Lee's legal history preserved as part of statewide project

Lee's legal history preserved as part of statewide project
Apr. 09, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

The 2010 fire that heavily damaged the Chatham County courthouse in Pittsboro has now led to a statewide push to document portraits and other historical records from courts in all 100 counties across the state.

Danny Moody, director of the N.C. Supreme Court Historical Society, said he has been thinking about expanding his legal history research outside the confines of the state's high court for years. However, his drive was galvanized after the Pittsboro fire, which was sparked during restoration work and gutted most of the courthouse's interior. The Chatham Historical Society Museum, which was located in the courthouse, was relatively unscathed, but a painting of William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham — for whom both Pittsboro and Chatham County are named — was completely destroyed.

"If someone doesn't record those things, they're going to be lost forever," Moody said Monday. He visited the old Lee County courthouse Friday, and he said the brief biographies he'll write on those locals honored should be available at www.ncschs.net in the next six to eight weeks. He said he might also send hard copies to the library and clerk of court's office to make it more accessible.

"Historical research is not very useful if nobody uses it," he said.

But people do seem to use and appreciate it, as evidenced by the ceremonies planned for the grand reopening of the courthouse — set for Saturday, April 20 — and the outpouring of grief from many community members after it happened.

"Like anything that we lost in the fire, it's regrettable that it happened," Walter Harris, a member of the Chatham County Historical Association board of directors, told The Herald at the time, speaking about the lost painting. "It's a very unfortunate accident."

When it comes to Lee County's legal history-makers, Moody said Clawson Williams comes to mind. Williams was born in Sanford and became the county's first Superior Court judge when the county was formed from pieces of Harnett, Moore and Chatham counties in 1907. In 1925, Williams presided over the state's first capital punishment case since Reconstruction, which was also the first North Carolina trial with photographic evidence.

"It was something to behold in 1925," Moody said of the case, in which one Harnett County man walked up to his neighbor and shot him with a shotgun over an argument about road construction. "... My family moved [to Harnett County] in 1968, and when we got here, people were still talking about the case."

More than mere rulings and precedents, legal history can also act as a lens through which to examine cultural trends and changes — which Moody said is evident through a case in the early 1950s in which Williams sentenced Ku Klux Klan members in Whiteville to jail for a series of attacks.

Moody said that trial stopped much Klan activity in the southeast part of the state, and at the time, Williams toted a carbine rifle he received from the inventor of that gun — a man who Williams had imprisoned for second-degree murder years earlier. The inventor committed the murder in connection to a bootlegging operation he ran during prohibition, and Moody said he apparently didn't have any hard feelings because bootleggers would simply go right back into business after getting out of jail, with the added benefit that more people knew about their services. Hearing about threats on Williams's life from the Klan, he sent him the carbine.

"You can't make this stuff up," Moody said.