Vol. VI, No. 3, Winter 1993

Court Week

This article is adapted from Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions by Robert K. Gilmore. University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

At least twice a year, once in the spring and again in the late fall, the county-seat towns of the Ozarks came alive with the excitement of court week. "Ava puts on a lively appearance this week, wrote the editor of the Douglas County Herald in September, 1889. "Crowds of people in attendance at circuit court. Merchants are doing a lively business and the lawyers are busy with their cases in court." The convening of the circuit court was an occasion for the gathering of people from all over the county not only to conduct business with the court but to greet friends and neighbors and witness the drama of courtroom proceedings.

While the county seat was bulging with visitors, other towns found their populations drastically depleted. Hotels and boarding houses were soon crowded to capacity, and visitors who were unable to find lodging with acquaintances in town camped outdoors.

Juries were often selected from the men who happened to be on the streets at the time the sheriff was choosing a panel. Two men went to Ozark, Christian County, in 1902 on business and were summoned for jury duty and told to report at once. The sheriff was sent after them when they drove home instead. Some families avoided going to town during the two months before court week for fear of being summoned for jury duty. Others, however, sought out jury duty and made themselves regularly available. A Texas Countian boasted that "from the time I became twenty-one years old, I don't suppose I missed a year of some court a-bein' on the jury, till they thought I got too old to know right from wrong." The real-life drama of a courtroom trial held a fascination for Ozarkers, whether or not they had a special concern for the case. With almost equal interest they observed trials for burglary, peace disturbance, horse theft, divorce suits, and murder. The man who beat his wife so violently that he wore out not only a buggy whip but a heavy limb from a peach tree as well, drew only a twenty-dollar fine on his guilty plea. If the women present from the surrounding community could have had their way, the Cassville Republican noted, "he would now be carrying a well-striped back himself."

Most trial lawyers of the day employed a flamboyant, emotional style of argument. At the murder trial of Hosea Bilyeu in Christian County the defense attorney, G. Purd Hayes, impersonated one of the murdered men: "Hayes dressed himself in the clothing, trousers, shirt and coat said to have been worn by Jimmy Bilyeu on the day of the massacre on which he gave up his life. Lawyer Hayes presented a striking spectacle, dressed in the bloody bullet ridden clothing as he appeared before the jury in the garb of death. The spectators...held their breath in silence."

Said Marvin Tong, Ozarks historian and scholar, "I would say that the Circuit Court contributed more to the entertainment of the people of the county than probably any other single event. A term of court was a time when everybody came to town, and they'd stay as long as court was in session." Tong was at one time editor of the Ozark County News. He described how an accommodating judge provided entertainment for an Ozarks audience during a winter term of court:

They were having this murder trial and it'd come down along about 2 o'clock in the afternoon and it was time for the final argument before the jury with a couple of colorful lawyers. One of the natives in the back of the room raised his hand and asked if he could speak to the judge, which, you know, was sort of unusual, and the judge said yes, so this big fellow came up to him and told him, he says, "Now judge," he says, "it's going to be terribly terribly cold tonight." He says, "It's turned bitter cold out there." He says, "You don't reckon you could put off them final arguments until after supper time and then we could all come back to the court house where it's warm and spend the biggest part of the night here in the court house listening to the final arguments?"

So the judge said yes, he would. So he recessed the court. So everybody went back to their wagons and got supper, and then about dark why they came back to the court, and it reconvened and they were just hanging off the rafters in there. Everybody that could get in. And, of course, the lawyers just went all out 'cause they had a tremendous audience, you know. But court week was a great source of entertainment and it was up until the late 1940s.


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