HELP SUPPORT TALES OF CAPE COD
Date Made: latter half of 18th century
Measurements: 10 ft. in height
Materials: Wood and metal
This large sculptural figure is purported to have stood atop the Olde Colonial Courthouse in Barnstable, MA. It is currently in the collection of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT.
The Olde Colonial Courthouse, the second county courthouse in Barnstable, MA, was built between 1763 and 1774. It was the scene of the 1774 patriot revolt that barred the King’s judge from entering the building in protest of a decree that required all jurors to be appointed by the Crown’s local sheriff. In 1775, when the courthouse was opened for its first session, after the start of the Revolutionary War, Judge James Otis, Sr. ordered the British Coat of Arms that hung behind the bench to be taken down and demolished.
The Olde Colonial Courthouse served as the Barnstable County courthouse until the current courthouse was built in 1832. When its mission as a courthouse ceased, the building was sold to Sidney Ainsworth and subsequently deeded to Samuel Whitman on March 16, 1840. Following the death of Mr. Whitman, the building and the grounds, where it currently stands, were sold for $77 to the Baptist Society in the East Parish of Barnstable on October 10, 1842. The building became the home of the Third Barnstable Baptist Church, organized on October 27, 1842. It was subsequently repaired and altered to meet the needs of the church.
According to local tradition, the statue was removed from the building sometime between 1832 and 1844. Since no one wanted it, a carpenter employed in the renovation of the building, is believed to have taken the statue to his home.
It can only be surmised how the statue came into the possession of the Shelburne Museum. Electra Havermeyer Webb, a wealthy heiress, began collecting American antiques in 1911, more than a decade before the founding of Colonial Williamsburg and nearly a half-century before authentic antiques would return to the major rooms of the White House. When Mrs. Webb began to gather her collection, Americans had yet to understand that their heritage was interesting and worthy of preservation. Mrs. Webb worked with the most prominent antique dealers of the era to assemble one of the world’s finest collections of American material culture. The Shelburne Museum was created in 1947 to house her collection.
Letters contained in the files of the Shelburne Museum document the Museum’s efforts to obtain additional information on the history of the statue. The Office of the Clerk of the Courts in Barnstable (1964) and the Historical Society of the Town of Barnstable (1971) were contacted; however, the responses to these letters failed to provide any new insights about the origin or history of the statue.
The Statue of Justice was featured in several articles appearing in the Barnstable Patriot and the Cape Cod Times during the period from 1981 to 1983. These articles lament the fact that the statue is no longer in Barnstable. One article described efforts of the county commissioners in the early 1950s to obtain the statue from the Shelburne Museum and place it on display inside the current Superior Courthouse. Not surprisingly, that request was denied since the statue is one of the Shelburne Museum’s prized possessions.e.
The strongest statements linking the statue to the Olde Courthouse are made by the Shelburne Museum. A bronze plate at the base of the statue reads, “This personification of Justice formerly adorned the top of the courthouse in Barnstable, Massachusetts.” One can assume that was the understanding of Mrs. Webb when she acquired the statue.
It is unfortunate that no primary evidence has emerged from the official records of Barnstable County that link this statue to the Olde Colonial Courthouse. If information had existed, an assumption can be made that it was lost in the fire that consumed the County House on October 22, 1827. Further, there are no personal documents or histories of Barnstable County written in the 1800s that make reference to the statue.
Nonetheless, it might be argued that the sketch of the Olde Colonial Courthouse produced by Gustavus Hinckley from memory around 1880 shows the statue of Justice on top of a central cupola. But Hinckley’s representation is at most suggestive and not above question.
Notwithstanding the lack of primary information linking the statue to the Olde Colonial Courthouse, there is an abundance of oral tradition in the Barnstable community that supports the claims of the Shelburne Museum. It can also be argued that the existence of oral tradition in the absence of written accounts is consistent with a work of art that is produced by one generation and discarded by the next . . .only to be rediscovered and embraced in a subsequent era.