Fremont County, Iowa

Early Fremont County Courts
by Harry Wilkins
View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of March 28, 2016

When Fremont County was organized by the Iowa State Legislature in 1849, the first order of business was establishing the judicial system for administering justice in a rapidly growing but undeveloped area of the state. Littleberry Lingenfelter, a local attorney, was present at the beginning and participated in several early court cases. His description of those times, recounted in an 1876 history of the county, is a unique and colorful record of what was at that time a frontier in every sense of the word.

Included in his history was an April 1851 episode involving Mr. I. S. Jones, a man elected as prosecuting attorney for Fremont County. Jones never took his office because he was not a licensed lawyer, had avoided formal qualification procedures as required by law, and was presented to James Sloan, Judge of the District Court, of being accused of arson several months earlier in the burning of a home in Civil Bend. Judge Sloan convened his court and called a grand jury to consider the arson charge, but during instructions to the jury, Jones and a friend incited a crowd of supporters gathered outside, fueled by "their profuse use of whiskey," to rush the courtroom and chase Judge Sloan from the bench and out the back door. The prompt action of Deputy Sheriff Cromwell calmed the mob and the jury eventually indicted Jones, who was later acquitted.

The next district judge, Allen Bradford, was described as well liked, having good judgment and an analytical mind. Appointed in 1852, Bradford was also characterized as having "some peculiarities," including his wearing ill-fitting clothing, seldom combing his hair, and occasionally leaving half his beard unshaved. But he was also remembered for never letting politics enter into his decisions and was a "true friend to the virtuous, the industrious and the necessitous [poor]."

In 1855 E.S. Sears was appointed to the bench, a man seen as "honest and learned in the law." One issue that plagued his court was the district's widely unpopular prohibitory liquor law. Fremont County grand juries would routinely indict those who violated the statute, as many as ten at a time. According to Lingenfelter, "many persons were disposed to get drunk upon the streets on purpose to defy the peace officers in trying to arrest them . . . filling the courts with many criminal cases."

Judge Sears was reported to have maintained a dignified and fair court, admired by officers and spectators alike. His mettle was tested in September, 1859, when a case was brought against "parties who were wealthy, respectable and influential." Three of the subpoenaed witness were free Blacks and according to Iowa law were allowed to testify, something that did not sit well with many in the courtroom. But the judge "was firm, fearless and unmoved," quelling the unruly spectators and ensuring that the trial proceeded without further disruption.

Despite some hiccups along the way, Lingenfelter described the Fremont County judiciary of his time as being filled by good and capable men, "not by demagogues and pettifogging [unethical] lawyers."

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Page updated on May 10, 2017 by Karyn Techau