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Jefferson County Courthouse

Charles Town City, Jefferson County, WV

The Jefferson County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]


The first Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, a small brick building erected in 1808 on a lot donated by Charles Washington for public use, was replaced about 1836 by a larger structure, nucleus of the present Jefferson County Courthouse. During the Civil War it was seriously damaged and the county seat moved to Shepherdstown. After the war it was returned to Charles Town; it was restored and enlarged, and in 1916 a wing was added to the rear of the building.

Today, the Jefferson County Courthouse is a red brick Georgian Colonial building set on a high stone foundation and separated from the street by a tiny yard. Extending across the front is a tall portico with four Doric columns, their fluted metal base supporting an angular pediment, the design of which is repeated in pediments over the windows of the first floor and above the four faces of the clock in the square-domed tower. A small iron balcony juts above the front door, and ornamental brackets follow the lines of the eaves. A metal tablet on one corner of the building honors the memory of Colonel Charles Washington.

The roof trusses, as well as the floor and ceiling frames, are wooden. In the interior of the courtroom, the railing which divides the room into several parts, including the railing for the judge's bench, has both a bottom and top rail with turned balusters. The balusters of the two interior stairways are turned throughout the entire length. The newel posts are also turned. The interior has undergone many changes, including the chamber in which John Brown was tried. That room today is partitioned; the original was not.


The Jefferson County Courthouse is historically significant both because it played an important role in the development of the county's government during and after the Civil War and because it was the site of two treason trials.

The first treason trial was that of John Brown. After Brown's capture and confinement, Governor Henry Wise of Virginia succeeded in getting him tried in a Virginia court and succeeded in appointing Andrew Hunter as the special prosecutor to aid Charles Harding, the county's attorney. Brown was charged for advising and conspiring with slaves to rebel, for murder, and for treason against Virginia. Although Brown's trial drew sympathy from the North, it was a fair one. When he was first asked to choose his defense attorneys, he made a heart-rendering speech saying that he was too ill to be tried and knew no one to represent him. The court then offered to appoint his attorneys, but Brown ignored them saying he had sent for his own counsel. When it did not arrive, he agreed to have Lawrence Botts and Thomas Green defend him; then Brown again claimed illness, was examined by Dr. Gerald F. Mason, and pronounced perfectly able to stand trial. For theatrics, Brown asked to lie on a cot during the trial; his request was granted. He refused to comply with his lawyers' desire to plead insanity and claimed a lack of confidence in them; the court then allowed him to choose George Hoyt as a replacement for Botts and Green. Finally Brown was found guilty of murder and treason and later hanged.

During the forthcoming war, the building in which Brown was tried was seriously damaged, and in 1865 the county seat was moved to Shepherdstown, so that Federal troops stationed along the B & O could protect it. Since an act of the West Virginia Legislature proclaimed Shepherdstown as the permanent county seat, the County Board of Supervisors decided to sell the valuable courthouse lot in Charles Town. Luckily, the plan was prevented. After the war a violent controversy arose between the people of Shepherdstown and Charles Town. Both wanted the distinction of having the county seat, and when the courts decided in favor of Charles Town, Shepherdstown and its neighbor, Scrabble, nearly left the county.

The next action to earn historic distinction for the Jefferson County Courthouse was the trial of some West Virginia coal miners charged with murder and treason. In general, the reason for the charges was an attempt at unionization. The mine owners, being against the union and the men trying to join it, had hired armed guards to protect their interests.

Hostilities invariably resulted. By the time things reached their peak, Mingo County, West Virginia was under martial law and Logan County was engulfed in local warfare. In all, twenty-four men were charged with murder and/or treason. Because of the prejudices in southern West Virginia, they were tried in the state's most eastern county. The irony of this was that the citizens of Jefferson County could remain no more impartial than their southern peers: consequently, during the trial of mine union president, C. F. Keeney, the defense attorney was forced to ask for a change of venue. The cases were moved to Morgan County, but legal skirmishes there required a second move to Greenbrier County. Many of the sentences pronounced were harsh and were later commuted or pardoned.


Bushong, Millard K. Historic Jefferson County. Boyce: Carr Publishing Company, Inc., 1972

  1. McGee, Ted, West Virginia Antiquities Commission, Jefferson County Courthouse, nomination document, 1973, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
George Street • Washington Street East

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