Judicial history exhibit at Supreme Court highlights famous and infamous Missouri cases

2 April 2002

Judicial history exhibit at Supreme Court highlights famous and infamous Missouri cases

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Through June 1, 2002, visitors to the Supreme Court of Missouri can learn about Missouri cases that captured national attention in their day. The six panels are part of "The Verdict of History" exhibit and are on loan to the Court from the Missouri State Archives.

"The current exhibit tells a story of powerful figures that helped shape Missouri's history," Supreme Court Archivist Joe Benson said. "It also includes cases from periods of extreme nationalism, such as the Era of Reconstruction -- referred to by Southerners as the Era of Northern Aggression, that tell a chilling story of punishing the nonconformist."

Part of the exhibit now on display is devoted to the most famous slander case in Missouri history. In Birch v. Benton (1858), Supreme Court Judge James Harvey Birch sued Thomas Hart Benton, one of Missouri's first two United States senators, for slander. Birch accused Benton of saying that Birch whipped his wife and knocked out three of her teeth because she was mad at him for being unfaithful. Birch also accused Benton of calling him a "sheep-killing cur dog." Birch demanded damages in the amount of $1,000, a hefty sum in 1849. A Benton County jury ruled for Birch, who by then had left the Supreme Court, and Benton appealed. Reversing the judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that Birch failed to meet his burden of proof because two of his key witnesses could not say whether Benton actually called Birch a wife-beater and a "sheek-killing cur dog."

Another part of the exhibit explains the ramifications of the 1865 Constitutional provision prohibiting individuals who refused to swear allegiance to the Union in post-Civil War Missouri from practicing their professions and from voting. When Frank Blair refused to take the loyalty oath when he went to the polls in November 1865, he sued the election judges who refused to let him vote. The St. Louis trial court ruled for the election judges, and Blair appealed. In Blair v. Ridgely (1867), this Court affirmed the decision and held the loyalty oath was constitutional. Missourians repealed the oath three years later.

The exhibit also focuses on the last trial of Jesse James' brother, Frank, and the downfall of "Boss" Tom Pendergast, who controlled Kansas City and Missouri politics for more than three decades. To schedule a guided tour of the exhibit and the 95-year-old Supreme Court Building, visitors should call 573-751-4144. More than 19,000 visitors toured the Court during the last year.