Colonial cases to be re-enacted at Hanna's Town

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Even television's Judge Judy might have trouble keeping up with the drama that is expected to unfold this weekend at Historic Hanna's Town.

Cases from the docket of the first English court established west of the Alleghenies will be re-enacted, with verdicts reached on crimes including horse thievery, petty theft, disorderly conduct, an indentured servant runaway and selling liquor without a license. Someone may even be hauled up before the court on a charge of treason.

At a time when Pennsylvania and Virginia both had claims to what is now present-day southwestern Pennsylvania, the court was established by Pennsylvania in the tavern and house of Robert Hanna, and the first session met on April 6, 1773, less than two months after the creation of Westmoreland County on Feb. 26 that same year.

"The court held session four times a year, in January, April, July and October," said Joanna Moyar, education coordinator for the Westmoreland County Historical Society. "In good weather, it met outdoors in front of the tavern."

The annual re-enactment is based on civil and criminal cases heard in Hanna's Town between 1773 and 1786. The re-enactments will be held at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday in front of Hanna's tavern under shady trees.

"Justice was quickly imposed, and humiliation and pain played a large role in punishing those found guilty in Colonial times," Ms. Moyar said. "Punishment was often severe, and those convicted could be placed in the pillory or be whipped or fined."

Organizers select cases from the historical records that dealt with issues on the Pennsylvania frontier in the late 1700s. Transcripts of verbatim testimony weren't taken as they are in today's courts, but visitors will see volunteers dressed in period attire as justices, plaintiffs, witnesses, bailiffs and the clerk of the courts. They'll also get to hear the charges and verdicts.

"Our annual re-enactment is a good way for visitors to witness and understand that there was justice on the frontier, but that it was different from ours," Ms. Moyar said. "They'll also get to see that our modern legal system has its roots in the English common law in effect during the Colonial era."

Two volunteers, Richard and Carol Sheats of Ligonier, have been members of the historical society since they retired in 2000. They usually portray the parties to a paternity case that came before the court in 1781. In Republic v. John McCracken, the defendant "kept company" with Mary Beelor for more than a year, and a child was born of their relationship.

McCracken left Beelor and their child for seven years, and when he returned to the area, she pointed him out. After being tried, he was found guilty and fined 3,000 British pounds, a very large sum at that time.

"The handwritten records are still on file at the Westmoreland County courthouse," Mr. Sheats said. "Because of the excessive fine he had to pay, some think the records may have a missing decimal point."

Between 12 and 15 re-enactors will present six or seven cases during the weekend. Although the cases are rehearsed, re-enactors aren't given written lines and can improvise. During re-enactments, audience members are encouraged to heckle the accused and the judge if they disagree with the verdict -- just as people would have done in the 1700s.

"The verdicts were carried our swiftly, But we, of course, don't mete out the punishments," Mrs. Sheats said. "... We do, however, have a whipping post with shackles and a pillory in which the public can put their head and hands in, if they'd like."

When the British and their Indian allies came to attack and burn Hanna's Town on the afternoon of July 13, 1782, court was in session. Court documents still exist because the judge escaped to the fort with the records in hand.

Even after the attack, court continued to be held at Hanna's Town until 1786. In December 1785, Christopher Truby and William Jack sold two acres for six pence to be used as the site of a new courthouse in Newtown, present-day Greensburg. The first quarter session was held there in the January 1787 term.

Historic Hanna's Town is at 809 Forbes Trail Road, off Route 119, north of Greensburg. Admission is $5, $4 for senior citizens and students through high school.

Details: 724-532-1935.

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: First Published July 12, 2012 4:00 AM


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