Charming, Felonious Moman Pruiett

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.













"Oklahoma,
where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain…"










–Oscar
Hammerstein (see also 25 Oklahoma Rev. Statutes, sec. 94.1)





Next month,
when a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opens on Broadway,
audiences will have a taste of how entertaining history can be. Set nearly a
century ago, on the eve of the Sooner State’s admission to the Union, the
musical’s vision of life before statehood is accurate, up to a point. But
Oklahoma’s real history is far more entertaining. Whether as the
Oklahoma
and the Indian Territories or as a new state, Oklahoma was a gold mine for an
unscrupulous lawyer, and it had many of them. Among the greatest was Moman Pruiett
(1872-1945), "The Black Stud of the Washita," "the murderer’s
messiah," himself a man "as liable to punctuate a point with a bullet
as an epigram." "Brutal murder–single, triple, five at a time,
with poison, axe and firearm," was his meat. "I ain’t no attorney,"
Moman said. "I’m a lawyer."


 


Yet he had
no respect for the law, and took immense pride, as he put it, in putting the
prong to the blind goddess. In half a century at the bar, he defended 342 murder
cases. Of those, 304 were acquitted; 37 were convicted of lesser charges; the
one sentenced to the rope received a presidential commutation. Perhaps the title
of Howard K. Berry’s delightful biography, published last year by the Oklahoma
Heritage Association, says it all: He Made It Safe to Murder.


The Black
Stud of the Washita had been born Moorman Pruiett, named after his mother’s
family, on an Ohio River steamboat. Before his 19th birthday, he had served
nearly three years in the Arkansas and Texas penitentiaries for forgery and
armed robbery. When a maternal aunt complained he had disgraced the Moorman
name, he phoneticized it to reflect his mother’s Southern drawl: Mo-man.


He took
a job cleaning the office of Col. Jake Hodges, the leading defense lawyer in
Paris, TX, and read the law in his spare time. Like many old-time advocates,
the colonel had his limitations. His jury arguments were not so much founded
on law as on a bombastic synthesis of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution
of the United States and the orations of Henry W. Grady on the Old and New South,
all "embellished with the homely delivery he had acquired with his years
of experience." When the colonel’s law business was slack, he made
up the difference at poker, and he was usually good for a quart of redeye a
day.


Pruiett
had a knack for the law and tremendous charm. Despite a mere 10 months’
formal education and two felony convictions, he was admitted to the practice
of law by U.S. District Judge David Bryant on the court’s own motion in
1894. He was 22 years old. Moman’s experiences as a criminal defendant
left him without respect for the law. Trial by jury? "They ain’t nothin’
but lying’ contests, an’ the biggest liar naturally wins." A
signed confession? "I’d repudiate hell out of her. An’ I’d
prove by somebody… that he was framed, or brow-beat, into signin’
it." He had a knack for producing alibi or "cat-tail" witnesses:
people whom he had worked over until they could not only tell the right story
on the witness stand but survive cross-examination.


At the height
of his career, Moman loved to repeat (and disavow) this anecdote. After receiving
a telegram from a man in a distant state ("I am charged with murder. Have
$5000. Will you defend me?") Pruiett wired a reply: "Am leaving on
next train with three eyewitnesses." In one of Pruiett’s early cases,
his client, John Evans, had allegedly shotgunned his wife’s lover. He had
been tracked to and from the crime scene by his shod stallion’s hoofprints.
Pruiett produced a blacksmith who testified that he had shod Evans’ horse
four days after the murder and knew from the hooves that it had never been shod
before. Then he put on a stockman from a distant town who testified that on
the morning of the murder Evans had brought in the stallion to serve one of
his mares. Pruiett asked the stockman if Evans’ stud had been shod when
the mare had been stood to the stallion. The stockman barked, "Hell, no,
there ain’t no shod stallion goin’ to claw up my mare’s flanks."
He even produced a record book and receipt for the stud fee. The prosecution
denounced the evidence as perjury.


Of course
it was. It did not matter. John Evans walked.


Soon Paris,
TX, seemed small. In 1895, while visiting a friendly acquaintance, Col. Samuel
Johnson Garvin, at Smith Pauls, Indian Territory (now part of the state of Oklahoma),
Pruiett discussed moving to the Territory. "I’m goin’ in for
criminal law," Pruiett said. "How’s the field for that?"
"Shootin’s an’ killin’s is ever’day stuff on Paul Avenue,"
Garvin reassured him. "This has been the longest quiet spell we had in
years, just since we been talkin’ here." Garvin lent him a former
cobbler’s shop, whose previous tenant had been beaten to death in a bar,
and Moman hung out a hand-lettered sign: MOMAN PRUIETT–LAWYER.


His first
clients were people like Uncle Henry Gordon. He was a former slave with four
sons whose weaknesses for murder and rustling were equaled by their ineptitude
in evading capture. Uncle Henry paid Moman in kind: he periodically dropped
off a bushel of pecans, or a burlap bag of apples or a bale or two of cotton.
However, as he began winning cases, Pruiett raised his fees. Moreover, as the
chicken thieves were replaced with murderers and rustlers, clients began deeding
him houses, land, farms and cattle as well as paying in cash. In the courtroom,
Pruiett often smoked the biggest, smelliest cigars he could find. Otherwise,
he would just bite off a chaw of tobacco, punctuating his orations with well-aimed
expectorations. He had a deep, beautifully modulated voice that could shake
the rafters or barely stir a dust mote, as he might require. Hard work, study
and an amazingly powerful, retentive memory overcame his lack of formal education.
He carried a law library within his skull, along with the New Testament and
most of the Old; he had soaked up Shakespeare and a vast acreage of rhetorical
poetry.


Yet he was
no mere ranter. The seductive power of his voice and presence alone once won
a breach of promise case with a speech of nine words: "An old man, an old
fool, but still human." Bored juries are grateful for entertainment. While
Moman obscured the prosecution’s evidence and the issues at stake, he also
made the juries laugh, wonder and cry, often acquitting his clients out of pure
gratitude. He once said, "Them wild antics is what gets results. When a
stockman goes to Kansas City with a load of beef, he don’t go out to the
packin’ plant to see what the best way of killin’ an’ dressin’
is. He gets him a jug an’ goes to a leg show. Jury service is just somethin’
the boys have to endure, an’ if you’ll liven things up for ’em,
they’ll show their appreciation for it. Have a fit, or shoot off a blank
cartridge, or carry the baby. Anything to relieve the monotony." He even
used sex: a client’s comely sister once seduced a juror, which gives an
interesting shade of meaning to "hung jury." Another appreciative
jury acquitted the statuesque Izora Alexander after she appeared for trial in
a skintight low-cut calico dress. An admirer observed, "When she twisted
across that courtroom goin’ to the witness stand…it looked like a
couple of possums a’fightin’ in a tow sack."


In 1907,
he visited Oklahoma City on business and liked it. ("After I had an eye
full of the way business is rushin’, an’ got pushed around on them
nice dry brick-sidewalks, with the Indians an’ niggers an’ Jews an’
chinks, I says to myself that…there’s some awful good pickin’s for
a good lawyer up there.") Later that year, he moved his practice to the
state capital, where he opened his office above a bar. He briefly attempted
a civil practice.


This was
before State v. Tegeler. The defendant had signed a confession. Pruiett
claimed, "The bulls whipped it out of him. Hell yes, that’s what they
did. They forced him to sign his name to it while they was third degreein’
him. There ain’t a word of truth in that statement." At trial, the
insults flew back and forth: Special Prosecutor Sam Harris referred to Moman’s
witnesses as "a battle-ax harlot" and a "cigarette pimp."
Pruiett produced a witness who claimed he had seen the alleged murder victim
boarding a boat for Central America after his disappearance. The special prosecutor
spent most of the trial discrediting the witness instead of proving his case,
bored the jurors, and Pruiett’s summation, a "rhetorical assault upon
Sam Harris," won a hung jury.


His reputation
as a courtroom pleader of unnatural power was such that in 1909, when the people
of Ada, OK, learned Moman would defend Jim Miller, Joe Allen, B.B. Burrell and
Jesse West for the murder of local rancher A.A. Bobbitt, a mob rushed the jail
and lynched them in a nearby barn.


Moman began
"borrowing energy from the neck of a bottle" to keep up the pace.
He appeared in cases in Fort Worth, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and even
Washington. In 1923, after a physical collapse, he moved his practice to Florida,
where he quickly made and lost a fortune in land speculation. He returned to
Oklahoma in 1926. After years of booze and partying, the Black Stud lacked the
fire and imagination of his youth. Within two years, a federal judge publicly
censured him for drunkenness in court. Seven years later, the Oklahoma Supreme
Court suspended him from practicing law for a year after he had filed suit against
a defendant who he knew had not injured his client. Like a character out of
a noir novel, he fell down the ladder, representing fewer and seedier clients
as he became progressively more dependent on the bottle.


In 1940,
Oklahoma City police raided the left-wing Progressive Book Shop and arrested
its owners. Pruiett was retained and immediately obtained a writ of habeas corpus.
The consequences for Pruiett were unexpectedly disastrous: he was red-baited
by the press and politicians, and he watched his practice collapse.


By 1945,
he lived in a 50-cent-per-night Oklahoma City flophouse. Most of his income
came from a $40 monthly old-age pension. In his last years, waiting in the courtroom
for one of his handful of cases to be called, Pruiett often sat in reverie.
Once, as a young lawyer roared and thundered before a jury, someone nudged Pruiett
and gestured toward the orator.


"That
boy’s a bear," the onlooker said. "He’s a regular Moman
Pruiett."


"Who
was Pruiett?" the old man replied.


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