Beginning in January of this year, I answered the call of Vandalia Statehouse Site Superintendent Steve Riddle to volunteer a few hours a week at the historic site.
In recent years, I had participated in the Christmas Open House, at which the capitol building is lighted with candles, and at the Grande Levée. But other than these special events, I had not spent “quality time" in the historic structure.
Among the pieces original to the building is a desk/table in the House of Representatives room on the second floor, a model from which all the other desks were made. The desks would seat five representatives, and they each had a drawer in which to store their papers, etc.
During the years that Fayette County occupied this building, 1839-1933, this room served as a courtroom. Among the judges who sat on the bench was Judge Beverly Walter Henry.
It is from Judge Henry that we have a description of the room during the time he tried cases as an attorney. His legal career stretched 50 years.
In a memoir written two years before his death on April 21, 1916, he responded to the request of the editor of The Vandalia Union for old settlers to write down their remembrances of Vandalia and submit them to the newspaper for publication.
Judge Henry wrote, “I tried my first case in the circuit court at the April term 1859, and I have tried cases in that court, in that same room, at its every term since, save five. There was a jury box that would hold just 12 men right in front of the present judge's stand; that box was paled in like a grave yard lot with palings about 3 feet high. The lawyers stood outside and talked over the fence.”
This description is something we would not have known had Judge Henry not taken the time to write it down for us.
Last week, I made another discovery, and it, too, had a connection to Judge Henry.
While reading back issues of the newspaper, I came across an article in the Oct. 24, 1935, issue of The Vandalia Union in which donations of furniture had been made to the Statehouse. Several desks, including one reportedly belonging to Stephen A. Douglas, had been added to the collection of antique furniture that the state was searching for to furnish the building.
This desk was described as having iron legs and a foot rest with an iron grill at the back. It had been made to be placed against a wall, or back-to-back with some similar desk. The lock featured a keyhole would take a very large key, one at least as large as the old-fashioned door key (8 inches long), indicated the antiquity of the desk.
At the same time, a second desk, used by Judge Henry, had been donated by his daughters, Mrs. C.U. Collins of Peoria and Mrs. George Houston of Vandalia. This desk was described as having a writing surface, only part of the front, built up with storage space beneath.
There were enclosed pigeon holes and book spaces, with doors that could be locked. The origin of the desk, though it must have dated back 100 years or more, was not known.
With a copy of the news article in hand, I told Steve of my discovery. He excitedly strode off down the hall toward the office of the state auditor. There are a couple of desks in this room, but nether fit the description of the Douglas or Henry desks.
Crossing the hall to the office of the state treasurer, we again did not discover the desk that had reportedly belonged to Stephen A. Douglas, but the Judge Henry desk occupied a prominent place on the south wall.
Using the description provided in The Vandalia Union article, we could, without a doubt, recognize the desk with its slanted writing surface that had been used by Judge Henry, both as a practicing attorney and later as judge of the circuit court.
Henry was born on May 18, 1834, in Shelby County, son of Bushrod and Elizabeth Hudson Henry. Bushrod Henry was a son of Joel Henry, who was a nephew of Patrick Henry of “give me liberty or give me death” fame.
After completing his study of law at Cumberland University at Lebanon, Tenn., Henry came to Vandalia, arriving on Jan. 1, 1859, “with $7.50 in borrowed money and about $50 worth of text books. It was a groundhog case – I had to succeed.”
In July 1861, he joined the Union forces as a member of Company G, 35th Illinois Infantry, for a term of three years. His enlistment papers tell that he was 27 years old at the time, single and a lawyer. His hair was brown, his eyes were gray and he stood 5 feet, 11 l/2 inches in height.
Within a short time, he was commissioned by Gov. Yates to raise Co. G, with rank of captain, and he served until his health forced him to resign. He returned to Vandalia and resumed the practice of law.
On Aug. 28, 1862, Henry and Sarah Johnson were married in Vandalia. They were parents of four children, with the firstborn dying in infancy and a daughter, Mary, drowning at the age of 2. His surviving daughters, Carrie Belle Collins and Waverly Houston, made the gift of their father’s desk to the state.
It is fitting that it should be preserved in the building in which he served for so many years.