A County Thirty-One Years in Rebellion
The story of a rural community in Missouri wherein a public office is a private calamity.
FRANK WICKIZER IN CENTURY MAZAZINE
WHEN a candidate for a county judgeship in St. Clair County, Missouri, makes the race for office, he does so with the understanding that, unless he would spend some time in jail, he must put in his term of office skulking in the brush, a fugitive from justice. This is because he will be in contempt of the United States court. For thirty years the Federal tribunal has been trying to compel St. Clair County to pay interest on bonds issued in 1870 to assist in the building of a railroad. The road was never built, and the county declines to obey the court's mandate, not believing in paying for goods which were not delivered. For almost a third of a century the county has been in open and successful rebellion against the Federal authorities.
The position in which St. Clair County finds itself is the sequel of a State law passed just before the war, the purpose of which was to encourage the building of railroads. Under this law a county court was privileged to subsidize a railroad project, without submitting the proposition to a vote of the people. During the first decade after the close of the war the courts of one hundred and seven counties in Missouri availed themselves of this new prerogative. Of these counties all save three—Knox, Dallas, and St. Clair— long since cancelled their obligations. Many of them were swindled by the promoters, but, the bonds being in the hands of “innocent purchasers,” they paid because the Federal court compelled them to pay. Knox County, it is understood, is willing to compromise with the bondholders as soon as certain pending litigation is closed. As to Dallas, the debt it owes the bondholders exceeds by several thousand dollars the total valuation of all property, personal and real, in the county, and the creditors long ago dropped all negotiations looking to a settlement.
There was a time when St. Clair E
County was by way of being a mining community. Silver was discovered, and it was known that the hills contained deposits of some of the baser ores ; but, as a step preliminary to the development of these resources, it was necessary to secure railroads.
Railroad-building throughout the State was then almost a craze—the reaction from the stagnation of war times. Besides, river traffic was on the wane. Osceola, the county seat, once at the head of navigation on the Osage River, with fleets, of steamers from St. Louis and Kansas City at its ports, and with a great tributary region in Arkansas for which it was the natural trading-point, felt that its commercial importance was declining, and a master-stroke was required to re-establish its connection with the outside world. The time was ripe for the leading citizens to listen to the voice of the tempter, and his visit was not long deferred. He came in the spring of 1870, and his scheme was to build a railroad from Clinton, a short distance northwest of Osceola, to Memphis, Tennessee, which would put Osceola on a direct line of road between Kansas City and Memphis.
It sounds almost like travesty to say that the court selected April 1, All Fools’ day, as the date for entering its memorable order directing the county treasurer to take stock in the ven. ture ; but it is the solemn truth. By the court’s ruling the county was bonded in the sum of $250,000, and the treasurer was instructed to deliver the bonds to the projectors of the Tebo & Neosha Railroad Company “when the contract is let.”
The contract was let a few months later, and the promoters received their bonds. There were some preliminary surveys, and a gang of laborers went to work in the northern part of the county, piling up earth for a “fill.” The bonds were sold to “innocent pur-
chasers.” Taxes were levied to pay the first year’s interest ; then one day the construction train pulled out with a gang of laborers, and wTas never seen there again. A mile or so of fill, with some rotten ties and rusted rails, now remains as a monument to the shortsightedness of the county judges who wrote, “to be delivered when the contract is let,” instead of “when the work is done.”
During the years following the transaction the feeling against the railroad swindlers grew daily more bitter, and the determination to resist payment became more deeply rooted. But the “innocent purchasers” were clamoring for their dues, and July 14, 1875, they secured a judgment in the Federal court.
The succeeding steps followed in quick succession. The county court was ordered to make a levy to pay the claim ; it declined to comply. The Federal court issued a mandamus ; it was ignored. The county court was cited for contempt ; it disregarded the summons, and United States marshals were sent to arrest the recalcitrants.
To evade the United States deputy marshals, the county judges have had to place themselves in some extraordinary predicaments, not all of them consistent with judicial dignity. “Hiding out” was the regular order of business. Judge Thomas Scott, shorn of his long white beard, remained under cover for a year, thereby winning the sobriquet of the “Swamp Fox.” Every stranger was a suspected sleuth, and every loyal citizen a “stool-pigeon,” his duty being to inform the fugitives of the stranger’s movements. So the judges spent most of their time in the brush.
Belated farmer lads, groping through the woods at night in quest of strayed cattle, have chanced upon the court in session on a fallen tree. With an arsenal of small arms as their square and compass, without light save such as was reflected from the masked lantern by which the clerk wrote the minutes, the judges here performed the humble rites of their office, being always alert -to adjourn and scuttle into the brush should a twig break or the foliage of a bush stir suspiciously.
Again, when the wind caused trouble with the clerk’s papers and lantern, or when it was feared that deputies prowling in the neighborhood might be attracted by the light, these farmer lads have seen four shadowy figures—three judges and a clerk—struggle through a tangle of shrubbery and disappear in the mouth of a cave. In such cases the approaches were invariably guarded by volunteer sentinels.
Nevertheless, the marshals were quite as resourceful in the expedient as were the judges, and showed themselves willing to take extraordinary pains. Take for example the case of Joseph H. Graham, a deputy marshal of St. Joseph, and his co-worker, Henry W. Pyatt of Joplin. Being newly-appointed officers, and unknown in the region, they were assigned to work on the St. Clair County case. This was in May, 1901. They met in Kansas City and agreed upon a plan of campaign.
Pyatt’s case was made easy by the fact that he had a married sister living in Osceola. Through the influence of his brother-in-law, he secured a position as helper at the 'Frisco depot, and at once took up his residence at the home of his sister. Graham had to work out a more elaborate plan. Deciding finally to palm himself off as a commercial traveler, he secured the necessary trunks and cases, and laid in a line of grocery samples. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about the grocery business, and realizing that his ignorance would be detected by the first retail dealer that he approached, he set out resolutely to take a primary course in the theory, practice, and technique of commerce. He haunted the wholesale houses of Kansas City to acquire the language and manner of the trade ; he fraternized with drummers, studied price lists, schooled himself in the late novelties of the grocery market, and finally took a graduate course of one week on the road with a veteran drummer as master, all at his own expense.
Pyatt in the interim had kept him posted as to conditions in Osceola. “On the 8th of May,” he had written, “the judges will hold court openly in the court-house, relying for safety on the
fact that they are known to no one saye the natives. This will be our chance.”
Graham arrived a day in advance, put up at the Commercial Hotel, and began canvassing the local grocery stores. It must be that the schooling stood him in good stead, for it is not of record that his inexperience was detected. During the evening he had an opportunity to consult with Pyatt. The latter had gathered some information as to the personal appearance of the two judges in contempt, Sam. C. Peden and James M. Nevitt (David Walker, the third judge, not having then fallen under the ban of the Federal court), and the details of the attack were arranged.
By nine o’clock next morning farm wagons bqgan to arrive from every point of the compass, and by ten Courthouse Square was hedged about with a compact rank of them. Farmers, stockmen, county officials, and townspeople stood about in knots, engaged in conversation ; and in one of these groups, the deputies knew, were the men they sought, but to pick them out by applying the loose verbal description Pyatt had received was no easy task. Peden had been designated as “tall, lank, and swivel-jointed, with a drooping blond mustache :” but half the men in the yard seemed to answer to this. And the description of Nevitt as a man “ not quite so tall as Peden, but heavier anh with a stoop to his shoulders,” was not less indefinite.
Graham and Pyatt stood in the entrance of a dry goods store, selected as a point of reconnoiter because the clerks were too busy waiting on a crowd of women to notice them. It was agreed that they should stay there until court opened, when the judges, they thought, would disclose their official identity by taking their positions on the bench. They would then swoop down, each entering by a different door, and arrest all three. Later they would ascertain which was Walker, and release him.
At the sheriff’s “Hear ye ! Hear ye !” the groups converged upon the picturesque ruin used as a courthouse. Graham, meanwhile, acting on a happy impulse, had caused a report to be circulated among the women in the store that a marriage was to be solemnized.
He had seen the bride, and she was beautifully dressed. In the next five minutes not less than twenty women, remembering that they had occasion to speak with their husbands or fathers, sauntered with studied leisure across the street, all their faculties alert to catch a glimpse of white organdie and nun’s veiling.
Carefully gauging their speed, to give the women time to reach the courtroom and no more, the deputies followed. It was as they had expected : St.
Clair County being essentially southern in sympathies and gallantry, there was a mighty mpving of chairs and shuffling of feet as the masculine wing of the assembly hastened to find seats for the late arrivals, and the confusion served to mask their own appearance.
At the end of the room farthest from the doors thirty or forty men stood closely massed about a table. Realizing that now was the time and this the place to strike, the deputies charged for the crowd. Instantly a clarion voice hushed the whispers of chivalry and the drone of business, and a pair of brawny arms seized Pyatt about the waist from behind, pinioning his arms to his sides. Someone else essayed the same form of attack upon Graham, but he broke away. “The deputies ! The deputies !” screamed the voice. Pistols flashed into sight, and there vTas a rustle of skirts as the women whisked out into the corridor.
Meanwhile Graham had succeeded in drawing his own weapons, and, with a revolver in each hand, he plunged into the crowd about the table. Behind that human rampart, he believed, sat the judges, and it was his business to arrest them before they had time to mix with the rabble.
He was surprised at the ease with which he accomplished it. The crowd separated before him like the Red Sea under the rod of Moses ; the clock on the wall had ticked less than five times since the alarm was given, and there, serenely occupying the chairs which stand for the “county bench,” sat his quarry.
“Gentlemen, you are my prisoners !” he cried. “Throw up your hands !” And then to the crowd : “Men, move
back and give us room ! Stand back !”
But there was no occasion for the latter part of the command, for through the entrances into the corridor and through the windows opening upon the veranda the crowd was melting as if by magic. There was something ominous about the facility with which the programme had been carried out ; it was not exactly in keeping with the community’s reputation, this display of the white feather without even a show of resistance, and when Graham looked into the faces of his prisoners it was with a sinking sensation that he realized he had been duped. Two were farmer lads, mere striplings scarcely out of their teens, and the third was a mulatto.
A few of the late audience looked back over their shoulders in departing to mock him with derisive laughter and sallies of bucolic wit. Only two remained ; these stood looking out upon the street. Pyatt had disappeared. Graham glared at the nondescript trio before him, weighing the question as to whether he should take them into custody for aiding Federal prisoners to escape ; but an instant later the sound of pistol-shots in the yard below helped him to decide. There was, perhaps, bigger game afoot. The pair at the window became suddenly perturbed at what they saw, and bolted for the stairs. Graham followed.
Having reached the lawn, he saw, just outside of the inclosure, a crowd of excited farmers and stockmen about a lumber wagon. On the spring seat in front sat two men and a boy ; standing in the rear of the wagon, his pistols trained upon the other occupants, was Pyatt. The crowd about was sullenly demonstrative and rapidly growing. Graham, his weapon still in hand, charged them, firing a wild shot or two as he ran, by way of moral effect.
The incidents of the next few seconds followed each other so swiftly that no two accounts agree. Some blows were struck with clubbed weapons ; one or two knives were flashed ; a revolver was discharged ; there was a chorus of shouts, a tangle of legs and arms, and then two things happened : Graham,
having fought his way to the front wheel of the wagon, popped his pistol
into the face of the nearest occupant. In the same breath the other adult occupant leaped to the ground and ran, Pyatt after him, while the boy, too terrified to move, sat dumbly holding the reins.
Again Graham repeated the standard formula of the arresting officer : “Judge Nevitt, you are my prisoner !”
This was the critical moment of the scene. A shrewd tug from behind must have tilted Graham off the wheel and given the prisoner at least a chance for his liberty, but the rabble let it pass unimproved, and the next instant suffered the humiliation of seeing the bracelets clicked upon the wrists of the presiding judge. A groan, a hiss, some smothered imprecations and muttered threats, and the incident was closed.
“I was sitting on the piazza of the Commercial Hotel about five minutes later, Judge Nevitt by my side,” said Graham, in telling the story, “when Pyatt came sauntering up from the field with Judge Sam Peden in tow. Both were splashed with mud, and had about them other evidences of a hot burst of speed. The judge’s ‘swivel-joints’ had not disqualified him for the sprinter class. It seems that one of the features of the chase had been the leaping of a six-rail snake fence, an obstacle which both had cleared at a bound. As they approached the piazza I overheard their conversation : they were talking about
other hurdle-races they had known.”
“How did you get on to their judgeships ?” I asked Pyatt, aside.
“Why,” said he, “when that fellow grabbed me in the courtroom, I dallied with him awhile until I had him where I wanted him, and then sprang a wrestling trick on him. It worked, and I wriggled loose. About this time every one was bolting for the doors. I tried to get back where you were, but three or four husky chaps got me in front of ’em and hustled me out. When I reached the foot of the stairs, I saw quite a crowd around a lumber wagon. ThejT were boosting two men and a boy up into the spring seat, and while one man untied the team, two or three were hooking the tugs. They were all laughing—seemed to be tickled half to death about something.
“Of course I supposed all this time that jmu had nabbed the judges in the courtroom, as I saw you had the drop on the three fellows in the chairs ; but when I saw those two men on the spring seat reach down to shake hands with someone in the crowd, I got a hunch that you had barked up the wrong tree, so I fired a few shots in the air and swooped down on ’em. Well, you know the rest. Gee ! but that fellow Peden is a sprinter !”
After the first six months. Peden attempted to secure his freedom by resigning his office as county judge, but the ruse was onl3/ partly successful. He was kept in jail until within a few weeks of the expiration of his term. Judge Nevitt served out his time without a murmur and upon his return to Osceola was given an ovation.
The wealthier and more substantial citizens profess to believe that, in elect-
ing the present judges, the county took a step which is the beginning of the end. They maintain that the present incumbents of the county bench represent a higher order of intelligence and business sagacity than their predecessors ; that there will be no more skulking in the brush, no more citations for contempt, and no further clashing of authority ; but that the court with becoming meekness will submit to the people a proposition to compromise with the bondholders on a basis of $231,000, the face of the original bonds, minus $19,000, which has been paid, the interest to be eliminated. The county judges admit that they have some such plan in view. However, it is thought in some circles that this project is “loaded that in its essence it is like the stock “sale” of the ’70’s ; and that as no one would bid then, no one will vote now. But of course that would not be the fault of the judges.
The Cash Values of Ideas
Perhaps never before have men been so willing to pay for ideas. A lawyer is asked a question, which he instantly answers, and his bill for a large sum is cheerfully paid.
It took only a moment, but the value of an idea cannot be measured by the time it takes to express it.
It has taken a long time to convince moneyed men of this point, and some of them have not been convinced. But those who are wise enough to see it are availing themselves of great opportunities for the betterment of their business.
The man in charge of a department is given credit for what he knows as well as for what he does. He is given credit for what he leaves undone—what he sees it were wise not to do.
The tendency is to encourage real thinking throughout the organization, where formerly only blind work was expected, according to the plan then in use.