Wyoming People: Judge Jacob Blair Helped Tame Wild West With A Gavel, Not A Gun

Good judges were hard to find in Wyoming during the state’s fledgling years as a territory; 1860s Wyoming was practically lawless. Vigilante justice abounded. Judge Jacob Blair tried to change that.

Jake Nichols

September 17, 202313 min read

Many of the Wild West criminals who crossed paths with Judge Jacob Blair found themselves at the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie.
Many of the Wild West criminals who crossed paths with Judge Jacob Blair found themselves at the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The richness of Wyoming history often can be experienced through its people. These individual personalities are woven into the collective fabric of a proud state that has always done things its own way.

Take, for example, Jacob Beeson Blair.

He was born April 11, 1821, in Parkersburg, Virginia. Despite being orphaned as a child, he became a lawyer, then a prosecuting attorney, then a state legislator, and finally a congressman. He also served as foreign minister to Costa Rica from 1868-1872.

He did all this before arriving in the Wyoming Territory to help tame the Wild West with a gavel instead of a six-shooter.

A stern barrister, Judge Blair was known for his fairness, his “substantial justice” (his self-ascribed motto) and, above all, his sense of humor.

One of his best quips from the bench came as the judge was presiding over a homicide case in the early 1880s in Cheyenne when a gunsmith was called to the witness stand to give expert testimony on the murder weapon.

Seated at the witness stand a few feet from the judge, the gunsmith handled the defendant’s revolver and explained to the jury its workings.

When the judge leaned over to that side to spit a mouthful of tobacco into a spittoon on the floor, he noticed the weapon pointed right at him.

“Mr. Witness, is that gun loaded?” Blair asked.

“Why, yes, your honor, it is,” the witness replied.

“I’ll ask you then to kindly point it toward the lawyers," Blair said. “Good judges are scarce.”

The account was told from memory in 1931 by pioneer lawyer AC Campbell, one of those “expendable” attorneys present in the courtroom that day.

"He had a charming personality and an amiable disposition. He also possessed a keen sense of humor which was frequently displayed upon the bench and occasionally savored a written opinion," Campbell added.

Judge Jacob Blair was instrumental in West Virginia statehood. Once that happened, he took his judicial talents to the Wild West in Wyoming.
Judge Jacob Blair was instrumental in West Virginia statehood. Once that happened, he took his judicial talents to the Wild West in Wyoming. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming Justice

Good judges were hard to find in Wyoming during the state’s fledgling years as a territory; 1860s Wyoming was practically lawless. A&E’s television series “Hell on Wheels” got a lot right. Vigilante justice abounded. A rope and a tall tree were all the judge and jury many accused received.

Take January 1868, for example. Three men arrested for theft in Cheyenne were released on bond. The next morning, they were found tied together with a large canvas that listed their names and the following: “$900 stole, $500 recovered, city authorities please not interfere until 10 o'clock a.m. Next case goes up a tree. Beware of the Vigilance Committee.”

The next morning the Cheyenne vigilantes struck at Dale City and hanged three desperadoes. A few days later they drove five "bad guys" out of Cheyenne.

In part to bring order to the territory, President Grant announced judicial appointments on April 3, 1869. John H. Howe was appointed chief justice, with John W. Kingman and W. T. Jones named associate justices.

If they were the posse, Blair was the cavalry.

Here Come The Judge

Known as being instrumental in petitioning for the reconfiguration of Virginia and for West Virginia to be admitted to the Union in 1863, Blair had President Lincoln’s confidence and ear.

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Blair admitted to breaking into the White House on New Year’s Eve 1862 with a couple of colleagues. Eager for Lincoln’s answer, Blair entered through an open window and saw the signed bill sitting on the desk of the president. West Virginia was to be admitted into the Union.

With his work seemingly done back East, Blair headed West for what was then Wyoming Territory. Wyoming back then was a complicated place to define, falling under different jurisdictions and relationships. Because of the state’s geographic location, portions of it were involved in the Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Country and Mexican Cession.

Often the “state” was lumped into Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Dakotas, Nebraska and Utah. In 1876 when Blair arrived, Wyoming Territory had five counties — Albany, Carbon, Laramie, Sweetwater and Uinta — each extending all the way from Colorado to Montana.

Chief Justice Joseph W. Fisher had Laramie County as his district, Jacob B. Blair had Albany and Carbon counties, and William Ware Peck was given Sweetwater and Uinta counties.

The Albany County Historical Society recounts this story. Soon after his arrival to Wyoming, Blair happened upon two boys quarreling over a game of marbles. One boy said the other did not “knuckle down” while the other claimed he did.

The judge sat down on a nearby snowbank and called the boys over. He heard each side of the case and reached a decision which reportedly satisfied both boys.

He was going to make a great judge.

Blair An Instant Hit With The Press

It wouldn’t take long for the beloved judge to earn the respect of local newsmen at Laramie’s Boomerang and Sentinel.

“There will be no more bloody riots or impromptu hanging bees [swarms] in this neck of woods if the people and the court know themselves,” the Boomerang wrote during a trial where Judge Blair chastised the lynching of a man named Si Partridge.

Partridge was in the custody of officers pending his expedition to Colorado when he was taken strung up by an angry mob.

“There might be some excuse,” the judge said, “for the lynching of desperate characters, the murderers and thugs of early days when there were no courts to enforce the law ...

“But in this lynching affair there was no excuse. [The vigilantes] might even escape merited punishment in this life, but there would be an infallible tribunal before which they must appear with the blood of their victim upon their hands. If discovered and indicted, the parties accused should have that fair trial by an impartial jury, which Partridge was deprived of, in violation of the supreme law of the land, by those who choked him to death.”

Sitting as U.S. magistrate in November 1886, the Hon. Jacob B. Blair gave a precedent-setting decision in the case of the United States vs. Jabez B. Simpson. Simpson had cashed out on a homestead entry in the state of Wisconsin and later tried to prove up a homestead in Wyoming. Could you double dip under the Homestead Act?

No one knew, until Blair ruled you could.

“Judge Blair's decision in the Simpson homestead entry case was but sound common sense in the form of judicial logic,” wrote the Boomerang.

Firm But Fair

Even the accused sometimes showed reverence toward the judge.

A December 1885 issue of the Big Horn Sentinel recalled the story of two tribal members convicted and sentenced by Judge Blair in a Buffalo courtroom. Samuel and Beaver, who pled guilty to the charge of grand larceny before the judge, were each sentenced to one year in the penitentiary, a rather light sentence for the crime.

“The family of the two Indians presented the judge with a handsomely beaded medicine pipe and a tobacco sack,” the Sentinel wrote. “The judge, in return, to show his good feelings toward their tribe, purchased a sack of flour and a large piece of bacon and gave it to the members of the tribe who were just preparing to start back to their reservation.”

Judge Blair also showed leniency to a man named Frank Senff, who was sent to the pen for one year — the lightest sentence he could receive by law — after hearing numerous appeals on his behalf that he was “not mentally responsible” after receiving a blow to the head two years prior.

One of Judge Blair’s better-known cases of clemency came just days before the Fourth of July in 1887.

The Boomerang wrote the following:

Two convictions were obtained in cases of petit larceny, one of the prisoners being a colored man charged with stealing tools and who had been in the jail six months. He had been filled up with stories of Judge Blair's sternness and inflexibility in dealing with criminals until he expected to be almost roasted alive if not devoured raw and when he was brought into court he gazed upon the judge with trembling limbs and palpitation heart, as he announced that he was not guilty of grand larceny but would plead guilty to petit larceny.

"You stole the tools, did you?' inquired the judge, sternly.

The prisoner admitted that he did.

"Well, I am surprised at you. I have heard of colored men stealing chickens and if you had been charged with that I shouldn’t have thought so much of it, but I never heard of one stealing tools."

After a pause, "Now, how would you like to celebrate the Fourth of July?"

This made the darkey's eyes fairly stand out from his head and his feelings toward the court underwent a complete revulsion when the sheriff was ordered to lock him up until the Fourth and then set him free. When he was taken to jail, he insisted on the doors all being left wide open, as he would set right there until the Fourth came. When the morning did arrive and he was told to go, he did not even stop for his hat, but went on the run, and the judge says he presumes he is running yet.

Newspaper clippings from Wyoming newspapers writing about Judge Jacob Blair during Wyoming's territorial days.
Newspaper clippings from Wyoming newspapers writing about Judge Jacob Blair during Wyoming's territorial days. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Judge Sentences Two To Hang

The judge had no tolerance for murderers, however.

Take the case of George Cook, who was accused of killing James Blunt on Thanksgiving Day 1883. Despite two separate calls of jury tampering which remanded the case to the state supreme court, Judge Blair upheld the conviction on a cold day in March 1884.

“George Cook, stand up,” the judge said before continuing to a hushed courtroom. “You have been indicted in this court for having willfully, deliberately and premeditatedly, with malice and aforethought, taken the life of James. On March 28, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred eighty-four, you are to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Judge Blair also suggested Cook use his remaining time to prepare to meet his Maker and beg his grace and forgiveness.

In another homicide case in July 1885, Blair passed sentence on Bill Booth for the murder of Jacob Schwearer. The jury was out eight hours before it brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. Judge Blair sentenced the prisoner to be hanged Oct. 2.

A man named Ridell was tried during the same term on a charge of selling a steer that was not his property and was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in the penitentiary.

According to the Boomerang, the two met in a cell after their cases and Booth said to Ridell, “I got off a lot easier than you did. You got two and a half years, I only got three months. Meaning it would be only three months until he was to be hung.”

When asked later about the possibility of reprieve or commutation with Booth, the judge replied emphatically he thought there was no doubt of the man’s guilt and said, “He will hang.”

Blair Bounced By Dems

When the end came for Blair it came decisively through no wrongdoing of his own. He simply belonged to the wrong party. When Grover Cleveland won presidency in 1884, Blair, a staunch Republican, phoned the new president to offer his congratulations.

“Perhaps I should congratulate you on your success Mr. President, but I can't conscientiously do that for the reason that I lost all my ready money betting on Blaine. I have but one request to make of the new administration. Like Jeff Davis, I simply want to be let alone.”

Cleveland reportedly chided Blair a little, but assured the judge he would still have a job on the bench barring the appearance of serious charges against him.

“Mr. President,” Blair blurted, “the most serious charge that I have heard is that I bet on Blaine.”

Fellow Justice Peck didn’t think much of Blair and began a smear campaign soon after Cleveland’s election.

"The judge of the second district — who is lazy, ignorant, frivolous and profane — has been the buffoon of the courts for the last twelve years,” Peck once wrote. “[He] is without talent, poorly read, ill-trained and unbalanced in professional development below his years, a judicial crudity, and is profane, given to low intimacy and a frequenter of saloons.”

By March 1887, rumors were printed in the Big Horn Sentinel that Judge Blair would soon be removed by the Cleveland administration.

When contacted by the Laramie Boomerang, Blair said the rumors had no foundation.

“I feel confident I will not be removed. President Cleveland assured me in the most positive terms that my resignation was not expected and that he would not remove me unless some serious charges should be made,” Blair told the newspaper.

After two judges were removed in Utah by Cleveland, Blair was the last Republican judge still seated on the territorial benches.

“I am 66 years old today, and the last republican rose in the Wyoming federal bouquet that remains unplucked,” Blair told the Boomerang on April 11, 1887.

Blair was gone a year later — April 23, 1888 — after 11 years serving Wyoming. He moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he acted as probate judge and surveyor general of Utah until his death in 1901.

Blair was given a splendid gold watch upon his resignation where the words “Substantial Justice” were engraved.

"These are my jewels which I have sought to possess and hoped to be worthy of. You will therefore realize how I value this beautiful tribute, this unmistakable manifestation of your consideration and kindness,” Blair said. “Each tick of this watch will remind me that as my life commenced sixty-seven years and fourteen days ago, it is now fast running away. I have looked forward with great satisfaction to the end of my third term on the bench, when I should lay aside the official robes, released and relieved of the burdens and responsibilities which have often pressed me sorely, but now that the hour has arrived I am free to confess it is not without sorrow."

A Few Blair Classics

  • Blair wrote, "We have read with due care the testimony given on the trial and find, as is usually the case in actions founded on verbal agreements or understandings, that the parties had no difficulty in disagreeing as to all material matters.”

  • In Hinton v. Winsor, Blair wrote, "We have examined the record in this case, with a degree of patience and diligence seldom equaled, but never excelled in the history of judicial tribunals, to find something of which the appellant might in equity complain; but all in vain."

  • In Garbanati v. Beckwith, he explained that, "The justice rendered judgment in favor of the defendant, and against the plaintiff. And thereupon the plaintiff took an appeal to the district court with no better success, judgment being rendered against him. Not being weary in search of substantial justice, he sues out a writ of error, and brings his case to this court, where substantial justice is known to be administered in all its purity.”

Jake Nichols can be reached at jake@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter