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By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

Our articles this month are about our local legal system, specifically local lawyers.

A look through the records of our County Archives shows that we have had a number of esteemed men and women enter the legal profession. I made this list and hope that I have not left anyone out: W.M. Hammock, John S. McMurry, Jim McMurry, N.W. McConnell, A.B. Andrews, Will B. Hale, Joe Hankins, Robert Hankins, M.C. Fitzpatrick, J.E. Foust, Cullen Collingsworth, William Caruthers, Allen Caruthers, J.C. McMurtry, L.E. McClusky, Russell Wright, Rom Wright, Willard Smith, James Donoho, James Welch Owen, Jesse McMurry, Tom Price Thompson, Tommy Thompson, Eddie Taylor, Betty Lou Taylor, C.K. Smith, Sharon Linville, Connie Sue Robertson Massey, Keith Williams, Zack Taylor, William Bassett and James Chambers.

That list is just local people who have practiced law here.

Submitted photo
This portion of a letter from 1904 shows the letterhead of father and son lawyers, J.S. McMurry and J.D. McMurry of Hartsville.

Our county has birthed a few more and sent them out into the world – that list I’ll save for another article.

Many more people who call Smith, Sumner, Macon, or Wilson counties home have appeared in court here, but have not had law offices here.

All of these distinguished lawyers follow this maxim given by an old attorney a century ago, “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts into the table. If the law is on your side, pound the law into the table. If neither is on your side, just pound the table!”

This week we will look at three men, father and son and grandson, who practiced law here, starting over a century ago.

They are John Sanders McMurry, James Dale McMurry, and Jesse Sanders McMurry.

An 1896 article in the Vidette gave a history of the elder McMurry. We quote from that article, “J.S. McMurry, Attorney-at-Law. The gentleman whose name heads this article was born in what was then a part of Smith but now Trousdale County. After receiving a literary education in the public and private schools of this section, he read law and was graduated license to practice in the year of 1860.”

If you are not up to date on the history of law, it has changed over the years. In the past, as with John McMurry, a person could “read” the law on their own and study to become a lawyer.

In theory, he could never have attended a day of school. But of course that was not the usual case. Instead, after getting the best education they could find or afford, a person would find another lawyer and ask to serve as their clerk.

In so doing, he could learn the profession and spend his spare time reading various law books the attorney would have lying about.

That is what young John McMurry did. He “read” the law and then took an examination to see if he knew enough to practice law. That test is called the bar exam.

The article goes on to state that John began his practice in Dixon Springs, stopped to fight in the Civil War, rode with John Hunt Morgan, returned home to continue his law career, and eventually served as a judge.

The article concludes, “Besides being a successful practitioner, Mr. McMurry is recognized as one of Hartsville’s most progressive and scholarly gentlemen and his worth is appreciated by all.”

John’s son, James Dale McMurry, took a slightly different route to become a lawyer.

In an interview with his daughter, the late Elizabeth Donoho, I learned that the younger McMurry had no intention to be a lawyer. But right after finishing high school at our local Masonic Institute, he had an accident and broke his leg.

While he was laid up on the family couch waiting for his injury to mend, he picked up one of his father’s law books and began reading. He was a quick learner, and a year later took the Tennessee Bar Exam and passed it on his first try! He would practice law with his father and was later our county attorney.

Elizabeth had several stories about her father, including the fact that he had a tendency to help the poorer residents of the county, who could rarely afford to pay much towards their legal fees, and consequently he was always short of money.

She stated that he seemed to always have a loan out at the bank, and as soon as he got one paid off, he would have to borrow again.

The two men made their mark on Hartsville and Trousdale County, but it was the third McMurry that left his name here. We will read about Jesse S. McMurry next week.

A reminder that the Historical Society meets this Saturday, Feb. 10 at the County Archives at 2 p.m. Our speaker will be Leah Verville, who will give a presentation on the Tennessee State Parks. Leah has visited each and every one of them!