A 1781 case for child support is re-enacted at Colonial Court Days in 2004.
By Mary Thomas Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Americans seem to be fascinated by court cases, and apparently that has been true since the country's beginnings.
"People were used to being very vocal in court. This was high entertainment for those folks," Joanna Moyar, education coordinator of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, said of the court system in Colonial times.
This weekend, visitors to Historic Hanna's Town near Greensburg will get to see what courts were like back then during Colonial Court Days scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
"Everyone thinks people were very prim and proper, but they were a pretty earthy bunch," Ms. Moyar said. "Eighteenth century justice was all about pain and humiliation. This was pre-Bill of Rights."
Ms. Moyar didn't provide details of the punishments that will be demonstrated this weekend so that visitors can come and see for themselves. But she did describe two types of punishments from the period -- the use of stocks and tar and feathering -- although she said she has not seen reference to those particular types of punishments in the Hanna's Town court papers.
Offenders would be locked in the stocks with their feet sticking out, she said. Sometimes their shoes would be removed and the bottoms of their feet beaten. They also could be doused with hot tar and feathers.
"It was not a benign punishment. They often died of infection or of third-degree burns," she said.
Hanna's Town was the site of the first English court west of the Allegheny Mountains, and it was the seat of government for Westmoreland County, which then encompassed all of southwestern Pennsylvania, including Allegheny County. Courts were held four times a year and called "courts of the quarter session."
"That's how people handled business," Ms. Moyar said.
The court was established in the spring of 1773. In the first year, it dealt with matters such as establishing township boundaries and setting liquor prices, Ms. Moyar said. The latter was important because it was a way of collecting taxes.
The sessions to be presented this weekend are drawn from the records of the most interesting trials held between 1774 and 1782.
"All that was recorded was the defendant, the charge, the jury (if there was one), the chief justice, witness names (sometimes), the verdict and the punishment," Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society executive director, wrote in an email. "Our re-creations are consistent with the facts, but the details are ad-libs."
The cases include an indentured servant girl accused of stealing clothing and a person accused of stealing a horse. Hearings also will be held for a disorderly conduct charge and a charge of selling liquor without a license.
A paternity case also will be heard. Because preachers traveled among settlements and the time between visits often was lengthy, people had to wait to be married. It was often practical to start a family before the official ceremony. When the preacher did arrive, children were baptized en masse, Ms. Moyar said. If a father ran off beforehand, the community would have to take on the burden of child support, so the man would be made to pay for his responsibilities when possible.
Performers will wear period clothing, and Ms. Hays will provide commentary to interpret what is happening for the audience.
Hanna's Town was burned in 1782 by Indians and their British allies during one of the final battles of the Revolutionary War. The town never recovered, and the county seat was moved to Greensburg in 1786.
Historic Hanna's Town comprises a reconstructed tavern and courthouse and a Revolutionary era fort and blockhouse; three late 18th century log houses; and a wagon shed with an authentic late 18th century wagon. It is a co-project of the Westmoreland County Historical Society and Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation.
Colonial Court Days will be held at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Historic Hanna's Town, 809 Forbes Trail Road, three miles east of Greensburg. Admission to the sessions, which includes a site tour, is $4 or $3 for seniors and those ages 6 to 18.
Historic Hanna's Town is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days, with tours offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. From Exit 7 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, follow Route 30 east into Greensburg and then Route 119 North. Look for Hanna's Town signs. Information: 724-532-1935 or www.westmorelandhistory.org.