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Slender Is The Thread

Slender Is The Thread: Tales from a Country Law Office

Copyright Date: 1987
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Slender Is The Thread
    Book Description:

    In a supplement to his The American Language, H.L. Mencken encapsulated the early history of Kentucky: "What is now Kentucky was the first region beyond the mountains to be settled. Pioneers began to invade it before the Revolution, and by 1782 it had more than 30,000 population. It was originally a part of Virginia, and the effort to organize it as an independent state took a great deal of politicking."

    Kentuckian and lawyer Harry M. Caudill grew up in the coal fields of Letcher County. His book Slender is the Thread reflects the history of a state whose citizens had to labor for their sustenance. Caudill's chapters reflect the mighty story of poor European immigrants struggling on primitive land and in wild mountains to survive, reproduce, and find sustenance for themselves and their households. Their frontier experience attuned the people to weak governments, self-help, quick wrath, and long memories, and revealed the influences that gave the state and its people their reputation for contented ignorance, colorful individualism, crankiness, self-reliance, contempt for court decisions, deadliness with gun and knife, and quirky and corrupt politics.

    Spun from the experiences of his law office, Caudill was one of the great storytellers with a keen eye for the unexpected detail and ear for the unique turn of phrase. He denounced scoundrels, praised courage and justice wherever he found it, and celebrated the frailty of the human condition. Time goes on and stories of Kentucky and its people accumulate, and Caudill's stories help shape the thoughts and inspire the actions of the Kentuckians of tomorrow.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4639-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1. Country Lawyers
    (pp. 1-28)

    Before the Age of Television, Kentucky was a land of superlative storytellers. This trait was nurtured by the quixotic, individualistic, and introspective nature of the people-an ingrained quality spawned by a history that included Indian wars, prolonged rural isolation, a civil war fought at home, hardscrabble farming, oversize families, and, all too often, having to get by on not quite enough to go around. Under such circumstances many characters were created: fiercely independent people who cared scarcely at all about public opinion, did mainly as they pleased to the outrage of more conventional neighbors, and were prone to startling undertakings....

  5. 2. Slender Is the Thread
    (pp. 29-45)

    The late John Young Brown, Sr., of Lexington was for nearly forty years the state’s most renowned criminal lawyer. He lived and breathed lawsuits and liked nothing so much as a hard-fought criminal trial in which the odds were against him. He had a keen mind and a marvelous memory for details. A quarter century after a trial he could quote with remarkable accuracy what various witnesses swore about an issue, the objections of lawyers concerning the testimony, and how the judge ruled on its admissibility. A lawyer meeting him on the street might expect to be greeted with, “Well,...

  6. 3. The Ultimate Judge
    (pp. 46-55)

    During my twenty-eight years of law practice in Kentucky mountain courthouses I defended seventy-six murder cases and assisted in the prosecution of thirty-four others. Some of these cases involved multiple defendants so that, in all, there were 127 persons who were charged with “taking the life of another person with malice aforethought, and not in the necessary defense of his own life or the life of another person then and there present.”

    These killers were a varied lot who ranged in age from eleven to eighty-four years. The eleven-year old was a boy who shot his father in the top...

  7. 4. The Courts of the Squires
    (pp. 56-70)

    In the 1970s the Kentucky judicial system underwent extensive reform. A new appellate tribunal, the Supreme Court of Kentucky, was established and several petty courts, including quarterly courts, municipal police courts, and the courts of justices of the peace, were abolished. Such local courts generally were conducted by non-lawyers who, as often as not, ignored the Kentucky statutes and devised their own laws. Under the reform law the functions of these courts were assumed by new district courts whose judges had to be licensed attorneys. This change assured some degree of uniformity and attention to precedent but swept away much...

  8. 5. Order in the Court!
    (pp. 71-82)

    Kentuckians have long demonstrated a penchant for shooting one another. As I write this, there is beside me a newspaper that details these tidings: a dauntless Kentucky mother has shot her son three times because he tried to break in on her. A loving young woman has shot her gentleman friend because he stepped on her toe. In Harlan County numerous shots were exchanged in a dispute over the ownership of an old, abandoned car. Tomorrow there will be similar accounts, as there were yesterday and a hundred years ago.

    Irvin S. Cobb, the Paducah humorist-author-actor, wrote that when he...

  9. 6. The Little Kingdom
    (pp. 83-97)

    In 1912 or thereabouts the South-East Coal Company built a mining town in Letcher County, a mile or so above the confluence of Boone Creek and the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Today the community is dilapidated and unsightly, but in those far-off days of coal-boom euphoria the “miners’ cottages” gleamed with fresh white and yellow paint, the coal tipple unceasingly poured coal into railroad cars, and the commissary was stocked to overflowing with all things dear to the hearts of American workingmen and their families. The town was called Seco, an acronym of the corporation’s name. The company...

  10. 7. Politics Kentucky Style
    (pp. 98-115)

    Nearly all lawyers dabble in politics at one time or another. The electorate labors under a delusion that lawyers are uniquely qualified to make laws and hold public offices, whereas Thomas Jefferson warned people to elect their poets and sages. He thought barristers are made cynical by their early exposure to the dark and sinister underside of life. Be that as it may, there is a chronic shortage of both poets and sages in the Bluegrass state so that, of necessity, people turn to lawyers for their legislators and administrators. All judges must be lawyers. Then there are the county...

  11. 8. Buried Alive
    (pp. 116-127)

    Coal mining is the most dangerous of the nation’s major industries. A committee of the Harlan County Junior Chamber of Commerce reported that more than twelve hundred miners perished in the mines of that Kentucky county between 1912 and 1986. At the Lynch mine of United States Steel Corporation (whose motto was “Safety the First Consideration”), 180 died in the years 1919-1930. Between 1847 and 1977, 121,209 men and boys died in American pits. Of these, 702 were killed in major explosions in the month of December 1907.

    The gigantic methane and coal-dust explosions cause dramatic stirrings among the purveyors...

  12. 9. Immigrants in the Mines
    (pp. 128-138)

    Most Americans who think of eastern Kentuckians envision a mix of English, Scotch-Irish, and German bloodlines that were old on this continent in 1800. In the main this perception is valid but the hills also had new immigrants from the human tidal wave that engulfed America just as the tycoons were tying the central Appalachian coal fields to the world fuel market. They came from almost everywhere to live in such places as Jenkins, Lynch, and Hellier.

    Many sturdy stone houses and retaining walls in Appalachia were built by Italians who stayed on in the hills after they built the...

  13. 10. A Man of Honor
    (pp. 139-152)

    James H. Frazier was born near Gate City, Virginia, in 1850 and died in Letcher County, Kentucky, ninety-five years later. Few people now remember him and soon there will be nothing to mark his hectic life except a grave marker on a knoll at Whitesburg. His life illustrates the misty nature of money, power, fame, infamy, and influence, because at one time he was the wealthiest and most influential person in his county-and later the most infamous.

    The Civil War desolated western Virginia, and this may have influenced Frazier’s decision to move farther west into the even narrower valleys of...

  14. 11. Old Carl Brought Him Out
    (pp. 153-162)

    Jim Perkins of Knott County was famous for his immense hands and his enormous mustache that extended across his wide upper lip to vast mutton-chop sideburns. He would seize a voter with those ham-sized paws and draw him close to whisper in his ear. When Jim whispered a confidence, his whiskers tickled the voter’s cheek and ear. Practically everyone in the county had been so treated and, in consequence, they elected and reelected Perkins to the office of county attorney.

    Jim’s son, Carl D., had his father’s giant hands and hulking form. He would seize a voter in his bear-like...

  15. 12. Lawyers for the People
    (pp. 163-173)

    A few years ago the National Commission on Education reported, in ANation at Risk,a chronicle of the sorry state of American schools, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” I wholeheartedly agree.

    The decline seems to have begun soon after World War II. It has continued apace amid ever-growing outlays for buildings, libraries, cafeterias, school buses, counselors in every imaginable field, ministrations of psychologists, the hubbub of countless public hearings, and a plethora of college degrees...