Courtroom Scenes

From a large widow’s walk on the second floor of a two-story brick home in downtown Lewisburg, the county seat of Greenbrier county, an assembling crowd can be seen at the recently refurbished brick courthouse that replaced the structure burned thirty years before  during the Civil War.  Well-dressed white men are walking up the steps and entering the double doors located behind the large white columns while the African-American crowd crowded to windows that were opened to permit some cross ventilation on this hot summer day. 


James P. D. Gardner , the first black lawyer in Lewisburg, walked slowly out of the old church and was followed by several members.  They continued slowly along Randolph Street until the Court House and the crowd surrounding it came into view.   Of mixed race and taller than his companions, the son of Stephen Gardner and Fannie Perkins appeared athletic and vigorous at the age of 30. 
Gardner pauses to scan the open area leading to the court house, takes a deep breath, and continues to walk between the large white columns where crowded white men were obstructing the doorway as they attempted to enter.

GARDNER (politely)
Excuse me, please.

What do you want here? Your sort isn’t wanted in here except when arrested. 

GARDNER (politely)
I’m an officer of the court and need to be inside.
The men in the doorway sullenly step aside and allow GARDNER to enter the large court.

GARDNER POV – Row after row of pew-like seats fill the large room with a broad aisle leading forward to a large podium having a jury box off to the right side.  Two uniformed police officers were standing in the open area in front of the jury box and were looking at Gardner is if he was trespassing. 

What do you want in here, all dressed up in fancy white people clothes?
Gardner looks at the policemen as a large, bearded white man whose enormous mustache nearly concealed his mouth who was wearing a jacket and oversized glasses rose from a table at the front of the court room and walked toward Gardner. 

MAN (with anger)
Knock it off, you idiot!  Leave him be or deal with me!

MAN (smiling)
James, it’s good to see you.  Is this the first time you’ve been in the court?

GARDNER (returning the smile)
Good morning, Dr. Rucker .  It’s good to see you here.  I’ve been here before.  When I was little, I helped my father sweep and clean this place.  That’s when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.


A good choice.  I was once a physician, but after I left Lynchburg to join the Federal Army, and when I was captured, Virginia indicted me for treason and I began to study the law.  I dropped medicine and stuck with this.   Now we have been appointed to defend Trout Shue.  I know a bit about him and his family from the time I was prosecutor for both Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties.  Between us, he’s not a nice man, but we need to defend him.

I’ve heard a lot of talk.  Did he kill his first two wives?  It sure looks like he murdered this one, too. 

RUCKER (tugging thoughtfully on his beard)
He’s clever, James.  His first marriage ended in divorce while Shue was in prison for stealing a horse. This woman, Allie Estelline Cutlip, also claimed that Shue was extremely violent and beat her frequently while they were married.  Next, Shue married a woman by the name of Lucy Ann Tritt. This marriage ended after just eight months with the death of Tritt when a stack of rocks Shue was using to repair a chimney fell on her.  He’s from Droop and when I was the prosecutor for Pocahontas County I got to know his background pretty well.

GARDNER (expression of amazement)
The first I heard about Zona Shue’s death seemed to look like an accident.  She was found after falling down the stairs.  It was only her mother insisting that her daughter’s ghost visited her that has resulted in Shue’s indictment.  I never heard the like before, Dr. Rucker.

ON RUCKER – He has a deep frowning that nearly connected his bushy eyebrows with his huge mustache and beard.  Pacing into the aisle, RUCKER turns to face the younger man.

I know what you mean, James.  They buried the girl on Little Sewell at her mother’s place and that was the end of it until the mother, Mary Jane Heaster, claimed that her daughter visited her from beyond the grave.  Knowing his history, John Preston wanted to find a way to put him away – something a prosecutor shouldn’t do without direct evidence.

ON RUCKER – After pausing for 2 beats, he turns away from GARDNER as if he was embarrassed over his next statement.
After hearing this far-fetched story from Mrs. Heaster and her brother-in-law, Preston and his assistant, Henry Gilmer, went directly to Judge McWhorter and convinced him to hear the case.  The three of them, especially Preston and Gilmer, both still connected to the Rebellion and their lost cause, set the case up to be sure they convicted Shue.  He needs to be convicted.  Then they convinced McWhorter to assign me as the court-appointed defense since I was a Union officer – in spite of being from Virginia – and you were assigned to help me defend Trout because you as both young and Colored.   Their game is to make me look bad.

GARDNER (looking puzzled)
But why, Dr. Rucker?

The Republican state government appointed me to investigate some shady election results in 1888, something that cost some of their friends good positions.  And they were really burned up when President Harrison appointed me postmaster here.  They had their man all lined up for that job and made promised to the United Confederate Veteran camp here that they couldn’t keep. We’ve been feuding ever since.

ON RUCKER – his pacing back and forth continued as he explained the deep seated problem.
All this started with the Test Act of 1865, James.  This required Confederates to take an oath of allegiance to both the United States and West Virginia.  These men still claimed they were Virginians and that West Virginia was illegal.  As a result, 16,000 veterans were disenfranchised in 1866 when the act took effect.  Here in Greenbrier, enforcement was lax since there were so many Rebs and some of them even entered the legislature.

So I get this job because I’m new and inexperienced so you have no chance to win the case.


It’s worse.  Shue is guilty as original sin and I despise the man.  And we have to defend him.


Copyright © 2012 David L. Phillips

The courthouse was constructed of locally made bricks by John Dunn in 1837.

Note: Gardner was born in 1867 and can be found on the 1880 Greenbrier County census (Lewisburg District) as a mulatto male, age 13. He died in Lewisburg on August 13, 1951 at the age of 85 and the record lists him as a retired lawyer.

Rucker, Michael P., “Dr. William Parks Rucker: Patriot or Traitor”, Rucker Family Society Newsletter, Vol. 20, September 2009, pp. 27-28.  Dr. Rucker joined the Union army, served under George Crook, was commissioned a major in the 13th West Virginia Infantry, and was indicted for treason to the State of Virginia as he served on the staffs of Crook, Sigel, and Fremont until the end of the war.  Trained in medicine, he also read law and took up the legal profession.  He was appointed postmaster in Lewisburg by President Harrison.  See Prominent Men of West Virginia: Biographical Sketches, the Growth and Advancement of the State, a Compendium of Returns of Every Election, a Record of Every State Officer; George Wesley Atkinson, Alvaro Franklin Gibbens, W. L. Callin, 1890, pp. 667-668.


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