Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
April 19, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 190: Vigilantes, But No County Jail!

Samuel Trowbridge Williams Joseph Judge Richard Johnson
Intellect, integrity, true civil servant, 
Sheriff  Samuel Trowbridge
Ideal of frontier life and justice,
Judge Joseph Williams
Political celebrity, namesake to county,
 Richard Mentor Johnson

By Bob Hibbs


Political correctness is not a product of the late 20th century, as many might assume, but was already alive and well as Iowa City was founded in 1839.


Case in point: it was incorrect to refer to men who helped maintain law and order on the frontier as vigilantes. That was a nasty, offensive and vulgar word used to denote disgust with participation in an offending action. One would sort of spit the words out like alcoholic, vagrant or no-good.


Rather, these men were members of the “vigilance committee,” particularly if one was speaking about a husband or father. Important, law-abiding, church-going enforcers of the law during a time when one relied on ones own ingenuity for survive.


With no county jail, with Sheriff Samuel Trowbridge as a neighboring farmer with a rifle, and with no other law enforcement officer within a day’s ride on horseback (30 miles), such committee work occasionally was considered essential. It almost always proved effective, if sometimes harsh, particularly for stealing money, livestock or land in an age of hard-won livelihoods.


In one local case a prisoner denying guilt was seized from officers, then whipped and chokedinto confession. In another, a man unpopular for being a hired intimidator escaped captors, and with his hands still tied behind his back jumped into the nearby Iowa River and drowned.


In a third, a pair thought to have passed counterfeit bills were tracked down, tried by an impromptu court and sentenced to a flogging. The vigilance committee judgment was meted out on the spot – by vigilance committeemen.


On May 13, 1839, the first district court met in Johnson County in John Gilbert’s trading post located near the Iowa River off  what is now the Sand Road extension of South Gilbert Street about a mile beyond the current southern boundary of Iowa City.  Others have written that the “first court” location was in a frame courthouse in the designated county seat town of Napoleon a half-mile farther north, but this writer would cite conflicting sources.


The judge was Joseph Williams, a lawyer from Pennsylvania and one of the three original district judges named by the new Territory of Iowa. Together, the three also formed the territory’s supreme court. 


Trowbridge presented defendant Andrew Gregg who was charged with horse stealing, then a serious offense. With eye witnesses, he was convicted; but, without a jail, settlers took turns guarding him. He was kept tied up with armed guard.


Eventually, Trowbridge devised an effective handcuff – a stout hickory stick with smooth slots in its ends about 40 inches apart, into which Gregg’s hands were laid and bound with deerskin thongs. Gregg could not reach his teeth; nor, since the thongs were sunk in notches cut in the stick, could not chafe them off against a stone or tree, reports a Johnson County history published by the Iowa Writers Project of the depression-era Works Progress Administration.


This WPA volume was typed and dated 1941, but apparently never was printed. It was located by this writer in the Library of Congress during a July 2001 visit to Washington D.C.


Judge Williams was reportedly a fair fiddler and enjoyed playing with his back to the dance area in the bar at the Gilbert trading post while others danced, not unlike the partial adage stating: “see no evil.” He became chagrinned on learning Gregg had been one of the dancers, who presumably were all men.


He was chided for being the judge who played while the prisoner danced!


On occasion, Sheriff Trowbridge would leave a handcuffed and shackled Gregg in the shade of a nearby tree while he did field work on his farm. The prisoner eventually escaped, although not while Trowbridge had charge of him.  Apparently it was a case of good riddance since he had cost the county $123.53, a princely sum during a time when a prime residential lot in Iowa City sold for less. He was not recaptured.


Just another way to reduce jail costs.


Next Saturday: Drunken pigs and grazing on Pentacrest.


Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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