Jefferson County Courthouse at 150: Bringing History to Life
(PHOTO: Judge John H. Foradora (center) presides over the play practice for Randy Bartley’s “The Trials of Judge Heath.)
“The Trials of Judge Heath” is a play by Randy Bartley, covering the events in September of 1836 that proved that Jefferson County was ahead of the rest of the country when it came to slavery.
“This story is true,” Playwright Bartley said. “Associate Judge Elijah Heath was arrested for violating the Federal Fugitive Slave Act. We’re telling the story of the appeal that took place in Pittsburgh. We’ve taken a few liberties, added a few characters, and dramatized it a little bit to make it more interesting. This was a pivotal time in American history — one that resounds today.”
Judge Heath helped a fugitive slave escape from a runaway slave hunter nearly 30 years before the Civil War. He was tried for that “crime,” but felt he did the right thing.
“It’s the story of an American citizen standing up for the rights of others,” Bartley said. “The Pennsylvania Constitution prohibited slavery, and it’s a well-known fact that we had Underground Railroad later in our history running through this area, so people of this area were predominately anti-slavery. Here, you have an officer of the court standing up against that bad law.”
The director of the show is happy to take part in such a historic endeavor as memorializing the judge’s trials.
“This is important because it’s a story about Brookville,” Director Karen Allgeier said. “I’m all about the history of the area. Currently, we lease the old Columbia Theater, which is historical in itself. Anything to do with the history of the town is significant for me.”
The show features what Bartley calls an all-star cast. Judge John H. Foradora plays the 1863 Federal Judge Thomas Irwin. District Attorney Jeff Burkett plays Attorney R. Burke. County Commissioner Jack Matson plays Attorney A. Burke. James “Moon” Van Steenberg plays the jailer. Larry Anthony plays the bailiff. Chris Taylor and David Taylor play the defense attorneys. James Dietrich plays the titular Judge Heath. Gary Kahle plays James Steedman. Bartley himself plays the slave catcher.
Burkett said that it was an interesting experience to play someone different than himself.
“I’m really having fun with my role because I’m not playing a hero,” Burkett said. “I’m an attorney who represents slaveholders. He’s a bombastic southern attorney who is very irritated with this small town. It’s amazing to know this is based on a true story. Brookville was so far ahead of the times. They could foresee where our nation was going to go: to abolish slavery.”
The show will be performed on Thursday and also Friday at 7 p.m. as part of the celebration of the Jefferson County Courthouse’s 150th anniversary.
This is the next-to-last story of a series on the 150th Anniversary of the Jefferson County Courthouse. Celebrations run this whole week.
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