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TALES OF RURAL LAWYERS AND THE COURTS
THE fact that there are many amusing fiascoes in running through the regular grist of rural court cases should not in any way reflect upon the personnel of the members of the legal bar. The section in which most of the following incidents occurred has been noted for a century for the exceptional ability and commanding personality of its lawyers. But any attorney engaged in general law practice is continually turning up something which, if commonly known, would be regarded as ranking high in the field of humor.
An attorney, who during his career became widely known throughout the country in general, was for a long time active in practice as a country lawyer in a little town. No case was too great or too little to command his attention.
Litigating Horse Dealer
Among his clients was a farmer who was also engaged in horse trading. It might perhaps be said that horse trading was his principal occupation. This man was an enthusiast. Any horse he happened to own was a living wonder. He sold horses, but most generally his method was to exchange his own for some other horse, each of the parties of the trade trusting to their wits to get the better of the other.
As this man, whose first name was Oliver, was extremely fluent regarding the merits of his horses, there were frequent cases in which the party of the second part was disappointed. When the new owner would compare the horse itself as revealed to him by actual contact and use, with the glowing recommendations of the dealer at the time the trade was made, righteous indignation would often lead to a demand for satisfaction. In such cases he would receive no consideration whatever and if he had the real genuine spunk of the period, he would engage a lawyer and begin legal proceedings at once.
This was at a time when petty litigation was extremely frequent and encouraged by the legal profession. Pacifists were not in fashion and those who were too dignified to settle disputes with their fists, would maintain their self-respect by starting a lawsuit. This class of court cases is pretty generally frowned upon at present, as the standards of the legal profession have advanced steadily the past century, maintaining a close parallel with the similar ethical development of the medical profession.
When Oliver became involved in one of these occasional disputes, he would promptly refer the matter to his attorney, who generally managed to extricate him from even the most unpleasant situation. There was one occasion, however, when this eminent attorney was almost inclined not to act.
After an unusually successful horse trade, Oliver one day appeared at his attorney's office with a rather grave face.
"Saul," said he, "I traded horses with a 'man over on Scrabble Hill and he is all stirred up about it. He has put the matter in his lawyer's hands and thinks he is going to be able to make out a strong case. What do you think I better do about it?"
The lawyer regarded the matter calmly. It was hardly necessary to ask any questions. The details of such transactions were apt to bear a strong similarity in different trades.
"What can you prove?" he asked.
"Hang it! Saul!" said Oliver. "It isn't a question of what I can prove; it is what I have to prove."
The attorney, therefore, although not especially edified at this kind of professional routine, proceeded to give Oliver an outline of the kind of testimony that he should be able to produce to offset the righteous claims of his opponent. Tradition says that Oliver was nearly always prepared to furnish the evidence, having some very accommodating friends and neighbors.
Attorney Who Scorned Divorce Business
In a certain locality in northern New England there was a journeyman tinsmith who was nearing his thirtieth birthday. This young man, although possessed of much natural wit and ingenuity in argument, had never exhibited any desire to better his position. A young girl, of seventeen or eighteen years, aroused his ambition and he decided to study law. His mind absorbed information like a sponge, and by teaching school during the day and studying at night, he was able to prepare himself for what proved to be a very satisfactory examination for admission to the bar. His success was immediate. Marrying the girl who had inspired him to a higher walk in life, he became a brilliant figure in the legal annals of this period.
At the height of his career his wife died, and just as he had never manifested the slightest interest in any other girl prior to his marriage, he was equally indifferent to all other women after the death of his wife. But apparently to overcome moments of black depression which assailed him out of business hours, because of his tense grief at the loss of his wife, he gradually acquired intemperate habits. Then followed a strange record for a thoroughly modern court, of frequent cases called in their regular order, quietly transferred further down the docket list, because of the murmured report of some tipstaff to the judge that "Jim," who was to try the case, was temporarily incapacitated. Such was the personal regard in which this man was held that there seldom was an instance where an opposing attorney made any objection.
Not inconsistent with the foregoing history, was the absolute refusal of this lawyer to ever have anything to do with divorce practice. Knowing his contempt for that class of law business, an elderly man one day climbed his office stairs and appeared before the eminent lawyer. There ensued a conversation about as follows:
"Jim," said the old gentleman, "I have come to see if I can't engage you to help me get a divorce from my wife."
The lawyer glared at him and then detecting a humorous twinkle in the old man's eyes, "How long have you been married?" said he. "Fifty-two years," was the prompt reply. Lighting a fresh cigar from the stump of an old one, as he was almost a continuous smoker, the lawyer promptly dismissed the matter.
"No, sir; I shall not undertake to get a divorce for you. But you may go home and tell your wife that if she wants a divorce, I will be glad to act for her and it won't cost her a penny."
The early history of a certain state was associated with considerable difficulty in establishing a distinct separate existence. The early settlers therefore became unusually well informed in the general principles of the jurisprudence of that period. Naturally they did not allow much time to pass after their state organization was assured, before establishing a system of county courts.
Murderer Who Was Not There That Day
In one of the counties there was all the machinery for carrying on a considerable court business, but affairs were so exceptionally peaceful that there was very little for the court to do. It was therefore a matter of pride to the inhabitants of that county when it became necessary to try a real red-handed murderer.
The judge had little, if any, experience in murder trials, and felt the importance of the occasion quite seriously- There was great general interest during the trial and the court room was packed. At last the case was ready for the jury which filed out, soon returning with the verdict of guilty. The judge arose and directed the prisoner to stand before him.
"Prisoner at the bar," said he. "You have been tried by a jury of your peers, and let us hope, superiors, and have been found guilty of the crime charged against you. I therefore sentence you, etc., etc.," repeating the usual formula, of which the substance was that he should be hanged early in the spring following the present session of court, which was in the late autumn. Then recollecting himself, he said to the prisoner
"Is there any reason why the sentence should not be imposed upon you?"
The prisoner who had assumed a bored attitude throughout the entire trial, manifested but languid interest.
"I dunno as I have anything to say, except that I don't expect to be there that day."
He was not there that day. The jail was a ramshackle affair at best and the prisoner, after apparently enjoying the hospitality of the county during the extreme cold months of the winter, made his getaway a week or two before the date set for his execution, and was never heard from again.
Perhaps at no time in the history of a certain rural valley was the legal profession more appreciated than it was following a public hearing to, if possible, determine who was responsible for an epidemic of incendiary fires.
Celebrated Arson Case
Within a relatively few weeks, several sets of unusually fine farm buildings were one after another destroyed by fire. There was an incipient reign of terror developing. Farmers all began to wonder who would be the next victim and little else was talked about in local gatherings.
Another fire occurred, and it was decided that something must be done. Finally a public hearing was announced to take place at an early date and an attorney who lived about ten miles distant was induced to act as interrogator.
On the appointed date the hall was filled to overflowing as few who were anywhere within the radius of the fire zone, considered it wise to remain away. One by one those who had been in attendance at the various fires were called upon to give their testimony. Finally a young man was summoned to the stand who it transpired had been present at every fire. The attorney who conducted the interrogation was a noted cross-examiner. It seemed unusual to him that the witness before him should have found it convenient to be practically the first man at every one of the fires. His manner, however, was friendly and reassuring and he asked a great many questions. Within fifteen minutes the audience were looking at each other and nodding their heads.
"He's got the right man," was the verdict.
The attorney, however, was too discreet to indulge in any dramatic accusations. He dismissed the witness in the blandest manner, after which the hearing was halted and a discussion among leading citizens took place. An elderly man of considerable force and personality was deputized to have a quiet conversation with the young man who had just been cross-examined. The result in less than half an hour was a complete confession. The epidemic of fires was over.
It seemed that the guilty man had at the beginning yielded to an impulse to touch a match to a lock of hay which he saw protruding from a barn in the outskirts of the village. The resultant fire and excitement were apparently too much for a brain never any too well balanced. He found the diversion caused by these fires necessary to his existence. He was sentenced for a long term and died in the penitentiary.
The years following the Civil War were productive of a certain type of attorneys who were more effective with the juries of that period than they are apt to be at present. They cultivated eloquence to the limit of their abilities. An attorney who had been an officer in the Civil War acquired quite a reputation as a spectacular pleader. Especially if an old soldier was in any way involved in the case, his oratory reached unusual heights.
Attorney Who Justified "Assault and Battery"
An old veteran of two or three wars was on trial at the county court for some form of physical assault. Ordinarily harmless, this old chap would become very pugnacious at times, especially when under the influence of certain fluids. In this case he had done considerable damage to the personal appearance of someone in about his own walk in life and of whom he did not approve. The aggrieved party engaged a lawyer who succeeded in having the case put upon the court calendar for jury trial.
The evidence was very damaging to the old veteran and as there seemed to be no good reason why he should not be taught a lesson, a term in jail seemed extremely imminent, until the attorney for the defense, the officer above referred to, began his argument.
The lawyer was named Johnson, and after making the usual rambling introduction, gradually entered upon a lofty train of thought. He pictured the hero of the two wars as a man to whom the entire community was indebted, and pointed out the fact that even his principal weakness for strong drink was the result of his big heartedness and fraternal spirit. Proceeding with this line of argument he succeeded in convincing the intelligent jury that a man who objected to being battered and bruised by such a hero was not only a poor loser but a pretty cheap sort of man generally. The result was a verdict of "not guilty."
The old veteran was overwhelmed with admiration for his lawyer's ability and his enthusiasm promptly found expression.
Turning to his wife, a withered up old woman of about his own age, he said;
"Hurrah! We can now go home and if we ever have a boy, we will name him Thomas V. Johnson."
Lawyer Who Was Going to "Get Over It"
An attorney of unquestioned ability had but one failing and one which was far too common among the legal profession years ago. He was a periodic. At such times his naturally acute business judgment would become rather unstable. Like numerous other lawyers of that period, "Wad," as he was generally known among his friends, did some insurance business as a side line.
"Wad" was elected to the legislature and immediately took a prominent place. He was an able debater and fluent speaker and exceedingly popular. Coming to the capital city from a week end trip to his home, it was immediately evident that he had been indulging a little too much.
Soon after his return on this occasion Wad wended his way to a certain insurance office to make a series of settlements for collections he had made in his home town. As soon as the treasurer saw him he recognized the situation, but being personally fond of the man, he hoped to get through with the matter without any complications.
It soon became apparent, however, that Wad was in no condition to settle any accounts. The problems of addition and subtraction were entirely too much for him. The treasurer watched with mingled sympathy and contempt his impotent efforts to group the necessary figures, but finally lost patience.
"You come in some other time, Wad," said he. "There is no hurry. You can just as well settle this matter some other time."
The attorney paid absolutely no attention to this suggestion and continued his erratic tussle with the illusive figures. The treasurer who was extremely busy that day, and a model of methodical precision in business details, was thoroughly disgusted.
"Wad," said he, "you're in no condition to do business today. You're drunk. Come in when you get sober and we will settle."
The exaggerated dignity of the man "under the influence" immediately asserted itself.
"Yes, I'm drunk and you're a dód fool; I shall get over it and you won't!"
The small town which may perhaps chiefly by reason of geographical location be the county seat, always livens up when the county court is in session. There are always a few cases sufficiently unique to arouse general interest. But there were real thrills at a certain court on one occasion because of the approaching trial of a real genuine bank robber who had been apprehended after he had committed a real crime. The community seemed to some of the inhabitants to be getting thoroughly up to date.
Story of the Wily Bank Robber
The prisoner was an up-to-date crook without a doubt. He was a professional and wanted elsewhere, but the court in question was permitted to have the glory of "sending him over the road."
The trial was a perfunctory affair, and aside from the testimony, which was somewhat exciting in spots, there was nothing to provide any special entertainment for spectators. The prisoner was sentenced for a term of years, and remanded to the county jail to await the convenience of the sheriff before being taken to the penitentiary in another town.
The session of court ended shortly after, and there was no further cause for delay in placing the prisoner where he could put on the stripes. Arrangements for transfer were made to take place on a certain nearby day.
At the county jail it had been noted that the prisoner had been very much cast down by his conviction. He was listless, showing little desire for food and was extremely pale. Before the day set for his removal it became a question whether he would long be able to make the journey. It was therefore decided to remove him at once.
Accompanied by the sheriff, the prisoner, properly handcuffed, was taken to the train, which after a few miles, was to pass through a stretch of mountain timberland and on a heavy grade. As the train was approaching this wilderness, the prisoner requested permission of the sheriff to go to the wash room. His mildness and apparent natural amiability together with his extraordinary weakness had aroused the personal sympathy of the sheriff. So he promptly removed his handcuffs and granted his desire, taking his own stand by the door, according to custom. On the heavy grade the train naturally went slowly. The prisoner had slipped the bolt as he went in and nothing further being heard from him the sheriff rapped on the door. There was no response. After a few such attempts to arouse the prisoner who had apparently fainted from weakness, it was decided to force an entrance. As may be naturally expected, the window was open and the prisoner was gone. The train was halted and an immediate search was made and the alarm spread far and wide. Nothing was ever heard of the prisoner again.
The mystery of the sudden extreme pallor and weakness was soon afterwards solved. A search of the cell recently occupied by the prisoner disclosed a couple of wads of so-called fine cut chewing tobacco which those wise in criminal annals promptly connected with the escape. The prisoner had bound these wads of tobacco under his arm pits and it was the absorption of nicotine thus resulting which, theoretically at least, had produced the symptoms which had so aroused the sympathies of the sheriff.
Legend of the Pine Tree
The fondness for litigation, especially among certain farmers in olden times, became almost a monomania in some instances. For many years there resided in a tumble-down house on a little farm, a man who with his wife was perhaps as near an approach to poor mountain white as can be found in the New England states. And yet the story had it that he had at one time been a prosperous farmer in one of the most fertile valleys of his state.
According to the legend this man and a neighbor became involved in a dispute as to the possession of a certain large and lofty pine tree situated on the boundary line of the two farms. The quarrel eventually developed into a lawsuit which was continued from term to term by well-known dilatory tactics of that period. Each of the parties in the dispute had employed able legal counsel. Eventually both of the farmers became bankrupt after exhausting their means in continuing the legal struggle.
Man Who Wanted to be "Sociable"
In another instance a man possessed of the same mania for legal contest had gradually seen his property absorbed by a capable lawyer. To him he always referred his numerous disputes. When the aggressive litigant was unable to pay money, the attorney would arrange for settlement by note. The notes were transferred into a mortgage and finally the mortgage was foreclosed.
At the general windup of affairs certain farm animals, which were a part of the few visible assets remaining, were sold at auction. It might be expected that the belligerent lover of lawsuits would have been somewhat cast down under those circumstances. But he was game.
At one time, however, it became necessary for the auctioneer to admonish the man who, although afflicted with an impediment of speech, was seen to be in earnest conversation with a prospective bidder. It was assumed by the auctioneer that he was giving out tips as to which cows about to be sold were most desirable. In an aggressive tone, calculated to be heard by all present, the auctioneer called out:
"Look here, Mr. Thomas! You keep your ideas about these cows to yourself!"
The old man turned about to look at the auctioneer a moment, then with a whimsical glance at the spectators stuttered out his response as follows:
"Dódódammit; can't a mómómóman be sociable?"