Apparently, entertainment was hard to come by in Burlington’s early years. At that time, this handful of log cabins was still known as Flint Hills.
The enclave along the river was simply a crumpled, dreary gathering with perhaps a little too much booze providing those rare moments of relief.
This lack of distractions explains why Illinois farmer JB Patterson found himself at the center of the community’s attention when, during a visit in 1834, he was commissioned as a lawyer. defense for the city’s first official trial.
This initial exposure to legal technicalities was not to be a real trial, as the best the authorities could offer on short notice was a complaint against a local carpenter who had been discovered playing poker during his off hours.
Still, it was better than standing on the banks of the river and watching what might float.
That trial, however, made enough of an impression on Patterson that 50 years later he could share his memories with a reporter from the Burlington Gazette.
“The town at that time had a population of about fifty resident citizens who lived in one-story log buildings. But there was a grocery store created by Jeremiah Smith, whose trade in flour, coffee, sugar, tea, whiskey, etc. was quite significant,” recalls Patterson.
“The door-to-door trade – movers looking for homes in the country – crossed the river at Flint Hills and stocked up at Smith’s grocery store.”
The burgeoning business was housed in a large two-story building, the first in Flint Hills. At the time of Patterson’s visit, only the single upper floor had been completed and was being used by Judge Gray as a courtroom.
For this visit Patterson was a guest of Jeremiah Smith and on the afternoon of his visit an impressive amount of corn whiskey was consumed in an effort to keep the dreaded doldrums at bay.
It was apparently a success, for halfway through the merriment, Smith rose to invite all the guests to attend the first trial to be held in Flint Hills.
A cheer swept through the revamped deli and Patterson joined in the cheers. But he was taken aback when Smith added the postscript that the defense attorney for the trial would be his guest – JB Patterson.
Patterson stood up in shock and protested that he was in no way qualified to act in the defense and he insisted that there must surely be another lawyer in the settlement who could defend the gambling carpenter.
The crowd replied that there was, of course, another lawyer in town. But WW Chapman had already been recruited to serve as a prosecutor.
A shaken Patterson was rushed down the stairs by cheering onlookers and settled at a table in the makeshift courtroom.
“After climbing a rough flight of stairs, we found the pitch ready to go,” Patterson reported.
A crowd of spectators, including witnesses, were present, as well as the public prosecutor, resplendent in a coat and embroidered vest.
Chapman’s opening remarks dissolved onlookers into peals of laughter and a parade of slightly tipsy witnesses only added to the overall spirit of the party. But Patterson was not amused; he was in a panic.
The only tool for the defense was a copy of the Michigan Legal Code which Chapman had placed in front of his opponent. At that time, Wisconsin Territory and the Flint Hills were considered part of Michigan.
As Chapman led his witnesses through their testimony and entertained the crowd, Patterson desperately rummaged through the pages of the code in hopes of finding something he could use for the defense.
Finally, Chapman worked his way through his presentation and sat down to enthusiastic applause. Then Patterson was given the opportunity to be cross-examined. But he refused.
“Your Honor,” he began the defense rather, “as this case has been established and presented by my learned adversary, it only remains for you to pronounce the decision. And as the law expressly states that it will be your duty to fine the accused “three times the amount won or lost”.
“But, my friend, Chapman, failed to prove that there was money made or lost. You will have to declare that three times zero is still nothing and therefore discharge my client.
For a moment, the crowded courtroom was swept by silence, then a cheer erupted.
Then Judge Gray hammered his gavel and declared the carpenter innocent and Chapman offered his hand in a gesture of goodwill.
“There was great joy at the decision, in the midst of which three or four gallant lads got their hands on the new lawyer and, after reaching the foot of the stairs, carried him into the grocery store where they had a great time,” Patterson said. .
The best part of the whole procedure was only discovered a few hours after the decision.
As Patterson and the carpenter stood before the judge, the carpenter reached behind his attorney and pickedpocketed a new silk handkerchief.
Despite the attempted robbery, the evening was considered a great success and Patterson was the hero of the day. But he said he was never tempted to give up farming and pursue the law.