History

A brief history of the Old Courthouse and Sheriff House and Jail.

Finding a Location

The Old McHenry County Courthouse has presided over the Woodstock Square for more than 160 years. One might think that a building of that age must have been the first courthouse in the county, but, in fact, it was the third.

The first courthouse was a modest structure erected in the original county seat of McHenry. When McHenry County was established in 1836, McHenry was midway between its eastern boundary, Lake Michigan, and its western boundary. It wasn’t long before Lake County was split off and the present-day boundaries of McHenry County were formed. McHenry went from being centrally located to the eastern edge of the county. County residents called for a new county seat and, in 1844, selected the town of Centerville—though it existed entirely on paper at the time. Its name, Centerville, was derived from its location at the geographic center of the new county. The town plat dedicated two acres as the “Court House Square” and the second courthouse was soon built inside the square. But, within 10 years, the county was already outgrowing the structure which consisted little more of a jail on the first floor and a courtroom on the second. So in 1857, the county had a new courthouse built, which stands to this day.

Plat of Centerville, 1844

The Architect

The Courthouse was designed by Chicago’s first architect John Mills Van Osdel of Van Osdel and Baumann, who designed many well-known buildings including the Chicago City Hall/County Building, to which the Courthouse bears a passing resemblance. While not many of Van Osdel’s building remain, two are particularly notable: the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield and the Couch mausoleum, which was built the same year as the Courthouse and which can be found today in Lincoln Park near the Chicago Historical Society.

The Sheriff’s House and Jail

The Courthouse was completed in 1858 and became home not only to county offices, but also served as a residence for the sheriff and his family, who lived on the main floor. Living on site allowed the sheriff to better run the jail on the ground floor. An 1886 state inspection of the conditions in the jail found it to offer poor ventilation and little light. A report recommended it be abandoned.

So, in 1887, the county purchased the land to the north of the Courthouse and erected the Sheriff’s House and Jail that stands today. The Sheriff and his family resided in the east half of the building and the jail was in the back. The sheriff’s wife was expected to cook meals for the prisoners.
The jail’s best-known prisoner was Eugene Debs, who, during his six-month stay in Woodstock stemming from his participation in the 1894 Pullman labor strike, was called on by prominent national and international visitors. Mr. Debs was a labor organizer and leader in the American Socialism movement. He ran for president several times as the Social Democratic Party candidate.

Colorful characters from the Prohibition Era also did time in the jail. Gangsters “Dapper” Dan McCarthy and Hymie Weiss were put to work by then Sheriff Edinger erecting a brick garage behind the jail. Not long after his release, Hymie Weiss was gunned down in Chicago at the age of 28. He had made many enemies and was known by some as the only man Al Capone feared.

In 1912, a building was erected to connect the Jail and the Courthouse allowing prisoners to be transferred into courtrooms.

The County Moves Out

The Courthouse and Jail continued to be in use by the county until a new government center was built on the north side of town in 1972. The buildings were nearly torn down to create a parking lot, but saved from the wrecking ball by private investors. Major improvements and modifications were made to the building and it became home to shops, a restaurant, a radio station, and art gallery. The courthouse was listed on the National Register in 1973.

More history can be found by downloading this report.