Hernando's 100-year-old courthouse part of long, slow journey to justice

A photograph from around 1915 shows the Hernando County Courthouse, which is celebrating its centennial. The historic building in downtown Brooksville hasn’t always been a sign of equal justice in the county.
A photograph from around 1915 shows the Hernando County Courthouse, which is celebrating its centennial. The historic building in downtown Brooksville hasn’t always been a sign of equal justice in the county.
Published Oct. 4, 2013

The big, brick Hernando County Courthouse in downtown Brooksville is 100 years old — plenty old, by Florida standards, to deserve the anniversary celebration planned for later this week.

But to understand why the county once needed not just a solid courthouse, but a solid symbol of justice, we need to go back even further, to at least 1877.

That was the year a deadly feud erupted over an interracial marriage. There was a gunfight at the newlyweds' home in Brooksville and, later, the ambush and killing of Arthur St. Clair, the black minister and former county commissioner who had performed the wedding ceremony.

In September 1877, a fire destroyed the county's old wooden courthouse and, not coincidentally, a witness' statement identifying members of the mob that had confronted St. Clair.

Hernando, in other words, wasn't just crime-ridden, it was lawless. The construction the courthouse didn't immediately change that, as we'll see later. But starting 100 years ago, this substantial building at least made it appear as though the county cared about justice and, maybe, just by being there, nudged the county along to the point where it did care.

But that would take awhile.

The 1877 fire accomplished what was probably its goal: bringing about a hiatus in legitimate law enforcement and ushering in the reign of a group of vigilantes called "regulators."

If by taking that name they claimed to be regulating crime, they failed miserably. Eleven murders were committed between 1877 and 1879, local historian Roger Landers wrote in a 2011 report for the journal Tampa Bay History.

These were among more than 40 killings in Hernando in the first 14 years after the Civil War. And even after the end of that especially bloody era, the bodies piled up at an amazing rate for a county with a population of roughly 4,000.

Five people were killed in a three-week span in 1881, including three of the sheriff's young sons, who allegedly were shot or stabbed by a black man working off a burglary charge in the sheriff's home. This man, inevitably, became victim No. 4, according to the Sunland Tribune newspaper:

"The fiend . . . was captured, confessed his crime and was lynched in the presence of 200 citizens."

In 1882, three black brothers had the nerve to object to a requirement that they work for free on county road gangs, and were shot dead in downtown Brooksville. The year after that, according to an unnamed newspaper quoted on the website of the West Hernando Historical Society, there was yet another lynching in Brooksville:

"Two negroes, arrested for shooting two whites, were taken from jail and shot dead."

So a lot of the killings in the early days were part of the post-Civil War hangover and in some way related to race. But any history of the Hernando criminal justice system should note how dangerous it was to be a part of that system; among the victims in these early days were two judges and a sheriff.

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And another apparent attempt to thwart justice — an 1879 fire in a court records storage room — made it clear that when the county was ready to build a permanent courthouse, it needed to be a brick courthouse.

As with many other fires in the county in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the question about whether this blaze was intentionally set can't be answered because fire protection was as substandard as law enforcement.

The two grandest hotels of their era, the Hernando and the Varnada, both burned down, the first in 1899 and the second in 1916 — both in fires that consumed several other downtown buildings.

Devastating house fires were routine, Richard Stanaback wrote in his 1976 History of Hernando County, which also listed a half-dozen factories and downtown stores that went up in flames over the years.

So you can imagine that it was reassuring to see the brick courthouse with the substantial columns rise up in the middle of town. It was completed in 1913, according to Stanaback. And though his book does not include the price, we can assume it was in the ballpark of the amount of a failed courthouse tax levy: $75,000.

Not long after investing all that money in its legal system, the county entered an infamous period of working outside of it — the "hanging times," as a now-deceased lifelong Hernando resident, Charlie Batten, called these years in a 2007 interview.

According to an analysis of the most reliable database of lynchings available, housed at Tuskegee University, Hernando had the highest rate of lynchings of any county in the nation between 1900 and 1930. At least five of these young black men or teenagers were lynched in the 1920s — none of them, as far as I know, from the oak trees on the courthouse lawn, which were barely saplings at the time. Given the county's history, though, you can see why that myth is so persistent.

W.D. Cobb, who was sheriff during these times and who was about as interested in real justice as those old regulators, also shot and killed two prominent white residents before he was voted out of office in 1932. And one of Cobb's victims was supposedly shot for getting drunk and saying too much about another killing — that of Brooksville City Attorney Herbert Smithson in 1931.

Smithson probably was helping federal agents crack down on the illegal alcohol trade in the county, which would put Hernando's sheriff on the side of moonshiners and bootleggers, which would not be at all surprising.

Prohibition was a major boon to Hernando, Richard Cofer wrote in a 1979 article in Tampa Bay History:

"According to one local citizen, whiskey was made in 'nearly every other house.' . . . The entire county's social and political structure was infused with the illegal liquor trade."

That no doubt was a major reason Hernando, unlike surrounding counties, voted to stay dry until 1963. And the suspicions that law enforcement was protecting the illegal liquor operations hung around until at least 1946, when Sheriff Neil Law was suspended on the never-proven grounds that he knew that moonshiners had killed a farmer north of Brooksville but did nothing to prosecute them.

One last story of injustice in the criminal justice system returns, appropriately for Hernando, to the issue of race. A now-deceased former deputy, Nelson "Red" Brass, recalled in a 1998 interview that in one 1950s-era session of circuit court, "two black boys" were sentenced to two years in prison for stealing a pig, the same punishment a black woman received for killing her boyfriend.

"(This is) what the state attorney told me: When one black kills another, that's a good deed done," Brass said.

In a lot of interviews over the past few weeks, lots of longtime lawyers have told me about the courthouse and its grand second-story courtroom, which started looking grand again after the drop ceiling and fake wood paneling were removed during a renovation in the 1990s.

In the 1950s, "it wasn't air-conditioned, and it would remind you of the Scopes monkey trial movie (Inherit the Wind) because all the windows were open," said Brooksville lawyer Bill Eppley, who grew up in Brooksville and remembered when residents packed the courtroom for dramatic trials such as Marie Dean Arrington's in 1966.

She received a death sentence, later overturned, for killing an employee in the Lake County Public Defender's Office, which she blamed for lax representation of her two recently imprisoned children.

You have to wonder if the prosecutor, who described Arrington as a "wild, cunning animal," would have used those words if she weren't black. But I have to say it was refreshing to finally see someone who had used terror to try to undermine justice get what they deserved.

There were many more successful prosecutions of awful crimes in this courthouse, and, of course, I could have written more about them and the brave work done by the people to bring us to the present, when we've never been safer, when we can generally have confidence that our legal system is upholding the law and that this great, old building actually stands for justice.

But tell me: Don't you appreciate the present more now that you know about the past?