HISTORY: A good judge is hard to find

WYOMING – How Wyoming is this little courtroom story?

First, a little background. So many diverse people make up the history of this state. Even before it was a state.

Take Jacob Beeson Blair. He was born April 11, 1821 in Parkersberg, West Virginia. He became a lawyer, then a prosecuting attorney, then a state legislator, and finally a Congressman. He was also a minister to Costa Rica from 1868-1872.

Jacob Beeson Blair

Blair was instrumental in petitioning for West Virginia to be admitted to the Union in 1863. He had President Lincoln’s confidence and ear.

With his work seemingly done back east, Blair headed west for what was then Wyoming Territory. “Wyoming” back then was a complicated place to define, falling under different jurisdictions and relationships. Because of the state’s geographic location, portions of it were involved in the Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Country, and Mexican Cession.

Often the “state” was lumped into Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Dakotas, Nebraska, and Utah. In 1872, Wyoming Territory had five counties—Albany, Carbon, Laramie, Sweetwater, and Uinta.

On February 14, 1876, President Grant appointed a relocating Judge Blair as associate justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court. Blair moved to Laramie during this time, right up until his resignation on April 23, 1888 when the Cleveland Administration took over. Blair then moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where he served as a probate judge and surveyor general. Blair died in Salt Lake on February 12, 1901.

Blair’s grave in SLC.

According to his obituary in the Parkersburg Daily State Journal on February 13, 1901: “He had been ill for several days with the grip, but was not thought to be in any danger. The disease, however, affected his heart, and he expired suddenly yesterday. His remains will be buried at Salt Lake City, as that was his own request.”

All that background was more than enough to get to know the man that uttered one of the more colorful and humorous lines in the history of the Wyoming courtroom.

Sometime in the early 1880s, while serving as district court judge as Supreme Court justices did during those days when the high court was not in session, Blair was presiding over a murder case.

It was possible it was the trial of George Cooke, whom Blair sentenced to hang for the shooting of a man on Thanksgiving Day 1883. In fact, that case was appealed to the Supreme Court (with Blair himself hearing the appeal with two other justices) for a year until the decision of the lower court was upheld and Cooke hung a year later on December 12, 1884.

Anyway, we are off-topic again.

Judge Blair was presiding over some murder case when a gunsmith was called to the witness stand to give expert testimony on the murder weapon. The man sat on the stand holding the defendant’s revolver when the judge leaned over to that side to spit a mouthful of tobacco into a spittoon on the floor. When he did, he noticed the gun was pointed right at him.

“Mr. Witness, is that gun loaded?” Blair asked.

“Why, yes, your honor, it is,” the gunsmith/witness replied.

“I’ll ask you then to kindly point it toward the lawyers. Good judges are scarce.”

The courtroom account should have become an instant classic. It was retold from memory in 1931 by pioneer lawyer AC Campbell, who never forgot it, as he gave an interview published in Annals of Wyoming in 1947.

Campbell, incidentally, was a Cheyenne lawyer instrumental in getting Wyoming statehood including Women’s Suffrage, which he was very much for.

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