Monday, June 24, 2013

Amanuensis Monday
Courthouse at Brookhaven Burned

Lincoln County / Brookhaven Government Complex
Lincoln County Courthouse
Photograph Courtesy of Robert E Weston, Jr.

A courthouse fire can restrict a genealogy researcher because once the records are destroyed, they are lost forever. Several Mississippi courthouses were destroyed by fire, most by the hands of arsonists. Here is what was recorded concerning the Lincoln County, MS, courthouse fire in 1893.

Court House at Brookhaven Burned

The alarm of fire was sounded shortly after 2 o'clock Sunday night (09 Nov 1893), and the slumbering populace of Brookhaven who heard and responded, soon discovered that the court house was in flames. S. F. Magee, W. P. Hubert, Eugene Ree, Alice Winston and a few others who were first to reach the scene say the front and rear hall doors were open and that the fire began on the stairway or in the court room near the head of the stairs. Some of the first on the ground say the smell of coal oil was easily distinguished.

The flames spread rapidly, and the crowd which began to assemble rapidly, busied itself about saving the contents of the offices, as all hope of extinguishing the fire was vain. The only offices which it was safe to enter were the sheriff's and chancery clerk's. From these all the books and papers outside the chancery clerk's vault and the sheriff's safe with a part of the furniture were saved. Nothing whatever was saved out of the offices of the circuit clerk, county superintendent or the court room. The circuit clerk on Saturday evening had moved all the circuit court records upstairs to be ready when court convened Monday morning and these were all destroyed. All other books, indictments and legal papers were left in the fire-proof vault where until Monday afternoon, they were thought to be safely preserved.

There is, as yet, no satisfactory proof as to the origin of the fire. At first general suspicion laid it at the door of the white caps, and probably a majority are still of this opinion, but there is no more real reason for supposing that WHITE CAPS* applied the torch than some others. In fact, there were other persons equally as much interested in the destruction of certain records as any white cap could possibly have been. Many believe that some such person as this was the real criminal. Others still think the fire the result of carelessness or accident in which midnight gambling and a keg of beer or a jug of whiskey figured. Some of the Negro prisoners in jail say they heard the approach and departure of horses just before the alarm but such testimony unsupported by other evidence is not to be relied upon. The Leader mentioned these as the various theories it has heard advanced. It is hoped a full investigation by the grand jury, heartily seconded by other ministers of the law and all good citizens, may result in discovering the real cause of the fire and fixing the responsibility or guilt where it rightfully belongs.

Up to Monday afternoon it was thought all the county books and records in the brick vaults, built to be fireproof, were safe, but when the walls began to cool, they cracked and the air coming in on the smothered heat, caused the contents of the vaults to at once ignite. Every effort possible was made to extinguish the flames, but in vain, as only a limited supply of water could be had, and before dark, the whole of the splendid new county records, obtained at a cost of thousand of dollars, were in ashes.

The destroyed building was insured for $5000 and the records and furniture for $2500, the total of $7500 insurance being divided equally between the Phoenix of New York, the Aetna and the Liverpool and London and Globe. This is the second court house burned in this county in the last ten years, the other having been set on fire on the morning of Jan 1, 1884.

*White Cap societies in the South made it their task to attempt to force a person to abandon his home or property. From Wikipedia

Article from Lincoln County - Its People, Volume 1.

Mississippi Counties with Burned Courthouses - Scroll to near bottom of page.

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