The Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, West Virginia was the second courthouse constructed in Charles Town, replacing a more modest structure that dated back to 1803. Built in 1836 on land donated by George Washington’s brother, Charles Washington, the courthouse is still in use today. Charles Town was the site of a trial that altered the course of our nation’s history. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to bring about the end of slavery through an armed insurrection came to a quick end when he and his men were captured in an engine house in Harpers Ferry by a group of Marines led by none other than Robert E. Lee.
Brown was transported to Charles Town, where he was tried for murder, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason. Despite a spirited defense, Brown and several of his co-conspirators were convicted and sentenced to death. Brown was executed only a few blocks from the courthouse. John Wilkes Booth, the actor who would later assassinate President Lincoln, attended the execution. Many of the records from the trial, which were held by the Jefferson County Clerk, have been digitized.
During the Civil War , the county seat of Jefferson County was moved to Shepherdstown, WV, and another courthouse was constructed that has since become a part of Shepherd University. During the war, the courthouse in Charles Town was damaged in battle and even used as a stable. As the end of the war drew near, its metal roof was stripped off and melted down for bullets. The county seat was returned to Charles Town in 1872, and the courthouse was repaired and enlarged, adding a clock to the belltower. The trial of John Brown was not the only trial at this courthouse which captured the nation’s attention. In 1922, a change of venue made Jefferson County the site for the trials of several union leaders who were prosecuted for their roles in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Today, the courthouse is still in use, and a portion of the courtroom where John Brown was tried is now used as a hearing room for the Jefferson County Commission.
Thanks to Judge David Sanders for his brief history of the Jefferson County Courthouse.