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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Injudicious Appointment

There's a clamor in the press this morning over the President nominating for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court a candidate who's never sat as a judge anywhere, even in a small-town traffic court. Here in Wisconsin we once had a powerful judge with a similar amount of judicial experience, and he was the sole government in the state at the time.

Charles Reaume (1752-1822) was a failed merchant, farmer, and fur trader who fled to Green Bay from Montreal or Detroit about 1792. Territorial governor William Henry Harrison appointed him Justice of the Peace in 1803 and until 1822 Reaume dispensed idiosyncratic justice according to French and Indian customs rather than U.S. law. In fact, he is said not to have possessed a copy of the statutes.

Once, when two Frenchmen appeared before him over disputed property, he refused to rule in favor of either but found them both culpable and delivered this sentence: "You, Boivert," to the plaintiff, "bring me one load of hay; and you, Crely [the defendant], bring me one load of wood. Now the matter is settled."

Another time the judge met a defendant stopping to buy him a bribe, a small coffee pot, on the way to court. "Go away, go away," Reaume protested; "I have given judgement against you." But the defendant persisted and gave the judge the gift anyway, saying, "But judge, I don't owe that fellow anything." Reaume, coffee pot presumably in hand, replied, "You don't? The rascal! I reverse my judgement, and he shall pay the costs."

Reaume, who ruled in French, was much loved by many French Canadians and Indians, but considered pompous, arbitrary, and lazy by the few English-speaking Yankees who had begun to settle in Wisconsin. One of them recalled that "a bottle of spirits was the best witness that could be introduced into his court" and that after the decision of a case, if the losing party produced such a witness, a new trial or a reversal of the former decision was often obtained. Many defendants found themselves sentenced to labor a certain number of days on his farm, or to cut and split a certain number of rails for him. Juliette Kinzie (1806-1870), whose recollections entitled Wau-Bun are a classic of early Wisconsin, called him "excessively ignorant and grasping, although otherwise tolerably good-natured."

In 1810 Reaume moved upriver to a trading post near modern Kaukauna, about 10 miles above Green Bay, where his biographer tells us he "sold liquor to the Indians, not unfrequently drinking freely with them, and sharing in their frays, as well as in blackened eyes and bruises. There he died alone, in the spring of 1822... about seventy years of age." He was buried in an unmarked grave at Green Bay. You can read more about him in this 1920 article and in the memoir of John Lockwood, the Yankee trader quoted above.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on October 4, 2005

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