Erie County, Pennsylvania

History of Erie County, Pennsylvania 1884

by Samuel P. Bates, 

Submitted by Gaylene Kerr Banister


Chapter XVII - County Buildings

The first court in the county was held in the "big room" of Buehler's Hotel, at the corner of French and Third streets, Erie, which was then and for many years afterward the central portion of the town. From there the place of holding the court was changed to the log jail on Second street, and the quarters in that modest structure being found too small, another removal was made to apartments in Conrad Brown's building, on the opposite corner of Third and French streets from Buehler's. These premises were occupied until the completion of the first court house in 1808. The latter was a small brick building that stood in the West Park, at Erie, a little north of the soldiers' and sailors' monument. The county was too poor to afford the total expense, and the State generously granted $2,000 toward the erection of the building. On Sunday morning, March 23, 1823, between the hours of 12 and 3 o'clock, this court house was destroyed by fire, with all the books, papers and records, inflicting a loss to the county which cannot be measured in dollars and cents, and the effects of which were felt for fully a generation after the event. The fire was caused by taking ashes out of a stove on Saturday, throwing them into a nail keg and neglecting to move them out of doors. When the flames were discovered, they had advanced too far to permit the saving of any of the contents of the building. The ensuing May term of court was held in the Erie Academy, and that edifice was rented for county purposes and occupied by the various county officials for two years.

On the 2d of April, 1823, P. S. V. Hamot, Rufus S. Reed, Thomas Laird, Robert Brown, James J. Sterrett, John Morris and Thomas H. Sill entered into an agreement to advance $2,000 for one year, without interest, to the county for the purpose of rebuilding the court house. This proposition was accepted by the Commissioners, who advertised at once for proposals. The job of filling the cellar of the old building, and packing it with clay, was let to Abiather Crane on the 21st of April ensuing. On the 24th of May, a contract for rebuilding the walls on the old foundation was let to Thomas Mehaffey and Joseph Henderson for $1,950. The carpenter work and furnishing was awarded on the 14th of January, 1824, to William Benson and William Himrod, of Waterford, for $2,000. September 7, 1824, the Commissioners contracted with Thomas Mehaffey to lath and plaster the building, and on the same day with John Dunlap to finish the carpenter work, the consideration being $434 in the first instance, and $100 in the second.

The new building was completed and occupied in the spring of 1825. It stood nearly on the site of its predecessor, and was a two-story brick structure, surmounted by a wooden cupola. The entrance fronted the south, and opened into a vestibule, from which three other doors gave access respectively to the court room proper and to the galleries. The interior consisted of one room, with galleries around three sides. For nearly thirty years, this was the principal hall of the town, being used miscellaneously for religious worship, political meetings, entertainments, and in fact for almost every public purpose. The building was long the most elegant court house in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and its erection was a heavy burden upon the county. The County Commissioners hesitated for some time about levying a tax to meet the expenditure, the credit of the county fell to a low figure, and no improvement took place until a member of the board was elected who was not afraid to do his duty. In the cupola of the court house hung a bell which had quite an interesting history. It belonged originally to the British ship Detroit, captured by Perry in the battle of Lake Erie. From that vessel, it was transferred to the United States brig Niagara, one of the lake fleet, where it was in use till 1823, when it was placed in the navy yard at Erie. On the abandonment of the navy yard in 1825, when most of the material was sold at auction, the old bell was bought by R. S. Reed, who disposed of it to the County Commissioners, by whom it was hung in the cupola of the court house. In 1854, after the arrival of the bell for the present court house, the old bell was stolen, but was recovered in the course of a few months, and finally purchased by the city of Erie for the sum of $105.

A little to the west of the court house was a two-story building containing the county offices.

The corner-stone of the third and present court house was laid on Tuesday, August 17, 1852, at 2 P. M., an address being delivered on the occasion by Hon. John Galbraith, President Judge. The building required nearly three years to complete, the first court held therein being on the 7th of May, 1855. It was modeled upon the court house at Carlisle, Penn., after plans by Thomas H. Walter, an architect of considerable celebrity. The Commissioners undertook to do the work without contract, and to that end employed John Hill to superintend the carpenter work and William Hoskinson the mason work, both at $3 per day. Daniel Young, of Erie, furnished the brick; William Judson & Co., of Waterford, the timber and lumber; Levi Howard, of Franklin Township, the stone; and Cadwell & Bennett, of Erie, did the roofing. On May 1, 1854, after about $30,000 had been expended, a contract was made with Hoskinson & Hill to finish the building, put up the fence, grade the grounds, and do all work pertaining to the completion of the edifice, for $61,000, deducting what had already been expended. Afterward, there was an allowance of $2,392 to these parties for extras, making the cost of the building when accepted by the Commissioners over $63,000. Subsequent repairs, additions and improvements have increased this sum to about $100,000.

The court house is 61 feet by 132 in size, and contains all the county offices, each in a separate fire-proof room. The first story, apart from the entrance hall, is equally divided by a vestibule running the full length, which is crossed by another in the center. At each end of the two vestibules is a door, making four in all, opening into the building. On the right hand, entering from the front, are the Prothonotary's and Recorder's offices, and on the left, those of the Sheriff, Treasurer, County Commissioners and Clerk of the Courts. The court room, a large apartment capable of holding nearly a thousand persons, with high, plainly frescoed walls and ceilings, is in the second story, being reached by two flights of stairs beginning in the hall on the first floor and terminating in another on the upper. The part of the room assigned to the bench and bar, which is at the north end, opposite the entrance, is railed off from the balance and neatly carpeted. The seats for spectators rise gradually from the bar to the door, and are more comfortable and convenient than usual in buildings of this sort.

Portraits of some of the former Judges and older members of the bar adorn the walls. The room is an excellent one for the purpose, aside from a defect in its acoustic properties, to remedy which several attempts have been made without avail. In the rear of the court room are the grand jury room -- which is also the receptacle of the law library -- two other jury rooms, a ladies' room, wash room, etc. A narrow stairway back of the court room is used by the officers and attorneys and for bringing in prisoners. The building is heated by steam, lighted with gas, and supplied with water by the city water system. Taken altogether, with several serious defects, it is one of the handsomest and most convenient court houses in the State, a credit to the county and an ornament to the city of Erie.

A tasty brick building for the janitor was erected during the year 1880, between the court house and jail, at a cost of about $800. The lot on which the court house stands was purchased for the County Commissioners in 1804 by Judge John Vincent, who was present at the dedication of the building in 1852. It was upon this lot within the old jail ground that Henry Francisco, the only person ever executed in the county, was hung by Sheriff Andrew Scott, in 1838.

The County Jail
The first jail was a small log building, erected soon after the organization of the county, on the southwest corner of Holland and Second streets. It was in this modest structure that court was once held, as before stated. A second jail, of brick, was put up on the site of the present court house in 1830. The third and existing jail was erected in 1850, and remodeled in 1869 at an expense of $39,671, under the superintendence of R. C. Chapman. It consists of a Sheriff's residence and jail combined, both three stories high, fronting on Fifth street, in the rear of the court house. In a wing on the west side in the office of the warden, through which all persons have to pass on entering or leaving the jail. A high stone wall completely incloses the jail proper, leaving a small yard, where the prisoners are allowed to exercise. The interior of the jail is divided into six rows of cells, two rows to each story, and each cell is closed with a heavily grated door. In front of the cells, on the first and second floors, at a distance of about three feet from the line of doors, runs an iron grating, which answers the double purpose of keeping the prisoners more secure and giving them a narrow pathway in which to stretch their limbs. The cells on the third story do not have this extra grating, and are used for women and the milder class of criminals. Every cell is alike in its contents, being provided with two iron frames attached to the walls for bedsteads, a mattress and blankets, a water closet, and a supply of city water. The floors and stairways are of iron, the walls are of stone, and no wood is seen in the building aside from the tables and seats. On the third floor of the Sheriff's house is the hospital, in which is a bath tub and other conveniences for the sick.

The regular bill of fare for the prisoners is as follows: Breakfast -- a loaf of bread and cup of coffee; dinner -- meat, potatoes, and sometimes other vegetables; supper -- a cup of tea and the balance of the bread left from breakfast and dinner. The meals are handed in to the prisoners through a narrow opening in the wall between the jail and the Sheriff's kitchen. To the above is frequently added some palatable dish, through the kindness of the Sheriff's family, and on holidays the prisoners are usually treated to roast turkey. The average of inmates is about twenty. This number is generally doubled tow or three weeks before the Court of Quarter Sessions, and correspondingly reduced after they adjourn. Prisoners of the worst class are sentenced to the Western Penitentiary at Allegheny City; young men who are convicted of the first offense, to the Allegheny County Work House; and boys and girls to the State Reform School at Morganza, Washington County.

The first jailer was Robert Irvin, who was succeeded by John Gray, James Gray, William Judd, Robert Kincaid and Cornelius Foy. John Gray held the position, off and on, for many years. The first Sheriff who acted in the capacity of jailer was Albert Thayer, who was elected in 1825. For some years past the Sheriff's duties have been too onerous to allow of his taking immediate charge of the jail, and the institution has been in care of a warden, acting under and responsible to that officer. No employment is given to the prisoners, and they spend the day time in reading, chatting, mending their clothing and concocting mischief.

The Almshouse
In the year 1832, while John H. Walker was a member of the Assembly, he procured an act ceding the third section of two thousand acres of State land in Mill Creek Township, west of Erie, to the borough, the proceeds to be used in constructing a canal basin in the harbor. It was stipulated in the act that one hundred acres should be reserved to Erie County on which to erect an almshouse, the land to be selected by three commissioners appointed by the County Commissioners. The latter officers, on May 7, 1833, named William Miles, George Moore and David mcNair, who chose the piece of ground on the Ridge road, three miles west of Erie, which has ever since been known as the "poor house farm." The original tract was increased to about one hundred and thirteen acres including the allowance by the purchase of a small piece from Mr. Warfel in 1878.

Soon after the selection of the farm, an agitation began for the erection of a county almshouse on the property. A proposition to that effect was submitted to the people in 1839, and, after a hard fight, was voted down by a majority of 154. The friends of the measure claimed that the question had not been fairly treated, and it was again brought before the people at the spring election of 1840, when it was carried by the close vote of 1,599 in favor to 1,594 in opposition. Three Directors of the Poor were elected the same year. Contracts were soon after let for the construction of a building, and by the fall of 1841 it was ready for the reception of the paupers. Before that, each borough and township took care of its own poor, under the supervision of two overseers elected by their citizens. The original building was of brick, and for the time, was one of considerable magnitude.

The present large and imposing edifice was commenced in 1870 and substantially completed in 1871, though the finishing and furnishing continued until 1873. Its cost, as shown by the requisitions upon the County Commissioners from 1869 to 1873, was $118,000. A further sum of $10,000 was voted in 1874, of which perhaps one half was applied to the improvement of the building and grounds. About $3,000 of the balance are understood to have been used in building the barn, and nearly $2,000 in putting down gas wells upon the farm. The building for insane male persons was added in 1875, at a cost of about $2,000.

The almshouse stands on a rise of ground between the Ridge road and Lake Shore Railroad, facing the former, with which it communicates by a wide avenue lined on both sides with young trees. The main building is of brick, four stories high, 188 feet long by 44 to 46 wide, with a cupola in the center and another at each end. Extending from the center on the north side is a three-story brick wing, 86x30feet, and a short distance to the west is the small two-story brick building above referred to, for the care and safe-keeping of insane males. On the first floor of the main building are the Steward's office and family apartments, the men's sitting room, store room, bath room, etc. The three other floors are divided into sleeping rooms, except that a large space at the west end of the second story is used as the female hospital. The north wing contains the paupers' dining room and kitchen on the first, the women's insane department on the second, and the men's hospital on the third floor. The capacity of the building is for about four hundred inmates. All the cooking for the paupers is done by steam. The heating is effected mainly be steam generators, in part by natural gas from wells on the farm, which also supply the light. The water is pumped from a spring to a tank on the fourth story, from which it is distributed over the entire building. Attached to the building is a medical depository and a small library, the latter the contribution of Hon. Henry Souther.

The food supplied to the inmates is clean and abundant, though plain. Breakfast is made up of beef soup, meat, potatoes, bread and tea or coffee, as the parties choose. For dinner, they are furnished coffee with sugar and milk, one kind of meat, potatoes or beans, wheat bread, and frequently soup, turnips, beets and other vegetables. To this bill of fare is added on Sundays ginger cake and some kind of pie. Supper usually consists of bread, coffee and cold meat, with occasionally a bowl of rice. Each pauper is given a pint of coffee and helps him or herself to the other articles on the table unless incapable by weakness or deformity. The hours for meals are: Breakfast at 7:15, dinner at 12:30, and supper at 5:30 or 6. Every inmate is obliged to be in bed by 9 o'clock P. M., and to rise by half past six in the morning. Those who are over thirty-five years of age are allowed a certain quantity of tobacco each week. Few of the paupers are able to work and those who are have to make themselves useful, the men by helping in the garden or on the farm, and the women by sewing or doing household service.

The sleeping apartments are plain, but comfortable. Each inmate is provided with a cheap bedstead, straw tick, two sheets, either a feather or straw pillow, and in winter with two comforters. They generally sleep a dozen or two in one large room. Great care is taken to keep the bedding clean, in order to prevent the spread of disease.

The poor house farm is one of the best in the county, and has generally been kept under fine cultivation. A few rods north of the buildings is a large spring, which will furnish an ample supply of water for all the needs of the institution to the end of time. The barn is of the modern style, with basement stable. A little to the east, inclosed by a neat fence, is the new pauper burial ground, which already contains the bodies of about 100 unfortunates. Each grave is marked by a stone and a number corresponding with the one in the death book.

The charity system of the county is in charge of three Directors of the Poor, one of whom is elected annually. They employ a Steward of the almshouse, a Secretary and Treasurer, an Attorney, a Physician for the almshouse (who also attends to the Erie poor), and one physician each at Corry, North East, Union, Waterford, Albion, Harbor Creek, Edinboro, Mill Village, Girard, Wattsburg, Middleboro, Springfield and Fairview. The subordinate employees at the almshouse are one engineer, two farmers, one keeper and one nurse for the insane men, one keeper of the hospital, one janitor at the office, two keepers for the insane women, and four female servants. Only those who are thought to be incurably insane are kept at the institution. Those for whom there is still hope are sent to the State hospital at Warren.

The number of paupers in the almshouse on the 1st of January, 1881, were -- white male adults, 136; colored male adults, 1; white female adults, 77; colored female adults, 1; white children, 5; colored children, 1; total 221; of whom 81 were natives and 140 foreigners. Of the above there were -- insane males, 20; insane females, 21; total, 41; natives, 26; foreigners, 15; 2 males and 3 females were blind, and 2 males were idiotic.

During the quarter ending on the 31st of December, 1880, the Directors gave outdoor relief to 214 families, located as follows: Erie, 157; Corry, 20; Union,10; North East, 3; Wattsburg, 5; Edinboro, 1; Lockport, 2; Girard, 5; Conneaut, 4; Elk Creek, 4; Le Boeuf, 1; Washington, 1; and Waterford, 1. From the 1st of January to April 1, 1881, the number of tramps kept over night was 149. They were given supper, lodging and breakfast, and then obliged to "move on." Their lodging room is in the basement. The Directors of the Poor furnish the coal for the tramp rooms in the police stations at Erie and Corry, as well as the crackers and cheese which are given the tramps to eat.

The keeper of the City Hospital at Erie is paid by the Directors of the Poor, who also furnish the coal for the building. The regular pay of the keeper is $22.50 a month. In case he has a small-pox patient this is increased to $3 a day.

By way of showing how pauperism has increased since the war for the Union, some figures for 1860 and 1880 are taken from the official reports:

1860 -- Population of Erie County, 49,432. Inmates of the almshouse at the beginning of the year, 107. Total expense for the support of the poor of the entire county, including some old debts on building, $7,629.

1880 -- Population, 74,573. Paupers in the almshouse, 221. Total expense for the whole county, $28,659. Increase of indoor paupers, double; of expense, nearly four times.

An Extraordinary Case

The following statement from the Erie Dispatch of October 20, 1882, deserves a place in this connection:

"Yesterday there died at the almshouse one of the most notable cases on record, a case which has caused a vast amount of discussion among the different physicians under whose observation it has fallen from time to time. The deceased's name is Clara McArthur, who was born in Tionesta, Venango County, fifty-six years ago. When a girl, she was very bright and active until twelve years of age, when she lifted her sick mother from the bed, then immediately picked up a large kettle of hot water which she placed by the bedside.While in the act of raising the latter weight some chord, in her own words, appeared to give way, and in consequence of the strain, which affected the heart, she was unable to take a dozen steps or sit up more than a few minutes at a time until her twenty-seventh year. During these fifteen years the heart almost ceased to throb, and any effort to walk or take a sitting posture brought on an attack of fainting.

"While in her twenty-eighth year, she recovered sufficiently to be taken to church, and while sitting in the pew met a friend she had not seen for many years, who carried a child in her arms. Miss McArthur, forgetting her condition of weakness, lifted the child into her own lap and fell to the floor unconscious, the exertion having proved too much for her strength. Since that unfortunate moment, the poor woman was unable to sit up longer than an hour at a time for more than six years, after which time, the malady growing worse, this change of position had to be discontinued. Lying helpless from that time on she was admitted to the almshouse sixteen years ago, and has not occupied any position other than reclining on the back to the hour of her death. The pulse could scarcely be detected by the most delicate touch, and in consequence of the heart's feeble action she was so keenly sensitive to the slightest breath of chilliness that artificial means for keeping any degree of warmth in the body was continually employed. For months at a time she was unable to speak. Dr. Lovett, the county physician, believed she would have died in a very short time if compelled to assume a sitting or standing attitude. "Miss McArthur was very intelligent and passed the hours in perusing religious tracts, periodicals and the Bible. A Christian more devout never lived, and an unwavering trust in the Creator enabled her to bear her affliction with resigned patience, an expression of cheerfulness never being absent from her face. Amiable in disposition, she never had a complaint to make, and was a favorite with every inmate of the building, while those to whom she was intrusted took pleasure in administering to the wants of the helpless woman."


Requisitions of the Directors of the Poor, For the Support
of the Poor, Exclusive of Building Fund, etc.







    $ 5,000



    $ 20,000

































The following are extracts from the report of the Board of Public Charities of Pennsylvania, of January 1, 1883:


Criminal Business of the Courts of Erie County
for the Year 1882

Persons charged with crime


Bills laid before the grand jury


True bills




Presentments made


Bills tried






Nolle proseques


Plead guilty


In prison, September 30, 1882


Recognizances forfeited


Amount of recognizances



Nature of offenses for which convictions were had: Aggravated assault, 2; arson, 2; assault, 1; assault and battery, 3; assault to kill, 2; burglary, etc., 4; disorderly breach of the peace, 2; false pretense, 2; fornication, etc., 2; larceny, 13; misdemeanors, 2; robbery, 2; vagrancy, 6; violation of the liquor law, 6.



Statistics of the Erie County Prison
for the Year 1882



Salaries, wages, etc.


Fuel and light


Clothing, etc.






Other expenses


Total expenses


Average number of inmates


Annual cost of provisions and clothing per capita


Weekly cost per capita




Erie County Convicts in
Western Penitentiary During 1881

Whole number


Average number


Received during the year (all white)


Could read and write


Days supported


Value of convict labor


Charged to county, being deficiency of support by labor






Commitments From Erie County to the
Reform School at Morganza

Boys, 8, girls, 3




Read imperfectly


Read and write imperfectly


Read and write well


Read, write and cipher


Number of inmates from county at the end of the year
(boys, 16, girls, 4)






Work House
The number from Erie County in the Allegheny County Work House, for the last quarter of 1880, was thirteen. This is not a State institution, and the prisoners from Erie are kept under a special contract between the Commissioners of the two counties.






Indigent insante from Erie County at Dixmont, Sept. 30, 1882


Indigent insane in the State Hospital at Warren (males, 39, females, 30)


Inmates of the Training School for Feeble Minded Children from Erie County (boys, 3, girls, 2)






Statistics of Expenses for the Support of the Poor
of Erie County for the Year Ending September 30, 1881

Whole number in almshouse


Sane (men, 81, women, 57, children, 2)


Insane and idiotic (men, 21, women, 19, children, 2)


Blind (men, 2, women, 1)






Hospital cases (men, 17, women, 8)


Expenses for 1882 (total in-door)


Expenses for 1882 (total out-door)


Expenses for 1882, provisions


Expenses for 1882, salaries, wages and fees


Expenses for 1882, fuel and light


Expenses for 1882, clothing and bedding


Expenses for 1882, insane in hospitals


Expenses for 1882, repairs


Expenses for 1882, extraordinary


Expenses for 1882, all other




Net cost of almshouse and out-door relief


Bibliography: Samuel P. Bates, History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, (Warner, Beers & Co.: Chicago, 1884), Part II, Chapter XVII, pp. 283-293.



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