Amos Owens: Rutherford’s Most Colorful Character
Part 3 of 5: Courtroom Wit and Wisdom
In the late 1800s and early 1900s most of the cases in federal courts in the Appalachians involved moonshining, and the trials afford a good opportunity to observe the manner of men who had elected to go into the distilling enterprise.
“Big Court Week” was possibly the most notable event of the year for the hill people, rivaling revivals and camp meetings. In the valleys, coves, and ridges for miles around, citizens would put aside their plows and Winchester rifles and mash sticks and head for the courthouse. There they would catch up on the news with their friends and kinfolks—and listen intently with hands cupped to their ears as the trial testimony unfolded.
The wooden benches in the courtroom usually were packed with the rough-hewn folk, who brought along plenteous plugs of tobacco and tins of snuff. The informal courtroom atmosphere was enlivened by volleys of tobacco juice arching to the brass spittoons along the walls and aisles.
Many of the moonshine defendants—they usually referred to themselves as blockaders—exhibited a natural knack for common sense.
Henry Wiltse, who put down his experiences in a little book published in 1885, described the sort of men who were on trial. The average moonshiner of the era, he said, would be dressed in homespun, had long hair, an unkempt sandy beard, and smelled of the mountains, of the leaves and wood soil that permeated his clothing. Meal and still beer often could be seen caked on his shirt. He wore no coat or vest, unless the weather was cold. He usually had no suspenders or only one (a “gallus”), and in lieu of suspenders would wear a leather belt or an old piece of rope. He was somewhat above average height, inclined to be slight in proportion to his height, and somewhat stoop-shouldered.
Despite their rough appearance, uncultured background, and limited knowledge of the ways of the world, many of the moonshine defendants—they usually referred to themselves as blockaders—exhibited a natural knack for common sense. Often, they appeared in court as their own counselors, defending their cases with humor, shrewdness and, on occasion, amazing success.
For example, there was the Baptist preacher who was brought to trial for illicit distilling and for trafficking in mountain dew. As his name was called, he arose from his seat among the lawyers to declare, “Your honor, I am the man.” His confident, commanding bearing immediately attracted the attention of the audience. Feeling in his pockets for his glasses, he discovered, to his apparent surprise, he had left them at home. He looked up at the bench and declared: “Jedge, I see you are a man about my age, will you be kind enough to loan me your specks for a few minutes?”
Grins spread through the audience at the boldness of the old parson. While everyone enjoyed a laugh, including the court and the bar, the judge dispatched a bailiff with his eyeglasses to the defendant.
Holding up the glasses, the preacher-moonshiner rubbed them intently with a threadbare handkerchief, then declared:
“Jedge, them’s might’ nice looking specks. They are yaller and look as though they mout be gold. Are they gold or brass, jedge?”
By this time, the courtroom was in near hysteria, with people elbowing one another in great merriment.
The preacher, meantime, remained calm, composed, and intent. Finally, he picked up a book and began to look it over with deliberateness. Again he turned to the judge:
“Jedge, these is fine specks, but they are a little too young for me; and I’m sure I wouldn’t a-thought so, seein’ as how you are so gray beaded; but gray hairs is not allers a sign of age. There’s my old woman. She’s whiter headed nor you are, Jedge, and she’s ten year younger nor me, so you see that’s no sign.”
A new outburst of laughter forced the judge to rap his gavel for order.
“Now, jedge, if you will let me see what you say agin me in your warrant, I’ll tell you what I’ve got to say about it.”
To this the audience applauded enthusiastically.
The solicitor brought out the indictment, and the old parson read it through, tossed it onto the table and made the following statement to the court:
“Jedge, that paper says I carried on the business of a distiller, and the business of a retail liquor dealer, when I tell your honor that I did no such thing. My business is farmin’ duren the week days, and preachin’ on Sundays, and now I would like for you to tell me, when I have spent all my time as I’ve been tellen you, how I could carry on them two other kinds of business what that paper says I do? [Laughter.] If I do all that, Jedge, I must be an unusual kind of man, mustn’t I? [Laughter.] Now, I tell you what I have done—no more, no less—and I am tellen of the truth, too. I just made two runs last fall and one run of peppermint in Jannywary, and in them three runs I didn’t make over thirty gallon in all, and it was for medicine, too. One of the gals in the neighborhood was sick with the breast complaint, and another one was down with the yaller janders, and I wouldn’t of made the runs I tell you about if it hadn’t been on their account. Now them’s the facts, as God is my jedge.”
A thundering applause roared through the courtroom as he took his seat.
The judge asked the old moonshiner if he were lenient with him on this, his first offense, whether he would stop making whiskey illicitly. The parson indicated he thought he could stop. The judge fined him one hundred dollars, and court costs, lenient for a well-heeled whiskey-maker.