Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The case of the mysterious courthouse eagle
WASHINGTON, Pa. – The Washington County Courthouse is scary enough on days when hardened criminals face a judge and the gruesome details of murders are played out before juries.
It's even more frightening when an innocent man or woman has to face a judge without any exonerating evidence in this county seat in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
And then there is the creepy, dirty black eagle encased in glass, just inside the front door, that has been known to frighten children – as well as me.
At first, I wanted to go on a mission to force the president judge to hide the bird in an attic, preferably at the local historical society, where it wouldn't stir up nightmares of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."
But then again, the investigative reporter in me first wanted to know who put the bird there to begin with and why ...
The adventure first led to the armed deputy sheriff on duty at the courthouse security gate who looks a bit like Vice President Dick Cheney. His co-workers call him "The GeneraI." However, I was glad to learn that he has a sense of humor.
"It's just a dirty old eagle," said the deputy, Bill Forgie, before referring me to a history buff in his department, Wesley Hartman, who supposedly knew the origins of the stuffed bird.
It turned out to be a bad lead.
"I'm really not sure where that came from," Hartman said.
So I decided to turn to Phyllis Matheny, the prothonotary whose staff collects all the incoming lawsuits, and often seems to know the entire workings of the courthouse.
But the longtime court official held no secrets about the bird that has even scared her grandchildren when they visited her office in the 108-year-old Beaux Arts landmark.
"I think the kids were a bit leery of it from the beginning," she said, before offering up a hearty laugh and directing me to the law library in a far corner of the basement.
"They must know what it is and why it's there," Matheny said. "It has to be there for a reason."
Assistant Law Librarian Pat Stavovy theorized the eagle belonged Washington County Historical Society before it relocated from the courthouse attic to the historic LeMoyne House.
So, unfortunately, the bird stayed behind, as did a creepy oil painting portrait of Judge Alexander Acheson, whose piercing eyes stare down from the wall in an out-of-way corner of the library.
"Is that the scariest thing?" Stavovy asked, noting that she has even found an occasional bat perched on the law books in the cavernous library.
For the record: The historical society doesn't want the bird back. It has an attic full of stuff that needs to be cleaned out, said Jim Ross, its director.
Taking a stab in the dark, Stavovy said the bird was probably a mascot for the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War.
"It's hard when nobody leaves you a paper trail," she said.
She then pointed me to Clay Kilgore, the historical society curator who was asked four years ago to restore the bird, whose feathers were filthy and falling off its body.
But he didn't turn up any new clues after he took it to the museum and pulled it out of the glass case and ran a tiny vacuum cleaner over the ugly thing.
"Usually on a memorial, you'll see stuff," Kilgore said, referring to labels or other identifying marks.
So he flattened some feathers and glued them back to the body, trying to make it look better.
"So why hold onto the bird if it's ugly and has no historical value?" I asked.
"That was my question, too." Kilgore responded.
"It's kind of freaky. It really is," Kilgore said. "It's just a weird thing to have up there. I'm not sure why it's there."
)Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter)