Hampden County Jail, Springfield, Mass

The Hampden County Jail on State Street in Springfield, Mass, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2019:

Throughout the colonial period, Springfield was the seat of Hampshire County, and consequently it was home to both the county courthouse and the jail. However, the town was located in the southern part of the county, which at the time included all of present-day Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties, and by the 1790s Springfield was only its sixth-largest community. So, in 1794 the county seat shifted to Northampton, which was both larger and more centrally-located than Springfield.

The old jail had been located on Main Street in the South End, on the current site of the MGM casino. It was in use from the late 1600s until 1794, and it was subsequently sold to a private owner, who used it until the early 19th century, when it was demolished to open Bliss Street through the property. In the meantime, though, Springfield again became a county seat in 1812, when the southern third of Hampshire County was partitioned off, becoming Hampden County. With the old jail unavailable, this meant that the new county would need to construct a new facility here in Springfield.

The location selected for this new jail was here on State Street, on the site of what later became Classical High School. At the time, this section of Springfield was still only sparsely developed, with most of the downtown area centered along the Main Street corridor, and the county purchased the one-and-a-half acre property in 1813 for just $500. It then built the jail here, which was completed in 1815 at a cost of $14,000. This jail would be steadily expanded over the years, but it remained in use throughout most of the 19th century, and it is shown here in the first photo, which was probably taken shortly after it closed.

The first inmate here was David Cadwell, a Wilbraham resident who had been arrested for assault on June 17, 1815. His stay was short, though, because he paid his fine and court costs and was released on the same day. Other prisoners had different means of leaving, including Jesse Wright of Springfield, who became the first to break out of the jail when he escaped on February 12, 1816.

Aside from confining prisoners, the county jails of Massachusetts were also used for executions during the 19th century. These were rare occurrences here in Springfield, and the first person sentenced to death in Hampden County was Robert Bush of Westfield, who murdered his estranged wife Sally on September 29, 1827. At the time, she and her two children had been living with another family, and Bush went to this house, shot her with a shotgun, and then attempted suicide by overdosing on opium. He was saved when someone administered an emetic, but Sally died four hours later. The trial was held a year later at the Springfield courthouse, and Bush was found guilty and sentenced to death. His execution was set for November 14 here at the jail, but he managed to obtain opium a second time, and committed suicide on the night of November 12.

The first execution that was actually carried out here at the jail was that of Alexander Desmarteau of Chicopee, who was hanged on April 26, 1861 for the 1858 rape and murder of seven-year-old Augustine Lucas. He was among the first to be tried under the state’s new law that created different degrees of murder, and his lawyers appealed the case, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. This delayed his execution until his case reached the Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld his conviction of first degree murder.

The execution occurred here in the prison yard, which appears to have been the area on the right side of the building in the first photo. About 125 people were allowed into the yard to witness the execution, including most of the city and county officials, but many more spectators attempted to view it from outside the prison walls by climbing to the tops of nearby buildings. During his time in jail, Desmarteau had converted from Catholicism to the Episcopalian faith, and the Reverend George H. McKnight of Christ Church accompanied him and preached a sermon here prior to the execution. He spoke on the grievous nature of Desmarteau’s crimes, along with his subsequent remorse and religious awakening, and Desmarteau was then given the opportunity to say his last words, which were reported by the Springfield Republican as “I don’t know as I desire to say anything, except to bid you all farewell. I hope to meet you all in a better world.”

Another condemned criminal who was executed here was Albert H. Smith of Westfield, whose 1873 execution made headlines in newspapers across the country. The previous summer, 22-year-old Smith had been working as a switchman for the Boston & Albany Railroad when he met 25-year-old Jennie Bates. He soon fell in love with her, and according to Smith they were engaged to be married. However, Jennie claimed that they were only acquaintances, and by the fall of 1872 she was engaged to 40-year-old Charles D. Sackett. Believing that he had been betrayed, Smith shot both of them on the evening of November 20, 1872, while the couple was walking home together after watching a play. He shot Jennie three times, including once in the head, and Charles was hit once, with the bullet puncturing his lung. Despite her injuries, Jennie made a full recovery, and Charles seemed to be improving until infection set in, and he died 13 days after the shooting.

Smith’s lawyers used the insanity defense, arguing that, in his mind, he and Jennie were married. Because of this delusion, he believed that his actions were those of a jealous husband trying to save his marriage, rather than an act of revenge perpetrated by a spurned lover. The argument seemed persuasive to many spectators at the trial, but the jury nonetheless found him guilty of first degree murder, and the death sentence was carried out here on June 27, 1873.

In the hours before his execution, Smith apparently showed no emotion or regret, with the Republican observing that “His eye was bright, his manner easy and cordial,” and “it was hard to realize that he was the one most interested in the approaching execution and had scarce an hour to live.” The only hint of emotion came in the form of a slight tremor in his voice, when he spoke of Jennie. He spoke at length to the newspaper reporter, who wrote about his cell here in the jail in his account of the execution:

His cell had the same neat and almost pleasant appearance that it has always worn since he has been its occupant. The narrow but tidy bed occupied the whole of the right side, a small stand filled the niche and the head, while a common stool in the front corner nearest the office completed the furniture of the narrow apartment. But the walls were tastily brightened with a number of pictures cut from illustrated papers, arranged by Smith, while the stand was almost hidden by the beautiful floral offerings, some of which came from ladies in this city and Westfield, who had never seen the unfortunate man. Half-hidden in the midst of these, and yet plainly visible from the door, was placed a photograph of the girl, and the frequent glances of the prisoner to it proved that he considered it the chief ornament of the room.

The reporter then went on to contrast this with the grim realities of the day, which Smith seemed oblivious to:

At the lower extremity of the corridor, and in plain view from the cell, stood the gallows, with the fatal noose dangling in the air. Just opposite the prisoner, across the landing, sat Turnkey Norway, who for 36 hours has remained constantly at his post, while directly above the latter’s head a clock was heartlessly ticking off the last moments of the doomed man’s life. Further on was the open grating leading to the office, and behind this jostled a crowd of curious reporters, eager to get one glimpse at the murderer or to catch a single syllable of his last words. But he paid no attention to them, and was equally unmindful of the gallows. His pleasant eyes were turned toward his caller, whom⁠—as always when talking with any one⁠—he looked straight in the face, and with whom he conversed freely, calming and interestingly.

During the interview, Smith expressed that the only thing bothering him was the fact that he would not be able to see Jennie one more time before his death. Even then, he was not bitter. He evidently believed that she truly wanted to be there, and regarding her absence he said, “But I don’t blame her. There is too much influence to keep her away. And yet, I think she ought not to be so much influenced by them. But I have her picture and a lock of her hair in my pocket, and they will be buried with me.”

Smith remained calm and composed throughout the execution proceedings. The jail chaplain, Reverend William Rice, read a passage from Psalm 51, which was followed by the singing of a hymn and then a prayer. Smith then spoke for about three minutes, reiterating his earlier statements about Jennie and had not acted out of revenge when he killed Sackett. He ended with “Farewell. Farewell,” which, according to the Republican, was “uttered in a clear, loud voice, and without a perceptible tremor.”

The reporter went on to describe how “Then followed the strange, sad spectacle of a man, standing in the very shadow of death, madly kissing the picture of the woman he had loved, to his ruin.” The picture was then returned to his pocket, to be buried with him, and his legs were bound, the rope adjusted, and a hood placed over his head. The sheriff then shook his hand, and he was executed at 10:44 a.m., with the rope breaking his neck and killing him instantly.

At least one other execution took place here at the jail in 1883. The prisoner, Joseph B. Loomis of Southwick, had been convicted of the December 1, 1881 murder of David Levett in Agawam. Loomis, who was about 22 at the time, had been a childhood friend of Levett, and the two had gone to school together. From there, however, their paths had diverged, with Levett becoming a successful shopkeeper in Springfield, while Loomis worked as a laborer and had, according to the Republican,  had “a fondness for drink” and “had “long borne an unenviable reputation.”

On the day of the murder, Loomis visited his friend at his confectionery shop on Main Street in Springfield. The two spent much of the evening together, and at some point Loomis devised a plan to rob and kill his friend. He deliberately stayed until after the last train home had left Springfield, and then asked Levett if he could hire a carriage to bring him home. Levett agreed to do so, and even offered to accompany him, which Loomis had evidently counted on him doing.

They left Springfield sometime after 9:30 p.m., with Levett driving the carriage. As they were crossing the covered bridge over the Westfield River, where the sound of the wagon wheels on the planks would drown out any noise, Loomis produced a pistol and shot Levett in the head. He then covered up Levett’s body and rode to a deserted area, where he took all of his friend’s valuables before abandoning the carriage and the body.

The body was found the next day, and Loomis soon became the prime suspect, since he had been the last person seen with Levett. He was found to be in possession of one of Levett’s gloves, along with a handkerchief. These items would later become significant when, about four months later, Levett’s gold watch was found on the side of the road in Westfield, wrapped in a matching handkerchief and glove. Loomis had evidently placed it there for safekeeping, intending to return later for it, but at the trial he claimed that Levett had given it to him to take to Westfield for repairs, and that he must have lost it along the way. The jury was apparently skeptical of this explanation, and he was found guilty of murder, largely on the basis of this circumstantial evidence.

The execution took place on March 8, 1883, here at the Hampden County Jail. He ate veal steak for his last meal, and then spent much of the morning writing farewell letters to friends. On the gallows, he read a prepared statement for his last words, in which he confessed to the crime and asked for forgiveness. He thanked the officers at the jail for their kindness, and he concluded by declaring, “Let it be known to you all, and to coming generations, that rum nerved my arm to strike down my friend David Levett, and has been the inspiration of what has been wicked in my career to the gallows.”

By the time of Loomis’s execution, the jail was nearly 70 years old, and despite several additions over the years it was very overcrowded. King’s Handbook of Springfield, published in 1884, noted that some prisoners had to be sent to neighboring counties because of the conditions here, and declared that “The county is indictable for not providing better accommodations, and the time is not far distant when a new jail must be built.”

Two years later, the Republican expressed similar concern in an exposé titled “Certain Facts About the Jail.” In this article, the newspaper revealed that the prison contained 116 cells for men and 28 for women, yet at the time its inmates included 175 men and 27 women. The additional 59 men were housed in various makeshift quarters, including 15 who lived in a 250-square-foot attic space with just one window and no ventilation. Elsewhere in the jail, the small hospital room has 17 inmates, with the healthy and sick sleeping side-by-side, and another 22 were kept in poorly-ventilated room that measured less than 300 square feet.

Aside from the overcrowded conditions, the newspaper also noted the poor sanitation, writing:

About 100 of the men confined in the house of correction are employed in a work-room 50 by 60 feet square, making cane-chair seats; and here also, the breathing-room is pitifully inadequate. . . . Every week they have to take a bath, but there are only two bath-tubs, and two men have to go through the same water and sometimes four. The prisoners march down the hall each morning to the closet with soil-buckets in hand. These are emptied into a funnel connecting directly with the sewer and though the iron doors are closed the stench is fearful; the more so as it is added to the foulness of the air that results from overcrowded sleeping apartments. A man is employed all the time in whitewashing the walls, but that is a pitifully inadequate provision for sanitation. . . . The law requires that jail inmates shall be given access to the open air. This is out of the question on the present premises; the men have no yard, the women have a kind of pit, only open toward the sky, and usually hung full with washing.

The interior of the prison was not the only source of complaints during the 1880s, though. By this point this section of State Street had gone from being on the outskirts of downtown to becoming the cultural center of the city. As a result, the jail had become increasingly out of place here. It was directly across State Street from St. Michael’s Cathedral, adjacent to the high school, and its other neighbors included the Church of the Unity, Christ Church, and the city library, along with a number of fine homes. Overall, the jail was an unwelcome relic from an earlier era, and according to King’s Handbook it was “an inharmonious object in an otherwise pleasing view.”

The jail ultimately closed in 1887, upon the completion of the York Street Jail along the banks of the Connecticut River in the South End. The building was then used temporarily as a militia armory, until the completion of a new armory on Howard Street in 1895. At some point in the next few years, the old building was then demolished, and the land became the site of a new high school building, which was completed in 1898 as Central High School. Later renamed Classical High School, the building was converted into condominiums after the school closed in 1986, and it is still standing here today.

In the meantime, the York Street Jail served as the county jail for over a century, even longer than its predecessor here on State Street. However, it ultimately faced the same problems of overcrowding. Originally designed for 256 inmates, it had more than 700 by the 1980s, leading to repeated calls from Sheriff Michael Ashe for a new facility. Faced with apathetic bureaucracy, in 1990 Ashe took the drastic step of commandeering the National Guard armory on Roosevelt Avenue in order to house prisoners. To do so, he invoked an obscure 17th century law that empowered sheriffs to take necessary actions in the event of “imminent danger of a breach of the peace.” Given the dangerously overcrowded conditions at the jail, he argued that there was such an imminent danger. His actions quickly earned him national attention, highlighting a problem that state officials had long ignored, and it ultimately lead to the construction of the present Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow, which opened in 1992.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

The view of the Capitol from the west side, around 1880-1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This scene shows the west portico of the Capitol, the side of the building that faces the Mall and the Washington Monument. As discussed in an earlier post, which shows the view from the east side, the Capitol has been in use since 1800, although it has undergone significant changes during this time. The building was burned by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812, and it was subsequently rebuilt. This work was completed in 1826, but the Capitol was much smaller at the time, consisting of only a low dome and the two small wings on either side. The north wing, visible immediately to the left of the dome in this scene, housed the original Senate chamber, while the House of Representatives was located in the south wing.

By the mid-19th century, Congress had outgrown the building, so in the early 1850s work began on a major expansion, with two new wings that extended the Capitol further to the north and to the south. The project included new chambers for both the House and the Senate, which opened in 1857 and 1859, respectively. These wings are only partially visible in this scene, with the present-day Senate chamber on the far left, and the House chamber on the far right. Aside from these wings, the project also included a new, much larger dome, which was completed in 1863 and topped with the 19.5-foot bronze Statue of Freedom, as shown in these photos.

With the completion of the dome, the Capitol largely assumed its present-day appearance. The first photo was taken several decades later, around the 1880s or 1890s, and very little has changed in this view since then. Today, the west portico is probably best known as the site of the presidential inauguration, which occurs here every four years on January 20. However, for most of the building’s history the event was held on the east portico, and it was not until the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan that it was held here on the west side. This was done in part as a cost-saving measure, and also as a way to allow for more spectators, with the mile-long Mall providing plenty of open space and views of the Capitol. With the exception of Reagan’s second inauguration, which was held in the Capitol Rotunda, every ceremony since then has been held here. Of these, Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 reportedly drew the largest crowd, with an estimated 1.8 million visitors gathering on the Mall.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

The U. S. Capitol, seen from the northwest around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The Capitol in 2018:

This view of the Capitol is similar to one in a previous post, except it shows the building from the northwest instead of the northeast. As discussed in that post, construction on the Capitol began in 1793, and the partially-completed building was first used by Congress in 1800, when the federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington. It subsequently burned during the War of 1812, and for several years afterward Congress met in temporary quarters on the current site of the Supreme Court building. Congress returned to the Capitol in 1819, although the building was not fully completed until 1826.

At the time, though, the exterior of the Capitol was very different from its current appearance. Instead of its current cast iron dome, it was topped with a low copper-covered wood dome, and on either side of the Rotunda were small wings for the House and Senate. However, as the country grew so did the size of Congress, and by the mid-19th century the Capitol was becoming too small. This resulted in a massive expansion project that began in the early 1850s and was completed in 1863. As part of it, new wings were constructed for the two houses of Congress, and a new, much larger dome was added above the Rotunda.

By the end of the Civil War, the exterior of the Capitol had largely assumed its current appearance. The first photo was taken about 50 years later during the 1910s, looking up the walkway towards the west portico of the building. Remarkably little has changed in this scene since then. Perhaps the only significant difference in the present-day scene is the barricade in the distance at the base of the steps, in place as a security measure. Otherwise, though, this view looks the same as it did a century ago, and the Capitol remains an iconic symbol of both Washington D. C. in general and the federal government in particular.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, seen from the southeast corner around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in previous posts showing the north and south sides of this room, this was once the chamber for the U. S. House of Representatives, which met here from 1819 until the current chamber was opened in 1857. The room sat vacant for several years afterwards, amid a variety of proposals for its reuse. Then, in 1864 it was designated as the National Statuary Hall. Each state was invited to send two statues for display here, representing prominent citizens from the state’s history.

The states were slow in responding to this request, and the first statue, of Rhode Island’s Nathanael Green, did not arrive here until 1870. By the time the first photo was taken around 1904, there were 45 states in the union, yet only 27 statues here in the collection, 11 of which are shown in the photo. Going around the room from left to right, they are: Lewis Cass (MI), James Garfield (OH), William Allen (OH), Jacob Collamer (VT), Robert Fulton (PA), Nathanael Greene (RI), Roger Williams (RI), George Clinton (NY), Richard Stockton (NJ), James Shields (IL), and Philip Kearny (NJ).

Today, more than a century later, the Capitol’s collection is now complete, with 100 statues from all 50 states. This room still serves as Statuary Hall, although only 38 of the statues are currently here, and the rest are distributed throughout the Capitol building. Of the 11 from the first photo, only the statues of Cass and Fulton are still in this room, and only Fulton’s is visible in the second photo, just to the right of the mantlepiece in the lower right-center of the scene. Aside from the arrangement of the statues, though, very little has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken, and the room is one of several stops included on most public tours of the Capitol.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in an earlier post, this room was once occupied by the U. S. House of Representatives, which met here from 1819 until the opening of its current chamber in 1857. The House has two earlier chambers here on this same spot, starting in 1801 with a temporary brick structure. A more permanent chamber was completed here in 1807, although it was destroyed just seven years when the British burned Washington during the War of 1812.

This particular view faces the semicircular northern wall of the room, with the Rotunda and the Senate wing visible in the distance down the hallway. When completed, this wall was the rear of the House chamber, so this would have been the view looking up the central aisle from the Speaker’s rostrum. The chamber is surrounded by marble Corinthian columns, and the original design also included two statues. One of these, The Car of History, is visible in this scene above the doorway. It features the muse Clio recording history as she travels in a winged chariot that represents time, and it was created by sculptor Carlo Franzoni and installed in 1819.

The chamber remained in use by the House for nearly 40 years, and during this time it was the scene of many important debates and other events in the period leading up to the Civil War. However, by the mid-19th century the House was in need of a new chamber, in part because of the poor acoustics caused by the curved ceilings, and also because the steady admission of new states began to cause crowding here. Starting in the early 1850s, the Capitol underwent a major expansion, including the addition of a new dome and two large wings to accommodate new chambers for both the House and Senate. The House wing was completed in 1857, directly behind the spot where these photos were taken, and the House subsequently vacated this chamber.

In the years that followed, this space was the subject of several different proposals, including one that would have divided it into two floors of conference rooms. However, in 1864 it was designated as the National Statuary Hall, and each state was invited to send two statues to put on display here. The statues were slow in arriving, and it was not until 1971 that all 50 states were represented here. By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century there were about two dozen statues in the collection. Two of them, representing New Hampshire, are visible here in the first photo, with John Stark on the left and Daniel Webster on the right. Both arrived here in 1894, and they were both the work of noted sculptor Carl Conrads.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, this room is still used as Statuary Hall. In 1976 it was partially restored to its original appearance, including the addition of curtains behind the columns, but otherwise this scene still looks essentially the same as it did at the turn of the 20th century. The statues themselves have been rearranged over the years, though. Because of overcrowding and structural concerns about the weight of the many statues, many have since been relocated to other parts of the Capitol. Thirteen of them, one from each of the original states, are now in the crypt below the rotunda, including New Hampshire’s statue of John Stark. The state’s other statue, of Daniel Webster, is still here in the room, although it is not visible from this particular angle.

Old Senate Chamber, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The Old Senate Chamber at the U. S. Capitol, around 1902, during its time as the courtroom of the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The United States Capitol was first used in 1800, the same year that the government moved to Washington D.C. from its temporary location in Philadelphia. Aside from a short interruption in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when the British burned much of Washington, the building has remained in use ever since, although it has undergone significant changes and expansions since then.

In its original form, the Capitol consisted of two wings, connected by a central rotunda that was topped by a low wooden dome. The south wing was occupied by the House of Representatives, which met in the chamber that is now known as Statuary Hall. Here on the north side of the building was the Senate wing, which had a chamber that was somewhat smaller than the House’s, given the smaller number of senators.

As with the House chamber, this Senate chamber was rebuilt after the War of 1812, and the work was completed in 1819. It was designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and it is semicircular in shape, reflecting the appearance of an ancient amphitheater. Other classically-inspired features include the marble Ionic columns, which are similar to the Corinthian ones found in the House chamber. The room was built with two visitor galleries, with one along the curved wall behind the senators, and the other above the front of the room, as shown in this scene.

This chamber was the home of the Senate for the next 40 years, from 1819 to 1859. It was the scene of many important events in the years leading up to the Civil War, and for much of this time the Senate was dominated by the Great Triumvirate, consisting of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Representing the three major regions of the country at the time, these men were three of the most powerful American politicians of the Antebellum period, and they were involved in many debates in this room.

However, perhaps the single most noteworthy incident in this room occurred on May 22, 1856, when abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly caned to death at his desk by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. The attack was prompted by a speech that Sumner had given here two days before, in which he harshly criticized slavery in general and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler in particular. Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, then waited until Sumner was nearly alone here in the chamber, and began bludgeoning him with his cane while pinned Sumner under his desk.

The attack rendered Sumner unconscious, but Brooks continued to beat him until several other congressmen intervened. By this point, he had suffered serious trauma to his head and spinal cord, and it took three years before he had recovered enough to resume his duties in the Senate. In the meantime, the attack helped to further polarize the already divided nation, with southerners praising Brooks while northerners condemned his actions as an attack on free speech itself. Within less than five years, South Carolina would become the first state to secede from the Union, and it would begin the Civil War with its bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Even as the nation was dividing, though, the Capitol itself was growing. Westward expansion had led to the admission of many new states over the years, and the original congressional chambers were becoming crowded. This was particularly evident here in the Senate chamber, with the number of senators increasing by nearly 50 percent between 1819 and 1858, from 44 to 64. As a result, by the early 1850s work had begun on a massive expansion of the Capitol, creating two new, much larger wings beyond the original ones. The new House chamber was completed in 1857, followed by the new Senate chamber in 1859.

Both of these new chambers are still used today, and the old ones have since been repurposed. The former House chamber became the National Statuary Hall, and starting in 1860 the Senate chamber was occupied by the U. S. Supreme Court, which had previously met in the room directly underneath it. It would go on to be used as the courtroom of the Supreme Court for the next 75 years, before its current building opened across the street from the Capitol in 1935.

During this time, the Supreme Court heard a number of important cases here, perhaps the most notable of which was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled that segregation was legal under the “separate but equal” doctrine. This was followed by the Lochner era of the court’s history, from 1897 to 1937, when the court took a politically conservative approach to economic regulations. Using the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the court struck down many state and federal laws, including those that limited weekly working hours, prohibited child labor, and established minimum wages.

Many prominent Supreme Court justices served on the bench here in this room. When the court first moved here in 1860, the chief justice was Roger B. Taney, who had served in that capacity since 1836. He remained on the court until his death in 1864, making him the second-longest tenured chief justice in history, but he is probably best known as the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Other notable justices who served here included John Marshall Harlan, the sole dissenting vote in the Plessy case; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who coined the phrase “shouting fire in a theatre” in a 1919 court opinion; Charles Evans Hughes, the chief justice who frequently clashed with Franklin D. Roosevelt over the president’s New Deal policies; and former President William Howard Taft, who served as chief justice from 1921 to 1930.

It was during Taft’s time as chief justice that he began lobbying for a separate building for the Supreme Court. This would not only relieve the overcrowding here in its Capitol quarters, but it would also reflect the court’s role as a separate, independent branch of the federal government. After Taft’s retirement and death in 1930, his successor Hughes continued these efforts, and two years later construction began on the present-day Supreme Court building. The site was directly across First Street NE from the Capitol, on the spot where the Old Capitol Prison had previously stood. The building was completed in 1935, and the court subsequently vacated this space here in the old Senate chamber.

The first photo was taken around 1902, and it shows the room’s appearance when it was used by the Supreme Court. At the time, the layout of the room bore little resemblance to its time as the Senate chamber. The senators had taken their desks with them when they moved in 1859, and the vice president’s dais at the front of the room was replaced by a long bench for the justices, as shown in the first photo. Probably the only object left from the Senate in that photo is the gilded wood eagle, located in the center above the chief justice’s chair. It was installed here as early as 1838, and it originally sat atop a wood shield. After the Supreme Court moved into here, the shield was placed above the door on the outside of the chamber, although the eagle remained at its perch the front.

After the Supreme Court left in 1935, this room was used intermittently for meetings, committee hearings, and even by the Senate itself on several different occasions during the mid-20th century, while its current chamber was undergoing renovations. Then, in 1976 the room underwent a major restoration in order to return it to its Senate-era appearance. This included the installation of 64 replica mahogany desks, which are arranged in four semicircular rows, reflecting the arrangement of the room in 1859.

Several original furnishings were returned to the room, including the vice president’s desk at the front, although the table in front of it is a reproduction. The eagle and shield were also reunited as part of this restoration, and they once again hang at the front of the room. Another original object here is the portrait of George Washington, visible directly above the eagle in the present-day photo. It was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1823, and the Senate purchased it in 1832 and hung it here above the gallery. The painting was removed when the Senate left in 1859, but it was returned here in 1976.

Today, the room remains in its restored appearance, and it is periodically used by the Senate for special events, such as mock swearing-in ceremonies. Photography is not allowed in the Senate chamber, where the senators typically take their oaths of office, so the mock ceremonies here allow the press to take photographs of the occasion. Aside from these types of events, the room is also open for some public tours, although visitor access is limited to just the central aisle, as shown in the present-day photo.