The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 12, 2019 1:00 am

History is in session

Courthouse,occupants getbook treatment

The grandeur of the Allen County Courthouse suggests a long, refined history of the practice of law. But a new book on Allen County's legal history is a reminder it began in a wild and undeveloped frontier. Early circuit rider Oliver H. Smith wrote of a difficult journey he and two others made from central Indiana to Fort Wayne in 1825. After stopping at the Wabash River to find relief from severe heat, their horses were swarmed by flies and ran off. The lawyers began walking the10-mile route to Thompson's Tavern on Townsend's Prairie.

“The heat was intense. ... None of us had been much used to walking. I am satisfied we must all have broken down, but most fortunately there had fallen the night before a light rain, and the water lay in the shade in the horse tracks. We were soon on our knees, with our mouths to the water ... here was water that was water!”

Finally they reached Thompson's place, a low, one-story cabin about 20 feet square. “Corn dodgers, boiled squirrels and sassafras tea” were served for dinner. Arriving at Fort Wayne on horses provided by the landlord, the court and attorneys found little business on the docket, so “we all went up the St. Mary's river, to Chief Richardville's, to see an Indian horse race,” wrote Smith, who later became a U.S. congressman and senator.

Fort Wayne attorney Donald D. Doxsee recounts the story of the circuit riders and other colorful stories in “A History of the Allen County Bar and Courts 1824-2019.” Compiled and edited by Doxsee, the book is sponsored by the Allen County Bar Foundation.

Courtesy of the bar foundation, here are some book excerpts:

County named for a lawyer

 Allen County is named for Kentucky lawyer Col. John Allen (1771-1813). He was killed at the Battle of Raisin River near Detroit. He commanded a regiment of Kentucky riflemen under Gen. and Gov. Benjamin Harrison while fighting the British during the War of 1812. Although the Americans lost the battle at Raisin River, it stopped the British from going to the aid of the Potawatomi Indians who were then attacking Fort Wayne. For his valor in the battle and saving Fort Wayne, Allen County was named for him. He was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia and in 1791 began the study of law in the office of Col. Archibald Stewart in Staunton, Virginia. He moved to Shelbyville, Kentucky, where he became a prominent lawyer and citizen. He was elected to the Kentucky state senate in 1807.

First resident attorney

Allen County's first resident attorney was Charles Ewing (1798-1843). He was born in New York and came to Fort Wayne with his father and mother in 1822. He had a college education in Ohio and subsequently studied in a law office in Cincinnati. He was admitted to the practice of law in Allen County with the establishment of the first court in 1824. In the absence of the circuit prosecutor, he was appointed as prosecutor for that term of the court. Since he was unmarried at the time, he likely lived and conducted his legal business at his father's tavern. The record shows he filed several divorces and some debt collection lawsuits. This probably was not enough legal business to keep him busy. After the death of his father in 1827, he briefly moved to Detroit to start a legal practice there. In 1829, while in Detroit, he met and married Abigail B. Woodworth of Logansport. He and his wife moved to Logansport in 1832. He became a highly respected member of the Logansport bar. However, in 1835, he returned to Fort Wayne to become a leading member of the Fort Wayne bar. He was elected president judge of the Eighth Circuit, which included Allen County, serving from 1836 to 1839.

The 'first' judge

Judge Samuel Hanna's portrait hangs in the courthouse, and he is often referred to as our first judge. That may be technically true, but not completely accurate. The 1816 Indiana constitution provided for Circuit Court judges, and in each county, two additional side or associate judges. The two side judges could hold court without the circuit judge. The side judges were not required to be lawyers. While Samuel Hanna was one of the first associate judges, the other associate judge was Benjamin Cushman. They were both elected and served at the same time. Hanna served only briefly, from 1824 to 1827, while Cushman served from 1824 to 1833. Neither was a lawyer. Evidently, Hanna frequently gets named as the first judge of Allen County because his portrait hangs in the Courthouse, and because he became a wealthy and prominent citizen of both the county and the state.

Constitution in German

 Today there is controversy about the use of the Spanish language in public documents to help the large number of Spanish speakers in the state. This has offended many who believe that if you live in this country, you should speak and understand English. This is perhaps a lapse of historical memory. Many Americans are not aware that when the nation was new, there were a large number of German-speaking citizens. To accommodate them, both the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and the Indiana Constitution in 1851 were translated into German to secure support for their ratification. The 1816 Indiana Constitution was not submitted to a public vote and there was no need to translate it into German.

William H. Fruechtenicht (1879-1957), like a few other early Fort Wayne lawyers, was born in Germany. He came to America with his parents at age 9 and could speak fluent German. George Fruechtenicht, a nephew of William, in an interview with Stan Hood recalled that William, because of his ability to speak German, had built up a substantial practice with the German farmers in eastern Allen County.

The Jail Flats

Because of the swamp-like conditions that often covered the area north of downtown Fort Wayne, it was not used as residential or commercial property. It is today the area of Headwaters Park and the present jail. The area became known as the “Jail Flats” because it was the location of the county's first jail in 1825 and the area was flat. When Benjamin Madden and George Keefer confessed to the murder of John Dunbar in April 1855, both were found guilty and sentenced to hang at the flats. They were brought from the jail to the scaffolding, two ropes were attached to cross beams and both paid their debt to society with their lives. This was also the site of the public hanging of Sam McDonald in 1883, the last such execution in Fort Wayne. McDonald had murdered his friend, Louis Laurent, and was hanged before a crowd of 250 curious observers.

The present jail was built in 1981, continuing the tradition of a county jail in the “Jail Flats.” In 1884, a baseball park was built in the Flats with a grandstand to host a “world series” with Chicago playing Providence. During the economic depression of the 1930s, the flats became the site of a “Hooverville” which consisted of shacks and shanties that provided crude shelters for out-of-work families. 

Canine defendant

The dog's owner, Jess Goodlin, was charged in City Court with harboring a vicious dog. The dog “Jack” had jumped on and torn the coat of Everett Frances with his teeth. It turns out that the dog had become attached to attorney Robert Buhler's 2-year-old son. Because of that, Buhler agreed to defend the dog's owner, who was also his neighbor. To the amusement of everyone in the courtroom, the trial began with young Buhler leading the very affectionate, tail-wagging dog into the courtroom and taking his place in the witness chair. The dog then shook hands with the court clerk, and another court worker got Jack a drink of water from a paper cup. At this point, the deputy city attorney and acting prosecutor, Howard Benninghoff, entered the courtroom. Unaware of these events, the deputy city attorney started to expound on the alleged viciousness of Jack's attack. Cutting Benninghoff short, City Court Judge Burt Fagan interrupted, saying, “You might have convinced me he was a vicious animal if I hadn't seen him in court.” Whereupon, Judge Fagan continued the case indefinitely (equivalent to dismissing the charge) and ordered the coat repaired from court funds. (The Journal-Gazette, Feb. 1, 1930)

Book facts

 "A Light in the Forest: A History of the Allen County Bar and Courts 1824-2019" by Donald D. Doxsee, editor and compiler

Sponsored by the Allen County Bar Foundation, Inc. and M.T. Publishing Company

Available at pre-publication discount price of $39.95 through the publisher (812) 468-8022 or 

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