Water, fire, and progress take their toll on Martin County's first three courthouses.
Unique among North Carolina's courthouses, Martin County offers surprising features.
Violence, betrayal, redemption...drama played out in this small town courtroom and brought national and international attention with it.
To date, this small and predominantly rural county of eastern North Carolina has had four court facilities.
Local legend describes the first courthouse in the county as a high court, literally. The wooden structure was built on stilts in 1775, probably because of its proximity to the flood-prone Roanoke River. The stories tell of court patrons entering the courtroom from boats by way of ladders, which were pulled up when the court was in session. No one left until the judge declared court dismissed. Eventually, this first courthouse became so dilapidated that it could no longer be used.
(Read more about this period in the history of eastern North Carolina, including some fanciful stories about exciting court days at this very courthouse in The Life and Times of Elder Ruben Ross by his son James Ross with an introduction by J.M. Pendleton. Read the book online at East Carolina University's North Carolina History and Fiction Digital Library at the following link: http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/historyfiction/document/rol/ . Use the "jump to" page option to reach the section referring to the courthouse in Williamston which starts at the last paragraph on page 85.)
For the article on the old courthouses from The Enterprise, Dec. 14, 1906 (Edition 1), refer to the archive from DigitalNC.
A second courthouse was constructed in 1835. It, too, was built of wood. After almost 50 years, a fire destroyed the building in 1884. Until another could be built, court sessions were held on the second floor of the S.R. Biggs’ drug store on Williamston’s Main Street.
In July of 1885, “fifty thousand bricks for building the Court House had been delivered” to Williamston and the first brick courthouse structure was begun soon after. This third courthouse was completed in 1887 at a cost of $17,500 and was one of only a dozen built in North Carolina between 1860 and 1900. For nearly a century, the sturdy structure served the county as a courthouse, a repository of public documents and even, on occasion, a meeting place. In 1983, county officials dealt a death knell to the third Martin County courthouse. They decided to build a center to house several courtrooms as well as multiple government services. The “old” courthouse would be demolished to create parking space for the new governmental center.
With the county’s first courthouse falling into disrepair; the second being lost to flames, and the third about to meet the wrecking ball, you might think that the people of Martin County, NC have not cared much for their judicial heritage. That perception would be wrong.
The photo and article appeared in a special supplement of the Williamston Enterprise on Dec. 14, 1906, about 20 years after the building’s construction date.
This two-story, brick building has been described as an unusual example of the eclectic and romantic nature of nineteenth century architecture. Italianate, Medieval, and late Victorian elements combine unexpectedly and produce a castle-like building unique among North Carolina’s courthouses.
The Italianate influence is found in the use of segmental arched windows with brick surrounds and in the three-story square entry tower which projects slightly from the center of the front elevation. Pilasters separate the windows on the side elevations.
The first-floor foyer narrows into a hall flanked by rooms that were used as offices. This hall runs the length of the building. Two walk-in vaults accessed from offices on either side are said to have higher fire ratings than many in newer buildings.
Twin curved stairs with shaped, black walnut rails, turned balusters, and heavy newel rise from each side of the foyer to small landings that open into the large courtroom.
The Italianate judge’s bench, set on a raised platform, has applied sawnwork, lattice moldings, and heavy brackets. A door at the rear of the alcove behind the bench leads to a robing room, while doors flanking it open into a small jury room and judge's chamber.
the two-story brick building
curved stairs with black walnut rails
the Italianate judge’s bench
Along with the ordinary activities that took place here, two court cases drew national or international attention.
Stills and bootleggers are part of our history, too. They often add a humorous element to our legal side. In this 1911 case, however, being accused of selling liquor without a license led a man to shoot the local police chief. He was found guilty and became the 11th person to be executed by the electric chair in North Carolina.
The 1925 Needleman case began with a young woman’s response to loneliness while her soldier fiancé was away, and the bragging of a young, Jewish traveling salesman. Mobs, mutilation in the form of castration, and prejudice followed. By the time the case was over, a small but proud southern community had faced its demons down and redeemed itself under the glare of reporters from the New York Times and London newspapers.
Drama and notoriety aside, it was the role of the courthouse in daily affairs that gave it lasting significance. Shy young couples applied here for a license to wed and added their own marriage certificates to the depository that held those of their parents and grandparents. Here is where they registered, with pride, the births of their children and, with sadness, the deaths of their parents. Many of life's best and worst times were noted here in the simple ink that reminds us all of our commonality. Land–that vital commodity of rural life–moved inside these walls. Its transfer from one generation to the next, or even from neighbor to neighbor, carried with it stories of life and death, success and failure. These walls heard the weighty pronouncements of guilt and innocence and the consequences of each. There were meetings and celebrations and solemn gatherings of community, too. Through it all, this icon of stability stood. In a place where utility is often the norm, the scale, lines and detail of this building provided a subtle but important message: I reflect your strength and return your worthiness with something fine; something beyond necessity.
bootlegger shooting case, 1911
Joseph Needleman trial, 1925