charles m. meacham



The Passenger Pigeons; The Bar of 1868; Sketch by Judge Joe McCarroll.

I can remember as a child how the passenger, or wild pigeons as they were called, used to come in flocks and sometimes would have roosting places near where I was reared on a farm. I have heard my grandfathers tell of the myriads of these birds, that were seen annually in Christian County. in the early days. They ceased coming after the seventies, and while they were not exterminated until several years later, only the very old people remember when they came in such large numbers. In the year 1911, the last known specimen of these birds, was captured, and $500.00 was offered for a mate, but one was never found. The following interesting account of these birds, now extinct, was taken from a newspaper fifteen years ago, written by Charles A.David:
On the first day of September, 1914, an event occurred in the Zoological Gardens of Cincinnati that deserves a bronze tablet to commemorate it. It was the passing of the very last known survivor of its race—the last living passenger pigeon, at one time the most numerous of all North American birds. The story of this beautiful bird reads like an impossible romance, something that could not really happen—but did. There is something unspeakably sad in the thought of any creature passing from the stage of existence, and having the tragic word extinct written after its name. As Theodore Roosevelt beautifully expressed it, “It is like all the works of some great author or artist were suddenly and irretrievably destroyed.”

Many theories have been advanced to account for their disappearance, some fanciful, and some with a show of reason, but when it is sifted down, nothing but man’s greed for the dirty dollar can be charged with the crime, for crime it was. Their very numbers proved their undoing, and their fate is a sad commentary on the axiom, “In union there is strength.” There is little “mystery” about their disappearance, when one reads that the New York market alone handled 100 barrels of pigeons a day, for weeks at a time; and that from the Catskills they were shipped by
the ton to nearby markets. Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, and all the big and little cities of the North and East clamored for their quota of pigeons and squabs, and thousands of professional “netters” were doing their best to supply the demand. The pigeons were large birds and not particularly shy, as birds go, and as they moved not by hundreds or thousands but by millions, one can readily see how their capture or killing, amounted to nothing more than manual labor.

They laid but few eggs, never more than two, so the natural increase could not make up for the adult birds slaughtered by wholesale. And still, some writers can see no reason for their disappearance from the face of the earth, and they still talk about the “mystery” of it.

We can form no idea of the vast numbers of wild pigeons inhabiting the country when the white men came, and it is certain that the Indians never could have reduced the species to any appreciable extent, as they had no market and took only what they could use.

But when the white man came, conditions rapidly changed. The early settlers were accustomed to the use of fire arms, and when a million or so pigeons appeared, the people armed themselves with guns, poles, hoes and rakes and whatever else could knock down a flying bird, and it was not their fault if a handful managed to escape. The most destructive method of taking them was by nets, in which hundreds and hundreds were caught at a time. The pigeons had regular roosting places, to which they resorted in incredible numbers about sunset, and here they were followed and killed by the wagonload, when they had settled down to rest.

The pigeons flew so low and so close to each other, that it was a mere matter of pointing the muzzle up and pulling the trigger to start a shower of falling birds. One case is recorded, where seventy-one pigeons were brought down by two shots from an old flint-lock, single-barrel shot gun, fired at random into a tree where the birds were roosting.

The flights of these feathered armies extended from Hudson’s Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, and occasionally as far as Cuba.

And these flights continued until about the middle of the nineteenth century, when a great diminution in the numbers began to be noticed, and from that time on each season brought fewer birds. A small flock was seen in Illinois in 1895, and in 1900 a flock of about fifty birds were reported to have been seen in Michigan.
If we did not have the records of such naturalists as Wilson and Audubon, and others, as to numbers of pigeons that passed over given localities, we might well have our doubts about the whole matter. Wilson tells us of a flight he witnessed near Shelbyville, Kentucky, in 1806, that reached from right to left as far as the eye could reach, and from the time consumed in passing, he estimated the flock to be two hundred and forty miles long. And Audubon states that in the autumn of 1813, he witnessed from his home on the banks of the Ohio, near Hardinsburg, a flight that darkened the heavens, and was three days in passing. His estimate as to probable number of birds, allowing two pigeons to the square yard, footed up one billion, one hundred and fifteen million.
And to think, today there is not, as far as is known, a single individual left alive!



I am asked to give my recollections of the Hopkinsville Bar as it existed during the major part of Judge John R. Grace’s regime as Judge of the Christian Circuit Court. When I came to the bar, after a course at the Law Department of the University of Louisville, in the spring of 1873, Judge Grace was serving his first term as Judge of this Circuit, to which he was elected in August, 1868, and which position he held continuous for twenty-six years, when he was elected to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky— to-wit, at the autumn election of 1894. He was succeeded by Lilburn C. Linn, who filed his Commission here under an appointment by Governor John Young Brown February 25, 1895. At the time of my admission to the bar Judge Grace was nearing the end of his first term as Circuit Judge, and the following lawyers were enrolled as resident members of this Bar:

Judge R. T. Petree, Walter Evans, Joseph I. Landes, John W. McPherson, H. R. Littell, John B. Knight, Hunter Wood, Asher G. Caruth, Joe McCarroll, Wm. R. Howell, Harry Ferguson, Hiram A. Phelps, John Feland, Edw. P. Campbell, George A. Champlin, Wm. P. Winfree, Albert H. Clark, L. A. Sypert, Samuel M. Gaines, John P. Ritter, Samuel M. McKee.

Later, from year to year, we had the following additions to the bar: J. W. Downer, Samuel 0. Graves, John W. Payne, Charles H. Bush, Cyrus N. Pendleton, Austin Peay, Joab Brasher, Sylvanus J. Boyd, Henry J.
Stites, R. W. Henry, James Breathitt, Leslie E. Payne, Elijah G. Sebree, Jr., John Phelps, Larkin T. Brasher.

This fine array of real Kentucky gentlemen included every creditable type of intellectual manhood. Not all, of course, could be called great lawyers; but in the main, they were equal to any professional emergency. They were a high-toned, highly intelligent, friendly, warm-hearted body of real gentlemen. More than that; they were a studious lot—and no man can be a lawyer if not a student. He may be bombastic and make some sort of sound every time he opens his mouth; but he will never, never know the law unless he seeks it diligently and constantly. For the most part this old bar was studious and justly earned the reputation of great lawyers. It was stated, for instance, that Mr. Hiram A. Phelps read the voluminous Commentaries on the English law by Sir William Blackstone every year. That, however, was a task but few lawyers, however industrious, could ever accomplish, if they had much business to look after.

Judge Grace said that in his opinion the Hopkinsville Bar was the equal of any bar in the state and far superior to most. Messrs. Knight, Ritter, McKee, Leslie Payne, died before long and Gaines and Graves abandoned the law and went into the newspaper business. They were both highly educated, with splendid literary talents and poetic fire. Gaines was editor of the Kentucky New Era for years, was once deputy clerk of the Court of Appeals, and died a few years ago while employed in the U. S. Treasury. Mr. Graves went from here to Louisville, where he was employed as a writer for the Courier-Journal. Whether as lawyer or writer, he was an unusually brilliant man and was an orator whose eloquence was much admired.

It is hard to write a sketch of a body of lawyers so numerous as this and do full justice to all, without making the sketch much longer than the  compiler of this county history desires. All deserve some special mention; but we are not expected to write thirty-six biographies. Let the compiler of this county history go as far as he pleases in that direction; but here we can only take a broad view of the lawyers as a body. I must say, however, that Judge Petree was always accorded the position of head of the profession at this bar. He was Circuit Judge during our Civil War and was, indeed, one of the great lawyers of Kentucky; and at the 1925 meeting of the Kentucky State Bar Association at Bowling Green, Judge Charles H. Bush, one of his worthy successors on the bench, presented to the Association a most admirable biographical sketch of Judge Petree, under the title, “Some Great Lawyers of Kentucky.” He was a man of great mental vigor, unusual professional attainments, unimpeachable integrity; and although not an orator in the commonly accepted sense of the word, he was so persuasive and powerful as an advocate that he was long and affectionately known here as “Old Plausibility.” And no man ever surpassed him as a man of refined and keenest wit and irresistible humor. All of us loved him for his companionable and rare social traits and honored him for his splendid professional qualities.

The orators of the old bar were Asher Graham Caruth, James Breathitt, S. 0. Graves, R. W. Henry and E. P. Campbell. Senator J. W. Downer, Judge Walter Evans, Samuel 0. Graves and Judge William P. Winfree led all the rest as diligent students of a broad and comprehensive literature— all men of rare literary taste.

The members of this bar who became conspicuous as the holders of high and honorable official positions are as follows:

Hon. Walter Evans, member of the Kentucky Legislature, member of the United States Congress from the Louisville district, Solicitor General of the United States, United States Commissioner of Internal Revenue, United States District Judge of the Western District of Kentucky, twenty-five years. Austin Peay, elected Governor of Tennessee two terms. Joseph I. Landes, State Senator, Judge of the Court of Appeals. John W. McPherson, Judge of Common Pleas Court. James Breathitt, City Attorney of Hopkinsville, County Judge, Circuit Judge and Attorney General of Kentucky. Asher G. Caruth, Commonwealth’s Attorney of Louisville and representative of Fifth Congressional District several terms in the U. S. Congress. Charles H. Bush, Circuit Judge two terms. Edw. P. Campbell, Commonwealth’s Attorney under Judge Petree. Hunter Wood, County Attorney one term, Commonwealth’s Attorney one term. W. R. Howell, Commonwealth’s Attorney. H. R. Littell and W. P. Winfree, County Judge (the latter two terms). J. W. Downer, State Senator. The most renowned of the old bar, as strong, forceful and successful advocates were R. T. Petree, E. P. Campbell, Hiram A. Phelps, John Feland (Sr.), Walter Evans, A. G. Caruth, Charles H. Bush, James Breathitt, Henry J. Stites, R. W. Henry, J. W. Downer and W. R. Howell.
Of the thirty-six lawyers who composed the Hopkinsville bar during the long administration of Judge Grace, and who are mentioned in this article, all are gone to “that bourne from whence no traveler returns” except Senator Downer, W. R. Howell, Judge Charles H. Bush, Judge James Breathitt and Joe McCarroll. Only five of us are left to tell the tales of long ago.

Essays could be written on a number of these gentlemen under the title “Some Great Lawyers of Kentucky”; but to attempt anything like a biographical sketch of so many of our big-brained lawyers would go far beyond what was assigned me to do, namely, to bring to mind the names and character of our bar as a body, during the long service of Judge Grace.

The present bar, it may be proper to say, is composed of some of the brightest lawyers in Kentucky today; men who will lead the profession for many years to come; but their work is not yet finished and their biographies must be written later.

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