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The First 300 Years of Hunterdon County 1714 to 2014HUNTERDON COUNTY HISTORY

(Download The First 300 Years of Hunterdon County - 1714 to 2014)

County Government in New Jersey is organized around the semi-legislative Board of Chosen Freeholders, the elected administrative officials of the County. The term FREEHOLDER, as applied to a County Official, is derived from a practice in medieval England. There, a Freeholder was a person who held certain rights in real property. Only Freeholders were eligible for membership on the County Governing Body. This conception followed the English to the shores of New Jersey, and the County Governmental Body became known as the Board of Justices and Chosen Freeholders. The Justices of Peace who joined with the Chosen Freeholders in forming the Board, were appointed rather than elected by the popular vote, as were the two Freeholders chosen from each municipality in the County. The legislature in 1798 abolished the Board as constituted. A Board of Chosen Freeholders composed of one elected representative from each municipality in the county, who assumed the powers and jurisdiction of the old Board of Justices and Chosen Freeholders. The proper qualification was later dropped, but the title was continued. In 1902, permissive state legislation allowed a county to change the composition of its Board of Chosen Freeholders from one member representing each town and township to that of three to nine elected members for the County at large.

Hunterdon County has been governed by the above forms of County Government during the 275 years of its existence. Among the men of distinction that have served as Hunterdon's Freeholders and Justices are William Trent, for whom Trenton is named; Phillip Ringoes, early trader and settler in Amwell Township; Colonel John Mehelm, Colonel Thomas Lowry, Colonel Isaac Smith, Colonel David Schomp, all of Revolutionary War fame; John Hart, signer of the Declaration of Independence; and U.S. Senator John Lambert.

The minutes of the Board of Justices and Chosen Freeholders of Hunterdon County begin with the May 1739 meeting as recorded in a leather-bond volume, and are continued to the present date. Much of the information recorded reflects the condition of affairs and the thinking of the people of Hunterdon County throughout the years. In the beginning, the Board met once a year in May at the Hunterdon County Courthouse. Occasionally, a special meeting would be called at another place. When not meeting in the Courthouse, the Board generally met at a tavern convenient to the location requiring the attention, such as a bridge site.

The early Freeholders served without pay, which they "looked upon as a grievance," in 1792 that the sum of shillings 6 pence per meeting be allowed for expenses for each member in attendance.

The First Courthouse and Jail for the County, built about 1720, was located in the center of Trenton. The governing body met once a year and transacted business in the Courthouse in Trenton. In March of 1780 an act of the New Jersey Legislature enabled the governing body to meet in the John Ringoes Tavern in Amwell, for the convenience of the County's inhabitants. In May 1790 the Legislature was petitioned to hold an election to fix a place where a Courthouse and Jail should be built for Hunterdon County. The election was held in October, and Flemington was chosen as the location. Mr. George Alexander, an inn-keeper, offered a half acre of his land for the first Courthouse and Jail. It was erected in the summer of 1791. This structure burned in February 1828; arson was suspected.

The historic Courthouse was rebuilt on the same site in May 1828, using some of the stone from the original building for the Jail portion at the rear of the Courthouse. The Jail was enlarged in 1925. A new Jail was built recently, located a block north of the Courthouse on Park Avenue. It is unusual in shape --- round, with a bright blue roof.

One of the distinguishing features of the historic Courthouse is the bell located in the cupola. It was installed with the building of the Courthouse in 1828, and was used to announce the holding of court or to announce that a jury had reached a verdict. The Courthouse was first lighted by gas, replaced by electric in 1894, again replaced by gas, then back to electric in 1927. Steam heat replaced the fireplaces in 1893. When the Courthouse was rebuilt following the fire in 1828, a corner-stone containing a Bible, the laws of New Jersey, a brass plate upon which was engraved the year of erection, the name of the architect, building committee, etc. and was all placed during a ceremony. In May 1813, the Flemington Aqueduct Company erected a trough in front of the Courthouse for the public to water horses, cattle, etc. In 1901, the Flemington Women's Club installed the present granite drinking fountain "for the convenience of the people and animals of this town".

Capital punishment by hanging has been recorded in Hunterdon County. In March 1907, Governor Stokes signed a bill outlawing hanging in New Jersey as the penalty for first degree murder, substituting electrocution. In April 1907 a jury found John Schuyler guilty of a first degree murder committed in January of that year. He was sentenced to die on the scaffold on June 28, 1907. It looked as if New Jersey might have its last hanging in Flemington. As a scaffold borrowed from Mercer County was being prepared, the execution was stayed. The penalty was later commuted on appeal.

In January 1935, in this century-old Courtroom, Bruno Hauptmann was tried for the crime of the fatal kidnapping of the son of Colonel Charles Lindbergh. The dramatic trial attracted world-wide attention. Hauptmann was found guilty and was electrocuted in Trenton. The witness chair from the trial can be seen in the left corner in front of the railing at the front of the main Courtroom. (click here to view the courthouse as it looks today)

In 1790, the Hunterdon County Freeholders met at Alexander's Tavern in Flemington. They decided that an election should be held at Meldrums Tavern in Ringoes to determine a location for the County Courthouse. Flemington, the County Seat for Hunterdon and parts of what are now Mercer County, was chosen to house the new Courthouse. Though little more than roads intersecting in the wilderness, Flemington was the intersecting point between Trenton, Philadelphia and New York.

The original Courthouse was begun in 1791, involving more than one hundred people in the effort. Asher Atkinson was superintendent of the construction. Fieldstone was brought in by farmers, cut by masons and erected by local laborers. Three years later, the building was completed on the site of the historic Courthouse. Symbolizing the new County Seat, the building was two stories and measured sixty by thirty-five feet. For thirty-seven years it served as the center of commercial and judicial life in the County.

Lawyers from all over the County crossed its threshold, some well steeped in judicial law and others with limited schooling, who studied under a local lawyer's patronage. One well-known attorney of the day was Thomas Potts Johnson, whose portrait hangs on the south wall of the main Courtroom above the retired jury chairs used in the Lindbergh trial. Admitted to the bar in 1794, Johnson had originally been a carpenter before reading law under his father-in-law Richard Stockton of Princeton. A story is told of a dispute that arose between Johnson and his opponent regarding a point of law. His adversary remarked in a derisive manner that he could not be taught law by a carpenter. Johnson rose to address the Court. 'May it please your Honors, the gentlemen has been pleased to refer to my having been a carpenter. True - I was a carpenter - I am proud of it, so was the reputed father of our Lord and Savior. And I could yet, given a block of wood, a mallet and chisel, hew something that would very much resemble my colleague's head. True, I could not put in brains, but it would have more manners.'"

On February 13, 1928 luck suddenly changed as fire attacked the Courthouse from within spouting flames from every window against the midnight sky. On that cold wintry night, it was soon evident that the building could not be saved. The best they could hope for was to save the Court's records and the surrounding buildings. Prisoners were quickly evacuated and housed nearby at an inn. The next day they were moved to the Somerset County Jail, and the Court set up temporary quarters at the Methodist Church.

Several committees were formed before final plans were determined for the rebuilding of the Courthouse. Salvage from the first building was utilized, and work began within the year to create the solid, imposing structure we see today. The corner-stone was laid May 7, 1828, and the first Court Session was opened by Judge Ewing on May 7, 1829.

The large white structure, with towering columns and commanding crowning lantern, resembles a Greek temple, appropriate for this temple of justice. Lawyer Nathanial Saxton was responsible for the design, which is primitive Classical Revival Architecture with both Greek and Roman influence. The classic structure shows its ship lap clapboard gable to the street, topped with arched windows in the south mounting lantern. A colonnade of four massive Doric Columns soars to the height of the body of the building. An old jail and keeper's rooms are to the rear. Offices were on the first floor of the Courthouse with courtrooms on the second and the grand jury room on the third floor.

In the 1870's, when the neighboring Hall of Records was built in the Italianate style, brackets were added to the Courthouse; but basically the original play has been adhered to. Thomas Capner was the superintendent of the completion of the 1828 Courthouse, which was built at a cost of $13,513.86. The land on which the two Courthouses have stood was given by George Alexander, with additional land donated later by Charles Bonnell.

Climb the front steps of this impressive civil building, enter the front hall, and step back in time to a country Courthouse. The front hall houses a display relating to the famous Lindbergh Kidnapping Trial. On the wall are copies of historic documents. There are pictures of missing persons including children. Beside them are the photographs of wanted felons, a strange and sad contrast. Along the hall were the Clerks' and Sheriff's offices and a Law Library, which was open to the public. Opposite the Law Library was a room which in 1935 served as the central press room for the trial. Here, eagerly awaited news on the trial was sent out by wire to the waiting public throughout the country and the world. Continuing to the rear, if you turn to the right, you can look out to see the entrance to the old Jail and the passageway outside where crowds stood to see Hauptmann brought from the Jail to the Courtroom. At that time, the guards were leery of such crowds and brought the prisoner by an inside passageway to a holding cell on the second floor.

Compared with the old Jail Cells, this holding cell seems like a palace with its gray paint and stainless steel facilities. However, it still has it own claustrophobic atmosphere and the ever present bars speak solemnly of the dreaded reality of crime. At the top of the stairs, on the first floor, is the back entrance to Courtroom #1, or the Criminal Court. Here Hauptmann was brought, as was anyone on trial for criminal offenses. Climbing one more flight to the second floor you find Courtroom #2 or the Civil Court, where domestic violence, corporate and civil cases were tired. Step inside Courtroom #2 to see the original spectator benches used in the Criminal Court during the Lindbergh trial. At the front of the Courtroom are the Judge's Bench, Defense and Prosecuting Desks and the chairs of the Jury. A civil hearing has six jurors and two alternates. A criminal trial has twelve jurors and two alternates, except for murder trials both parties may agree to have fourteen jurors and two alternates.

A trip through the old Jail is both revealing and frightening. On the second floor were three work release holding rooms for prisoners, four to a room with a central bathroom and kitchen - small, but bearable. On the floor below, things quickly went from dreariness to bearable. To the right of the front entrance was the guard's office, with an opening for talking and a small lock-up box, where an officer must leave his gun. That security measure was to prevent a prisoner from snatching the gun while being locked up. To the left was the room where the unflattering mug shots were taken. Behind that was a cell where a prisoner could talk with his lawyer, or a visitor could communicate through an opening. Further in were two rows of eight cells. Each is incredibly small, with just enough room for a bunk and facilities. Each cell mate had lost his right to privacy. The entire cell was open to watchful eyes of the guards, who walked up and down outside. Suddenly, the breath of fresh free air seems essential, and you feel a huge weight lift from your soul as you leave this incarceration area. No longer in use, the Jail once housed forty to forty-five inmates. A new County Jail has been built on Park Avenue.

Return to the front entrance of the Courthouse, and climb the curving wooden stairs to the second floor and the main Courtroom. Enter through the wooden doors to the Courtroom. A simple, yet historic, room stands before you. The mahogany pews, railings, jury chairs, and desks of the judge, clerk, defendant, and prosecutor are all here. The red drapes, carpeting and center aisle lead you forward to the basic legal system of the Country.

The American Flag and the County Flag stand solemnly and pridefully behind the Judge's chair. Fans slowly turn overhead, seeming to move the air of doubt, sorting through the clutter to the truth. A door on the left is for the court officials and the one on the right opens to the Judge's Chambers. A small rear balcony is supported by four Doric columns. Here, during the Lindbergh Trial, members of the press sat ready to rush news to the world. At the front far left of the room is a row of now empty chairs, which were used by the Jurors during the Lindbergh trial. Also inside the railing, on the left, is the witness chair used during that same trial. On the far right, just outside the jurors' railing, is what looks like an old-fashioned high chair. It is an antique chair used by the security guard to watch over the jurors to be sure they do not give or receive signals or information from anyone or talk to each other.

Judge Thomas Witaker Trenchard's portrait hangs to the left of the Judge's desk. He sat on the bench during the Hauptmann-Lindbergh trial. The "Trial of the Century", as it was called, brought great attention and notoriety to Flemington. People came from everywhere to view this saddest of spectacles. The victim, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., a small, innocent twenty month old, had already lost his all too short life. The defendant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who never stopped swearing his innocence, was on trial for his life. No one except the child, the defendant, or the murderer will ever know the real truth. This remains a great topic of discussion, interest and debate among the residents of Hunterdon County.

The Union Hotel and every possible room in town were full of spectators, among them such celebrities as Jack Benny and Robert Ripley. During the six weeks the trial was underway, it was covered by top radio commentators of the time, Lowell Thomas, Gabriel Heatter, and Walter Winchel and writers Damon Runyon, Dorothy Kilgallen and Adela Roberts St. John. This building, which has witnessed human drama on all levels from the famous to the obscure, is now listed on the Historic American Building Survey. As part of the Flemington Borough Historic District, it is also listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

A new Hunterdon County Justice Center was constructed beginning in the spring of 1994. A ground-breaking ceremony was held at the corner of Capner Street and Park Avenue, for the construction of the new 115,000 square feet Hunterdon County Justice Center. In June, 1996, after much press and public speculation on the need for and architectural value of the new court house, the Hunterdon County Court offices moved in. This grand 3-story structure now houses 5 court rooms (with a potential of adding 4 more) has offices for the Judges, Prosecutor, Family, Criminal and Civil Case Management Units, Trial Court Administration, Probation Department, Law Library, Grand Jury Suite, Sheriff's Office and Surrogate's Court. Located adjacent to the Hunterdon County Jail, an underground tunnel is being constructed to escort prisoners directly from the jail to holding cells at the Justice Center.

State of the art security equipment has been installed for the safety of not only the judges and other court employees, but also for the general public. As you go through the main entrance, you will find at least two Sheriff's Deputies waiting to greet you. All bags are search and/or scanned and you must enter through a metal detector. There are security cameras in all the Court rooms and hallways and at each exit and at the main entrance. Even employees are restricted to access of certain areas of the building. Each employee is issued a security card which is to be used to access certain areas of the building. If this card is not programmed to allow access to the area, the employee may not enter without an escort from a Sheriff's Deputy or another privileged employee.

Installed throughout the New Justice Center is artwork contributed by local artists and residents. The wide hallways provide a perfect place to view the many different scenes of the County as interpreted by these artists.

READ MORE HISTORY ON THE COUNTY BY DOWNLOADING "The First 300 Years of Hunterdon County".




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COUNTY OF HUNTERDON               (908) 788-1102
   71 Main Street, PO Box 2900          commissioners@co.hunterdon.nj.us
   Flemington, New Jersey 08822


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