HUNTERDON COUNTY COURT HOUSE: A Narrative History
It stands at the corner of Main and Court Streets, a symbol of a justice system that has served the residents of Hunterdon County since 1714. The historic Hunterdon County Court House in Flemington remains today a majestic statement of the importance of the rule of law.
Built in 1828, the Court House was intended to be a "temple of justice." Its Greek revival style, high stone foundation and round, classical columns created the impression of an ancient Greek temple. Even the bell in its octagonal, framed cupola signified the importance of the business within. Its peal was used to announce the holding of court and a jury reaching a verdict.
It was the second court house to be built on a half acre of land donated to the county by George Alexander, a local innkeeper. As a result of an unpopular referendum in 1790, Flemington had been chosen as the seat of county government. A Court House and jail were erected the following year on Alexander's land, but resentment over the selection of Flemington remained widespread. People living to the south looked to Trenton, at that time a part of Hunterdon and site of the county's original court house and jail. Also, dissatisfied were residents at the upper end of the county who wanted Clinton as the seat of government.
When the first Flemington court house and jail burned to the ground in 1828, arson was suspected. The Hunterdon Democrat reported that "there is some reason to believe the fire was the work of design." At the time, it was widely believed that the county would relocated its offices if the court house and jail were destroyed; that, however, was not the case. Despite "most strenuous efforts to prevent the building of a new court house here," the Democrat reported, "when it was finally decided to go on with the work, the joy of the people knew no bounds and everybody in town got drunk in honor of the event."
Using stone from the original structure, the elegant new court house and its jail were built at a cost of $13,513.86. A cornerstone containing a Bible, the laws of New Jersey and a brass plate with date, names of architect and building committee members was laid on May 12, 1828. Today, the location of that cornerstone is a mystery.
In 1907, the Hunterdon County Court House almost made the record books as site of the last public hanging in the state. However, as the scaffold, borrowed from Mercer County, was being prepared, the execution of John Schuyler was stayed. The death penalty was later commuted on appeal.
Twenty-eight years later, the century old court house again was in the headlines, but this time the eyes of the entire nation were focused on Flemington. In January of 1935, a German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried and convicted for the fatal kidnapping of the twenty month old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, residents of Hopewell. Because of Colonel Lindbergh's fame as an aviator, the trial created a media frenzy. Newsreels of the trial were played in movie houses across the country; radio announcers, among them WOR's Gabriel Heeter, gave the nation a play-by-play account. From his jail cell, the convicted gangster Al Capone offered the FBI his services in solving the kidnapping. The comedian Jack Benny was among the 250 court room spectators who, each day, came to witness what became know as "the trial of the century."
Across the street from the elegant court house, the National Hotel was jammed with reporters. Many Flemington residents turned into landlords as throngs of newsmen continued to pour into town. In addition to the Lindbergh's, other names were in the headlines: David T. Wilentz, attorney general for the State of New Jersey and chief prosecutor (also father of the late New Jersey State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Wilentz); and Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, chief investigator for the New Jersey State Police (and father of General Norman Schwarzkopf of Gulf War Fame). The presiding judge was Honorable Thomas W. Trenchard, a seventy-one year old jurist known for patience, civility, and fairness, especially to defendants.
Hauptmann persisted in proclaiming his innocence, but a case of circumstantial evidence convinced the jury of his guilt. He was electrocuted on April 3, 1936 in Trenton. Doubts remained after Hauptmann's death and they persist today. An annual presentation of the "Trial of the Century" -- staged in the actual courtroom used during the trial -- continues to draw an audience of scholars and would-be detectives convinced of Hauptmann's innocence. The State of New Jersey has steadfastly refused to reopen the case, despite the efforts of his wife Anna, who persevered for more than 60 years until her death several years ago.
In July, 1996, the new Justice Complex opened its doors. Demand for office space to meet the needs of the fast-growing county plus the development of court room technology hastened the demise of the outdated facility on Main and Court Streets. The openness and accessibility of the new court house reflect the changing practice of law today. The Honorable Thomas H. Dilts, a family law judge in Somerset County, wrote recently in the New Jersey Lawyer magazine, "By our simple design.....we reflect that we are a more complex society. More people mean more competition for space and resources which, in turn, results in more conflict and more disputes. The courts must be available to resolve disputes for all --- not just the few.