In Yanceyville, the seat of Caswell County, the first county established by the new State of North Carolina in 1777, stands a monument to justice, the former Caswell County Courthouse. Built shortly before the Civil War, the Victorian structure towers above Courthouse Square, overlooking a bronze Confederate, on watch himself. The interior of the building was witness to brutality and prejudice, as one of the darkest chapters in state history played out within its walls.
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The present courthouse is the fourth incarnation of Caswell County’s courthouse, built after the third structure, infused with Greco-Roman flair, burned down in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is the only remaining public building from the antebellum period in Caswell County. Renowned architect William Percival first submitted his design for the structure at the 1858 State Fair in Raleigh. With central arches supporting overhanging domes, the building houses two courtrooms within a combination of Neo-Classical, Victorian, and Renaissance architectural styles. The old Caswell County jail, built towards the end of the nineteenth century, stands behind the courthouse.
While the stern exterior exudes justice and propriety, the basement of the courthouse was witness to one of the most infamous murders in state history. On May 21, 1870, the county Democratic Party held a rally near the courthouse. One of the people who had gathered that Saturday was J.W. ‘Chicken’ Stephens, a state senator despised by the local Ku Klux Klan klavern for his progressive attitudes towards blacks. Governor William W. Holden had tasked Stephens to investigate suspected Klan members, the same Klan members who had marked Stephens for death. Lured into the basement of the courthouse, Stephens was ambushed and stabbed, his body left on a woodpile. The murder, along with that of black town commissioner Wyatt Outlaw in Graham earlier that year, led to the Kirk-Holden War, in the course of which Governor Holden declared martial law and suspended the right of habeas corpus within Caswell County.
The former Caswell County Courthouse stands as a monument to the county, and also as a reminder of its rich, yet dark, historical legacy.
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, Guide to Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003)
Caswell County Historical Association, “Caswell County Courthouse”:
Caswell County Historical Association, “Kirk Holden War”:
Caswell County Historical Association, “Confession of John G. Lea”: http://www.rootsweb.com/~nccaswel/misc/confession.htm