Sunday, January 18, 2015

Trail to Trial

Allow me to introduce myself; I am Judge George Conway and I have come down here to the frontier, Washington, Arkansas, to try the Henry Skaggs case here in the middle of this torrid 1844 summer. My horse came up lame there in Little Rock, so upon the advice of former friends I took the mail coach. It was the worst $8.00 I ever spent. It took 36 hours to get down here. The trail was very badly washed out because of the April rains and the mules were sore-footed and green. I heard that only one of the animals had made the trip before and she was recalcitrant and loud-mouthed. The driver and the skinner were tender-hearted drunk when we arrived at the big hill in Washington and we had to get out and slog through mud about a mile to get into the town. They thought our weight was too much for their precious nags. It was nearly dark when I got up the hill.
I went to the jail and there was Sheriff Arnett asleep in one of the cells. I sat at his so-called desk and picked up a copy of the Washington Telegraph Newspaper to see how much had been written about the Skaggs story. There was half a column on the case and a long editorial about how the jail was inadequate and poorly managed. One did not need a journalist to tell him that. The garrulous editorialist wrote that the sheriff treated the jail more like a hotel than a holding facility and that people came and went as they wished. It was a social club.
“Where’s Skaggs?” I asked in a loud voice. Arnett did not flinch. I poked his side with my stick and repeated the query. “Who wants to know?” He replied, not opening his eyes. “George Conway.” The sheriff jumped to his feet then and began his feeble attempt to seem like a real sheriff. “Oh, yes sir, judge. I got him locked up down at the other one.” Come to find out, there were two jails in town: one for the “social club” and one for true criminals. When he took me to Skaggs, I found what I expected, a disheveled bag of bones needing a drink. Then I examined the courthouse. I was surprised to find a really nice facility, less than a decade old, with truly sophisticated woodwork and satisfactory ventilation.
It took four days to try the case. Attorney Tupper did a fine job of prosecution and Skaggs was found guilty of the murder of Will Oaks, a fellow blacksmith. The argument that ended in fatality was over a woman for whom I felt a great deal of sympathy as she testified. How she saw anything positive in the lout Skaggs was beyond me. Nonetheless, it pained me to have to command the hanging. May Providence have mercy on his soul and may He comfort the lady in her bereavement.

I will find a horse to buy here in Washington and am resolved to never take that mail coach again.

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