Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Don't Shoot Me, I'm a Lawyer"--Reprise

Return with me now to Main Street outside the Armstrong Hotel in Shelbyville, KY,  and the honor-vengeance killing of General  Henry H. Denhardt; also the echoing chorus of "don't shoot me, I'm a lawyer" (go here).  My new found Kentucky friend, Hugh "Uncledoc" Wilheight, who kindly furnished me with the lyrics to the commemorative ballad, has now served up an exhaustive account of the whole gory story from The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 84, pp 361-396, the work of one William E. Ellis, professor of history at Eastern Kentucky State (apparently this guy).

The story is easily told.  Verna Garr Taylor took a bullet.  General Denhardt said she shot herself.  The prosecutor said the General shot her.  The jury hung 7-5 for acquittal.  It was on the eve of a second that that her brothers gunned down the General, and the lawyer achieved fame in song and story for a one-liner he probably never uttered. 

Ellis speculates idly on the place of the account in the history of violence and vengeance particularly as practiced in the Bluegrass State but he doesn't go very far with it.  He directs most of his efforts to constructing an extended narrative chronicle. A modern reader will do well to restrain the impulse to  draw contemporary comparisons, not least on the phenom of the Denhardt trial as a media bacchanal.  

But the hung jury and the ensuent killing vengeance killing are not the end of it.  A prosecutor put the Garr brothers who shot Denhardt themselves on trial for murder. "I shot to protect my life," one of them testified.  Perhaps more remarkable--somehow, heaven knows how,   the defense persuaded the judge to allow evidence calculated to demonstrate what a rotter the victim was.  Ellis:
A number of military men paraded to the witness stand, all of whom soundly flayed the general. They alternately described him as 'domineering,' 'power-drunk,' 'officious,' and 'cruel and inhuman.'   Brigadier General Ellerbe W. Carter characterized Denhardt as 'one of the most violent, domineering and unscrupulous men I every knew.'  Two other witnesses claimed to have overheard the general threaten to shoot down the Garr brothers. 
 The prosecutor, per Ellis, "countered with the obvious: two men had shot down another man, who was unarmed.  Moreover, they shot him in the back."  The defense countered that the brothers had "a right to shoot a mad dog."  The jury deliberated for an hour and a quarter before bringing in a verdict of not guilty.  The audience erupted into a cheer and rushed to congratulate the accused..  Evidently (again), the rule is that "the boy needed killin.'"

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