By Alice McClintic Moore
1904 ~ 1986
One of my favorite amusements, as a child, was attending court. Court was held three times a year in our county, and the sessions drew an audience that comprised most of the able bodied people for miles around. Farmers came to town in the morning, bringing their wives and children with them, and spent the day. Their buying, and selling, and trading were all a part of the incidental activities of court week. I can remember our noon dinner table during court, surrounded by countless and casual cousins from Green Bank and the Levels.
A bell in the tower of the courthouse summoned the devotees. Everyone came. Even the dogs made a point of being present. A water spaniel, belonging to a friend of mine, answered every tolling of that bell, whether his family went or not. Whenever the courthouse bell rang, he hurried to the courtroom. He even attended Teacher’s Institute until those meetings were moved to the High School. He finally came to be looked upon as an honored member of the Bar.
No wonder court was an integral part of my life, and the life of my friends: our fathers were lawyers; our uncles, clerks; and our sisters, stenographers. Our houses were grouped around the courthouse. We were so close to that building and the adjacent jail that our voices carried easily from one to the other. Sometimes they carried too easily. An old man who had worked for us was frequently incarcerated because of his fondness for corn liquor. His cries from the jail window were audible, and usually efficacious. “Oh, Lord, Oh, Lock,” he would wail. “Come and get me out of this place.” My father and the Lord were both omniscient in Bill’s mind – only my father was a more present help, since he invariably bailed Bill out, and the Lord, seemingly, never paid much attention to him.
We used to bet on the outcome of the trials, and argue over our fathers’ powers. Each believed her father to be more eloquent and more persuasive than the others. Since they were often opposed, defending and prosecuting, we were at war, too. One of my good friends and I battled over a murder case for years. And to this day I don’t care whether the man was acquitted or not, I still believe he killed his wife.
When we went to court we did not sit back in the benches provided for the onlookers, no, sir, we sat up front with the lawyers. We were a part of the court – women, children and dogs, all cluttered up the bar. We were pretty well behaved, on the whole, quiet and attentive; but not so the dogs. Our Tackel, and Mr. Hill’s Rowdy did not care for each other. They were both Airedales, somewhat elderly and set in their ways. In the midst of an important point in a case they were likely to start growling and stalk, stiff-legged, around each other. Sometimes the fight could be averted, but occasionally there was an added attraction in the courtroom – an honest to goodness dog fight. It was unfortunate, of course, when these little disturbances broke the continuity of a trial. It was after one such fracas that the judge threatened to fine my father and Mr. Hill for contempt of court if they brought those damn dogs into the courtroom again. Poor Tackel! He had to be tied up on court days, thereafter. It nearly broke his heart.
Arson, larceny and man-slaughter were a part of my vocabulary when I was still a baby. We followed the procedure of the courtroom and tried cases ourselves. They were never very successful, however, because we could not find, in our number, an impartial judge.
We were all secretly desirous of being called as witnesses. Once my hopes were almost realized. A man broke into our house one night and was about to set our house on fire when my sister surprised him. When he was tried I felt certain I would at last receive the coveted summons. I was the envy of my friends. But the trial was carried on, and a conviction secured, without my assistance. I was insulted, and, besides, my chinchilla coat (a variety of cloth – don’t misunderstand me) which had been soaked with kerosene by the defendant, was kept in that condition as exhibit A, to be shown to the jury; and the kerosene smell never did come out.
Since our town had no movies and few plays, the courtroom took the place of the theatre with us. When the curtain rose on an exciting trial we would be in our box seats, the chairs to the right of the Judge. Those were our usual places, although during one June term I sat on the open window right beside the jury box. What a week that was; I was almost on the Jury! We remained in our seats straight through the performance until noon recess. Then we went home to dinner and heard our fathers’ comments on the morning’s events. When the afternoon session convened we aired our fathers’ opinions with the aplomb of veteran jurists. We weighed the evidence presented with infinite care and patience; and we decided the cases long before the foreman of the jury had handed his little slip of paper to the clerk. The outcome of a trial held for us the same fascination that a football score holds for a modern child. Those tense hours of waiting for the verdict are as real to us, even yet, as the hole in my stocking today.
Of course, it might be supposed that our constant attendance in a courtroom would result in some damage to our character. Not so; the judge and the court, no doubt flattered by our frank admiration and regular attendance, kept a strict watch upon our morals. Whenever there was anything of a questionable nature to be introduced into the evidence, the judge would make his announcement: “All ladies and children must leave the courtroom.”
And the town hussy was always the first to depart!
Alice McClintic Moore was a great storyteller and a longtime English teacher at Marlinton High School.