With the Primary Election just a few days away, I can’t help but reminiscence about elections of bygone years. By the grace of God, I believe, I am unopposed as an incumbent magistrate. To be honest with you, I don’t know how to act. I mean, it’s the first election that I can ever remember in which I need not to campaign for myself or somebody else.
This year’s election has become more than a Facebook war of words, and as the home stretch begins, it has now become a bitter power struggle that features some well qualified candidates on both sides of the political spectrum seeking various offices. I believe, when the smoke of the political battlefield has settled, it will be the decisions of the independent voters which will determine the final outcome. By independent voters, I simply mean those people who have no political connections and who consider all of the qualities of a candidate before casting their ballots.
Having been raised just off the hill from Verdunville Grade School, which is where the polling grounds have been for that area since I was a child, I have never missed being on the grounds since I was in the 4th grade. I vividly recall walking up the hill to the school at daybreak when yet a child, and remaining there until the polls were closed that evening. During all the many elections since then, I have witnessed many things. In fact, it was watching some of these political actions that got me interested in the realm of politics. And that’s the truth. I blindly had an idea of being able to change the system.
Long before the 300-foot law was enacted, which keeps political workers and candidates far from the polling places, there was a circus atmosphere on the polling grounds. In fact, voters were almost treated like cattle as they were herded into the polling places; with campaigners literally grabbing them and pushing political cards and slates in their faces. Many of the voters were bought and paid for, so to speak. Some received attentions the night before, while others were corralled on the grounds by one side or the other on election day, and if they voted correctly, or allowed the poll workers to pull the levers for them, then they were rewarded with either a five-dollar bill, or a pint of Mattingly & Moore branded whiskey.
I watched many times as so called “Precinct Captains” handed out the cash or liquor from the trunks of their cars. It was not unusual for candidates or their key supporters to visit various families around the midnight hour or later on the eve of the election. For many families, this was an expected experience, oftentimes comparable to Santa Claus bearing gifts. Whether it was a promised job, or just cash, large families with several registered voters were always targeted. Some “sneaky” heads of households would parlay one side against the other and take money from both sides.
The events of Election Day resembled a war, with fights oftentimes breaking out and even some resulting deaths. I remember one brother killing another at one precinct on Election Day back in the 1970’s; mostly because of political differences. There were and still are all kinds of tactics used in elections. Rumors are started and lies are told; all leading to much confusion for the average voter. Here’s a prime example of how things were back in 1964, according to The Logan Banner report that appeared just a few days before the election.
“The primary election campaigning grew hotter yesterday when charges of attempted bribery were filed in court involving a Democrat candidate for Logan District Justice of the Peace,” The Banner reported. “Warrants charging attempted bribery were obtained for Bruce Ellis and his son, Claude, by Luther Barnette and his son, Joel. The Ellis’s then obtained warrants for the Barnette’s and also denied the charges.
“Joel Barnette contends that Claude Ellis, superintendent of the Chief Logan Recreation Area, approached him with an offer of cash payment if he would take the place of his father, Luther, as commissioner of Precinct 84 at Chauncey on Election Day.”
Barnett was quoted as saying, “Claude made me the proposition that if I would work for my father in the election he would get a girlfriend of mine out of jail and give me $75 in cash, providing that I work for him in the house at Chauncey. He told me I wouldn’t need to know anything about the election laws because his brother, Clifford, would be there to take care of things.”
Barnette said the offer was first made at the Smoke House restaurant in Logan and that the discussion later continued at the county jail in the presence of Sheriff Jack Ferrell. “I signed a $40 check made out to cash to a get a girlfriend out of jail and turned it over to Claude,” Barnette said. The man also admitted that he had no funds in the bank to cover the check. The unnamed girl and her brother were scheduled to appear May 13 before Ezra Butcher, Justice of the Peace at Chapmanville, on charges of drunkenness. However, according to the newspaper account, Ellis appeared before Justice of the Peace John C. (Dutch) Barber during the night and Bill Abraham posted $500 bond for Claude and his father.
Claude Ellis denied the charges and said it was “a last ditch effort to discredit the reputation of his father.” He added that the charges were malicious and untrue and totally ridiculous. The denial prompted the Barnette’s to say that they would “take a lie detector’s test if Claude and his associates would do the same,” the story said.
The election of 1964 turned out in favor of the Ellis’ as the Jack Ferrell led slate won every office that it sought. Ferrell would later be impeached, but never left the Logan political realm, while Claude Ellis, who four years earlier was a major player in the 1960 campaign of eventual President John F. Kennedy, wound up his career many years later as Mayor of Logan. Bill Abraham, who served as a member of the Logan County Board of Education, also once switched parties and ran as a Republican in gaining the office of Logan County Sheriff. The Water Street Bridge leading into the town of Logan was named after Abraham, who also was a decorated World War II fighter pilot.
But, of the names previously mentioned in this story, it is Ezra Butcher which draws a curious eye. Butcher would later be found murdered in a very gruesome manner at his home at Godby near Chapmanville. The murder was never solved. Because of the sorted details and length of that story, I shall save it for another day. However, I promise it will be one of tremendous local interest.
Younger readers should understand that Butcher was a Justice of the Peace in 1964 and that the current Magistrate Court system was implemented in 1977 partly because of the corruptness that the “JP” system involved. Constables, who were elected in different districts of the county, made arrests and took the arrested party to a Justice of the Peace of his liking and, although it was never openly admitted to, the Constable and “JP” shared monies that were levied by the Justice of the Peace.
Since Justices of the Peace received no salaries for their services, they were compensated by the costs assessed against the losing party of a civil case and against criminal defendants who were convicted. Therefore, many lawyers and others back then referred to “JP” as standing for “judgment for plaintiff.” Since the “JP” was getting paid this way, it was obvious who he would consistently rule in favor of.
The state’s voters in 1974 approved the “Judicial Reorganization Amendment”, which restructured the state’s judicial branch of government, and created the current Magistrate Court system. The Constables also were eliminated.
So, over the years, things have changed somewhat, but the political fuel that fires the elections of Logan County, still is endless; as the battles rage.
Longtime Logan Circuit Judge C.C. Chambers, who seemed to always be reeling against one type of sin or another, said the following on the eve of the 1964 election:
“Tomorrow is election day, at which time candidates will be nominated for the various elected offices. We shall nominate those whom we want to serve us ……..” “It is a matter of common knowledge that a great segment of our people is totally unconcerned about who shall be nominated. This is uncontroversial evidence of a decaying civilization and unless the people reverse the trend now in vogue, there will inevitably come a day when our vaulted American way of life will be no more.”
We’re still trying to get it all right, Judge. Indeed, we are still trying. Like Thomas Jefferson said in 1786, “The whole art of government consists in being honest.”
Please make an effort to get out and vote for the candidates of your choice on Election Day, May 10th. Doing so, will surely make ‘ole Judge Chambers proud—and me, too.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.