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Tom Chaney R748: Review of KY Justice, by James C. Klotter

Of Writers and Their Books No. R748, a review of Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid by Professor James C. Klotter.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column which first appeared in the Hart County News-Herald on 4 February 2007: Tom Chaney R747: From the Panama Canal to Elkhorn Creek

By Tom Chaney

Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid

On the morning of May 15, 1884, Judge Richard Reid of the Kentucky Superior Court bade his wife goodbye in her sick room, enquiring of her health as she of his and left for downtown Mount Sterling to begin his day's affairs.

After greeting several friends about the courthouse, he befriended a blind woman led by a small orphan boy, giving them liberal alms.

Judge Reid made his way to the office of Judge Calvin Brock to discuss a case of theirs just decided in federal court.

Their business finished, Brock left to tend to other clients. Reid, complaining of a headache, asked if he might rest upon a cot in Judge Brock's office.

Brock gladly complied, left to go about his business returning in about an hour with an acquaintance. Half hour later Brock went upstairs to wash for lunch and discovered Richard Reid dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

A month earlier, Judge Reid suffered a severe beating of twenty-five licks with a cane followed by seventy-five lashes with a bull whip by fellow Mount Sterling lawyer and churchman John Jay Cornelison. The beating began in Cornelison's office and continued down the stairs down the street and into a store where a bystander put an end to it.

Professor James C. Klotter has written an excellent study of the life and death of Judge Reid in his Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid (Louisiana State University Press, 2003).

Cornelison had taken umbrage at an opinion from the Superior Court unfavorable to him and which he presumed Reid had written. That proved to be untrue. Opinion generally was that Cornelison had no reason for the attack.

Public opinion split about the incident. The mixed reaction centered on Reid's response to the beating. The judge called for the law to take its course. The public outcry grew out of the preference for the code of personal honor as opposed to reliance upon the rule of law.

Judge Reid's response on the following court day outraged those who favored the ideals of chivalry and personal honor. Reid refused to destroy his Christian manhood by shedding blood, nor would he, as a lover of the law, violate that law.

The Stanford (Kentucky) Interior Review summed up the matter. Condemning Cornelison's act, the editor confirmed the prevailing view that Reid "showed himself to be the most consummate coward that ever trod shoe leather." Reid was held in contempt for failing to honor the concepts of chivalry.

Born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, in 1838 he was raised in a comfortable world of privilege. At fifteen months Reid was badly handled by a servant resulting in a severe injury which kept him from the physically active world expected of boys of that era. That injury, probably a hernia, plus the death of his mother when he was three drove him to a life of pain and sleeplessness.

Reid found his metier in the life of the mind. The Reverend Daniel S. C. M. Potter had made the Highland Literary Institute in Mount Sterling a splendid place of learning. Reid rode the seven miles to and from the institute daily for studies with Potter who recognized him as an exceptional student.

"When he graduated, Reid had begun to emerge, bit by bit, from his carefully constructed, isolated life. College would continue that process." For college he selected Georgetown College not far away, still in the Bluegrass. In 1855 he entered that fledgling institution. He graduated with an average of 7.99 out of 8.00 -- head of his class and the highest grades ever earned in the 25 years of the college's history.

Following graduation in 1858 Reid stayed at Georgetown to become principal of the Preparatory Department. He kept this post for two years and began reading law with a local attorney. In 1860 he was licensed to practice law. He continued his studies with the acting lieutenant governor of Kentucky, Thomas Payne Porter of Versailles.

Of Confederate sympathy, he considered enrolling in the army of the South. His physician virtually ordered him not to enlist because of his precarious health.

In 1864 he returned to Mount Sterling and the practice of law.

Kentucky justice following the Civil War was based more on the code of honor than on the rule of law. Klotter develops the idea that this ideal in which "honorable individuals most feared not death but public humiliation, as a betrayal of manhood and honor. Honor required courage; cowardice meant shame; insults could not be tolerated. Action must follow, for only blood could cleanse the stains of honor."

In such a society, a man such as Judge Richard Reid found himself in a distinct minority. No matter the injury inflicted by Cornelison, the failure of Reid the lover of the law to flout the law and take vengeance in his own hands led to his disgrace.

Professor Klotter's book is an incisive study in the history of Kentucky as a dark and bloody ground where the remnants of the age of the duel and of personal revenge have had a lingering history.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-02-05 07:55:53
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