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By Bob Kostoff

Usually today, threats of libel court action come from irate readers, but Niagara County experienced an interesting suit early in its court history involving rival newspapermen.

Old court records show that the case began in Lockport on March 11, 1844, and involved a libel suit brought by Orsamus Turner, owner of the Niagara Democrat newspaper, against Thomas T. Flagler, owner of the Niagara Courier. The suit was over the Morgan-Masonic affair.

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Briefly, William Morgan threatened to write a book in 1826 exposing secrets of the Freemasons, was abducted from Rochester, rushed by stagecoach to Fort Niagara by a bunch of Niagara County Masons, and disappeared forever while being held captive there.

Turner, owner of the first newspaper in Lockport and a prominent historian who wrote a history of the Holland Purchase, was a Mason who had a hand in the abduction. He and a few others reportedly tried to get some Canadian Masons to take Morgan but were unsuccessful.

Turner was among the scores of Masons tried in 1830-31 for various offenses in connection with the case. He was charged with contempt for refusing to answer questions and spent a month in Niagara County jail.

The late County Historian Clarence O. Lewis, a Mason who wrote extensively about the Morgan affair, said Turner was given royal treatment in jail and continued to edit his paper while there. When released, he was met by a throng and a coach drawn by four horses. He was then "driven around the village in a remarkable display of friendship," Lewis wrote.

A few years later, in 1844, an editorial in the Niagara Courier, dubbed an anti-Masonic newspaper by Lewis, was critical of Turner's activity in the Morgan disappearance. It came out in the libel trial that Courier owner Flagler was out of town at that time and an associate editor, William H. Humphrey, wrote the editorial.

In any event, the jury could not agree on a verdict, a mistrial was declared and another trial set for March 20, 1844. Turner was seeking $5,000 in damages. Again, in the second trial, the jury could not agree and the libel case ended there.

When Erie County was separated from Niagara County in 1821, the first county seat was in Lewiston, where county court sessions were held. In those days, there were many different types of courts and the judges were all appointed.

Lockport won the race for county seat in 1822 and a jail and courthouse were built there, completed in 1825. Court sessions were held before the building was fully completed in the nearby Mansion House and the first session was set for May 5, 1823. But there was a fly in the judicial ointment.

The judges, lawyers and court officials appeared early that Tuesday morning only to discover the act adopted by the state legislature said the first session should be held "by the first Monday in May." The judges, worried that they were a day late and any actions might be subject of appeal, decided to delay court until the next term, set to begin in September.

The Mansion House was a two-story building just east of Transit Street on the south side of West Main Street in Lockport.

The state held a Constitutional Convention in 1846 and the new Constitution set up a simplified court system with judges elected by the people instead of being appointed. A notice in the Niagara Democrat on Oct. 21, 1847, noted, "The first term of court for Niagara County under the new 1846 constitution commenced its sessions at the Court House on Monday last."

Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades. He is a recognized authority on local history and is the author of several books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 19 2004