‘Smoke’ behind the courthouse fires?

Published 11:59 pm Friday, April 17, 2009

In his latest book, his 21st, local historian Wyley Ward puts forth information about the fires that destroyed three Covington County courthouses, and reaches some conclusions about why the buildings were burned.

“Most of the information for this book was gathered 20 to 30 years ago,” Ward said. “I’m getting old, so I had to publish it.”

Much of his research was done at the state Archives and History building, where he gained access to letters written to the governor and providing background to local politics at the time the fires occurred.

Information about the early courthouses in the county is sketchy, he said, but it is known that a courthouse, likely a log structure, was built in 1822 on federal land on the east bank of the Conecuh River about 200 yards south of the falls in the river.

“The earliest reference to a courthouse in Covington County is found in an act of Congress dated March 3, 1823, when a postal route was authorized from Georgia through Henry County by Pike and Covington Courthouses to Sparta,” Ward wrote. That structure was destroyed by flood.

An act approved by Alabama’s General Assembly on Jan. 3, 1833, located “permanently the seat of justice of Covington County” at the town of Montezuma. Little information is available about that courthouse, but Ward believes it was built on land owned by John or Julian Devereux, a state representative.

That courthouse, Ward believes, burned in the spring of 1839. An 1839 act of the legislature authorized the clerk of the county court to remake Covington County marriage records to replace “the original record which has been burnt and destroyed”

The next courthouse, Ward writes, was built on 40 acres of land at the new county seat designated by the legislature in 1844, very near the present structure.

It is political controversy that began in 1875, Ward believes, that led to the destruction of that courthouse by fire.

It was in that year that county commissioners attempted to remove John W. Smith from his office of county treasurer, a move that was blocked by Probate Judge Andrew J. Fletcher. The governor did not act on the request made by commissioners W.J. Riley, D.S. Barrow and W.S. Watkins, and a feud between the commissioners and Probate Judge Fletcher ensued. The commissioners were not reelected in 1877, but one of their allies still in office, W.T. Acree, circuit court clerk, wrote the governor on Jan. 3, 1878, with complaints about the probate judge.

That letter was hand-delivered to the governor’s office. Ten days later, the Covington County courthouse burned to the ground. There was no newspaper in the county at the time, but papers in surrounding counties wrote about the event, including The Troy Esquire, The Evergreen Star, and The Montgomery Daily Advertiser. All three accounts infer that the fire was the work of an arsonist set on destroying county records. No one was charged with the fire, but Ward writes that a 1930 edition of The Andalusia Star states, “The one believed to have perpetuated the deed, Marion Lisco, is alleged to have been arrested but escaped and was never again apprehended.”

Covington County’s finances were bad when the courthouse burned on Jan. 13, 1878, and it was more than four years before a new courthouse was completed in the summer of 1881. Built in the same location, in the center of the courthouse square, it was described in a Sept. 9, 1930, edition of The Andalusia Star, as a small wooden structure with four chimneys of white limestone.

Three years after this structure was built, the county got its first newspaper, established in Andalusia in October, 1883. Three months later, Andalusia was incorporated.

There was a major conflict between members of the Democrat and Populist parties in 1895, Ward writes. Conflict between the parties in 1894 had led to two high schools being established. Eight days after a member of the Populist party was appointed principal of one of the high schools, an attempt was made to burn the courthouse. The Covington Times reported, “At 2:30 o’clock Thursday morning, Aug. 21, while the little town of Andalusia was wrapped in absolute calmness, its citizens were awakened and shocked to find that the courthouse was on fire.”

The newspaper reported that a visitor discovered the fire by accident, saving the structure and perhaps the business district, as well. The newspaper reported that the office of Circuit Clerk W.J. Mosley, a Populist, was unlocked and that many court records were found thrown in the floor, and some were destroyed.

Mosley left town shortly after the fire, and Ward’s research indicates he went to Florida, seeking treatment for tuberculosis. While he was gone, The Covington Times, edited by 20-year-old Abner Riley Powell, wrote that his absence was evidence of his guilt.

While Mosley was out of town, on Oct. 2, 1895, the courthouse was completely destroyed by fire. On Oct. 4, The Covington Times reported, “The fire was evidently started in the upper story, and it seems that when the fiendish fireman had set the blaze on the inside, he oiled the stairways and torched them off. This was done to keep anyone from getting to the upper story to out the fire.”

Two grand juries investigated the 1895 fire, but no one was charged. Ward believes the fire was set to destroy land and tax records in an effort to profit from illegal land transactions, many of which he describes in his book.

“All of the available information surrounding the 1895 courthouse fires shows that it was an inside job and not by a common criminal,” Ward writes. “The following five individuals were accused or suspected of having the courthouse burned; they were Circuit Court Clerk William J. Mosley; Tax Assessor Daniel D. Williams; Probate Judge Malachi Riley; Sheriff James T. Bradshaw; and timber man James A. Prestwood.”

Bradshaw and Prestwood were brothers-in-law. Based on his research, Ward concludes that the two likely had the structure burned.

The self-published book, which is $7, plus $4 for mailing, may be purchased from Ward Publications, 112 Pear St., Andalusia. Ward can also be reached at wardppe@alaweb.com or 222-4194.