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The Poet-Lawyer

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Whoever claimed that "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me" had not heard of Counsellor J. E. Jewett of Polk County, Iowa. Jewett was a lawyer there in 1853, when lawyers almost outnumbered people. A lawyer had to stand out from the crowd to make a living.

One day Jewett was hired to defend Reuben Davis and Wyatt Brownlee from a damage suit filed by one, William D. Cockeram. It was a complicated case. The two men had sold Cockeram a cow belonging to another man who owed them money, and that man had taken his cow back. Cockeram was out the cow plus his own attorney's fees and court costs.

Davis and Brownlee had used the sheriff to take the cow, and it had been the sheriff who actually sold the cow to Cockeram, but the whole action turned out to be illegal. Their case seemed desperate as it came up before the bench of Judge William McClellan.

Not to worry. Counsellor Jewett had a plan—or at least he had a way with words. He mounted a defense that was pure poetry. "And though said cow might have been sold, and paid for in American gold," he told the judge, "Yet this defendant never did, / either sell or take another's bid."

Poor Cockeram was also trying to collect the expenses of keeping the cow for a week, but Jewett had an answer for that as well: "And why this defendant should be dunned / For keeping cows he never owned, / On which he never agreed to pay, / Is all submitted for the court to say."

And as to plaintiff Cockeram's plea to have the defendants pay the mounting costs of his suit, Jewett argued that "To charge this party with that load / Is not according to the Code. / And the only way we think to end it, / Is to render judgment for defendant." Signed. J. A. Jewett, Attorney for Davis and Brownlee.

Judge McClellan must have been impressed by the poetry. He rendered a judgment in favor of the defendants, leaving Cockeram minus a cow and forty dollars or so out of pocket. It must never have occurred to him how easily he could have recouped his expenses and made a tidy profit on top by selling the whole court proceedings to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.