Judge Hugh P. Williamson

1904 – 1980
The Last Legend of Callaway

Story by Leigh Elmore
From: The Kingdom Daily News, Fulton MO: Sunday February 3 1980.
Transcribed by Nancy Hanson

Judge Hugh P. Williamson is now history. His memory will linger in The Kingdom as people ponder the enigma of his life. Back straight as an oak beam, straw Stetson planted atop his head, cane in hand, with the black Labrador, Moses, following close at his heels, the memory of Judge Hugh Pritchard Williamson still strolls the streets of Fulton and the country lanes of Callaway County.

Old Judge Williamson has passed from the scene and with his passing a legend is born. The last legend of Callaway County. The judge represented different things to different people. He defied classification throughout his life and now that he is dead his life remains an enigma. Williamson held justice sacred, yet there are those who would say his dispensation of it was arbitrary. In his writings he held equality among the races paramount, but he was branded by some as a racist. He possessed the ability to advance to the top realms of state politics, but refused to acquiesce to the powers that held the strings of political advancement. He was an eloquent orator speaking in an age when people no longer took time to listen. Above all he was a character whose personality soared above the other actors on this stage we call The Kingdom. He fought his entire life to maintain his individuality. None would argue that he did not succeed.

Williamson was born in Carroll County on Sept. 22, 1904. He was educated in the public schools there and at the University of Missouri at Columbia where he obtained a degree in law. Williamsons early claim to fame did not come in a court of law but in the boxing ring. He toured as a heavyweight boxer for a carnival extravagantly titled the Johnny J. Jones World Exposition during the summers between college terms. Challengers would get into the ring and attempt to go three rounds against the burly young man from Carroll County. They say that not many men were able to go the distance against him to collect the prize money. One day Williamson endured 12 men in 44 rounds. Pay for a days work – – $350.

In 1973 Williamson told a reporter for the Columbia Missourian “For a period of time I was on the edge of the world of pugilism, which is a world all of its own, and a brutal, degraded, inhuman world in the main it is. But in it the very primitive virtues of raw courage, of man primitive and pure man, appear. And sometimes the inhumanity and brutality is momentarily lighted by flashes of humaneness.” The boxing ring may have become Williamson’s analogy for life. He would buckle under for no man. He would pull no punches. “If you can do that,” he told the reporter, “if you can get into a boxing ring with some big stout man trying to knock your head off in front of people who want to see it . . . After that nothing can disturb you.”

He arrived in Callaway County nearly fifty years ago as a young man looking to establish a law practice to support his new bride, the former Elsa Wade. He had been advised by his uncle John Williamson to practice law in a small town before joining his law practice in Kansas City. His uncle died and Williamson remained here the rest of his life. In the 1930s he literally walked the length and breadth of Callaway County during his campaign for county prosecutor. That experience must have filled his spirit with the unique qualities of Callaway’s old timers, because Williamson adopted them as his own and frequently celebrated them in prose. If ever an outsider earned the distinction of becoming a true “Callawegian” it was Hugh P. Williamson. Perhaps no other passage best characterizes the nature of the “native Callawegian” as does this paragraph from Williamson’s essay, “In the Kingdom of Callaway,” published in the Missouri Conservationist in March 1953. The narrator is Seth Robards, one of Williamson’s classic fictitious characters. “Everybody who knows anything knows about the Kingdom of Callaway. And a plenty of folks who don’t hardly know nothin else knows about it, too. It’s a land and a people which God created and then went off and left alone, which was a sensible thing to do. The land was right and the people was right, and they didn’t need no aid nor assistance from nobody. They got along good, the land and the people did. Till the foreigners come. But the foreigners come and built roads, and then the young ones begun to leave, and things got theirselves unsettled and the Kingdom ain’t nothing like what it used to be. Excepting in places. Down on the Crow’s Fork on the Auxvasse Creek part of the country things has changed mighty little sence my grandpappy’s time. There ain’t any foreigners there excepting the Stovers, an they has lived in them parts for over fifty year. We’re used to them, pretty near.”

In 1949 Williamson was appointed assistant state attorney general under J. E. Taylor. He served in the same post under John Dalton until 1961. In that year he was first elected Callaway County Magistrate Court Judge. Williamson’s gruff demeanor and old time pol bearing soon became the trademark of the Callaway County Magistrate Court. His reputation for dispensing harsh sentences for misdemeanor crimes spread across the state. Most defendants would regard him with fear. Attorneys in his court soon learned to sidestep the judge’s dog, Moses, who would often be curled asleep beneath the counselors’ table. Some say the Moses shared his master’s low estimation of lawyers and would eye them suspiciously. But most county residents weren’t lawyers and never had to appear before his court.

Williamson was always re-elected until 1973 when he retired. He began to view his role as a moral arbiter, more than just a magistrate judge. “I’m no martyr,” he told the Missourian. “My office is untouchable. I’m not where any of these rabbits can get me. “I see things as they ought to be. That may be egotistic. But I see many wrongs. It’s not that I’m controversial, it’s just that people do bad things. I try to make the crooked way straight and the rough road smooth . . . But the effects of my efforts have been slight.” Williamson received nationwide attention on the way he handled drunk drivers. If he had a single most important crusade in his life it was to get drunk drivers off the road. Anyone caught driving while intoxicated within the confines of The Kingdom was in for a sure fine and possible imprisonment. Williamson would periodically have the local newspapers publish a schedule of fines and jail terms that would be imposed on various drunk driving offences. “I believe that harsh punishment is a deterrent to crime, and that is particularly true in case of drunken drivers,” he said several years ago. The habitual drunken driver could expect a fine of $350 and a suspended six-month jail term. “I make them serve a portion of this term,” Williamson told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1969. “We have a system permitting them to come into jail at noon Saturday and stay until 5:00 p.m. Sunday, so they can hold a job and still serve time. “Unless there are unusual circumstances, they serve four to six weekends. Then I usually suspend the rest of the sentence, but we still have a hold on them for all six months.” But Williamson’s predictable sternness with drunk drivers probably did more to reduce the number of cases coming before his bench than to cut down the number of drunks on the highway. Many lawyers representing persons charged with driving while intoxicated in the county would immediately file for a change of venue from magistrate court to circuit court stating that Williamson was too biased and prejudiced to conduct a fair trial. Williamson would just rail against his fellow attorneys all the more.

In a 1972 interview with two law students, Gary Oxenhandler and Patrick Cronan, Williamson addressed the subject of lawyers: “Lawyers, of course, care nothing whatever about justice, all that they care about is winning the case. Lawyers, as citizens, are just as good as anybody ever is, but in their capacity as lawyers, they have no respect whatever for morality. Here is a man who goes out and rapes and murders and commits as heinous of a crime as anyone can conceive of but if he has the money, he can go and hire the best legal talent in this state of Missouri; not to see that he is tried by the legal process, but to put him back on the street, to put him back into society, to rape and murder again. That’s the lawyer’s objective and that’s what he tries to do.”

The notorious Bagby case of 1968 best characterizes Williamson’s habit of judging the total person standing before his bench rather than just for a particular crime. That year Raymond Bagby, a 55-year-old black man, was arrested for allowing an unlicensed 19-year-old white woman to drive his car. Normally such a crime would bring a $25 to $50 fine. But Williamson questioned Bagby intensely and determined that the pair had previously had a sexual relationship. Williamson slapped Bagby with a $500 fine and sentenced him to a year in jail. The woman was placed on probation for one year provided that she did not engage in “antisocial acts” contrary to the best interests of the community. She was charged with driving without a license. According to a report in the Kansas City Star the woman’s admission to having had sexual relations with Bagby “substantiated my opinion of the character of the defendant,” the judge said. He added that the relationship between the two defendants incensed white persons and created racial tensions, which he tried to avoid. Bagby obtained legal services from the American Civil Liberties Union while he was in jail and the Callaway County Circuit Court set aside his conviction. He was tried again and given a $50 fine.

Williamson said he believed his original harsh sentence against Bagby was justified after Bagby shot and killed the white woman, another man and himself in June 1968. “I was trying to save the lives of people but I failed to do so,” he said at the time. During the time the Bagby case was taking place Williamson was a member of the Fulton NAACP chapter. He denied any racial discrimination in handling the case. “I do not believe that anyone could point to any instance in this court where racial discrimination was apparent. My judgment of Negroes has been less harsh than in the case of most whites because of their social and physical environment. I consider them less responsible than the majority of whites and their punishment in my court has been generally lighter than whites,” the Star reported Williamson as saying.

Eighteen years previously Williamson wrote in The Midwest Journal: “The struggle of the Negro in America to obtain civil rights has been a long hard one. It has been marked, on his part, by resignation, patience, forbearance, humiliation, momentarily lightened from time to time by the pale glow of hope, hope which usually was soon extinguished by racial prejudice. It is a story which reveals all too clearly that the dominate whites, with a gradually increasing number of heroic exceptions, flagrantly and consciously violate the letter and the spirit of the great documents upon which American democracy rests. “But it is a story, too, which in its latter part tells of the dawning victory of right over wrong, of justice over injustice, of light over darkness. And it clearly foreshadows the coming of a time, in the not distant future, when America will have a full, not partial democracy.” His writings reflect almost an obsession with the past. He was the author of A Brief History of Democracy in America; South of the Middle Border; The Overland Diary of James A. Pritchard, the Hinterlanders and A History of the Kingdom of Callaway. He was a regular contributor of essays to the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Focus Midwest, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Missouri Bar Journal, and the Missouri Conservationalist. He probably always had a letter to the editor in progress. He would write voluminously on a legal point for a law journal and chronicle the line of Bolivar, one of the great mythological hounds of Callaway County. He would rail against members of the bar and promote the sound conservation practices. He would promote the practice of “water witching” and comment on world politics. His interests seemed boundless.

“To me it is a somewhat constant source of wonder how a personality can survive death and distance in time through the written word,” he said in 1973. Perhaps that was his purpose. Despite his haughty, gruff exterior Williamson had his human side. Among the people who knew him well, he was known as a philanthropist. “He was a benevolent man,” said trusted neighbor Barbara Stassel. “He clothed an awful lot of children in this town and a lot of people didn’t know about it. Both the judge and his wife, Elsa, gave without the knowledge of the receiver or others. When people came to the door asking for handouts, nobody left empty-handed.” “Those that disliked him disliked him thoroughly. Those that loved him, loved him completely,” Stassel said.

Such is the stuff which legends are made.

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