Law & Order: 1800s

Students and Latta re-enactors take on cases from area’s past

by Alan Hodge

Matt Waisner, center, serving as a bailiff, swears in “witnesses” Glenn Shepherd and Elizabeth Pratt while Dave Holland, serving as judge, presiding. Members of the West Mecklenburg High School debate team and Latta Plantation volunteers and re-enactors recreated several Mecklenburg County trials last month at the Huntersville historical site.

HUNTERSVILLE – Court was in session for the re-enactors at Latta Plantation and West Mecklenburg High School Debate Team March 19 as they recreated a handful of actual 19th century Mecklenburg County civil cases.

Not only did the participants abide by period-correct language, courtroom customs and clothing, even punishments were doled out with 1800s flare as anyone caught blaspheming, spitting tobacco juice, making boisterous remarks or failing to check their weapons at the door received a $2 fine.

Latta Plantation board member Dave Holland, who portrayed fictious Judge Julius Littlehorn, hatched the idea for the backcountry circuit court sessions. The cases tried were researched from the Special Collections at the University at North Carolina at Charlotte library.

“All we had were the names of the parties and the causes of the cases,” Holland said. “Everything else we created.”

The cases that were reenacted are what you might expect for a 19th century North Carolina backcountry. One case involved the theft of several hams and sides of bacon, another was theft of a horse and one was the sale of a slave without disclosing the slave had committed murder. That particular case referred to the slave as “defective property.”

Actors in the courtroom scenes included Latta Plantation volunteers and re-enactors. Also on hand to take part in the backcountry court cases was the West Mecklenburg High School debate team which set up shop in the circa 1760 Ezekiel Alexander log house on the Latta Plantation grounds. The Alexander cabin has recently received a major rebuild including new foundations and a stone chimney funded by a $12,000 grant from Lowe’s. Several employees from Lowe’s Home Improvement Northlake store were on hand to watch the court cases and check out the Alexander cabin upgrades.

West Mecklenburg Debate Team Coach Glen Lowe said the students leaped at the chance to take part in the backcountry court proceedings where they took on roles as judge, attorneys, witnesses and jury members.

“We do mock trials for the N.C. Bar Association competitions,” Lowe said. “The backcountry court is like going back in a time machine for the students. It gives them a different point of view. The court basics are the same, but this is more rough and raw.”

Debate team captain and 12th-grader Kelsey Mace portrayed Judge Horace Brown. Mace went all out in putting on the look of a 19th century Mecklenburg County circuit judge, including gluing on a fake beard and mustache.

“It’s really exciting to be able to incorporate acting into the debates,” she said.

Another debate team senior, Katie Hopkins acted as an attorney in a backcountry court civil case involving the alleged theft of $50 while two gentlemen shared a room at the Allison Ferry Inn.

“I used to do acting in middle school,” Hopkins said. “It’s fun dressing up in the old style clothes.”

Action during the Latta Plantation circuit court cases wasn’t limited to the bar. At one point, a mock duel was held between two attorneys arguing a case involving mule feed. The shootout took place after the lawyers called each other names like “flatulent old goat”, and “whiny puppy.” The mock combat followed 19th century rules of resolving what were at that time called “disputes of honor.”

Overall, participants said, the recreated proceedings gave everyone a idea of just how far the state’s judicial system has come in the past 150 years, for better or worse.

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