The law comes to Newcastle

April 30, 2015

By Rich Crispo

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After watching western movies and TV shows, one might believe that justice in the “Old West” (Tombstone or Dodge City) of the 1880s was meted out by stints in territorial prison, hangings, or gunfights with marshals Wyatt Earp or Matt Dillon.

The process of law was very different in Newcastle, however.

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The mining community of the early 1880s had a well-established legal process of constables, courts and justices of the peace, as well as a practical system of crime and punishment based on fines rather than imprisonment. A coal miner in that period might make only $2 or $3 a day and the loss of those earnings was a big motivator to follow the law.

The legal process was important — a fine for assault and battery might be $5, but failure to appear as a witness might cost $50 or more.

Complaints were filed with the constable and arrests were made, and trials before the justice of the peace might happen in only a day or two. A complaint found to be unsubstantiated would find the plaintiff paying court costs.

If found guilty, the accused was fined and would pay the costs. If a party could not pay the costs, they would go to a county camp and work off the debt at the rate of $2 a day.

The court system also provided a subsidy to some of our early residents. If a trial took place, then jurors were paid $2 per case. Witnesses also received $2.

These were part of the court costs paid by the plaintiff or accused. Imagine working eight hours in the dark of a mine shaft for the same amount of money you could earn for a two-hour trial. It was no surprise that on court nights, many residents would hang around hoping to be selected for a jury.

Here are a few of the Newcastle court cases from the 1880s. These short summaries were taken from an actual justice of the peace journal covering cases at Newcastle from January 1885 to June 1921:

  • Mr. Graham accused Mr. Getcheman of property damage in the amount of $35. A jury found him guilty of damaging three fruit trees ($1 each) and destroying a fence. He was ordered to pay for the trees, repair the fence and pay court costs of $19.60.
  • Mary Barnett accused Sarah Conroy of breach of the peace by calling her a “woman of ill repute” and other abusive, insulting, criminal and obscene language. A jury found Conroy guilty and fined her 1 cent — it seems the accusations weren’t all wrong — plus court costs of $31.56. She refused to pay and went to jail working off the costs at $2 a day.
  • John Cahill accused Merdock Welmore of assault and battery. Welmore pleaded guilty and paid Cahill $7.50 for damages and court costs of $2.70.
  • A warrant of arrest was issued for Ralph Rockey. He was spotted by a state mine inspector carrying matches and smoking in one of the mines at Coal Creek, a violation of coal-mining laws. He was found guilty and fined $10 plus costs.
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