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JIM: Ms. Lunn critiques the courtroom (and the inhabitants therein), 1906

In 1906, the settlement of the estate of very wealthy County Judge J.W. Butler, who also served two terms as county court clerk, after which he embarked in the mercantile business, was the hot topic. The Butler Will case, pitting his wife, the former Miss Bettie Walker, defending the will, against an adopted daughter, Mrs. Grace Bradshaw, who sought to have all wills annulled. It's a fascinating account by skillfully compiled by Jim, and featuring the keen observations of Ms. Sally Lunn in the Adair County News.
Click on headline for complete story of The Butler Will Case.
See later story related to this one: Faded Glory: The Butler residence, Greensburg Street


Ms. Lunn critiques the courtroom (and the inhabitants therein),1906

Background (in which a scorecard and sharp pencil will help the reader keep up with the participants in the court case which precipitated the critique):

The opening days of 1906 saw Columbia and Adair County deeply interested in the courthouse proceedings occasioned by the will(s) of Judge J.W. Butler. He had passed from this sphere of action in the summer of 1905, a few months after constructing a will in January, another in February, and a third one in March.

(John W. Butler, the deceased, served two terms as County Court Clerk in the 1860s and one term as County Judge at the turn of the century, thus the honorific by which he was known in the closing years of his life. His obituary stated that after his service as County Court Clerk, "he embarked in the mercantile business, and with his brother, Dave, he sold goods for a number of years, and was a prominent merchant of this place." His wife, the former Miss Bettie Walker, was the daughter of long time and prosperous Columbia businessman William H. Walker; her siblings included Rena (Mrs. Richard F.) Paull and W.L. Walker. The February 6, 1906 edition of the paper estimated the value of Judge Butler's estate at $20,000, the equivalent of over half a million dollars in today's money.)

A bit of intra-family confugality arose over which will was valid and over certain points within the will(s), a situation which led to a lawsuit succinctly summed up by the Adair County News in late January 1906 under the headline "Butler Will Case":

"There has not been a case in our court for a long while that has attracted so much attention as the Butler will case, now on trial. It is a three cornered fight, the brothers and sisters of the deceased sue to set aside his will as probated and to establish a former one. Mrs. Grace Bradshaw, his adopted daughter [and blood niece], seeks to have all wills annulled, and Mrs. Bettie Butler [Judge Butler's widow] defends the will as probated."

(No fewer than eight of Judge Butler's siblings and the children of two deceased brothers were named as plaintiffs.)

Segue (in which focus shifts from the courtroom battle to Ms. Sally Lunn, a keen observer of the human -- and courtroom -- condition; those wishing to learn the salacious details of the lawsuit will need to look elsewhere):

During this era, women rarely entered the courtroom save as plaintiff, defendant, or witness, since the legal proceedings were believed (by the males, of course) as far too rough and tumble for the (perceived) overly delicate feminine psyche. The Butler will case, however, held enough allure to overcome inhibitions, and a number of ladies of the town regularly sat in the gallery during the nine days of the trial to see the (certainly hoped-for) fireworks as the paid legal representatives -- seven in all -- of each interested party went to toe to toe with each other.

The women in attendance included sharp-eyed, sharp-witted Sally Lunn (almost certainly a nom de plume) who, in a letter published in the News on the last day of January,1906, with no small measure of justification, "weighed in the balance and found wanting" just about everyone and everything in sight.

Ms. Lunn speaks up (and fires several well-aimed volleys at the status quo of the courtroom and in the process, gives a fascinating glimpse of the courthouse and the activities therein of a century and more ago):

Ms. Lunn found little to like in the manly world at the center of the Square, first referring to "an all-pervading dust, saturated with the odor of tobacco rising from the coco matting on the floor of the courtroom," the said odor emanating from the myriad tobacco chewers, the "Colonels, Judges, lawyers, jurors, fellow citizens--black and white, washed and unwashed, all [of whom] take the liberty of befouling our temple of Justice" by missing the spittoons. She then questioned why the Jailor, who had charge of the building, permitted such befoulment and added a gentle barb, quipping, "The Judge, of course, is engrossed in weightier matters of the law."

She then commented, "The courtroom is quite large, the ceiling high, and its acoustic properties are not of the best," and noted, "Not a painting or picture or ornament of any kind relieves the vast naked spaces" and went on to suggest that a few good portraits, including those well-known Adair Countians "Adair, Monroe, Bramlette, Wheat, Alexander, Caldwell, Gaither, Hardin, Wolford, and Garnett would stimulate the civic pride of our citizens" as well as giving much needed relief to the "acres of plaster."

Those directly involved in the case itself fell under Ms. Lunn's scrutiny and emerged not unscathed. After noting the strict formalities of the Supreme Court of the land, she said of the local palace of jurisprudence,

"Our court is more Democratic. Judge, jurors, attorneys and clients, sit in a close circle in every day costume, suggesting the notion of a family council. At intervals it is rather free, easy, and even jolly. Clerks sit on the tops of their desks, and rest their feet on the railing about the rostrum; lawyers project their weary limbs over their tables; on-lookers whisper of pleasure; and all spit whenever and wherever they please."

Sartorial finery (or lack thereof) drew no less attention from Ms. Lunn's eagle eye. She first commented that clothes "make very distinct impressions of their wearers," then commented on "how many men appear at court without collars, neckties or cuffs," and ended by asking, "Are any of the wives of these ill-kept blame for the slovenly dress of their husbands? Let us hope not."

The closing comments were directed toward the court proceedings themselves. Perhaps with tongue planted (firmly) in cheek, Ms. Lunn wrote of the litigants and their paid representation,

"The principals went aside in giving their testimony, to say kind things of each other, and the lawyers were so hail-fellow-well-met and chummy across the chasm, one might have innocently inferred that they had pooled their interests, and were feeling happy in the prospect of dividing between themselves the estate..."

In summary, she addressed the collective experience of the cadre of women who had attended the trial:

"At first the ladies thought with some trepidation of appearing at court, but when it was known that many wished to hear the case, and that the parties to it would be rather pleased than displeased to see their lady friends present, there was no further hesitation.

"We found the experience educational, we learned something of court proceedings, we got an idea of how to keep the whole truth from coming out when everybody seems anxious to hear it.

"The last impression I will here record is, that the ladies would not care to appear at court always or often; but when matters of vital interest to the family, the home, and to the well being of the whole community, are in the 'scale of justice,' and the facts to be brought to light are clean and wholesome, like the respect and affection the present litigants show for one another, they may be expected to appear at court again."


Writer's noteworthy note: I commenced working on the piece below about three weeks before the last of the Flood waters dried and was just hitting stride when the infernal racket of the walls of Jericho tumbling down broke my concentration. Hardly had I calmed down and again taken pen to hand when William II's army invaded England and created a commotion by whipping the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hasty Pudding. After the over-long respite required to allow my delicate constitution to regain strength, I once again began the bob and weave of wordsmithing, only to be interrupted again and again, but each time valiantly coming back to the tale at hand until finally, at forty-five past twelve noon damn-Yankee this very day, the 22nd day of February 2014 Anno Domini, the last "i" has been dotted, the "t" has been crossed, and after one last perusal, I, weary of body and bloodshot of eye, am ready to hit "send."

This story was posted on 2014-02-23 06:28:32
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