By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a 16-part series about Northeast Mississippi courthouses.
HOLLY SPRINGS – The Marshall County Courthouse that stands today in the center of downtown Holly Springs is the county’s third.
The first courthouse, erected in 1836, was a cheap building, possibly a temporary space to be used while a more substantial edifice was built in 1838, said Bobby Mitchell, a local historian and former history and math teacher.
“The one built in 1838 had a clapboard outside and was a pretty good-sized building,” Mitchell said. “It survived the Civil War until 1864, when most of it was burned when some rogue Yankee soldiers, who were imprisoned there by their own commander, set it on fire while trying to get out.”
Mitchell said most of the records in the courthouse were salvaged, and area churches were used as temporary courthouses.
In 1872, the courthouse was rebuilt for $25,000. Wings were added to the east and west sides of the building in 1925, and it was remodeled again in 1968 with the addition of more wings.
“In every courthouse in Mississippi, I guess, the chancery clerk runs out of space so they end up having to add on somewhere to keep deeds and wills and other records,” Mitchell said.
When he was a child, Mitchell said, all county offices were located in the courthouse. Today, only the circuit, chancery and election commissioner’s offices are in the courthouse. All others, including the supervisors, city court, county superintendent and the sheriff’s department, are located elsewhere in town.
The first floor of the 10,000-square-foot Marshall County Courthouse contains office space and land records, the second floor is home to a large courtroom and more offices, and the third floor holds original old records plus the law library.
The courtroom has 20-foot-high walls with a tin ceiling and original creaky hardwood floors. Spectators sit in old-fashioned auditorium seats and the 12 jurors sit in three rows of wooden captains’ chairs to the judge’s right.
“There was one electrocution here that I know of when I was a child,” said Mitchell, 74. “We had a traveling electric chair back then.”
Some well-respected Chickasaw Indians – the Love family – donated the land for the courthouse, Mitchell said.
Chancery Clerk Chuck Thomas said the courthouses in Marshall and Lafayette counties and the one in Hardeman County, Tenn., were all patterned from the same blueprint. According to the National Register of Historical Places, the architectural firm of Willis, Sloan & Trigg designed the Hardeman County Courthouse; the register lists architects for the courthouses in Lafayette and Marshall counties as unknown.
Photos show all three buildings are brick with distinctive columns, and all have clock towers.
“Ever since the first courthouse was built, that clock has not worked,” Mitchell said. “It works for a little while after it’s fixed and then it quits.”
Thomas said the Seth Thomas clock actually does work, but winding it daily is a chore.
“After we got it fixed the last time, I got up there every day for eight or nine weeks, including Saturdays and Sundays, to wind it,” Thomas said. “You have to climb up on a ladder and you’re off balance and surrounded by glass and it takes almost 15 minutes to wind it.”
Thomas said the Marshall County Courthouse, like most, has a rich history with stories that are true and some that may be lore.
“They said we had a sheriff who committed suicide in the building,” Thomas said. “But I don’t know who or when that was. I do know this. The courthouse was used as a hospital during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.”
Mitchell finished the story for him.
“Over 300 people got yellow fever and died within about two-and-a-half months or so,” he said. “They converted the courthouse into a hospital and caskets were lined up on the lawn because people were dying so fast.”