The great courthouse trouser disaster of 1841

first_courtIn 1836, Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s founder, and his business partner Morgan Martin built the city’s first courthouse. The two story wooden building cost the men $5,000, a considerable sum of money in those days. Upon its completion, Juneau and Martin, who jointly owned much of what is today the East Side, donated the building and its plot of land (today’s Cathedral Square) to the county.

The second floor courtroom witnessed some of the most dramatic moments in early Milwaukee history. It was here, in 1852, that Mary Ann Wheeler stood trial for the murder of her lover John Lace. Here, also, three men faced charges of breaking into the city jail in 1854 and rescuing fugitive slave Joshua Glover. A Milwaukee jury acquitted those men.

Early settler James S. Buck, who wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee [1881], sat on the jury that refused to convict Glover’s rescuers. Thirteen years earlier, Buck had also been present at a less significant but equally memorable scene at the first courthouse.

The first courthouse was built in 1836. Additional offices and a jail are to the right. This is the site of Cathedral Park today. Carl Swanson collection

The first courthouse was built in 1836. Additional offices and a jail are to the right. Carl Swanson collection

In 1841, Buck reported, a large crowd attended a public meeting and sat crowded together on the rows of courtroom benches.

Recently varnished courtroom benches, it turned out.

At the conclusion of the meeting, all rose at the same moment accompanied by a mighty rending of fabric.

“There was a great destruction of pants,” Buck wrote, “nearly every one present leaving a part of the seat of “his’n” as a souvenir. The noise made when they attempted to rise was like the rising from the ground of a thousand pigeons.”Carl_siga_favor_requested

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