be of squared timber fifteen inches thick, the ends extending from sill to sill.
According to information given, the inner wall was to be sixteen feet wide in the clear and seventeen feet long across the middle. The walls were to be of oak and notched down, not leaving more than half an inch between any part of timbers or logs. Outer walls were to be of one foot square timber, at a distance of one foot outside of the inner wall; the one-foot distance between the outside and inside walls was to be filled closely up to the wall plates with small rocks.
After a long and descriptive plan of the Jail was given to and approved by the Board of Commissioners, the design was offered at public sale to the lowest bidder. John Moore offered to build and furnish the Jail for three hundred thirty-eight dollars and twenty-three cents; he was awarded the contract when there was no lower bid. The Jail was to be located on the North East corner of the Public Square, and was to be completed by the same date as the Court House.
In 1813 the Board made changes in the plan for the Jail, and John Moore requested additional funds from the Court, the Board and eventually from the State Legislature; however, his petition was refused by the Court because they considered it the duty of the Commissioners to make agreements pertaining to public buildings. On January 27, 1813, the Commissioners made an additional agreement with Moore for the alterations and additions to the plan for the Jail. After going through all this, the new Jail was not satisfactory to the Sheriff, so on July 28, 1813, he protested against its being accepted by the Court.
Before the first Court House and Jail were completed, the Board of Commissioners met at Adam W. Caldwell’s home in Washington on September 20, 1814. The purpose of this meeting was to adopt a plan and award a contract for the construction of a Stocks and Pillory. This was to stand on any part of the Public Square that a majority of the Commissioners would instruct. The contract was awarded to James Berry, since he was the lowest bidder at $39.96. Also, Berry agreed that the Stocks and Pillory would be finished by March 1, 1815.
In 1825 a petition signed by three hundred fifty citizens of Rhea County was submitted to the State Legislature. This petition stated that the Jail was not safe for keeping prisoners because of its bad condition, and that a new Jail was badly needed. On November 23, 1825, the General Assembly of Tennessee passed an act authorizing the Rhea County Court to pass a tax for the purpose of building a new Jail in the Town of Washington. The General Assembly appointed the following men as Commissioners to contract for and superintend the building of the Jail: Thomas Price, Richard G. Waterhouse, William S. Leuty, Miles Vernon, William Smith, Robert Bell and John Locke. This new Jail was to be built on the Public Square on the level area bordering the former jail.
Plans for the new Jail included opening a place in the ground twenty feet square and three feet deep, which was to be a dungeon. Next, would be a stone wall five feet thick; information suggests thickness of the walls and how they are to be constructed. The iron door and its framing and fastening are described in detail, even to an opening for a plate, bowl, or dish to be handed to a prisoner!
The foundation of the dungeon was to be extended so that a jail could be built upon it which would be forty feet long and thirty feet wide. In the second story of the jail would be a Debtors’ Room; on the other end of this second story would be accommodations for a jailor to reside. Information tells us that the Jail should stand on the Public Square in the Town of Washington on the same level which joined the former Jail. Also, William S. Leuty and John Locke were appointed as a committee to make an estimate of the cost of the Jail according to the plan of the Commissioners. Leuty and Locke gave an estimate of $1,583.50.
Since a new Jail was being built, the County Court gave its attention to building a new Court House, with a majority vote that one-half of the State Tax for Rhea County for 1830 and 1831 be appropriated for the purpose of building a new Court House in the Town of Washington. In 1832 a two-story brick Court House was completed by Thomas Crutchfield, the contractor, at a cost of seven thousand dollars. This new Court House was built on the Public Square, which was set apart for County buildings. It had one large courtroom, two office rooms and a stairway hall on the first floor; a large courtroom and two office rooms and hall or corridor on the second floor. From the center of the roof towered a thirty foot circular brick cupola with a dome-shaped roof covered in metal. Extending above this dome for twenty-five feet was a large iron rod which passed through two metallic globes and a large metal fish extended above the gloves.
This new Court House was to have been finished by April, 1832, but was not completed until December 31, 1832. The delay was caused in part by a tornado that hit the Town of Washington on May 7, 1832, and blew off part of the second story.
In the early court minutes (1820’s-1830’s) of the Town of Washington, crime and punishment is recorded so that we can see how law breakers were treated during that time. As an example, two men who were found guilty of horse thievery were branded on the palm of the left hand with the letters “HT.” Of course, the branding was done with a red-hot branding iron that would leave a mark on each man for the rest of his life. However, that was not the complete sentence; the men were also given twenty-five lashes on their bare backs. These men were to be near the Court House on three different days to sit in the pillory between the hours of ten o’clock in the morning, and two o’clock in the afternoon. I sincerely doubt that these men would ever steal a horse again after receiving this punishment!
It would seem that Washington had its share of crime in those early days of its history. We can see that from the necessity of the two Court Houses and Jails being built in the first twenty years of this town. Also, it would be safe to say that punishment was rather severe for crimes committed, but that criminals remembered that punishment, and probably did not commit the same crime again.
(NOTE: A Courthouse in the early history of our county was written as two words: Court House; most Court Houses had a dungeon or jail in the basement, with offices of the county government in the floor or floors above.)
Our ancestors learned the correct way to govern early settlements, and because of their knowledge our citizens have been given information which has helped them to maintain a governing body through the years. We should remember to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.