We shook hands with them all, including two held for murder

Posted by | January 25, 2016

“The administration of justice in the isolated areas still surprises the visitor with its differences from the ways of the town. Despite a few modern touches, a cuspidor or two missing, or the presence of some young lawyers fresh from the state university, a mountain trial is in spirit much the same as when I first visited the Cumberlands thirty years ago, and court was opened with an old fiddler’s contest. A court session is still the great event of the year.

“It is the informality, like so many other phases of mountain life, which instantly charms the visitor.

“I was in a mountain court one afternoon, sitting on the bench with the judge as he prepared to swear in the annual Grand Jury.

“The jurist turned to the tobacco-munching farmers arranged solemnly before him on a double row of chairs. ‘Before I swear you in, I want to ask you,’ he said. ‘Is there anybody sitting here that’s under indictment for anything? I don’t want nobody on my jury that’s under indictment.’

“There was a long silence. Than on the back row a lanky farmer arose, and shifted uneasily. ‘Guess they got me up in federal court over at Maysville for moonshining, Judge.’

The judge shook his head in regret. ‘You got to get off the Grand Jury, then, Jeff. I ain’t going to have nobody on my jury that’s under indictment.’

Appalachian County JudgeCounty Judge Boyd Boggs, 1942, Lawrence County, KY.

“One of the most popular figures in the hills today is known as Judge Honey, a philosopher always more concerned with the right and wrong of a case than with the harsh technicality of the law. Whoever it may be that appears before him for sentence, whether solemn old man or impudent young woman, the judge always addresses the prisoner as ‘honey.’

‘Honey, I hate to do this to you,’ he declares. ‘But I’ve got to sentence you to sixty days, honey.’ It seems to make the punishment easier to bear.

“A mountain jail has the same homey quality. The jailer has been a neighbor and often a friend of most of his charges; the usual grimness of a prison is altogether lacking. In one mountain town the county jailer, a most amiable soul, took my wife and myself on a tour, carefully introducing us to each of his forty-seven prisoners. We shook hands with them all, including two held for murder.

“So easygoing is the administration of justice, I have more than once heard a sheriff ask a mountaineer from some distant creek to inform a neighbor that he was under arrest and tell him to be sure to come to jail as soon as possible. And he could be certain the arrested man would obey, just as surely as if the sheriff went to his cabin and himself applied a pair of handcuffs.

“The mountaineer has great reverence for his own local authorities. He has none for laws made by people he has never seen in far-off Washington.”

Children of Noah: Glimpses of Unknown America

By Ben Lucien Burman
Publ. by Julian Messner, Inc. 1951

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