The regal Napa County Courthouse Building has a lengthy and storied history. It has been the venue for the trials of film pioneers and corrupt sheriffs and helped to popularize the insanity defense. Most notably, it was the site of California’s last public execution.
The building that exists today is actually the third courthouse in Napa’s history. The County’s first courthouse was a prefabricated building, shipped up the Napa River by barge in 1851. A small two story building, it was the center of many aspects of town life, including hosting religious services and county government. Too small for all its functions, the building was sold to the highest bidder in 1857 and moved down Main St. where it was used as a tailor’s shop. The 1856 replacement, however, was woefully inadequate, within less than a decade cracks were visible in the courthouse walls. The presiding judge at the time even refused to hold court in the building in 1874, deeming it unsafe.
Built between 1878 and 1879 by the Newsom Brothers, California’s foremost Victorian architects, the third courthouse was destined for longevity. At a cost of $51,000 the building utilized local brick and stands as an example of the High Victorian Italianate style. In its original form, the building included a striking octagonal bell tower. Damaged in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the bell tower was removed in 1931 out concern for public safety. For many years the building performed many functions besides that of a courthouse. It held the offices of the County Clerk and the Hall of Records as well as serving as the County Jail and the home of the Sheriff’s department. An additional Hall of Records building was constructed in 1916 and the two buildings were merged by construction completed in 1978. If you look carefully you will notice different architectural styles used on each end of the now fused buildings.
A number of notable trials have had their venue in Napa County courtrooms over the years. Napa’s first trial to attract sensational media attention was that of film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. Known for his stroboscopic image sequences, which were a direct precursor to motion pictures, Muybridge killed Harry Larkyn in a jealous rage in a Calistoga mining camp in 1874. Muybridge’s discovery that Larkyn had fathered the child he believed to be his son spurred him to travel from San Francisco to Calistoga with the intent purpose of murdering Larkyn. Muybridge’s defense attorney attempted to plead insanity on his behalf, stating that an old stagecoach accident had altered the defendant’s personality. Though the jury rejected this claim, Muybridge was still acquitted of the crime. Despite statements by eyewitness and Muybirdge’s own claim that the act was completely premeditated, the jury ruled that the case was a “justifiable homicide.” Even with the jury’s findings the high profile case led to the popularization of the so-called “insanity defense” in the media of the day.
County Sheriff George McKenzie, who had an office in the courthouse, also spent time in lock up as well. McKenzie likely holds the infamous position of the most corrupt law enforcement official in Napa’s history. Within a six year period McKenzie was tried for vote fraud, embezzlement, sued for property damages and indicted on murder charges. He arranged for the stuffing of ballot boxes throughout Napa County in the 1894 election for sheriff and was accused of bribing witnesses in his own trial for murder. He was accused of aiding in the murder of a Mr. Cook, an event which took place in McKenzie’s own stables. Acquitted in multiple trials, the worst imposed upon McKenzie was a fine when his pigs damaged a neighbor’s property. However, with the heat on, McKenzie decided to relocate to Hawaii, perhaps to avoid notoriety or even further prosecution in Napa County.
Napa’s courthouse lawn also has the notorious distinction of being the site of the last public execution in California. In 1897 William Roe was hung for the murder of Lucina Greenwood whom he had poisoned and shot six years prior in 1891 during a home invasion robbery. Roe was on the lam for years until a drunken confession in a barroom in Southern California led to his arrest. Sentenced to death for his crimes, Roe awaited execution on the top floor of the courthouse. Meanwhile preparations were afoot. A canvas barrier was erected to shield the newly constructed gallows from curious eyes on the street.
On the day of the execution hundreds turned out in their Sunday best to the invitation-only hanging behind the partition. Roe, quiet and composed before the culmination of his sentence, handed Sheriff McKenzie a note from the gallows, which was later revealed to be a thank you letter to sheriff and his deputies for their kind treatment. The letter also claimed that Roe had originally planned to shoot his way out of jail using a hidden pistol, but that he had changed his mind due to the compassion shown by his jailers. While at the time Roe’s statements were treated with some doubt, the next year a pistol was discovered lodged in the jailhouse plumbing that did seem to suggest Roe’s claims might have been true. While the hanging appeared to cause a clean break, it was noted by Dr. Edwin Hennessey that Roe’s heart did not stop beating for 18 minutes.
Interestingly, prior to his death, Roe had decided to will his body to science. About this Roe said,
“This has been my wish for years, as I know there is something anatomically wrong in my make-up and I desire to aid science in as much as I have power.”
Roe was dissected in San Francisco and determined to be mentally deficient by the standards of the day. His bones were then set out to bleach on the roof of a Main St. building known as the Williams Block. For many years his skeleton was used as an instructional aide in biology classrooms in Napa, but its whereabouts have been unknown since the 1960s. The gallows too continued to be reassembled and displayed on special occasions such as county fairs, eventually finding a permanent home in a small museum located inside the new sheriff’s department headquarters near the Napa Airport. Roe’s ghost is also said to live on as a reported presence inside the Napa County Courthouse.
The courthouse has been in continuous use since 1879. While criminal cases are now tried at the Hall of Justice on Third Street, civil proceedings still take place in the historic 1879 structure. In 2005 the skylight was restored by local glass artist Gordon Huether.
The courthouse was one of the biggest casualties of the 2014 South Napa Quake, sustaining major cracks and holes in its façade that faces Brown St. Initial estimates concluded that the historic portion of the courthouse would be closed for up to two years. In November the newer portions of the structure comprised of the Hall of Records wing and a section linking that building to the old courthouse were reopened for functions such as jury assembly and even some criminal trials.