Grant County Courthouse
First Courthouse (1833-1837)
Grant County began constructing its first court house on May 8, 1833. The need for the courthouse came with the ever growing population of Grant County. The house was erected on a mound surrounded by a large forest of trees. It was contracted to James Trimble and was to be built for a sum of $684.00. The court house was to stand two stories high and contain four rooms. The bottom floor contained the actual court room, while the top floor contained three offices. This court house only remained for three years until a new one was necessary to accommodate the growing number of people to the community (Brant and Fuller 287).
Second Courthouse (1837-1880)
Third Courthouse (1880-present)
E. E. Myers of Detroit, Michigan was contracted for the job with a $6,700 salary. His job was to plan and supervise the job which was to be a replica of a standing court house at Elyria, Ohio. He envisioned the court house to resemble a capital, not a fortress, as many court houses in that day were portrayed (Dilts “Grant/Marion”). The job of constructing the court house was awarded to the Hinsdale-Doyle Granite Company on July 17, 1880. These contractors were David B. Sweetser and Philip Matter and the job was to be completed for $100,000 (Frazee 1)
Grant County’s Meetingplace
Despite the courthouse being resurrected as a place to serve justice, it has also stood as a central meeting place for the townspeople of Marion. The lawn of the courthouse has served as the scenery for Ku Klux Klan rallies, labor speeches, murders, and lynchings. These events have all played important roles in the history of Marion and Grant County.
1904 Visit by Mother Jones
In July of 1904, the Grant County Courthouse lawn welcomed a much heralded speaker, Mother Jones. Mother Jones, also known as Mary Hams, was known as one of the most dangerous women in America. Mary Harris came to Marion as a sixty-five year old lady to speak on behalf of the United Mine Workers (UMW). Her calling to public speaking came when she was educated about coal mining and the dangers involved in the occupation. The speech she gave recalled the recent events of a bloody battle between the Victor Coal Company and the UMW. The battle occurred when the men went on strike and the owners turned to blood to try to prevent the strike. Jones’ speech was warmly welcomed by the many workingmen in the audience and they would forever remember her slogan, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” (Munn 15 March 2001).
Thursday August 7, 1930, is a date most people in Marion, Indiana will never forget. Three young men, James Cameron, Tom Shipp, and Abe Smith sat in the county jail awaiting trial for murdering a 24-year old white male named Claude Deeter. After being questioned for many hours, they sat in their cell waiting for their initial hearing at the court house. Around nine o’clock that evening, 4,000 people had already gathered on the jail house lawn shouting racial slurs and demanding the keys to the cells which held these criminals. Sheriff Jake Campbell refused to give the keys to the mob, but that did not stop them from proceeding with their plan.
The mob broke into the jail with sledgehammers they had obtained from the Marion Machine Foundry where some of the mobsters were employed. It did not take them long to arrive at the cells where the three boys were being held. Abe Smith was the first to be beaten and killed, followed by Tom Shipp. The two bodies of these young, black teens were dragged to the courthouse lawn where they continued to be beaten. Finally, a rope was tied around their neck and thrown over a maple tree on the courthouse lawn, signaling the lynchings a success. The men continued to stab the victims and even tried to burn their bodies, but their attempts failed. Police arrived from several nearby towns; Muncie, Indianapolis, and Kokomo, but recorded only “peace and good humor.”
With the proud lynchers of Marion crowding around the bodies, many cut clothing from their bodies and stripped bark from the lynching tree. Many photographers also arrived to record this tragic event. Marion photographer, Lawrence Beitler, captured one of the most gruesome photographs ever taken. This photograph, with the Marion Court House lawn in the background, is now used as the generic lynching picture in most books. The bodies were not cut down until 5:45 the next morning when Sheriff Campbell calmed the crowd and cut the bodies from the Maple Tree. The lynchings were over, but the memory would never leave Marion (Madison 5-1 1).
1995 KKK Rally
Almost 65 years later, hatred was again being felt on the courthouse lawn. With men in robes, delivering an anti-black, anti-gay message, the town of Marion was again involved in protest. Many of the people who attended the downtown rally were anti-Klan supporters including James Cameron, the man who survived the lynchings in 1930. The rally was short and not very productive due to the low number of Klan supporters. The police department still issued 160 officers to watch over the event, including a helicopter circling overhead. The people of Marion proved the Klan was unwelcome in Grant County and showed their desire for racial equality and better morals, a great step forward from 1930 (Theobald 26 November 1995).
The year 1996 brought new problems and issues for the Grant County courthouse. After the end of a short divorce hearing, James H. “Skip” Roberts decided to shoot his wife, who had just received a divorce from him. He then shot himself. The murder/suicide occurred on the south steps of the courthouse. After a five minute divorce hearing, Sally Roberts left the courthouse with a male friend. James Roberts also left the courthouse and shot Sally in the head at close range. He immediately turned the gun on himself. Both died instantly and experienced little pain. Although it is not known whether the gun was taken into the hearing or obtained from a car after the hearing, this event called into question the security in place at the courthouse. Security measures have now been expanded at the courthouse (Patterson and Fleming 12 October 1996)
With all of the historical events witnessed by the courthouse, it is obviously one of the most important landmarks in Grant County. Even with the many different buildings that occupied the land, it is still heralded as an important historical landmark in Grant County. With the growth of Marion, came the need for an improved and larger courthouse. Throughout more than 188 years of existence, the county centerpiece has witnessed many events that have shaped the county itself. The courthouse has served as more than a place where justice is served, it has also maintained the status as the center of Marion.
- Brant and Fuller. The History of Grant County. Indiana: Biographical Sketches. Chicago, IL. 1886.
- Dilts, Jon. The 92 Magnificent Indian Courthouse Revised Edition. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN. 1991.
- Frazee, Alva T. A Brief History of the Grant County Courthouse. Marion, IN. 12 August
- Madison, James H. A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America. Palgrave. New York, New York. 2001.
- McKown, June R. Marion: A Pictorial History. G. Bradley Publishing Company. 1989.
- Munn, William F. “Mother Jones speaks in Marion” Chronicle Tribune. 15 May 2001.
- Patterson, Steve and Fleming, Lorell. “Shootings at the courthouse.” Chronicle Tribune 12 October 1996.
- Theobald, Bill. “Marion Klan rally mostly noise.” Indianapolis Star. 26 November 1995.
- “The New Courthouse!” Marion Chronicle. 8 April 1880.
This article was written by Meredith Turner and submitted on January 10, 2002 for Mr. Munn's AP US History class.