As Worcester County’s shire town (county seat), Worcester was where the Court of Common Pleas and Court of General Sessions of the Peace were held four times a year. When Court Week was in session, people from all over Worcester County came to sue or be sued (lawsuits were the most commonly used method for collecting late debts) and to conduct other business.
The wooden structure was built in 1750, measured 36 by 40 feet, and was the second structure at this site dedicated to that task. Inside the courthouse legal decisions were made. Outside the court some of those decisions were carried out. A pillory and a whipping post were outside the front, as well as a platform where certain offenders were made to stand with a rope around their necks for a court-specified period of time.
On Sept. 6, 1774, there occurred an event that has been described as “the first American Revolution.” On that day more than 4,600 men from 37 Worcester County militia companies converged on the town with the goal of preventing the Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions from convening. They succeeded in preventing the court officers from entering the building but they were not done. The judges, justices, and sheriff, after conferring in the Heywood Tavern, signed a paper resigning their commissions. Not satisfied with that, the Patriots forced the court officers to walk a gauntlet from the tavern to the courthouse, stopping several times along the way to repeat to the assembled militiamen their resignation.
The events of 1774 were not the last time history would be made in the courthouse. In 1781 Worcester resident Nathaniel Jennison was arrested and indicted for beating Quok Walker, whom Jennison claimed was his slave. In a trial held on June 12 of that year, the court determined that Jennison was not justified in beating Walker. Further, because the Massachusetts Constitution of the previous year had stated that all men were created equal, slavery was unconstitutional. Walker was a free man. The case went to the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Commonwealth vs. Jennison, which effectively outlawed slavery in Massachusetts.
Five years later the Court House witnessed more dramatic events with a resemblance to the events of 1774. Many farmers found themselves in debt in the years immediately after the Revolution. Because the Massachusetts courts were swamped they couldn’t effectively handle the cases of debt in the way that many farmers considered to be just. In September 1786, a group of farmers and other debtors, under the leadership of Daniel Shays and others, attempted to close down the court, as had been done in 1774. They were met by former judge and Continental Army commander Artemas Ward, who succeeded in dispersing the crowd.
The site is now occupied by the third and now former Worcester County Court House at Lincoln Square, being converted in 2020 to apartments known as the Courthouse Lofts. The second Court House was relocated to Trumbull Square (now Salem Square) after it closed in 1801. In 1899 the building was dismantled and rebuilt and today is a private residence at 6 Massachusetts Ave.