Wit and Humor of America, The Vol 07



A trial came off, not precisely in our bailiwick, but in the neighborhood, of great comic interest. It was really a case of a good deal of aggravation, and the defendants, fearing the result, employed four of the ablest lawyers practicing at the M. bar to defend them. The offense charged was only assault and battery; but the evidence showed a conspiracy to inflict great violence on the person of the prosecutor, who had done nothing to provoke it, and that the attempt to effect it was followed by severe injury to him. The prosecutor was an original. He had been an old-field school-master, and was as conceited and pedantic a fellow as could be found in a summer's day, even in that profession. It was thought the policy of the defense to make as light of the case as possible, and to cast as much ridicule on the affair as they could. J.E. and W.M. led the defense, and, although the talents of the former were rather adapted to grave discussion than pleasantry, he agreed to doff his heavy armor for the lighter weapons of wit and ridicule. M. was in his element. He was at all times and on all occasions at home when fun was to be raised: the difficulty with him was rather to restrain than to create mirth and laughter. The case was called and put to the jury. The witness, one Burwell Shines, was called for the prosecution. A broad grin was upon the faces of the counsel for the defense as he came forward. It was increased when the clerk said, "Burrell Shines, come to the book;" and the witness, with deliberate emphasis, remarked, "My Christian name is not Burrell, but Burwell, though I am vulgarly denominated by the former epithet." "Well," said the clerk, "Bur-well Shines, come to the book, and be sworn." He was sworn, and directed to take the stand. He was a picture!

He was dressed with care. His toilet was elaborate and befitting the magnitude and dignity of the occasion, the part he was to fill, and the high presence into which he had come. He was evidently favorably impressed with his own personal pulchritude; yet with an air of modest deprecation, as if he said by his manner, "After all, what is beauty, that man should be proud of it; and what are fine clothes, that the wearers should put themselves above the unfortunate mortals who have them not?"

He advanced with deliberate gravity to the stand. There he stood, his large bell-crowned hat, with nankeen-colored nap an inch long, in his hand; which hat he carefully handed over the bar to the clerk to hold until he should get through his testimony. He wore a blue single-breasted coat with new brass buttons, a vest of bluish calico, nankeen pants that struggled to make both ends meet, but failed, by a few inches, in the legs, yet made up for it by fitting a little better than the skin everywhere else. His head stood upon a shirt collar that held it up by the ears, and a cravat, something smaller than a table-cloth, bandaged his throat; his face was narrow, long, and grave, with an indescribable air of ponderous wisdom, which, as Fox said of Thurlow, "proved him necessarily a hypocrite; as it was impossible for any man to be as wise as he looked." Gravity and decorum marked every lineament of his countenance and every line of his body. All the wit of Hudibras could not have moved a muscle of his face. His conscience would have smitten him for a laugh almost as soon as for an oath. His hair was roached up, and stood as erect and upright as his body; and his voice was slow, deep, in "linked sweetness long drawn out," and modulated according to the camp-meeting standard of elocution. Three such men at a country frolic would have turned an old Virginia reel into a dead march. He was one of Carlyle's earnest men. Cromwell would have made him ensign of the Ironsides, and ex-officio chaplain at first sight. He took out his pocket-handkerchief, slowly unfolded it from the shape in which it came from the washerwoman's, and awaited the interrogation. As he waited, he spat on the floor, and nicely wiped it out with his foot. The solicitor told him to tell about the difficulty in hand. He gazed around on the court, then on the bar, then on the jury, then on the crowd, addressing each respectively as he turned: "May it please your honor, gentlemen of the bar, gentlemen of the jury, audience: Before proceeding to give my testimonial observations, I must premise that I am a member of the Methodist Episcopal, otherwise called Wesleyan, persuasion of Christian individuals. One bright Sabbath morning in May, the 15th day of the month, the past year, while the birds were singing their matutinal songs from the trees, I sallied forth from the dormitory of my seminary to enjoy the reflections so well suited to that auspicious occasion. I had not proceeded far before my ears were accosted with certain Bacchanalian sounds of revelry, which proceeded from one of those haunts of vicious depravity located at the cross-roads, near the place of my boyhood, and fashionably denominated a doggery. No sooner had I passed beyond the precincts of this diabolical rendezvous of rioting debauchees, than I heard behind me the sounds of approaching footsteps, as if in pursuit. Having heard previously sundry menaces, which had been made by these preposterous and incarnadine individuals of hell, now on trial in prospect of condign punishment, fulminated against the longer continuance of my corporeal salubrity, for no better reason than that I reprobated their criminal orgies, and not wishing my reflections to be disturbed, I hurried my steps with a gradual accelerated motion. Hearing, however, their continued advance, and the repeated shoutings, articulating the murderous accents, 'Kill him! Kill Shadbelly, with his praying clothes on!' (which was a profane designation of myself and my religious profession), and casting my head over my left shoulder in a manner somehow reluctantly, thus, (throwing his head to one side), and perceiving their near approximation, I augmented my speed into what might be denominated a gentle slope, and subsequently augmented the same into a species of dog-trot. But all would not do. Gentlemen, the destroyer came. As I reached the fence, and was about propelling my body over the same, felicitating myself on my prospect of escape from my remorseless pursuers, they arrived, and James William Jones, called by nickname, Buck Jones, that red-headed character now at the bar of this honorable court, seized a fence rail, grasped it in both hands, and, standing on tip-toe, hurled the same, with mighty emphasis, against my cerebellum, which blow felled me to the earth. Straightway, like ignoble curs upon a disabled lion, these bandit ruffians and incarnadine assassins leaped upon me, some pelting, some bruising, some gouging,—'everything by turns, and nothing long,' as the poet hath it; and one of them,—which one unknown to me, having no eyes behind,—inflicted with his teeth a grievous wound upon my person; where, I need not specify. At length, when thus prostrate on the ground, one of those bright ideas, common to minds of men of genius, struck me. I forthwith sprang to my feet, drew forth my cutto, circulated the same with much vivacity among their several and respective corporeal systems, and every time I circulated the same I felt their iron grasp relax. As cowardly recreants, even to their own guilty friendships, two of these miscreants, though but slightly perforated by my cutto, fled, leaving the other two, whom I had disabled by the vigor and energy of my incisions, prostrate and in my power. These lustily called for quarter, shouting out 'Enough!' or, in their barbarous dialect, being as corrupt in language as in morals, 'Nuff!' which quarter I magnanimously extended them, as unworthy of my farther vengeance, and fit only as subject of penal infliction at the hands of the offended laws of their country, to which laws I do now consign them, hoping such mercy for them as their crimes will permit; which, in my judgment (having read the code) is not much. This is my statement on oath, fully and truly, nothing extenuating and naught setting down in malice; and if I have omitted anything, in form or substance, I stand ready to supply the omission; and if I have stated anything amiss, I will cheerfully correct the same, limiting the averment, with appropriate modifications, provisions, and restrictions. The learned counsel may now proceed more particularly to interrogate me of and respecting the premises."

After this oration, Burwell wiped the perspiration from his brow, and the counsel for the state took him. Few questions were asked him, however, by that official, he confining himself to a recapitulation in simple terms, of what the witness had declared, and procuring Burwell's assent to his translation. Long and searching was the cross-examination by the defendant's counsel; but it elicited nothing favorable to the defense, and nothing shaking, but much to confirm, Burwell's statement.

After some other evidence, the examination closed, and the argument to the jury commenced. The solicitor very briefly adverted to the leading facts, deprecated any attempt to turn the case into ridicule, admitted that the witness was a man of eccentricity and pedantry, but harmless and inoffensive; a man, evidently, of conscientiousness and respectability; that he had shown himself to be a peaceable man, but when occasion demanded, a brave man; that there was a conspiracy to assassinate him upon no cause except an independence, which was honorable to him, and an attempt to execute the purpose, in pursuance of previous threats, and severe injury by several confederates on a single person, and this on the Sabbath, and when he was seeking to avoid them.

W.M. rose to reply. All Screamersville turned out to hear him. William was a great favorite,—the most popular speaker in the country,—had the versatility of a mocking-bird, an aptitude for burlesque that would have given him celebrity as a dramatist, and a power of acting that would have made his fortune on the boards of a theater. A rich treat was expected, but it didn't come. The witness had taken all the wind out of William's sails. He had rendered burlesque impossible. The thing as acted was more ludicrous than it could be as described. The crowd had laughed themselves hoarse already; and even M.'s comic powers seemed, and were felt by himself, to be humble imitations of a greater master. For once in his life M. dragged his subject heavily along. The matter began to grow serious,—fun failed to come when M. called it up. M. closed between a lame argument, a timid deprecation, and some only tolerable humor. He was followed by E., in a discursive, argumentative, sarcastic, drag-net sort of speech, which did all that could be done for the defense. The solicitor briefly closed, seriously and confidently confining himself to a repetition of the matters first insisted, and answering some of the points of the counsel.

It was an ominous fact that a juror, before the jury retired, under leave of the court, recalled a witness for the purpose of putting a question to him: the question was how much the defendants were worth; the answer was, about two thousand dollars.

The jury shortly after returned into the court with a verdict which "sized their pile."

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