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Then and Now... Oktibbeha Courts and Lawyers

October 1, 2010

The first sheriff of the county was Robert A. Lampkin, who it is said, carried all of court papers in his hat without experiencing any inconvenience. Charles Debrell was the first clerk of the court and M. A. Reese was probate judge. Judicial proceeding of the circuit court was held under a large hickory tree about four miles north of town at Hebron. The late Gen. Reuben Davis, a famous lawyer, statesman and author, was the district attorney at that time.
Judge T. B. Carroll in 1916 wrote a newspaper column entitled “Oktibbeha Courts and Lawyers A Generation Ago.” He wrote, “Looking back through the many years it seems strange that the county could have supported so many lawyers.” Starkville then had a little less than 1,000 population. The county as a whole was not quite so populous as at present. The people were far poorer financially than they are at present. We had only one bank in the county and its average deposits were about $30,000-35,000 while now we have five and several of these have each many times as great deposits as our original banks. Today, Starkville has a population of 21,869 and sixty-eight members of the Oktibbeha County Bar. Joan Lucas, President of the Oktibbeha County Bar estimates. that about 55 or so are actually practicing law with the youngest being 25 and the oldest being somewhere in their 80s.
But some way there was a great deal of litigation in the courts, Justice of the Peace courts, especially in Beats, 3, 4, and 5, often lasted for 2 or 3 days at a time and were held several times a month. James M. Arnold, afterwards Supreme Judge presided as our Circuit Judge. Wiley Nash was District Attorney and W. A. Hale, W. E. Saunders and Capt. M. C. Powers were respectively Circuit Clerk, Chancery Clerk and Sheriff.
James T. Harrison, Beverly Matthews, S. M. Meek and Judge Orr, famous lawyers of that day usually attended every term of our court. The first week of the term was always devoted to civil business and the balance of the term to criminal cases. Lex Brame then only 31 years old was our Chancellor.
Our Petit juries generally consisted of seven whites and five African Americans. There were generally from one to two African Americans from each of the three eastern beats on the grand jury. Our Circuit Court district was then the same as it is now except that Winston County was included instead of Kemper.
In attending courts in Winston County especially the January term, the Judge and District Attorney and the members of the bar who usually accompanied them frequently had difficulty in reaching the county seat. The approved method of travel was to come to Starkville over the branch railroad and then go to Louisville by horseback. Noxubee River was generally high and the roads bad at that season and the trip was a hard one.
Large crowds in that day attended courts and took great interest in cases. Such a thing as a court limiting a lawyer as to the time he should consume in his speech was unheard of. A great deal more importance was attached to the speeches of lawyers than at the present day and it seems to be that old time oratory won more cases than our modern brand of eloquence runs now.
The earliest lawyers who settled in Oktibbeha County were David Ames, Richard T. Graves, G. H. Flournoy, and E. E. Clark and by 1838 L. C. Flournoy was here. A. W. Hines (1839), Charles F. Miller (1842), Stephen E. Nash (1877), C. J. Sullivan (1851), S. B. Hollinshead (1851), Joel Owens (before 1850), Maj. Livingston Mims (before 1950), Hampton H. Gay (before 1850), T. C. Booker (late 1850s), C. A. Sullivan (1857) and H. L. Muldrow (1857), Mr. Buckner (1865), Frank Pate (1857), and James P. Curry (1865).
Shortly before I came to the Starkville bar it numbered more than 17. There was Mr. Miller, the father of our townsman, W. H. Miller. He died in the late 1870s and for many years he had been considered the Nester of the local bar. There was Mr. Terry who about the same time forsook the law for the pulpit. Then several others left Starkville for other fields.
Thirty-seven years ago when I was admitted to the Starkvile bar, I made the 17th member of the profession at this place, Starkville. None of the lawyers were old men and most of them were young and energetic. Their ages ranged from 19 to 48. C. H. Alexander-22, R. W. Blair-34, N. B. Bridges-41, M. R. Butler-33; N. W. Carothers- 29, James T. Chiles-48, George E. Critz-41; John J. Dennis-44; Henry L. Muldrow-42, Wiley N. Nash-34, William Rogers-30, Charles A. Sullivan- 45, Charles W. Townsend-28, Frank Townsend-25, J. Marcellus Wood-36, Thomas J. Wood-30, and Thomas B. Carroll-19.
Two homes next to each other on Jackson Street across from Overstreet School are the most photographed homes in historical literature of Starkville. They were the homes of two of the leading attorneys, Thomas Battle Carroll (1960-1923) and W. W. Magruder (1867-1937) in East Mississippi.
Thomas Battle Carroll was born in Oktibbeha County and graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School at the age of 19. He returned home to practice law alone for a few years and later formed a partnership with M. R. Butler under the name Butler & Carroll 1982-1891. The firm became noted for high character, ability and thoroughness and then devotion to their clients led to a large and successful practice. In 1886 he was elected to the Legislature where he served for two terms. After the death of Butler, Carroll became a partner in the law with W. W. Magruder under the name of Carroll & Magruder. Carroll was conducting court when the stroke of apoplexy that caused his death overcame him. W. W. Magruder to the Oktibbeha County Bar wrote:”I have never heard him use a profane or vulgar word, nor tell a story of questionable propriety…on and off the bench he was a man of sense, business judgment, wisdom. It is my deliberate belief that he was the greatest jurist of his day in this State.”
During the last ten years of his life he gathered data from records and from old citizens of the county to write a comprehensive story extending from the first settlement of Oktibbeha by the white men through the achievements of their descendants in the first quarter of the twentieth century. A. B. Butts, A. W. Garner and F. D. Mellen took Carroll’s notes and prepared Historical Sketches of Oktibbeha County Mississippi, which was published in 1931. This book is available for purchase at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum.
W. W. Magruder was born in Madison County and later moved to Starkville and entered Mississippi A&M where he was graduated in 1887. After graduation, he worked as a bookkeeper for Blumenfeld and Fried. Magruder then had higher aspirations. He entered the law University at Oxford, Mississippi in 1895 and soon graduated with distinction.
He returned home and engaged in active practice. He at once developed into a lawyer of marked ability and succeeded in building up a lucrative practice without experiencing the vicissitudes of the average young lawyer who generally struggles for years before he can establish himself into a good paying practice. After a year or so he formed a partnership with Thomas B. Carroll and the firm of Carroll and Magruder, which was considered one of the strongest and best legal firms in the State. Magruder was hardly 30 years of age.

Mr. Wilmot Thomson Remembers...

After my graduation from State in 1942 in petroleum geology I served in the Navy during WWII, and afterwards earned a law degree from the University of Virginia . Upon taking the Mississippi Bar Examination in June of 1948, I was admitted to the Bar and began law practice with Hon. John Holloman in Columbus . I was living in Starkville , and decided it would be much better if I also worked in Starkville . I met with Hon, Buz M. Walker, Jr., who allowed me to come practice with him. Mr. Walker was an excellent lawyer who had been a law partner of Judge W. W. Magruder, their firm having been Magruder, Walker and Magruder. After Hon. Augustin Magruder left the firm for the teaching profession, and after the death of Judge Magruder, Mr. Walker was a solo practitioner. We soon formed a partnership of Walker and Thomson, which became the “present day” successor to the original firms of Butler and Carroll, Carroll and Magruder, etc. Among the books in Mr. Walker’s library were books that bore the name of Thomas J. Wood, who apparently was also a member of the earlier firms.
I was extremely fortunate in being associated with Mr. Walker as he had been a member of the local bar since his graduation from Harvard Law School in or about 1917. I had enjoyed many stories of lawyers and courts in Starkville and Oktibbeha County in the past. One such story recounted the incident of a trial in which Hon. W. W. Magruder represented the defendant in a criminal case, conviction requiring a unanimous vote of all twelve jurors, and when the judge in the matter was informed there were eleven votes for conviction and one against, the foreman of the jury informed the court there was no way a unanimous decision could be reached because the one dissenting juror had announced there was no way he would “vote against Judge Magruder”. Starkville was well represented in the Sixteenth Circuit Court and Fourteenth Chancery Court Districts, several members having served as judges, for example, Judges Carroll and Magruder having served in Circuit Court, and in more modern times, Hon. John Greene, Hon. John M.“Mickey” Montgomery and Hon. Lee Howard having served as Circuit Court judges, the latter being currently serving as such. Mr.Walker served also as Chancery Court Judge. Mr. Walker died in 1973, and I continued in solo practice thereafter until my retirement in 2003.
In addition to Circuit and Chancery Courts, the county also had five Justice of the Peace Courts, having one for each supervisor district, but that system was supplanted by only three Justice Court Judges being elected from the county, and, of course, there was the Starkville Municipal Court, which was presided over by the Mayor until in recent years the city provided for a judge to be appointed by the City of Starkville administration. I was mayor during the times that the mayor had that honor of serving as the judge of the municipal court, which was quite a revelation, in that the mayor might be awakened at night many times in order to take care of some law enforcement problem. Often I was awakened by people wanting to obtain a warrant for the arrest of someone causing them great grief. Once a lady in distress wanted her husband arrested and incarcerated in jail to keep him from beating her with chains, and proceeded to disrobe to show me the results, whereupon I immediately called for my wife to wake up and come witness the proceeding in case I was unable to stop her stripping.
Times have certainly changed since the time the telephone for calls to the police department was located on a utility pole at the south side of the intersection of Main and Lafayette Streets. There has been a great improvement in jail conditions since the jail for city felons and other law-breakers was located in the basement of the current City Hall while a new county jail was being built. The practice of law has certainly undergone great changes from the days of “all day trials” in Justice of the Peace Courts to the days of the computer when all the knowledge of the ages is found on a micro-chip contained in a computer. Judge Brand once pointed out the books on the wall of one side of his office were now contained in one little disc. Not all the changes were for the better, though, in the eyes of some of us, even though we don’t yearn to go too far back into the “good old days.”

Mayor Parker Wiseman Remembers...

I suppose I was like most young lawyers. The first year of practice for any lawyer is a time of great uncertainty. Law school teaches plenty about the foundations of bodies of law but little about how to practice law. Hence, there’s a lot of on the job learning for new lawyers. I made my fair share of trips to the courthouse knowing what I was looking for or what I was trying to file but having no idea how to accomplish the task. Thankfully, the office of the circuit clerk and the office of the chancery clerk have dealt with many a new lawyer over the years. The staffs are patient and helpful. They ended up teaching me as much about how to practice law as anybody else. That’s probably a common experience for new lawyers. It was special having that experience in my hometown because many of the people helping me along were people I had known and admired growing up. I’ll never forget those early days.

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