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Liar, liar, courthouse on fire; Vicksburg’s original courthouse



vicksburg mississippi history old courthouse
View of Vicksburg, Mississippi 1855 (Courtesy - Jordan Rushing/Old Courthouse Museum)

April 9, 1857 at four o’clock in the morning, cries of “FIRE” were heard throughout the city of Vicksburg. The ancient Temple of Justice, the courthouse, was aflame. Citizens watched in sorrowful awe, helpless to extinguish the destructive blaze that had overtaken the old building. Such an ironic conclusion to the structure that had helped serve the people of Vicksburg as a lookout for fires throughout the city; and it being surrounded by the very source of water, four water cisterns, used by the bucket brigades to fight those fires. Within minutes the flames overcame the tower cupola, and “after swaying for a moment, like a drunken man, came crashing to the ground.”

There is very little that we know about the old Vicksburg courthouse, and the little bit we do know comes from snippets of information scattered across over thirty years of material. The structure was built in 1828 on the section of land set aside by Newitt Vick in his will for a public square; the same location as the Old Court House Museum. It became the County seat for Warren County in 1836 replacing the previous seat at Warrenton. Rumors have always alluded that the records in the Warrenton courthouse had to be moved in the middle of the night as the residents there were against the transfer and County officials feared they would protest the transition. The Vicksburg courthouse was 38 feet square, red brick, and had a tall tower clock and cupola that were added just before it burned.

There have been no pictures of the building discovered, but a writing composition by local student Alice Irwin in 1848 describes the building as “an old building…not looking very well.” She claims the structure is nine hundred and twenty-five feet tall, which of course is an exaggeration as that would be close to eighty stories in height. It must have seemed massive to any spectator looking up from the ground though. When the fire broke out that April morning, witnesses claimed it could be seen for miles “lighting up the dark swamps of Louisiana, and illuminating many hill-tops in our own State.”

The Vicksburg Weekly Whig claimed the fire was an act of foul play. This had been the third attempt in the previous six weeks that a fire had tried to bring the building to an early retirement. “…clearly traceable to the torch of the incendiary; and yet, so far as we know, no effort has been made to detect and bring to justice the miscreant who would wrap our city in a blaze,” author of the Vicksburg Weekly Whig continued. Adding to this claim was a trail of events beginning in December of 1856 in which a post in a local paper discussed the poor condition of the courthouse due to leaks and other much need repairs. The writer addressed their fears of a fire occurring and destroying the City’s records. When a fire did happen, most of the County records had already been moved to a safe location off-site. In January of 1857, just three months before the fire, the Board of Supervisors met in a special session to discuss proposals for a new courthouse that would also serve as a City Hall. No action was taken at this meeting, and the proposal was pushed to another special session in February in which they agreed to begin receiving plans and specifications for a new structure. Public opinion was that a new building was not necessary, especially if taxes had to be raised in order to fund it. After the fire had taken the building, a writer from the Whig continued to question officials on three separate occasions as to why an investigation had not taken place.

August of 1857 would cement the end of the story for the original Vicksburg courthouse. Plans had been adopted by the Board of Supervisors for the Weldon brothers to construct the new courthouse. The remains of the old structure were graded away along with an additional ten feet of dirt from the Court Square hill. Public interest shifted toward the new grand building, and what was known of the original courthouse would fade with the memories of those that had once set foot inside it.

Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society

If you enjoyed this story about Vicksburg’s Original Courthouse and want to learn more, please consider visiting the Old Court House Museum here in Vicksburg, MS. We’ve been a museum for 74 years now, and all items on display were donated by families from here. We also have a vast archive in our McCardle Research Library that is accessible by appointment. Members of the Historical Society have free admission to the museum, so please also consider becoming a member. All proceeds raised through membership go directly to the preservation of the museum and its contents. For more information visit our website at or give us a call at 601-636-0741. You never know what you’ll find at the Old Court House!

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