Judgment Day in the Hills

I

A LARGE-SIZE map of West Virginia shows that Winfield is on the Great Kanawha River about twenty-five miles north and west of the capital city of Charleston. The Alleghenies at this point dwindle to foothills; yet Putnam County, of which Winfield is the county seat, is properly a part of the region known as the Southern Mountains, because the people who inhabit it are typical mountaineers. As the crow flies, it is about fifty miles to Logan, the scene of the historic Hatfield-McCoy feud.

The village has a population of three hundred souls, many of whom are county officials. Because it is the county seat, there are three law offices, and there was, prior to its failure some months ago, a bank. I was unfortunately attorney for the bank, and lost money when it failed. The District High School is here, employing two buses and two bus drivers to bring in students from the surrounding farm country.

The village lies sprawled over the wide river bottoms, but the two most important and imposing buildings — the courthouse and the jail — are situate at the top of a low ridge overlooking the village, a ridge that in the dim geologic past must have been one of the banks of the Kanawha. The courthouse lawn, covered with maples and elm trees, slopes rather precipitately down to the highway below. At the west end of the lawn, about twenty paces from the front steps of the jail, is a two-room, cabin-style frame building, housing the law offices of Beckett and Reed. Beckett lives on a farm some eight miles distant, but my present home is the jail. I board with the jailer because the jail is the one building in Winfield with modern plumbing. As I write this I can hear the jailbirds downstairs singing.

The big day both for a lawyer and for a layman in this community is the opening day of the Circuit Court. Without betraying confidences reposed in me as an attorney, I shall attempt to describe, in these pages, as truthfully as I can, exactly what happens on a typical first day, and shall begin with a brief description of the court itself.

II

The Circuit Court of Putnam County convenes on the first Monday in March, the fourth Monday in June, and the third Monday in October of each year. Each term lasts six to ten days. Aside from informal courts presided over by justices of the peace and the anomalous proceedings of the misnamed County Court, there are no other courts in this county. The Circuit Judge lives in the City of Huntington. He has jurisdiction in this county over all felonies and misdemeanors, all actions at law, and all suits in chancery. The Circuit Court is also an appeal court from decisions of justices of the peace.

Because there are but three short terms of court each year, the Winfield lawyer at court time works under terrific pressure. It is no small task to appear in thirty-odd different cases within ten days, including six trials before a jury. As the total amount of legal work to be had here is necessarily limited, there was a term when I appeared, on one side or the other, in every case on the docket but four. That docket included everything from selling moonshine liquor to issues out of chancery.

For two weeks prior to the opening of any term of court my partner and I work night and day getting ready. We prepare instructions to juries, notices of motion for judgment, orders in cases at law, pleas, answers, decrees, arguments, and briefs. We do all this before court starts, because, if we are lucky enough to have a little time to ourselves while court is in session, we shall have no opportunity to use it in preparing cases.

On the first day of court we are at our desks at 5A.M. making a hurried final examination of the documents. If there is not something to be added at the last moment, we are fortunate indeed. Even at this early hour people are beginning to arrive for court. Time was, not so long ago, when they arrived on horseback or in buggies, but nowadays most of them use automobiles. They park their cars on the highway below, and collect in little groups about the front steps of the courthouse and the war memorial.

These are plain folks from the hills, and, although each is distinctly different in appearance from all the others, there is nevertheless a marked resemblance between them. Nearly all the men are tall, lean, and slightly stooped. They say little, and that unsmilingly and watchfully. The women — except the young girls, who are often beautiful — are weather-burned, stringy of hair, shabby, and as silent as the men.

All of these people are potential clients because of a strange custom that survives here. At one time there were no resident lawyers in Winfield. To supply the needs of this county, lawyers out of Charleston and Huntington rode the circuit with the judge. In those days a man had to wait until court time to secure the advice and services of a lawyer, and, although the circuit riders have long since disappeared, the custom of waiting until court convenes to consult an attorney largely persists.

III

At 6.40 I see a man disengage himself from the group on the courthouse steps and approach our office. Beckett goes to the other room, which is also the waiting room, where he has a desk in one corner. This particular client, however, is mine. He is an aging man of sixty or thereabouts, dressed in blue overalls, hunting cap, and a sweater. One side of his face is swathed in bandages. His name is John Stimpson.

Mr. Stimpson, it develops, has had trouble with a neighbor by the name of Sim Matthews. During the preceding afternoon, which was Sunday, Matthews invited Stimpson to help him partake of a generous quantity of homebrew, freshly bottled. Matthews got drunk, and remembered a most unfavorable horse trade he had made with Stimpson some twenty years before. He began to talk about it. The more he talked the more eloquent he became, until his pronouncements took on the appearance of a diatribe against the whole generation of horse-trading, skinflinting Stimpsons. Finally, he worked himself up to such a pitch of righteous indignation that, when Stimpson tried to expostulate, Matthews crashed a home-brew bottle over Stimpson’s skull and ‘sent him windin’.’

Stimpson wants the vengeance of the law. What can be done about it?

There are several things, I point out to him, that could be done about it, but it is questionable whether anything ought to be done about it. According to his own statement, both men were drinking. Drinking happens to be a crime in this country, and, in spite of rather extensive illicit moonshine operations throughout the county, Putnam County juries have a way of declaring themselves bone-dry. I know, and no doubt Sim Matthews knows, that Stimpson himself owns and operates a small still, which would provide an opening for serious retaliatory measures on the part of Matthews. While the law gives each of its citizens certain rights, it is not always expedient to exercise them.

Stimpson is no fool, but he is full of wrath on account of the beer bottle. It looks as if he ought to have some satisfaction. I think I can arrange this. Sim Matthews is also a client of mine. I will advise him to pay Stimpson’s doctor bill and also a small amount to cover Stimpson’s loss by reason of not being able to work for a few days. My advice to both of them is to forget this incident and not to drink home-brew in the future — at least not together.

If not satisfied, Stimpson is resigned to the inevitable.

‘I ain’t got no money,’ says he, ‘but I have got a quart of aged liquor. It’s yours if you want it.’

‘Not to-day,’ say I. ‘I’m too busy. Maybe I’ll need you for something sometime.’

IV

By this time two more clients have arrived. One of these is talking to Beckett. The other is my man, Courtney, who is having a dispute with a farmer about a cow. Courtney is a railroad brakeman.

Courtney’s case arose out of the 1930 drought. According to his story, the farmer, whose name is Strickman, found at the end of the summer that he did not have enough feed to keep all his cows through the winter. In the emergency he told Courtney that he could have the use of one of them throughout the winter if he would feed her. In addition, said the farmer, if Courtney liked the cow and wanted to buy her, the price was forty dollars. Courtney took the cow home. His wife was so well pleased with the milk that they decided to buy her, but before they got around to paying for her the farmer appeared on the second day of February, refused the proffer of forty dollars, and took the cow away. Whereupon we instituted an action of detinue before a justice of the peace and won the case there, but the farmer has appealed.

Courtney has been working all night. He looks worried.

‘What I want to see you about,’ says he, ‘is that jury. Do you know who is on it?’

‘No. Who?’

‘ Pete Devine. Old Man Strickman’s brother-in-law.’

‘Well, in that case he won’t be on our jury. We’ll strike him off.’

‘Yes, but look what a leeway that gives him with the other jurymen. They’ll bear watchin’, all right. I can see that.’

Perhaps so.

‘A man that will stand up and lie like Old Man Strickman done before the squire,’ says Courtney, ‘will do anything. What do you think now of that tale he tells the squire? Says he never opened his mouth about sellin’ the cow, and me with three witnesses there that heard him say it.’

‘There were two,’ I remind him, ‘who said he did n’t say it.’

‘Yes, and who are they? Workin’ for him, both of them. Afraid of their jobs.’

People who go to law, I reflect, are inclined to be certain they are absolutely in the right and that the other fellow is a crook. There is a good deal of downright lying in this court, particularly in criminal cases, but there are also many cases of genuine misunderstanding. It would be a waste of breath, however, to tell Courtney that his adversary is perfectly sincere in the matter, because Courtney has already convinced himself that his adversary is trying to put over a dirty deal.

‘The case is set for Thursday afternoon,’ say I, changing the subject.

‘I’ll be here,’ says Courtney, ‘and while I think about it, I’d better put up that ten-spot. How do we stand?’

‘You’ve turned over sixty-five dollars to me, including the forty-dollar tender.’

‘Pretty expensive cow,’ says Courtney sourly. ‘But I’ll say this: I’ll put up sixty-five more, and then some, before I’ll let a man do me that way.’

That’s another characteristic of a large class of litigants. Many a client is willing to pay his attorney more than he could possibly hope to gain from winning the suit merely for the sake of winning. He evidently considers it a sporting proposition with the bets placed on the lawyers.

V

My next caller is a woman. Mrs. Parry is still in her early thirties, but her hands are worn and gnarled and her body misshapen from hard labor. She was one of my very first clients. Nearly four years ago she came to my office with a tragic story.

She was married at twenty to an energetic and thrifty young farmer. They saved money and in 1922 were able to make a down payment of $2000 on a very good hill farm of fifty-odd acres. As the total purchase price was $5200, young Parry financed himself through one of the Federal Loan Banks, agreeing to pay the bank a stipulated amount each month over a period of years.

They moved to the farm, slaved valiantly, and met the payments. Five children were born before 1928. When the youngest of these was a month old, Parry took suddenly ill of a fever, and died within a few hours. With three children under five years of age and no previous experience to fit her for the task, the woman was trying to run the farm and meet the payments at the bank. At the time of Parry’s death $1800 was still owing.

In the meantime our economic system had manœuvred us into what was known as ‘the plight of the American farmer.’ It may be recalled that the farmers did not share in the stockmarket prosperity of the Coolidge administration. From 1922 to 1928, farm values dropped steadily, while fixed charges remained the same, and taxes and the prices of commodities the farmers had to buy were on the increase. Owing to the high wages paid in industry, the cost of farm labor was almost prohibitive and men were scarcely to be had at any price. Thus it happened that the Federal Loans, designed to aid the farmer, became his greatest burden, because default inevitably meant the loss of his farm.

When Mrs. Parry first came to see me it was to say that she was bound to default the bank’s payment. I advised her that to save herself something from the wreck it was best to bring a suit in the name of Parry’s administrator to sell the land. My thought was that the property ought to bring at least $3000, which would leave her a comfortable nest egg to go on after the bank was paid. We brought the suit, obtained the necessary decree, and I was appointed special commissioner to make the sale. My first offer was $2400. In refusing it, I made a serious blunder.

My intentions were the best, for I really thought I could get more money for the farm. In all probability I was not alone, in 1928 and 1929, in failing to foresee 1930 and 1931. The second offer was $2200, which I also refused. Thereafter I had no offer of any kind.

The bank, in the meantime, lost patience. I had dragged the case along for nearly three years hoping for better times, so that I cannot honestly blame them for applying to the court and obtaining a decree forcing me to sell the farm at public auction. As nobody wanted it but the bank, the farm went for the amount of the bank’s claim against it. The proceedings have now reached the stage where the widow has been served with notice to vacate.

Scarcely has Mrs. Parry been seated when a baby begins to cry in the waiting room. Mrs. Parry recognizes the voice and departs to fetch in her youngest. A glance shows me that the child is pitifully undernourished. It is sucking a piece of hog fat commonly called a meat rind.

Mrs. Parry does n’t know what to do. She has to move, and has no place to go to. A brother in Kentucky says he will support her at his home, but he is poor also and cannot send the money for transportation. She has n’t a penny of her own. The year’s crop has been an utter failure. She has been forced to sell all her live stock to meet living expenses and has killed all the chickens for food. There has been no milk for three months, nothing to eat for three days.

The story touches me. From the bottom of my heart I wish that I had money enough to say to this poor woman, ‘Take this, and be happy.’ But I am poor also, only a degree less poor than the woman herself. Still, I can do something. The two girls, I think, may be placed in a charity school. Perhaps if she goes to her brother’s home she may find work for herself and the oldest boy, and keep the other children together. She wants to do that, if possible. Of course, they must have something to eat, and at once. Fortunately Courtney has just paid me ten dollars. I will call on the County Court and see if I can arrange for one of those magnificent widow’s pensions of eight dollars a month. She still has a week before the notice to vacate becomes effective. Let her go on home and start packing to go to her brother’s place. I will raise the money somehow, if I have to take it out of my own pocket.

I hope the reader will not think that I am trying to picture myself as a Good Samaritan here, because I should prefer not to speak of this case at all. When I recall that my own error of judgment contributed to the plight of this unfortunate family, I should consider myself less than the dust beneath human feet if I did not do something. The pity is that I was not able to do more.

As the woman leaves me she says something I shall never forget. It is, ‘May God bless you.’ What a strange thing is Christianity, I think. If she had cursed me, I should at least have understood her bitterness. Her blessing touched my heart and left me feeling hollow and ashamed.

VI

After all, it is a relief not to have to talk always to people on the edge of disaster. Another woman is at the door, a woman also in her early thirties, but how different she is from Mrs.

Parry! Her black dress is silk and the hat with the feather on it must be one of those Empress Eugenie things they talk about. If she had a little less paint and fewer gold teeth, she might pass for smart,

‘I’m Mrs. Jordan,’ says she, gold teeth flashing. ‘I want to talk to you about a divorce.’

She arranges her skirt so as to expose a portion of her shapely knee, and gets down to business.

‘It’s like this,’ says she.

I have heard the story a hundred times already — the old story of the marriage that goes wrong. In this case the husband is older — and jealous. She has put up with his jealousy, his spying and his quarreling, but now that he has taken to beating her the limit has been reached. Yes, he beats her. This bruise on her arm shows it. He beat her that very day because she went automobiling with a friend and failed to return until four o’clock in the morning. Everything was perfectly innocent, too; no cause for suspicion or jealousy.

Women, I reflect, are always concerned with making a good impression. I mean women like Mrs. Jordan. She wants to know about divorces.

There are two types of divorce in this state — absolute and limited. An absolute divorce is granted only on the strong grounds of adultery, desertion for three years, impotency, and so forth. Limited divorces are really decrees of separation, and are granted on lesser grounds. At the end of two years, however, they may become absolute. The latter nearly always carry alimony, although it is sometimes waived.

The cost of a limited divorce varies. Generally speaking, if the case is uncontested, court costs and attorney’s fee are about seventy-five dollars. If contested, more.

This is really the crux of the matter, and I perceive that the individual for whom the lady is angling is either uninterested or insolvent. She does n’t know whether she can raise the money.

Of course, this is her problem, to be handled in her own way, but not even a wide acquaintance with ladies seeking divorce has prepared me for the next move. Mrs. Jordan pulls her chair up close to mine, lays her gloved hand gently on my shoulder, and gazes into my eyes soulfully.

‘Do you suppose,’ says she, ‘we could arrange it some other way?’

There is no mistaking her meaning. A thought strikes me — not the thought she meant to suggest, but the thought of the endless and almost unbelievable situations that arise between men and women. I do not forget, however, that a long day is ahead, and the alacrity of my ‘No’ puts an end to the interview.

VII

It is now getting close to court time, and the lawn is covered with people. Down below on the highway, cars are parked as far as the eye can see. I was engaged with Mrs. Parry so long that many clients who were waiting to see me consulted Beckett instead. This is as it should be, for Beckett is the brains of the firm, while I am the mouthpiece. I do the trial work; he handles most of the business.

There are two Charleston attorneys, however, waiting to see me personally because they know me and do not know Beckett. Their business is brief, — all they want is an abstract of title to certain coal lands, — and it is lucrative. A hundrcd-dollar fee here.

The bell rings, announcing that the judge has arrived from Huntington. The others will have to see Beckett now; I snatch up my brief case and depart. The courtroom is already filled to overflowing. As I reach the door, the jailer repeats the ancient formula for opening the court: —

‘Oyez! Oyez! Silence is now commanded while the Honorable Judge of the Circuit Court is sitting. All ye that have pleas to enter, motions to make, or suits to prosecute, draw near and ye shall be heard.’

The jailer does not know that these words are very similar to those spoken by the heralds at the opening of the Assizes in the time of Henry II. In this manner do the courts stick to the letter of the past.

The courtroom is a large one, seating perhaps five hundred people. Up near the judge’s bench is an iron railing beyond which a layman, if he be not a litigant, prisoner, juryman, or witness, does not enter. This is the sanctum of the lawyers. At the judge’s right are the witness chair and the jury box, and on either side are the witness rooms, which serve also as jury rooms when a jury is deliberating.

The judge is an old bachelor in his sixties. Short and squat of build, with the corpulence that comes to men who were once athletic, he often reminds me of a football player preparing to charge. His thick body is surmounted by a leonine head, always bowed; only the surprisingly gentle and childlike smile keeps him from being formidable.

He is a devout man who believes in the Bible and the teachings of Calvin, and teaches a Sunday School class in Huntington. It is notoriously easy to reach his sympathies in all kinds of criminal cases except two. Woe unto the man who comes before him charged with driving while intoxicated or with disturbing public worship! These offenders never fail to rouse the full force of his fury. Bending over his desk with flashing eyes, the tufts of hair standing out above his ears where the baldness has not extended, the judge becomes the personification of legal fury. Before he finishes, the offender will consider himself lucky to have received the full limit of the law. His honor is also a great lover of dogs — especially bird dogs. Lawyers have been known to go somewhat far afield in order to introduce bird dogs into the evidence.

The judge glances at the score or so of attorneys congregated beneath him.

‘Any motions, gentlemen?’

Motion hour has begun. Many of these attorneys are here to present motions and nothing else. They come from out of the state, from Charleston, and from Huntington. They want pleas struck, actions dismissed, continuances, writs of prohibition, temporary injunctions, arguments on demurrer, rules to show cause. In some of these cases I represent the other side, and I have some motions of my own.

As the motion hour passes, many attorneys leave the courtroom. Toward the end the total number of lawyers dwindles to eight or nine, including the local ones who, like myself, are connected with a number of cases and must be on hand throughout the day. By 10.45 the judge is ready to take up the criminal docket.

‘How many indictments?’ he inquires of the clerk of the court, who sits beneath him.

‘Thirteen,’ says the clerk.

‘How many in jail?’

‘Seven.’

‘Six on bond. Call them first. In the meantime, bring over the jail prisoners.’

The sheriff departs to fetch over the jailbirds, who have not yet entered pleas, as the clerk reads off the name of the first bonded offender. The man comes forward, accompanied by his lawyer. The clerk rises to read the indictment: — The Grand Jurors, in and for the County of Putnam, State of West Virginia, upon their oaths present that T. P. Means, upon the 28th day of June, 1931, in the nighttime of that day, in the county aforesaid, a certain dwelling house of one Esti! McGIamery, then and there situate, feloniously and maliciously, did burn, against the peace and dignity of the State.

Found at the September, 1931, Special Term of the Circuit Court of Putnam County, West Virginia.

(Signed) JOEL MIZNER Foreman, Grand Jury

‘Guilty or not guilty?’

‘Not guilty.’

‘Set the case for Friday.’

VIII

The next offender is a client of mine charged with armed robbery. He pleads guilty.

‘Anything to say?’ asks the judge, directing the question at me.

‘Only this, your honor. This offender, as your honor may see for himself, is a youth of tender years. As his attorney I am able to assure the court that he comes of an honest though poor family, and that he has never before been accused of any crime. Because of his extreme youth I ask the court to avail itself of the discretion allowed it under the provisions of the statute relating to delinquent minors, and to sentence this young man to an indeterminate term in the State Reformatory.’

‘Of course,’ says the judge, ‘if the prisoner is under eighteen years of age I shall consider a motion to sentence him to the Reform School. Otherwise, the least I can give him under a plea of guilty is ten years at Moundsville. Where is his birth certificate?’

‘Unfortunately, your honor, there is no record of this young man’s birth at the County Clerk’s Office. The young man’s father, however, is in the courtroom and will testify as to his age before the bar of the court.’ ‘The judgment of the court is that you be confined in the State Reformatory at Pruntytown until you reach the age of twenty-one years, or until you are sooner released for good behavior.’

The boy’s father, a coal miner from up Poca way, approaches the bench. He is sworn by the clerk.

‘You are the father of this young man, Ernest Stayton?’

‘Yes.’

‘How old is he?’

‘He was sixteen the fourteenth day of last July.’

‘That’s all.’

The father retires. The judge takes the measure of the prisoner.

‘Step forward, Mr. Stayton.’

‘One of the saddest things I have to do,’ says the judge, ‘is to sentence boys like you for serious crimes. You are charged with armed robbery, and under our law I could give you forty years at hard labor. But because you are a mere child — sixteen years of age, as your father testified — I am constrained to temper justice with mercy. On top of that, I am going to give you a bit of advice free of charge.

‘You have made a bad start in life, young man, but it is not too late yet to make amends. The thing you did not know, and the thing that so many boys find out to their sorrow, is that you can’t beat the law. The only way to beat the law is to observe it, and that is the essence of good citizenship. When you go up to the Reform School, make the most of your opportunities. They won’t keep you there long if you do.

‘Above all else, avoid evil counsel and evil companions, both at the institution and afterward when you return home. My experience is that second offenders become second offenders because they fall in with the old gang after they are released. Avoid the old gang. Find yourself honest work, and work at it.

IX

Prisoners from the jail have arrived in the meantime, and these, together with the other offenders answering bonds, make their pleas. A few plead guilty. Most plead not guilty, and have their cases set for trial, either at this term or at some succeeding term of the court.

One of these jail prisoners has already given me several sleepless nights. He is accused of a most heinous crime — an attack upon a twelve-year-old daughter — and his appearance in the courtroom has caused a sensation. There have been rumors of lynching.

Physically and mentally this man, whose name is Elijah Smith, is one of the most remarkable characters I have ever seen. He is seven feet tall, wears a red beard that falls to his waist, and dresses in spotless white. Locally he is known as the Prophet of Ammon, and is the organizer of a strange religious cult that has gained a few adherents. Nobody knows what Ammonism is. In an effort to find out, I have read some of his printed tracts, but discovered nothing. One of these tracts contained extracts from the Bible, the Koran, the Avesta, and a short description of the Eight-fold Path to Nirvana. It concluded with the remarkable statement: —

‘Now you will understand why you are a bastard! ’

An interesting subject for a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst, the Prophet of Ammon presents a more difficult problem to his lawyer. His case is the very worst kind of case to defend before a jury. The mere fact that a man is accused of a crime of this nature is almost enough to condemn him ahead of time; yet I honestly believe the man is innocent. The deep, clear blue eyes, with the strange light in them, mark him as an ascetic; the features, in repose, are gentle and remarkably like the most common portraits of Jesus,

Clad in his customary spotless white, he makes his plea, staring the judge straight in the face. The judge averts his eyes, as I have done myself, because there is something about the eyes of this prophet that suggests both Heaven and insanity. His is the last plea; the case is set for the following Monday.

The judge consults his watch.

‘The docket will be called,’ says he, ‘immediately after lunch. The first case is that of State versus Fitzmaurice continued from last term. Court is adjourned until one o’clock.’

(Next month,A Trial for Murder’)