Vol. VI, No. 3, Winter 1993


All the Laughter the Law Allows:

Tales from Douglas Mahnkey

As told to Sandra Holmes Tinsley



Attorney Douglas Mahnkey, still practicing at the age of ninety in Forsyth, Missouri, is a life-long resident of Taney County. In describing Mahnkey, Associate Circuit Court Judge Bob Keeter of Springfield said, "Certain lawyers and judges have become renowned for their ability to spin legal yarns. Doug Mahnkey is a favorite story-teller of mine."

The following stories and comments are from an October 10, 1992 interview in Doug Mahnkey's home.

About 1908, a group up on Bull Creek decided they had scriptural backing to parade naked on the square in Forsyth. And they did, men, women, and children. The sheriff put them in jail.

When they brought the first one into the courtroom for his trial, he just raved, preached, said the Lord would take care of him. Said he didn't need any lawyers. Judge Tom Moore gave him six months in jail.

When Louie Bearden, the other fellow's lawyer, went up to the jail to talk to him, that prisoner also began hollering, "0 Lord, take care o' me."

Louie told that fellow, "Now you'd better listen to me. I just saw Judge Moore and the Lord have a round down there [in the courthouse], and Judge Moore won!"

I was elected Taney County Clerk in 1926 and took office January 3, 1927. While I was county clerk, I was looking at a Popular Mechanics Magazine with an ad from LaSalle Extension University for a law course. I took that course and studied it four or five years and got through it. I had a lot of help during that correspondence course -- three or four old lawyers, all Kentuckians, in Forsyth, and if something stumped me, they helped out.

I made application to take the bar examination, and the clerk said that the Missouri Supreme Court had made a new rule that you had to have two years of resident law at a school before you could take the examination. I wrote the clerk, and they amended the law and let me and others take the examination. I passed it December the 7th, 1935.

I told someone, "I decided to study law because I noticed the lawyers around Forsyth didn't work very hard and dressed better than anybody else!"

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I opened a law office at Forsyth, and I paid twelve dollars and a half a month for an office upstairs. I had been there three months, and I hadn't had a client except for some fellow in California who had me look up something about a piece of ground. I charged him twelve and a half, so I made twelve dollars and a half during the first three months.

I'd hear somebody coming up the stairs; I'd think, "Well, maybe I've got a client." No, they'd go to the beauty shop or the surveyor's office down the hall. Then one day I heard someone coming up the stairs real slow, and an elderly lady, real heavy set came in my door. She looked at me and said, "Are you a lawyer?"

I said, "Yes, ma'am."

She said, "They tell me I've got to have a quiet title suit on my land. IfI hire you to represent me, what will you charge me?"

I said, "Fifty dollars."

She said, "Whew! I could get a good lawyer for that!" And away she went.

In my law practice, the thing that stands out in my mind the most, I defended Carl Wood for murder two different times. He was a rough character. He first shot Joe Wolf in the back of the head at church for fooling around with his wife.

The jury gave Wood six months. He jumped up, shook hands with all the jury, turned to me and said, "The jury didn't give me six months for killing Joe Wolf; they gave me six months for disturbin' church!"

The second time I defended Carl for killing Buddy Nave. He came clear that time because Nave had threatened him and followed him home.

Carl Wood was tough and mean. One time he hitched a ride to town with my son, who was sixteen. When he got out of the car, Carl said, "Be a good boy. Love God. And don't kill anybody unless you have to."

It's been my experience, in over fifty years of practice in these hills, that if a man defends his family, or his good name, or someone abuses his daughter or something, the juries are pretty apt to set him free.

In rural jury trials, political leanings and native biases against big businesses and "city" lawyers sometimes carried as much or more influence than the evidence did.

Bob Gideon and I tried an arson case at Ava; we defended three men charged with burning a lumber yard to get the insurance. Harry Truman's cousin, General Truman, represented the insurance companies. He was a big, fine-lookin' man. That Douglas County jury was mostly Republicans, of course, and all men -- there were no women on juries in those days.

In his closing argument, Bob said, "Gentlemen of the jury, you see that distinguished looking gentlemen over there? That's Harry Truman's cousin! He represents the insurance companies. He knows if you convict these people of arson, that the insurance company won't have to pay anything." Truman got up and started out, and Bob said, "I see the general's beating a retreat." Well, we won it.

Circuit judges held court twice a year in each county seat. The courts have changed so much. The law provided that circuit court would meet in Taney County on the third Monday of April and of October. At that time, Taney County was in the same judicial district as Springfield, and Circuit Judge Neville would come down from Springfield to try the cases.

All cases were called the first day. Therefore all attorneys, litigants, and witnesses had to be present on the first day. Court would last three, four, or five weeks then. They didn't settle many cases out of court like they do now.

Court sessions were exciting times for the people of Forsyth. Some jurors would stay with a friend or at the Northside Hotel, but hotel rooms were scarce and expensive. Many of the visitors stayed in private homes and were charged very reasonably. Most people -- witnesses, litigants, and jurors --came in covered wagons with camping outfits and camped near Swan Creek.

Before the circuit court session, a full panel of forty-eight jurors had been selected by the County Court. There were nine townships, and the jurors were selected on the basis of the number of votes case in the last General Election.

The county clerk then drew the appropriate number of names from each township. All the names were placed in a man's hat, and the clerk drew out the allotted number of names. The clerk then issued jury summons, and the sheriff served the summons.

A juror could be excused for good reason: health, business, sickness in the family, being a relative or close friend of the accused.

If the jury panel was twenty-four, the defendant was entitled to strike eight of the twenty-four who had qualified, and the state could strike four.

In all felony cases the verdict of the jury must be unanimous. Many times one man could "hang" the jury. A court stenographer told us an amusing little story one time while we were having a long wait for a jury to come in with a verdict:

The jury had been out trying to reach a verdict most all day and were still deadlocked. It was supper time, and the judge called the jury into the courtroom and announced that they were to continue

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Douglas Mahnkey confers with a client in the Taney County Courthouse, ca. 1980.
their deliberation and that he would order their suppers brought to the jury room.

The foreman of the jury replied, "Okay, Your Honor, eleven suppers and one bale of hay!" (for the juror who was evidently stubborn as a mule).

Before the new 1945 Missouri Constitution abolished the offices, every township elected two justices of the peace and one constable.

Nowadays, the patrol and the sheriff are in the county seat or on the road some place. Back in the country somewhere something happens, and there's nobody to turn to. But in those days, with the justices of the peace and a constable, there probably wouldn't be a picnic or public gathering in a church but what one of those fellows'd be present. It was a good calming influence. So I'm strong for local government.

Ozarks court proceedings were frequently characterized by informality among the participants.

When Judge Robert L. Gideon was on the bench in Christian County, his boyhood friend Chester Comog was called as a witness during the first term of circuit court. Pretty well inebriated, Chester staggered up the aisle and took offhis big white hat. They asked him a question or two, and he mumbled around.

Bob Gideon rapped the desk and said, "Mr. Comog, are you intoxicated?"

Chester said, "What'd you say, Judge?" "I asked if you are intoxicated." "Judge, do you mean, am I drunk?" "That's what I mean."

"Judge, that's the best damned decision you've made since you've been on the bench!"During the Depression, country lawyers sometimes had to be flexible to get paid.

The first time I defended Carl Wood for murder, I got fifty dollars and an old rifle. The next time the court appointed me, and I didn't get anything. After I represented Richard Hampton in a drunk driving case, he brought me a washtub of blackberries. I tried to make wine, but I just made vinegar. Then another fellow -- that was a pretty good pay off-- he gave me a big red sow and nine pigs.

Unlike today's public defenders, court-appointed lawyers received neither fees nor expenses.

I kinda liked the old system; it put a man on his honor. I think really sometimes a lawyer works harder on those cases than he does the others because he knows people are watching him, thinking maybe he'll kinda lay down on the job.

When I was a young fellow, say 1910 and along there, there was a general respect for law enforcement people: judges, and sheriffs, and deputy sheriffs. The sheriff was really looked up to and respected by most people. But seems it's all changed a lot now.

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In 1937, Mahnkey was elected Prosecuting Attorney for Taney County.

I served off and on, I guess five terms all together. That's a hard office to be re-elected to, because usually the fellow that gets in trouble's got a lot more friends than anybody. (chuckle) And then you're cussed if you do and cussed if you don't. If you give a hard sentence, why they are mad, and [if you don't], the other people are mad. So it's hard. If I had five boys, and they were all lawyers, I wouldn't want any of them to be prosecutors.

In the justice of the peace days, Mahnkey prosecuted Laura Johnson, an elderly spinster who, in a dispute over who should play the piano, had chased everyone out of the Forsyth Union Sunday School with a stove poker one morning.

They took a change of venue, and I took it way to Union Flat, a real strong Baptist community. The trial was in the old Union Flat Schoolhouse, and oh! there was a big crowd there. People brought picnic baskets.

The young defense lawyer Olin Wolf began to file motions for continuance, and old Judge Keggy Dennis overruled him. Wolf filed one motion after another. Finally Judge Dennis lit his pipe and said, "Now young feller, get over there in the corner and write all those things you want to, but it's not going to do you any good. We're going to try this case if we have to stay here until the hoot owls holler."

The jury convicted Laura and fined her a dollar and the costs. The costs'd go two hundred dollars.

During one of his several terms as a state legislator, Douglas Mahnkey introduced the bill that did away with local executions in Missouri.

The last local execution in Missouri was Red Jackson, who was hanged in Galena about 1937. Jackson had hitchhiked a ride with a salesman, who later picked Jackson up in Forsyth. Jackson killed him in northeast Taney County and dumped his body in the forest near Brown Branch. When he was arrested in Ozark County by the Taney County sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Gideon, Jackson was driving the deceased's automobile.

The law provided that an execution was to be carded out in the county where the defendant was convicted and sentenced, so Jackson was hanged in the courthouse yard at Galena. Stone County Sheriff Dez Corn was reluctant to pull the lever, so Taney County Sheriff W.H. Simmons sprung the trap.

The sheriff issued tickets or invitations for persons to witness the execution. I was offered one, but I didn't want to go at all.

It seemed unfair that officers of a county other than the one where the crime was committed had to carry out that grizzly task. I was elected State Representative that year, and introduced a bill to provide that executions would be by electric chair at the state prison in Jefferson City. The Cole County (Jefferson City) Representative fought the bill on the House floor. His party (Democrats) were in the majority, and my bill failed in a close fight.

Having been elected Prosecuting Attorney of Taney County, I was not in the next session of the legislature the following year when my bill was reintroduced with the only change being death in the gas chamber rather than the electric chair. That time they made it the law.

I was in the Missouri Legislature at an interesting time. The 1945 Missouri Constitution was adopted, and we had to make all the state laws conform to it. The Republicans were in the majority, and the Speaker appointed me Chairman of the Local Government Committee. All the city and county governments had to be brought in line with the new constitution. We worked two solid years, and I handled 320 bills on the floor of the House. There wasn't really any opposition; everybody knew we had to get it done.

There's a lot of people that don't like any law. The hills are full of them. They just say "the damn law" back in the hills here. A lot of fellows who live in the mountains make a little whiskey, and they cut a little government timber, and hunt game out of season and all of that, so they just have an aversion towards anybody that's trying to enforce the law. Like I said, if somebody murders somebody or robs somebody or mistreats a woman, why you can depend on them to convict.

Booknote

Gerald T. Dunne, The Missouri Supreme Court: From Dred Scott to Nancy Cruzan. Columbia and London: The University of Missouri Press, 1993. ($34.95)

More than just a legal history, more than just a court history, Gerald Dunne's volume is a wide-spreading addition to Missouri's rich social and economic history. The intersection of the law, due process, colorful personalities, and the complex culture streams in Missouri makes for lively and provocative reading. Chapter titles such as "Funny Money,'! "Judges, Senators, and Cur Dogs," "The Rule," and "Rat Alley," promise a lively style and an ironic humor that should (but do not always) characterize any history of Missouri.

Gerald Dunne is Professor of Law Emeritus, St. Louis University. His writings include numerous legal histories and biographies.
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