Simple Early Justice - The Practices of Judge E. T. Martin, A Vintage Vignette

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Simple Early Justice - The Practices of Judge E. T. Martin
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
November 7, 2008

In the Family Files of the Heritage Room of the Huntsville – Madison County Public Library is a compilation of information gathered by Reavis O’Neal about the pioneer Martin family of this area. Reavis was born in 1910, a great grandson of George Washington Martin, first citizen and merchant of the town of Madison. O’Neal’s account states that three members of the Martin family traveled from Halifax Court House, Virginia, in a wagon train that passed through the Carolinas. The wagon train stopped in Petersboro, Elbert County, Georgia, for almost a year due to erroneous reports of Indian trouble in this area. The Martins were headed to what became Madison County after Jesse Martin, a fairly well-known Indian scout, had first made a trip to the area and targeted it for settlement by the family.

A chart found in the papers of Martin descendant Joe Allen Brewer after his passing shows that the family in Virginia was headed by Francis (“Frank”) Ephraim Martin, a Revolutionary War veteran. The chart states that the family settled on Rainbow Mountain in 1808, when it was still part of Indian land. Further, the chart shows Frank’s children Richard, Jesse, and Henry as heads of families of this area, but Jesse moved into Mississippi after initially settling on the west side of Rainbow Mountain. Richard and his wife Lydia East Fitts settled on the east side of the mountain and had eleven children. Among those children were Elijah Thomas Martin and George Washington Martin, both being foremost among the pioneers of the town of Madison.

Fortunately, Reavis had the zeal to record some of his conversations with the older members of the Martin family during his lifetime. He described Elijah Thomas Martin (who died in 1925 per the tombstone inscription) as being six feet four inches, standing straight as an arrow, and remaining hale and hearty to his last days. Reavis called Elijah “Uncle Lige”, but Martin was known as “The Squire” by others in the town. Reavis reported that his Uncle Lige was a Justice of the Peace (called a “judge” in those days) for more than 50 years in Madison.

Reavis wrote that “In his latter years the Squire became passionately devoted to a game of cards known as Rook, and it was his habit in good weather, winter and summer, to spend the hours between four and six, when the evening train came in, playing this game with three of his cronies out in front of his store.” Reavis continued that “In his capacity as Justice of the Peace, Uncle Lige occasionally heard minor cases in Madison. Nothing delighted him more than to have young lawyers come down from Huntsville to argue these cases, which seldom involved anything more serious than an attachment of property or a misdemeanor of some sort. However, if the cases were prolonged until the time of his daily game of Rook, Uncle Lige became very restless.”

“On one such occasion two young lawyers were deeply involved in argument over a minor point of law. ‘Court’ was being held out under the trees with the Squire leaning back in his favorite chair. As various points were made, the young lawyers would produce law books marked with pieces of paper and hand them to the Squire. As the sun sank and the Squire saw his cronies assembling for his card game, he took one of these bookmarks and wrote something on it, carefully putting it back into the correct place. Then he stood up and began to saunter over toward the card table.”

“’You young fellows are making some fine arguments,’ he said, ‘and I wouldn’t interrupt you for anything in the world. So you just go on until you’re finished. Then look on this piece of paper, and you will find my decision.’” Obviously, frontier justice was simple and direct. Or, it may be that card games were just more important in the old days.

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