Who Could Neither Read or Write, Yet Practiced Law Successfully.

Submitted by Adina Watkins Dyer

Clement Watkins was the son of Clement Watkins, Sr. and Mary Butler.  Clement was born in Sussex, County, Delaware and came to Warren County in the mid-1830's from Ross County, Ohio.  Clement Sr. was the brother of my William Watkins, and uncle to my great-great grandfather Josiah Watkins of Green Hill, Warren County.

The Warren Review
September 3, 1908
Warren County, Indiana

    Warren County in 1855 had a citizen who practiced law and made a good deal of money at it, yet could neither read nor write.  His name was Clement Watkins, and he lived between Independence and Green Hill.  Watkins farmed in the summer and attended to legal business in Justice Courts for his neighbors in the winter.  Clem had never studied arithmetic.  Yet he could count money, knew all the denominations of gold, silver and paper and could, by some mental process known only to himself, calculate the value of his farm products, and knew to the half cent what he ought to receive for his wheat, beef or pork.  He was scrupulously honest and a good farmer, raising large crops every year, and his chief delight was to be employed to pettifog some law suit before a Justice of the Peace.  Watkins was a very large, tall man of commanding appearance, and he was what the boys in those days termed a regular old shoulder-knocker.

    It was in 1865 that he flourished most as a lawyer.  His methods of procedure differed slightly from those of the present day, for if the rulings of the J.P. did not happen to suit him, he was liable to curse the Court fluently for its ignorance and demand a change of venue.  He always considered it the duty of the court to prepare the affidavit for the change as well as swear the affiant to it.  If any Justice objected to practicing law in his own Court by preparing his pleas for him, Clem would threaten then and there to mop the earth with him and sue him on his bond.  He drank a good deal of whiskey and would fight at the drop of a hat, so he managed to brow beat his cases through the Justices Courts with but little trouble.

    To use his own language, he made a good deal of money until a lot of young “doods” that could read and write began to appear against him and compelled him to work to a great disadvantage.  Clem contended that these young bucks would read anything out of their law books and call it law, and his not being able to peruse the authorities themselves, gave his opponents a big advantage.   He tried employing a clerk to write at his dictation and read to him from the authorities, but that wretched clerk made such blunders, and it took him so long to find the particular point he wished to impress on the Court, that he began to suspect that he was in the pay of the opposition and so discharged him.

    Clem then made up his mind that he would be compelled to either abandon his law practice or acquire an education.  So he determined to learn to read and write.  After months of patient practice, he succeeded in learning to write his name.  He had heard that a little learning was a dangerous thing and was able to verify the assertion from actual experience.

    He attended a public sale a few days after he had got the art of writing his name down fine, and a neighbor requested him to go on his note for twenty-five dollars.  Clem had just bought a pair of gold nose glasses the day before and could not resist the temptation to exhibit his nose glasses and his new accomplishment at the same time.  Hence the nose glasses were adjusted and the name signed to the note with quite an air.  Clem said afterward regarding the matter, “Gaul dinged if I didn't have to pay.”

    “I had a counterfeit dollar once,” said Clem, “that somebody passed upon me, which I mixed up with my own money and tried to lose, but it always came back.  I happened one day to be at Green Hill.  They called it Milford then, and later on Poolsville, and at last they settled on the name of Green Hill.  Well, I was at Green Hill on Sunday when there was a woman preaching there named Ellen Draper.  She was what they call an evangelist, and when the hat came around that night for collection, I chucked the bogus dollar and laughed to think how nicely I'd fooled her.  But that night as I was counting money that confounded pewter dollar turned up with the rest.  So help me, I had given Ellen a good dollar and the laugh was on me, but I took that lead dollar and hammered it to pieces between two darnicks, and throwed it across the plowed ground as far as I could send it.”

    “The last appearance in court I ever made was in 1877.  I 'fended George Roe the time we tried to title the land in Squire Pilcher's Court at Independence.  A lawyer named Joe Stevens was on the other side who pettifogged the case from beginning to end.  He biggled me and haggled and objected to every question I axed the witness, until I was obliged to haul off and smash his nose before I could question my witness in peace.  Stevens then went off and washed the blood off his nose and borrowed a revolver and came back, allowin if the Court couldn't pertect him he'd pertect hisself.”

    “The case had been argyed, however, and gone to the jury, who decided that Roe was entitled to the land.”

    “Stevens then got a lawyer at Williamsport to help him, and they appealed the case to Court and the judgment I secured was reversed.  I seed I was not in it anymore and gave up the practice.  But I tell you them Williamsport lawyers used to dread seein' me appear against them.  They was afraid of men and used to kick on my bein' allowed to practice, and they war afeard of my way of examin' witnesses.  My, how they would howl over it.  In olden times they had some respect for the law, but that time has gone by.”   

    “I had a little difficulty with a party and heard there was a warrant out for my arrest for assault and battery, so I thought I would give them a chase, and I went over to Illinois.  I had not been there long before Ern Morris, and Independence constable, found where I was and came into Illinois and arrested me.  I explained that he had no right to arrest me in another state without requisition.  The bullheaded devil contended that his warrant authorized him to take me wherever he could find me, so he snapped a pair of handcuffs on me and took me along with him.  If I could have got twenty years off my shoulders I'd have given him a tussel for it before I'd have stood bein' kidnapped in that fashion, but them Illinois suckers never interfered, so I had to go.  We got on the cars at Danville, and before we got to State Line on our way back, I saw attorney McCabe of Williamsport in a seat ahead of me and axed him if Morris could arrest me in Illinois with an Indiana warrant.”

    Judge McCabe said, “Possibly not, but he is getting you might fast to where he will have that right, so it is not worth while to discuss that question to any great length.”

    Clem not only practiced law for others but was always in litigation on his own account.  Although he paid well, he was so unreasonable in his requirements that few lawyers cared to act as his counsel more than once.  He went, on one occasion, to a certain Williamsport lawyer that did not know  him, and offered  him $300 to attend to whatever law business he might have of a personal nature for one year.  The attorney took the contract and thought he had a snap.  The result convinced him of his error.  Clem sent him here and there and everywhere, until the disciple of Blackstone seeing his time completely monopolized, began to want to let go and offered Clem his money back to be released from the contract.  This Clem refused to do without a bonus of fifty dollars, which was finally paid to him.

    The complete story of Clem's life would make a good sized book as well as interesting reading.  He led a very active life, was a successful farmer and died peacefully on his farm at the age of seventy-eight.

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