Charming, Felonious Moman Pruiett

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:02

    "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.