The Famous Old St Louis Courthouse- Witness To History
The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis is a historic building that has had a unique history and contribution to the fabric of our nation. It has been the site of slave auctions, human rights decisions, and architectural firsts.
The courthouse is no longer used for jurisprudence. It is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial which includes the famous St. Louis Arch. But the story is so much more. The land was donated by two of the founding fathers of the city, Rene August Chouteau and John Baptist Charles Lucas. The present courthouse was begun in 1831 and had a major renovation in 1851. In 1861 William Rumbold replaced the old cupola with a cast iron dome that was the prototype for the US Capital dome in Washington, DC.
The courthouse was the site of the two Dred Scott trials of 1847 and 1850. In both cases the Scott’s lost and their case wet to the US Supreme Court which also ruled against them in 1857. Their attorney was Roswell Field the father of the famous poet Eugene Field. The name of the case Dred Scott vs. Sandford was actually a clerical error as the Scott’s owner’s name was really John F. A. Sanford. In 1872 Virginia Minor sued for women’s suffrage and lost there as well. Fifty years later women finally got the vote.
The courthouse steps on the east side were the usual location of slave auctions conducted under the auspices of the city sheriff. These auctions were only for probate purposes and conducted in order to clear holdings of the deceased. There were other auctions at nearby slave pens for normal business intercourse. There is a room in the courthouse that was used to teach runaways to read and acted as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Interestingly, the central rotunda has spectacular acoustics. A speaker standing the center of the main floor could easily be heard throughout the ground floor and in all the encircling balconies.
The Dred Scott Case is considered an accelerator of the hostilities of the Civil War. President-elect James Buchanan was so concerned about the verdict that he tried to insure the verdict was rendered before his inauguration. From 1814 to 1860 more than 300 freedom suits similar to the Scotts’ were filed in St. Louis. This was not uncommon as there were many free blacks working shoulder to shoulder with enslaved in the warehouse and riverfront districts. The Old Courthouse was center stage for all these historic events and others.