Mills County, Iowa

1881 Mills County History


      The first district court held in the county was by Judge James Sloan,* elected April 7, 1821. The court convened in October of that year at Coonville, (now Glenwood). There was then no court house in which to transact the legal business of the county so recourse was had to private dwellings or even to stores. For some unknown reason—perhaps the religious faith of Judge Sloan, who was a Mormon—a great hostility had been originated toward him, and when he came to convene court it was declared he should not proceed. The store house in which court had usually been held being denied his honor, Mr. J. W. Coolidge offered his store to the judge and the attorneys, which offer was accepted and the court was duly convened. When the judge and the court attaches reached the point of opening the session, threats, both loud and numerous, were made, and declarations were rife that he should not open court. He calmly but firmly insisted, and ordered the sheriff, James Hardy, to proclaim the court in session, which that official at once proceeded to do. Immediately thereafter Judge Sloan adjourned the court, and thus ended the first session.*

      There are no records but one of the district court in existence from the time of the first holding until the October term, 1853. The single document, or record, alluded to has reference to the first case of divorce in the county, and is the following:

STATE 0F IOWA } ss.—In the District Court.

vs. ss.—Bill for Divorce.

To the honorable District Court of Mills County:

      Your Petitioner Samuel Martin by his Solicitor A. C. Ford humbly represents that on the twenty ninth day of March A. D. 1837 in the State of Illinois in the County of Sangamon your Petitioner inter-married with one Mary Bragg whome your Petisioner pray may be made a party Defendant to this his bill of complaint and that your petisioner with the Defendant subsequently Moved to this State and while your Petisioner lived with the defendant as man and wife that they had born unto them three children (to witt) Susan Ann Martin, William J. Martin, and John A. Martin and that on the tenth day of September last past the defendant willfully and without cause or provocation deserted your petisioner and also that the said defendant did at several times while living with your Petisioner commit the crime of adultery and your Petisioner also represents that he was also and is and has been for the last six months a resident of this state and that this application is not made through fear or restraint or out of any levity but in sincerity and truth and for the causes set forth in this his bill of Complaint your Petisioner humbly asks the court in view of the premises herein specified that the said marriage may be dissolved and a Decree of Divorce adjudged and that the guardianship of said Susan Ann Martin, William J. Martin and John A. Martin may be adjudged and Decreed to your petisioner states that the fore- going complaint is true and pray the judgment of this court and that the said Marriage be desolved and a Divorce Decreed in accordance with the Code in such cases made and provided.


Sworn to and subscribed before me this 31st day of October A. D. 1851.

W.W. NOYES, Clerk.

      The suit was continued, and finally adjusted by the granting of the decree to the petitioner in the October term, 1853. In that year occurs the first entry in the court minute book or record, the petition just quoted having been obtained from the “valuable box in the cellar. ”District Court, Mills county, October term, 1853.

      At an adjourned term of the district court of said county begun and held at Glenwood, on the 17th day of October, A, D. 1853, pursuant to notice given in accordance with the code of Iowa, there were present. Hon. Samuel H. Riddle, judge; Wm. Snuffin, clerk; George Hepner, prosecuting attorney, and John Haynie, sheriff, when the following proceedings were had and done, viz

      On motion of A. C. Ford it is ordered that D. W. Price be and is hereby enrolled as an attorney and counselor in this court.

      On motion of H. P. Bennett, Mr. Geo. Hepner was appointed prosecuting attorney, protem. The court was then adjourned until half past one o’clock p. m.

      Court was opened again pursuant to adjournment and the sheriff ordered to summons fifteen grand jurors. The case of State of Iowa against Wheatley Mickelwait, was called, and adjourned till tomorrow.

      The sheriff returned into court with the following grand jurors, viz: John B. Wilson, Philip Miller, Jesse A. Painter, H. P. Allison, Wm. Davis, C. W. Tolles, jr., J.W. Coolidge, Thompson Blair, Wm. Jessup, Edward Gilliland, W. W. Greene, Stephen Miles, James L. Shields, A. McAlpine and James L. Burger, of which Joseph W. Coolidge was appointed foreman of the court, who, together with his fellows, being duly sworn and empanneled, having received their charge from the court retired to consider the presentments and indictments.

      James B. McCabe and Henry hull being summoned on the grand jury, did not appear, and by order of the court an attachment was issued for said persons to the sheriff. Said sheriff returned into court with said defendants. The said James B. McCabe and Henry Hull being duly sworn and questioned by the court, the court acquitted James B. McCabe, by paying costs, and Henry hull was fined one dollar and costs.

      The court then ordered an adjournment until 9 o’clock to-morrow morning. SAMUEL H. RIDDLE, Judge Seventh Judicial District of Iowa.

      The first case of this session of the district court was a case of replevin, and was that of Simpson Snow vs. Monroe Holloway, which was continued. The first indictment returned was for assault and battery, the case being that of State of Iowa vs. Wheatley Mickelwait, which was dismissed on motion of counsel for defendant. The same personage again figures as one against whom the second indictment recorded appears. He was indicted for selling intoxicating liquor. When the case came on for a hearing the defense “moved to set aside,” which was not sustained. A demurrer was then filed, but the demurrer was overruled. Leave was given the defense until the following morning, when he was to plead. This was the first case on the morning of Wednesday, October 19, the defense filing a plea of not guilty, whereupon tile court ordered the empanelling of a jury to try the same. After the trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and fined the defendant ten dollars. In addition to this indictment the grand jury returned one against Lewis Johnson, for manslaughter; against John Johnson, for an assault with intent to commit great bodily injury; against W. Ellington, for betting; against J. D. Rogers and P. A. Hooper, for an assault with intent to commit great bodily injury; and one against Samuel Judy, Thomas Woods, John Johnson, J.D. Rogers, Seth Johnson and Geo. Kirkmnan, for arson. The parties to the last named offense all obtained a change of venue to Pottawattamie county, where the case was tried, with what result it has not been possible to learn. William Ellington had to pay two dollars and fifty cents for the privilege of betting, the jury having returned a verdict of guilty when the cause came on for a hearing.

      Judge Samuel J. Riddle presided at this term of the court, he having been appointed successor to Judge James Sloan, who had resigned. There are various reasons assigned as to why the honorable gentleman presented his resignation.

      It is said that it was brought about by interested parties who were striving to foist themselves into public notice. One of the attorneys before the bar of Fremont, A. C. Ford, was to receive the resignation of Judge Sloan, secure the backing of his Whig friends, and Sloan was to present the claims of Ford to Governor Hempstead, at Dubuque, where he then resided. Sloan had in some way become related, in business matters, to a certain Orson Hyde, who was editing a paper known as the Fremont Guardian. In consideration of any service that Hyde might render him Ford was to purchase the press of Hyde,* and in connection with Dawson should use it as a campaign organ in support of Ford as a candidate fort he district judgeship at the next election. Only one thing was lacking in the chain of events as just stated—the friends on whom Ford relied for recommendations signally failed him. It appears that he had been a fugitive from justice from the state of California, and the fact was quite generally known among the citizens of the county. Indeed, the opposition took a stronger aspect than mere refusal to recommend his appointment—a meeting was called in Sidney, in Fremont county, in February, 1852,at which were passed a series of resolutions denouncing Hyde, and not at all complimentary to Ford. Copies of the resolutions were sent to papers in the eastern portion of the state, in western Missouri, and to Governor Hempstead. Accompanying them was sent a recommendation to the governor to appoint Allen A. Bradford as the successor of Judge Sloan. This petition was heard and granted. Bradford received the appointment and entered upon the duties of his office. Before the expiration of his first term his official acts met with such general approval and his integrity of character was so well known that there was scarcely any opposition in electing him for the next term. But the matter did not end here. “Hyde employed Ford and A. W. Babbitt to institute a suit for libel against the ten citizens who reported these resolutions to the meeting. Ford brought the papers for the suit down to Fremont from Mr. Hyde, and filed them with the clerk, and had the sheriff to serve the parties' defendant with notice of the suit. * * But when the court was held in the spring of 1852, by Judge Bradford, a demurrer was filed to the statements in the petition, alleging that to charge a man with selling his printing press, and using his influence to have a man elected to an office, was not defamatory nor libelous, as the fact imputed was not a crime. The demurrer was sustained, the suit was ended, and everything went along smoothly after that.”—Lingenfelter.

      Judge Bradford was a worthy man, and merited the confidence reposed in him by the legal fraternity and court officials generally. He was a native of Maine and retained very many of the peculiarities of his native state. In court he was stately and dignified, permitted no gross violations of court decorum, was prompt in his decisions, and taken altogether was a worthy occupant of the bench of the district judgeship.

      “Judge Bradford had some peculiarities—some eccentricities. His dress, though it might be made of the costliest broadcloth, hardly ever fit his person; his coat, pants and vest were nearly all the time either too large, too small, too long, or too short, and sometimes one garment might be too large or too short, when at the same time as to the fit of the others it was vice versa. He hardly ever combed his hair, and would frequently let his beard go two or three weeks without shaving; and it frequently happened that when he had about half shaven himself he would suddenly stop, pick up a newspaper and read it, and then neglect to complete his toilet. And, when thus half shaven, one foot slip-shod, and otherwise slatternly attired, he would go to church, to court, or around amongst his friends. But with all his eccentricites he had many warm friends, for he was ever a true friend to the virtuous, the industrious, and the necessitous; no poor man ever went from his house hungry.”—Lingenfelter.

      Judge Bradford did not complete the term for which he was elected. In some difficulty with a man near Nebraska City he received a severe wound on the head by a club in the hands of the same, which necessitated his resignation of the judgeship. The difficulty seems to have been occasioned by the boundary line of the respective claims of Judge Bradford and his assailant. It was during the judicial career of Judge Bradford that the first rules adopted by any district court in Mills county were spread upon the proceedings and made a part of its record. They comprise eleven distinct specifications, and cover nearly all the ordinary business of a session of court. With the November term of 1854 the connection of Judge Bradford with the judicial history of the county ceases.

      The successor to Judge Bradford was the Honorable E. H. Sears, whose first court in this district was opened the 19th day of February, 1855. There seems to have been a change in the policy of political parties since that date. Judge Sears, as had been his predecessor, was at that time a democrat, but the application for his appointment was made by lawyers and others who were whigs. The petition was presented to Governor Grimes, also a whig, and the appointment was made on the basis of ability and moral worth. Judge Sears, in all his judicial career proved the correctness of the theory “the best men in the highest places.” His first term occurred at a time well calculated to test his judicial powers and his legal ability. New laws—for the most part obnoxious in themselves to many—had been enacted, and the first causes in the county under these enactments were tried before him. They were causes relating to the sale of intoxicating liquors, and others pertaining to the swamp lands, both, in their very natures, requiring the greatest judicial care and more than ordinary legal ability in the court before which they were tried. There was added another fact requiring good powers of discrimination,—that of the nature of the bar of the county, at that time composed of the strongest legal talent in western Iowa. Judge Sears gave such general satisfaction and proved so admirably his fitness for the judgeship that to his election the second time was presented no obstacle; and it was accordingly done. He was a careful man and a wise judge—taking the greatest pains to insure justice to all parties to a suit—civil or criminal. This carefulness is evidenced by the following extract from an address to the grand jury, delivered in 1859, showing the measures he adopted to insure no errors on the part of the jurors.


      “Gentlemen :—Before entering upon the important duties which you are called upon to discharge, it may be well for you to make and answer the following inquiries: What are the uses of a grand jury? Why was it instituted? And did the people demand it?

      “The people of England. our ancestors, did demand it, and thought they had made a great advance in personal security and individual liberty when they had obtained it from the reluctant and unwilling hands of despotism. Prior to its institution the courts were looked upon by the mass of the people as engines of cruelty. injustice and oppression, and not as the protectors of innocence and the punishers of crime. Who does not remember the history of the bloody assizes and the judicial act of a Jeffreys? And it was to prevent fraud, oppression, favoritism, bribery, and all manner of corruption in the administration of criminal jurisprudence, that the grand jury was instituted. And how can you assist by your action as grand jurors, in the accomplishment of this great object? It can only be accomplished by laying aside every personal or partly consideration; by rising above hatred or affection, and by knowing no person, friend or foe in the discharge of your duties. To vindicate the law and mete out simple-handed justice, should be your only motive. No one can be arraigned before this court for a crime but on your presentment. You are responsible to your country and to your God for the wrongful arraignment of the innocent, and for the non-arraignment of the guilty.

      “Courts and juries should never permit mere technicalities, evasions or subterfuges to prevent the truth or thwart the administration of justice. The temple of justice is no place for evasion and falsehood. And this remark applies alike to the bar, the jury and the court. The court, imbued with the spirit of equity, should hold with even hand the scales of justice. The jury, rising above every personal consideration and disregarding every subterfuge and evasion, should find the simple truth. And the member of the bar who feels the responsibility and real dignity of his position, will have a stronger regard for the faithful administration of the law than successful evasion; and more pleasure in the triumph of truth and right than in falsehood and injustice. He will feel that his duty to himself as a man, to his country as a citizen, to his God and his own conscience, as a responsible being, are infinitely higher in their nature than the duty he owes his client. And when all of us feel our responsibility and act up to the high duties which it imposes, may we not hope that our courts (if it be true that they have lost it) will regain the public respect, and enjoy the public confidence; and that men will not feel called upon on account of any imagined inefficiency or uncertainty of the courts, to take what they deem justice into their own hands, and administer it summarily and in violation of all law. But are our courts wholly to blame for this loss of confidence and growing disrespect for their decisions? Has not the citizen a sacred duty to perform in relation to the courts and in maintaining their character and authority? A decision of a court having authority to make the same, is as much the law of the land as a statute can be; and until the same is reversed in a legal way and constitutional manner, should be respected and obeyed. He who creates a disrespect for the courts of our country is doing an irreparable injury, by shaking the confidence of the people in the faithful administration of justice. While the courts themselves should not only be pure, but should be above suspicion, and should avoid the least shadow of party or personal bias. They should also be respected and sustained by that confidence which alone can enable them to successfully perform the important function for which they were instituted, to mete out simple handed justice between man and man protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

      But your special attention is called to your duty in regard to all country officers. Gentlemen, let your inquiry into your county affairs and the manner in which your officers have transacted their duties, be strict, thorough and uncompromising; hold them to a strict account of their stewardship and this court will give you all the assistance in its power to enable you faithfully to perform this, as well as every other part of your duty. Pursue these investigations, gentlemen, with diligence, not urged thereto by a spirit of persecution or party prejudice, or personal ill-will, and not deterred therefrom by favor, fear or personal friendship. Give to all complaints against your public agents a patient hearing; and let all come here with these complaints, if any they have, or hereafter hold their peace.

      “And now, gentlemen, remember that the position you occupy is one of vast importance to your county, and to the entire state. Interests as dear as life, as personal liberty, and as the rights of property, depend upon your action. It is for you to say whether the law shall be maintained and enforced and its violator receive the reward he merits, whether human life and the person of the citizen shall be safe under its protecting care, whether the rights of property shall be inviolate and the sovereignty of the law maintained and order secured within your county, or whether the law shall be trampled upon with impunity, every principle of justice and good order outraged, and the violator with unblushing front and in open defiance of all law, go unwhipped of justice. And, gentlemen, is the oath you have just taken a mere form, a judicial farce, a solemn mockery before high heaven, or is it binding upon your conscience, imposing the highest obligation under which the human being can act in the discharge of important duties, to himself, to his country and to his God? Acting then in view of these high and solemn responsibilities enforced by an oath administered by the authority of law, in the temple of justice, to the searcher of all hearts, I cannot doubt but that you will so act as to redeem this, your solemn pledge, maintain the dignity of the law, secure its supremacy and give a sense of security to the citizen in all his rights of person and of property within your county."

      Judge Sears always appeared to be dignified and equal to any emergency that might arise. He felt that the suffrage of his constituency called him to execute justice upon the guilty and to protect the rights of liberty of others. The following incident may serve to illustrate this feature of his character, and the fidelity he exercised as a judge.

      I recollect, says Hon. L. Lingenfelter, “of a very exciting time in his court in this Fremont county in 1859. In 1857 the new constitution of Iowa provided that a negro might testify the same as any other person in all courts of judicature, federal or state. Under its provisions and the statute made there under it happened, at the September term of the district court for 1859, there were three blacks, to—wit: Green Garner, Henry Garner and Thomas Reid, subpoenaed, and were in attendance to testify in a certain case against some parties who were wealthy, respectable and influential. When the case came on for trial the court-house was crowded with men full of excitement, who were intent upon an interruption should these witnesses be put upon the stand. Threats were audibly made against the lawyers, the parties interested, the witnesses, the officers of the court, and even against the court itself, should they attempt to testify. But Judge Sears quailed not; he was firm, fearless and unmoved. He called upon the sheriff to bid the spectators be seated and be quiet, stating that they should have a good opportunity to hear all the evidence; that what was now transpiring was something new, to be sure, but it was now the law, and he hoped no man who loved the enforcement of law would see it violated. This had a good effect. The witnesses were all sworn, testified, and subjected to a cross-examination, and then retired without molestation, and no one else injured or insulted."*

      The successor to Judge Sears was Judge James G. Day, a graduate of an Ohio college; at a law school in Cincinnati he received his legal education, coming to western Iowa at his graduation therefrom. He served with distinguished ability for two terms, and afterward became one of the judges of the supreme court of the state—a position he now holds. Judge J. W. McDill succeeded him, to be in turn succeeded by Judge J. R. Reid, the present incumbent. Thus it may be seen that the district court of Mills has had a most eventful history. It originally was held in private residences, but now in a stately building erected specially to meet the ends of justice. Its lists of attorneys comprise many men of distinction; its different judges have been men, for the major part, of distinguished ability, and its records-unfortunately—full well filled with causes both criminal and civil. The scenes of other and older days will never be repeated, and this sketch may serve to revive memories—many of them long since dead.

An Incident of the District Court

      In those days not every lawyer was a Wm. M. Evarts or a Jeremiah S. Black, but all were good-natured and jolly and many of them practical jokers. Cases were few and fees were small, and when the attorneys could not entertain themselves in work pertaining to their profession they sought to divert themselves in other ways.

      The county being new, lawyers were not very abundant, and so it was customary for nearly all the attorneys of the district to accompany the judge from place to place where court was held and pick up clients when and where they could. This practice was not very remunerative, but it has its bright side, nevertheless. “The boys didn’t make much money,” a veteran lawyer tells us, “but the had lots of fun.”

      A good story is told of a prank played by the attorneys in the district north of this, about the year 1850 or 1851. The judge for that district was Williams. quite a character in his way, but withal an excellent judge and one learned in the law. He combined the legal acumen of Lord Coke with the proportions of Falstaff and the tendency to abjuration of a trooper of the army in Flanders. To speak alliteratively, he was profound, prodigious, and profane. The lawyers of his court were constantly annoying him and he was condemning them and fining them for contempt. Yet Judge Williams was a kind man at heart, and many is the good deed set down to his credit in the book of the recording angel.

      On one occasion the Judge and his retinue of lawyers set out on horseback from the county seat of Grundy county for Eldora, the capital of Hardin county. On the way the judge grew athirst and as they neared the Iowa river was reminded by one of the lawyers, informed as to the facts, that about half a mile from the road an Irishman kept whisky for sale in his cabin. Leaving the party, his honor went in quest of the enlivening fluid for which he had an enthusiastic fondness. The attorneys rode on and soon reached the banks of the lowa. A light rain had fallen the evening and morning preceding, and the stream was muddy, turbid, and to all appearance deep. One of the party made a reconnaissance, however, and found that at the worst the water was only “mid-sides,” and the party, laughing at their first apprehensions, were soon on the west bank of the river safe, sound and dry, and then halted to wait for the judge.

      At once the idea of a joke on his worship occurred to the waggish barristers, and they proceeded to carry it out. They hastily denuded themselves, some of coats, same of boots and some of other articles of apparel; and when the judge arrived on the opposite bank-which was in a few minutes they presented all the appearance of men who had just disrobed and who were now re-clothing themselves. The judge took in the situation at once(?) and was further informed by the lawyers that if he wanted to reach town in a dry suit he must strip off all his clothes, put them in his saddle-bags and with the latter about his neck swim the raging current! The profanity that followed was fearful, His honor anathematized the weather, the stream, the county commissioners, the attorneys, (of course,)—everything—until the air was almost blue and the atmosphere smelled of sulphur. He would remove an article of clothing, and then shake his fist at the irreverent wags across the river, who were visibly enjoying the spectacle immensely, and objurgate. At last he stood forth, in puribus naturaithus, a “man of unbounded stomach” and of wrath. The spectacle can only be imagined; it can never be described! Mounting his steed he timidly ventured into the stream, appealing to the frantic attorneys to watch him carefully and come to his assistance if necessary. He had proceeded but a few feet when the real condition of affairs became apparent, for, in addition to the suspicious, or auspicious circumstance of the shallowness of the water, the lawyers hurriedly bestrode their horses, and as hurriedly galloped away.

      It is needless to say that his honor made the passage in safety. He also reached the hotel at Eldora in safety, and when he confronted those attorneys in the little bar-room—but let us draw a veil!

Transcribed by Roseanna Zehner and Jennifer Miller; Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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