Return to past for county courthouse

Anne Arundel's history goes before the bench

May 01, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Pleas for freedom from servitude, bastardy proceedings and hearings on damages from buggy crashes are among the cases the legal community hopes might again become staples of the Anne Arundel County Court House - this time in dramatic re-enactments of old trials.

Before the real-life docket is called this morning in the Annapolis courthouse, lawyers and the court will retry a Colonial-era case to begin a plan to combine "living history" shows with a one-room museum.

Starting next month, when the museum is to open, visitors can learn the building's history in a videotape in which a re-enactor reads the impassioned 1819 petition of the citizenry demanding its own courthouse, and in scrolls cascading down the museum walls. The museum will include a model of the courthouse, set in historic Annapolis.

While a growing number of Maryland courthouses serve as museums with ceremonial courtrooms, the Annapolis courthouse, the state's third-oldest, apparently would be the only one in the area to stage trials of the sort seen in Colonial Williamsburg.

Proponents describe the mix of museum pieces and staged trials as a creative way to depict the community issues and the social fabric of the past, and to show the evolution of the law.

"You can't talk about the history of Anne Arundel County and the state and Annapolis without talking about the history of the court," said Circuit Court Administrator Robert G. Wallace.

When the county restored the 1824 courthouse in 1999 as the gateway to the new building, officials left a high-ceilinged room for a museum and refurbished the 1890s-era courtroom and its balcony for ceremonial use.

The project is an effort by the Anne Arundel County Bar Foundation, which is a charitable affiliate of the county bar association, working with the court and local historians.

"One thing we decided is that we don't want any of it to be boring," said Ann M. Fligsten, leader of the bar foundation's steering committee. "If we were just going to talk about judges, it would not be very interesting."

She said the group hopes to initiate interest in multimedia exhibits in the downstairs museums and lively performances in the ceremonial courtroom upstairs on issues such as slavery and racism. Trials, she said, depict constants in human nature, including greed and love, have a beginning, middle and end, and are an educational tool.

"People want to hear about more than the signers of the Declaration of Independence. They want romance, sex, love, they want it all," said local historian and committee member Janice Hayes-Williams, who is studying bastardy cases, which determined the status of children of white women servants and black slave men. "The courthouse was where all the dirty business was going on."

The group decided to launch the re-enactments today, Law Day. Judges and local lawyers will assume roles in the 1736 trial of William Creek, an East Indian indentured servant who was sent from England as punishment for giving a "love powder" to a customer when he was an apothecary's apprentice, Hayes-Williams said. His indenture was purchased by Annapolis merchant Samuel Chew.

In court, Creek claimed that he was kept 11 years past what should have been seven years (and he won his freedom.)

The idea to stage re-enactments of trials arrived in Annapolis from Hawaii with Philip Deters, now an assistant attorney general in Maryland. Opened in 1989, that state's King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center offers trial re-creations, exhibits and programs for teachers and students. Deters said he suggested to the local bar that a similar, scaled-down version might work in Annapolis.

Frances M. Czajka, bar association executive director, said that if the new museum attracts enough interest, the bar foundation might bid for grants for new exhibits and costumed trial re-enactments.

Members of the foundation's steering committee hope the re-enactments will attract school groups, history buffs, tourists and local residents.

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