Historic Washington State Park offers two trial reenactments at various times throughout the year. One concerns the 1844 trial of Henry Skaggs for the murder of William Oaks and the other depicts the 1880 trial of Sidney McFadden for poisoning his wife. On the dates of the events, registrants start their evening at Williams Tavern Restaurant at the park for a historic “country cooking” dinner, after which they go to the courthouse for the show. In the case of the 1844 trial, they go to the 1836 courthouse and for the 1880 trial they walk over to the 1874 courthouse. Both buildings have been authentically restored. A calendar of events is posted on the park’s web site, along with instructions for getting registered.
The Skaggs trial reveals that Henry, apparently in his cups, showed up uninvited to a dinner at his “friend” William Oaks’ house. He, a married man himself, apparently had a crush on Oaks’ wife Elizabeth and Oaks knew it and yelled for Skaggs to go away as he neared the house. He did not go away and William Oaks ended up with a bullet through his chest. Skaggs claimed Oaks drew on him but credible testimony at the trial asserted that Oaks never carried a gun on his person. The historic verdict was guilty but many modern juries find him innocent.
The McFadden trial is a bit more complex with a larger bevy of witnesses. The historic truth was that Sidney wanted to get rid of his wife, Easter, so he could take up with one Martha Smith, known as a strumpet. But, during the trial, doubt is cast upon that motivation. Even the owner of the plantation where he worked testified that Sidney’s greatest fault was going on to new tasks too quickly. He thought he was hardly capable of murder—unless drunk.
Members of the audience are selected for jury duty in both reenactments and the actors who play the prosecutors find it difficult to get a verdict of guilty. So, after thanking the participants for their service as jurors, the judge has the historical verdict read and sentences the guilty man to death by hanging. The last words from the judge in both reenactments are, “May God have mercy on your soul.”
I have been type-cast as the judge in both trials and have a lot of fun pontificating. The park’s chief interpreter plays the defense attorney in both trials and one of his staff members plays the prosecutor in both. We have better court records for the McFadden trial. We know, for example, that Col. Dan Jones was the defense attorney and our interpreter goes to the trouble of arranging his hair and whiskers to resemble the Col. (Dan Jones was a very influential citizen during his time and was also a strong benefactor for James Black, inventor of the Bowie knife.)
The best parts in both dramas are those of the accused. The park employee who plays Henry Skaggs is my favorite, the way he becomes almost simultaneously belligerent and deeply afraid. The sheriff in the Skaggs trial is an audience favorite as the judge browbeats him and keeps him moving to multiple tasks.
As a local citizen, it is a joy for me to volunteer at such events and to see the audience enjoy a slice of history.