Somewhere among the mementos of my youth is a silk hat mark, Part 1 of 2

Posted by | May 23, 2013

I began to practice as a young lawyer in an adjoining county and about sixty miles from George A. Ewing’s home. Up to that time I had never met him, nor did I know any of his immediate family. An older man, he was at the time a lawyer of wide reputation, and regarded as one of the best criminal lawyers in the State.

Before I had ever tried an important case I was appointed by the court to prosecute, as attorney for the state, a band of mountain desperadoes and alleged felons. Most of them, from the mountains of Kentucky, had crept over into my native Virginia valley and committed crimes, ranging from housebreaking to murder.

Some of the gang were in jail at the time of my commission. One, charged with a murder or more, the ”black sheep” of one of the good families of the valley, had been my boyhood friend, his sister a schoolmate, and . . . ; but I was a boy then! How I came to be thrust into the arduous and embarrassing position of prosecuting him and his co-criminals is a long story; too long for this book.

Wise County Virginia Courthouse

Wise County Virginia Courthouse. No date.

Suddenly, as I sat in court one morning, I found myself the sole attorney for the Commonwealth, facing a most able defense, composed of the best legal talent in that part of Virginia — for his people had ample fortune. Unversed in the technicalities of a criminal trial, confronted by about one hundred witnesses pro and con, the life of my boyhood companion in the balance, I was dazed, almost stupified.

I looked at the prisoner, his face was that of abandoned indifference; I looked at his splendid array of talent — they smiled indulgently. I turned toward the aged and broken mother. Tears burst from her sad eyes, and then I caught the tender, pleading eyes of his sister, my former classmate, and I was crushed! Many years have gone; many, many court scenes have intervened: I feel her eyes yet!

After what seemed the torture of an age. I sprang to my feet and made my first speech in court :

“May it please your honor, I cannot do it.”

I dropped into my chair; opposing counsel smiled and winked at each other; a woman sobbed, but for which there was awful silence. For a moment the judge swung around in his chair and gazed at the wall; then, facing me again, he said :

“Young man, I appreciate your situation; but you are now an officer of this court; an emergency confronts us. The court must require you to act.”

Pulling myself together, I asked that the case be passed until the next day. The request was granted.

I went to my office almost wild with despair, grief and the weight of the unsought responsibility. Suddenly I recalled having heard of George A. Ewing as a successful lawyer. Rushing out, I wired him :

“Have just been appointed to prosecute so and so. Have recently gone to the bar. For the sake of the Ewing name will you help me? No fee in sight.”

“No fee in sight,” truly, for the State paid the prosecutor the pitiful sum of $10!

He came on the night train; met me quietly at a hotel, and we fell upon a plan by which, next day, I got the case passed for thirty days. My! During that month I studied law day and night, talked with the commonwealth’s witnesses — digested the evidence, and, in short, mastered a complex and difficult case and its law.

Ewing returned and brought with him another lawyer of experience and ability, a descendant of the famous Henry Clay, of Kentucky, willing to join us for the advertising.
(continued tomorrow…)

from “Clan Ewing of Scotland, early history and contribution to America; sketches of some family pioneers and their times,” by Elbert William R. Ewing, A. M., LL. B., LL. D., COBDEN PUBLISHING CO., Ballston, Virginia, 1922

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