Clark Brown, Union newspaper editor and local historian, wrote “History of the Courthouses of Franklin County,” published in the Feb. 10 and 17, 1922, editions of the Republican-Tribune. He recounted two attempts Washington citizens made to claim the county seat for their community. Suzanne Hill condensed those newspaper accounts for this article. She is a member of the Washington Historical Society Board of Trustees.
After the county seat moved to Union in 1827, a courthouse was built on the town square. By the 1840s, the courthouse had deteriorated. Some wanted to move the county seat to Washington rather than build a new one in Union.
On March 3, 1844, a petition was submitted to the county court (now known as county commission) for “the removal of the seat of justice to Washington on the Missouri River.” The court found 296 of 998 names were not legal. The remaining 703 were less than three-fifths of the 1,358 county taxpayers. A large number of signers recanted. The petition was rejected.
A new courthouse was built in 1848, but by 1865, it began cracking. Judge John Wall of St. Clair wanted to repair and enlarge the courthouse. Talk began again of moving the county seat to Washington. Judges Amos P. Foster of Washington and Francis Becker of Labadie refused to make a decision until the “question of removal was settled.”
Judge Wall resigned, and the governor appointed John T. Vitt to fill the vacancy. The other two judges elected Vitt presiding judge. He quickly had four iron rods put through the building.
The court received a petition signed by 1,200 taxpayers on May 5, 1868, to place a proposition on the November ballot to move the county seat to Washington.
During the next five months, only two judges were present at each court session. When only two judges were present, the presiding judge had the majority vote. Becker signed a statement noting that Vitt approved building plans and a bid to repair and build an addition before Becker understood what was happening.
Foster and Becker signed a statement declaring that neither voted in favor of letting contracts, claiming that Vitt had done it when only one other judge was present. Clark Brown found no reason why only two judges were present during this time.
Washington citizens brought injunction proceedings before James W. Owens (son of William and Lucinda Owens), the circuit judge who lived in Washington. Foster and Becker filed consent that the injunction be granted. Owens filed a motion on May 29, 1868, to “enjoin and restrain the said John T. Vitt, presiding judge of the county court, Amos P. Foster and Francis Becker, associate judges, their agents, servants, contractors, and all officers from enlarging or repairing the court house or entering into contract with anyone to do so.” Sheriff Julius Wilhelmi was to carry out the court’s order.
Owens left for Jefferson City. Upon returning June 8, he learned his injunction was ignored. Contractor Jacob Baur was rushing to complete the courthouse work. Angrily, Owens issued a warrant to bring Vitt, Becker and Baur before him.
Wilhelmi served Baur papers, delivering him to two deputies. Baur escaped. Vitt refused arrest and left, while the sheriff summoned a posse which could not find him. Wilhelmi lacked time to serve papers on Becker. Owens, enraged, ordered the sheriff to summons a large posse to take Vitt.
The posse traveled to Union on horseback and some in buggies. Many men and boys from Washington followed on horses. Before arriving at Union, they patronized a saloon. Several posse members chased an enemy scout they found at the saloon. Their horses were exhausted and unable to overtake the scout. Vitt fled after he heard the posse was coming for him. When the posse arrived, they arrested Baur a second time. He escaped again.
Women of Union mingled with the men, making a racket to scatter the posse. “The instruments used were cowbells, tin pans, which were beat upon by rolling pins, tin kettles, tin pails, tin pots, wash boilers, dinner horns, etc., etc.”
Because Wilhelmi had failed again, Owens appointed Louis Wehrmann acting sheriff. He returned with Becker, unable to find Vitt, Foster or Baur.
Deputy Sheriff Andrew Fink found Vitt and Baur on July 1, taking them to Gray Summit and boarding the afternoon train to St. Louis. Along with lawyer James Halligan, they went before the U.S. district judge who granted a writ of habeas corpus, allowing their release. They went before Judge Owens, who received the writ. Vitt and Baur returned to Union with Fink.
Vitt applied to the Supreme Court of Missouri for an injunction forbidding Owens from interfering with the courthouse building. The court granted the injunction and the building was completed.
Washington continued working to move the county seat there. Citizens raised $6,100 in cash and the city issued a warrant to pay out $25,000. The funds were deposited in the Washington Savings Bank, which guaranteed the funds. The election to move the county seat resulted with 1,419 for and 1,332 against. It failed with a less than two-thirds vote. The county seat remained in Union with the courthouse addition completed in fall of 1868.
The Washington Historical Society is located at the northeast corner of Fourth and Market streets. It is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.