Friday, August 21, 2009

A Case of Mayhem

Smithland, Kentucky has not always been the quiet, little town it is today. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was a bustling river port with people arriving and departing on the steamboats that plied the Cumberland and Ohio rivers.

When boatmen had a little too much refreshment, they often created their own entertainment and it wasn’t unusual for someone to get hurt. That’s what happened in late November 1836 when Thomas Joice was stabbed while trying to be a good Samaritan.

Salem, the county seat, was some distance from Smithland so the coffeehouse of John Price on Water or Front Street in Smithland was the location where witnesses gave testimony about the troubling events. Samuel D. Crunk stated that on the 20th of the month, in the street between Robert M. Mitchell’s and S.P. Gower’s, George Thompson, who appeared to be intoxicated, pushed Wm. Slaughter to the ground. Thomas Joice saw what had happened, caught Thompson by the shoulders and jerked him away from Slaughter, telling him to let Slaughter alone and not hurt him. Thompson slapped Joice, who immediately slung Thompson back and walked away. Thompson then cursed Joyce and “abused him much saying … that he would cut him with a knife.” Joice walked back and caught him by the arm or label of his coat then Thompson "cut him through the nose and mouth and it is believed Thompson stabbed Joice with the intention of taking his life.”

Robert Douglass verified Crunk’s statements, saying he also saw Thompson slap Wm. Slaughter. Thompson used abusive language, which induced Joice to stop a moment and then he proceeded on towards S.P. Gower’s. Thompson went after Joice and called him “an Irish Son of a Bitch” before cutting him.

George Thompson was taken before Thomas Willis and James McCawley, justices of the peace. With his securities, M.B. Belknap and R.M. Mitchell, Thompson posted bond for his appearance at the next term of Livingston Circuit Court.

Thompson appeared in court on Wednesday, 1 March 1837, and was indicted by the Grand Jury on a charge of Mayhem. The following day, the jury gave their verdict, “Guilty of the charge and he shall be confined in the jail and penitentiary for the term of one year.” The attorney for the defense made a motion for a new trial. The guilty verdict was set aside and a new trial was ordered. The case was continued from session to session of court until Tuesday, the 5th of June 1838, when the attorney for the commonwealth introduced a motion of Nolle prosequi, indicating he would no longer prosecute.

No reason is given for the motion, but perhaps the attorney was tired of waiting to try the case or maybe most of the parties had moved on. Thomas Joice was the only one of the group who appeared on the 1840 Livingston County census, but was not on the 1850 census. In 1840, he was a young man, just 20 or 30 years old. Smithland might have been just a brief stopover for him. R.M. Mitchell and S.P. Gower, who were mentioned in the testimony of both witnesses, kept taverns on Water or Front Street.

While this case is not of great historical value, it is valuable as it gives us a view of Smithland during this time period.

References: Livingston Circuit Court Equity, Ordinary and Commonwealth Cases, Box 55 of 142, Accession No. A1986-289, Dept for Libraries and Archives.
Livingston Circuit Court Order Book H:458, 465 and Book I:162