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History of the Courthouse

The Henry County Courthouse is West Tennessee’s oldest working judicial building and the third courthouse on this site.

After the County of Henry was formed on November 11, 1821, the first court session was held on the first Monday in December at the home of Peter Wall. The county’s first courthouse was built in 1823 on the Will Clement farm in the Clifty Community located just south of Paris. The dogtrot cabin made of small poplar logs consisted of two rooms separated by a covered breezeway. The Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions sat in the north room while a member of the chamber of commerce vended pies and liquors in the south room. The court was subject to frequent adjournments from the bar of justice to the other bar.

In 1825, two years after Paris was named as the county seat, a small two-story brick courthouse occupied the center of the planned city, which was laid out in a grid pattern with streets running north and south, east and west. This courthouse was built by John Burke and Francis McConnell for $143 and stood until 1850. In 1833, the county court added several off-site locations for added space. During this period, the public square was visited by such Tennessee legends as Andrew Jackson. David Crockett made stump speeches on the lawn while in Paris visiting his family and campaigning for the U.S. Congress.

The first murder case in Henry County occurred in 1829 when John Grainger was tried for the murder of Littleberry Broach. The landmark case, Grainger v. State (1830), went to the Supreme Court of Tennessee and set a precedent for self-defense as the basis for appeal. Grainger was found guilty of manslaughter, branded with an “M” on his hand, and set free.

In State v. Gilbert (1845), a slave was accused of killing his master, Armistead Forrest and burning his barn to cover the murder. During his trial, Gilbert was found guilty, made a full confession, and was eventually hanged in the courthouse yard. This case marked the first time slaves were allowed to testify in a court trial against white people.

Completed in 1852, the third courthouse was designed by John Ora and built by Calvin Sweeney at a cost of $42,000. The two-story red brick building included a central hall and a “brassy” dome. The large fireplace in the courtroom was famously stained with tobacco juice.

Confederate military units, including the 46th Tenn. Infantry Regiment, were first organized the lawn during the Civil War or War Between the States. Prior to Tennessee’s secession from the Union in 1860, a small volunteer infantry company called the “Paris Blues” was organized here. According to one veteran, “The Henry County company was composed of some of the noblest and most patriotic young men of the county, as it was the first to rush to arms at the bugle call of war….” The “Paris Blues” was accepted by Gov. Isham G. Harris and ordered the company to the Mississippi River where it became part of the First Tenn. Infantry. The unit was renumbered the One-Hundred and Fifty-Fourth Senior Regiment.

Gov. Harris, who lived near the public square on West Washington Street, commissioned Col. William E. Travis of Henry County to raise a regiment. On April 20, 1861, infantry volunteers met at the courthouse for the purpose of organization into the Confederate Army. Amid the sounds of the Paris Brass Band, the new recruits gathered and marched around the courthouse several times. They were ordered to the Paris Male Academy and counted off into eight companies. The Fifth Tennessee Infantry Regiment was permanently organized in Paris on May 20th amid “a scene as had never before been witnessed on its streets…. From every direction, crowds poured into the town and before the middle of the day, the streets were filled with people. Company criers mounted the iron fence around the courthouse and yelled, ‘O, yes! O, yes! All that belong to Captain So-and-So’s company parade here! Parade here!’”

During the permanent organization of the Fifth Tenn., the “Ladies of Paris” held a ceremony in which they formally presented Capt. Thomas H. Conway a large red family Bible to be carried into war. The Bible survived several battles, including Shiloh. The captain was killed and his body was returned to Paris, along with the Bible. The Conway Bible contains a muster roll of Company C and is part of the collection of the Paris-Henry County Heritage Center.

The Fifth Tenn. Regiment left downtown Paris on May 24th atop railroad flatcars with seats made of crossties. “A large crowd, composed of the relatives and friends of the departing soldiers, saw them and cheered them on their way with waving handkerchiefs and hearty cheers. Many of the wives, daughters, sisters and sweethearts of these embryo soldiers viewed the strange sight and tears flowed freely from many eyes as the train steamed away.” Paris continued to be a center of Confederate recruitment, including soldiers from western Kentucky and southern Missouri. Henry County supplied over 2,500 volunteer soldiers to the Confederacy—more per capita than any other county in the state—and earned the title, “Volunteer County of the Volunteer State.”

Ordered by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to disrupt Confederate recruitment, Union soldiers marched through Paris at 5:00 p.m. on March 11, 1862. The crack of Enfield rifles and the booming of cannons below a Confederate camp just west of the city could be heard from the court square as the Battle of Paris erupted. A few minutes later, the surprised 500 Federals fled in retreat through the city with 400 Confederates in pursuit and firing the captured Union artillery against them. A few weeks after the battle, Co. F, Fifth Iowa Cavalry occupied the courthouse and the public square and began an uneasy military occupation of the city. The Union captain met with several prominent citizens and told them he had raised the U.S. flag on top of the courthouse and expected to see it remaining there on his next visit to Paris. A few days after the Federals left, a Confederate captain took down the “Stars and Stripes.” In April, a Union soldier arrived on the court square under a flag of truce looking for the dead, wounded, and captured. He wrote:

“The red brick court house has a little square around it and forms a natural halting place…. These townspeople are … very much astonished to see a man left on guard with the horses, and perfectly amazed when he draws his saber and marches steadily up and down his beat, and I hear one whisper, ‘Perhaps they be United States reg’lars.’ In a few minutes there is quite a crowd of congealed citizens around us, all staring solemnly in icy silence. They say nothing to us or to each other, but steadily stare. I feel their looks crawling down my back and round my sides, and turn which way I will, there is no shaking them off. I have faced the eyes of many an audience, but never such as this…. [They look] as though we were dangerous serpents escaped from a traveling menagerie, which they can see for nothing at the risk of being swallowed alive…. I commence a conversation complimenting them on the appearance of their little town, which is more northernly neat than I expected to find.” Local citizens handed the soldier some effects of the Union dead and gave “many assurances of their kindness to our wounded.”

Paris remained under martial law during much of the Civil War and little or no court business transpired in the courthouse. Union soldiers occupied the building, led horses up the stairs to the second floor, and wrote their names in one of the court ledger books.

This historic courthouse stood for 43 years and withstood the furies of the elements, the quaking of the earth, the devastation of a cruel war, the commotion of vast assemblies, and the clang of human voices calling delinquent attorneys and witnesses into court. Its walls resounded to the most eloquent and touching appeals of distinguished barristers, fiery speeches by political demagogues, wails of slaves being separated from their families on the courthouse steps (which served as the auction block), and the sobs of convicted criminals.

In the case, State v. Shem Forrest (1881), a teenager was tried for the hatchet murder of his mother and 80-year-old grandfather in their sleep. They apparently had a $5 gold coin when Shem wanted and was denied. He was found guilty and his conviction was upheld by the state supreme court. An emotional Forrest was hung on the courthouse lawn where a huge crowd assembled, including women and children.

In May, 1895, a Grand Jury was charged with examining the structural condition of the courthouse. The men reported the 22”-thick interior walls and the 18”-thick partition walls were sound but thought “some steps should be taken to make the courthouse more secure before some good citizen gets killed by some part or all of it falling down.” The Henry County Court voted to tear the courthouse down and erect another in its place.

The cornerstone of the county’s fourth courthouse was laid in 1896 scheduled for completion by October 1st of that year. On October 2nd, the County Court was given permission to occupy the building by its contractor, Ed. M. Wallen of new Decatur, Alabama. The two-story building originally consisted of three courtrooms, twelve offices, jury and witness rooms, ladies waiting rooms, and five fire proof vaults. The courthouse had “all modern conveniences of a public building,” including low-pressure steam heating and a complete plumbing and draining system. The bell of the town clock was once the school bell in the dome-shaped belfry of the Odd Fellows Female Institute once located on the corner of McNeil and Market streets.

When it was completed, the courthouse was described as “elegant in design and imposing in appearance.” The Richardson Romanesque building was designed by Reuben Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga, who designed many of the buildings in that city’s historic district. In addition, he designed Grove Tower, the first school building on the E.W. Grove-Henry County High School campus, which looms over the city atop the highest point in West Tennessee.

For decades, peddlers and farmers sold their wares from wagon beds all around the public square and horses were hitched to the iron fence, which surrounded the courthouse grounds. Horses caused damage to the fence and the county fathers decided to remove it and a hitch lot was built just east of the court square. The fence now encloses the east side of the Paris City Cemetery.

In 1900, Rev. R.M. Giddens was employed to furnish and plant 24 young Carolina pin oak trees for the courthouse lawn at a cost of $9.60. The remaining trees tower over the west side of the lawn. In 2008, two pin oak trees were planted near the Confederate monument to honor two early Tennessee governors from Henry County. The tree closest to Washington Street is in honor of Gov. Isham G. Harris who was Tennessee’s only Confederate governor and President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. The tree closest to Poplar Street is in honor of Gov. James D. Porter who was Minister to Chile and served Gen. Braxton Bragg and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston during the Civil War. These trees joined another planted between the Confederate monument and the courthouse’s main entrance. This tree honors another Henry Countian, Gov. Tom C. Rye, who headed the ship of state during World War I and who served as Chancellor of the Eighth Division for 20 years.

Gov. Rye was part of a grand parade to honor the centennial birthday of the City of Paris in 1923. Large crowds gathered for the two-day festival which included band concerts, community singing, the Centennial Pageant, a fireworks display, masked ball, and outdoor square dances on the public square.

One of the first memorial services held at the courthouse was for President William McKinley following his assassination in 1900. That same year, the Confederate statue, “Private of ’61,” was dedicated by Paris native, Gov. Porter. The statue replaced a simple shaft that once stood atop the base of the monument. Confederate veterans, who held their reunions on the lawn, were guests of honor. In 1943, the statue’s rifle was broken by overenthusiastic students of Grove High School while they decorated the monument for its annual football homecoming celebration.

The Veterans Memorial, located on the northeast quadrant of the lawn, was moved from its original location at the entrance to Barton Field, where high school football games were played. The lintel of the monument was replaced and includes an image of the Purple Heart. The names of additional veterans who lost their lives in the service of their country have been added.

Henry Countians who volunteered for service during World War I received a memorable send-off from downtown Paris. A large crowd participated in a prayer service and cheered as the soldiers marched to the train station. During World War II, a large wooden monument with the names of the soldiers serving from Henry County was placed on each side of the main entrance.

The second floor courtroom and the front steps have been the stage for political speeches, especially during election season. Notable speakers have included Bob Taylor, Edward Carmack, Malcolm Patterson, Albert Gore, Sr., Austin Peay, and Frank Clement.

The square was the focus for the annual Mule Day celebration followed by “The World’s Biggest Fish Fry” with the fish tent and carnival rides set up on the streets. Today, the annual catfish races take place on the south side of the courthouse lawn and the “Small Fry” parade for young children encircles the square. The grounds continue to serve as the venue for such activities as Arts on the Square and an Eye Full of Paris. The lawn became the focal point of the local celebration where a temporary log cabin was erected in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. Paris and Henry County celebrated its 150th birthday in 1973 with a time capsule burial on the north side of the Confederate monument.

The time capsule was opened on June 1, 1996, in commemoration of Henry County’s 175 birthday. Included in the capsule were letters written to individuals in 1973 to be opened 25 years later. This day was an official part of Tennessee 200 celebrating the state’s centennial. The 100th anniversary of the current courthouse was recognized with a formal opening of the historical renovation of the main hallway. Some of the water damaged woodwork was replaced on the left-hand side and chandeliers and floor tiles were added. A former doorway converted into a display case contains artifacts related to the courthouse.

Also in 1996, a new county seal was unveiled and the Henry County Flag was flown on the courthouse flagpole for the first time on June 1st. The county acquired oil paintings of the three governors from Henry County and the county’s namesake Patrick Henry, along with a portrait of U.S. and Confederate Congressman J.D.C. Atkins. The portraits of Gov. Harris and Gov. Rye were painted by Nashville artist W. Edward Page in 1949 for the Governor’s Room of the local Greystone Hotel. The Porter family did not like Page’s portrait of Gov. Porter and commissioned local artist “Miss Pearl” Routon to paint a new one in 1951. The Harris and Rye portraits were purchased by the county and the Porter painting was donated to the county by his descendents, Dudley Porter and Mary Porter Stiles. The Paris Post-Intelligencer donated the portrait of Gen. Atkins and David W. Webb, county commissioner and county historian, commissioned and donated the painting of Henry.

The addition of oil portraits of notable citizens, including U.S. Congressman John Wesley Crockett, son of the legendary David Crockett; “Miss Pearl” Routon, artist and florist who successfully lobbied the state legislature to have the iris named as the official state flower; Commissioner Christine Reynolds, the first female member of the governor’s cabinet; and Associate Justice Howell Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court, grace the courthouse hallway.

Despite several renovations over the years, the courthouse retains much of its original woodwork, including the balustrade in the Circuit Court and General Sessions Courtroom on the second floor, the fireplace mantle in the Chancery Courtroom on the first floor, the staircase banisters on each side of the main entrance, the interior doors to courtrooms and offices, the judges’ benches, and public seating. The exterior of the building has been sandblasted, but a small section of the original brick face can still be seen near the west entrance. During one renovation to install heating in October, 1964, a partition was removed in the basement level and five empty pauper’s coffins were discovered. Records show that six such coffins were ordered in 1886.

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Downtown Paris Association
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