In a case of “I wish I had known it before I published my book,” I stumbled across an interesting article while searching Newsbank this month. Newsbank is a searchable treasure trove of historic newspapers. My local library gives free off site access by simply having a library card. (Check yours, as they may have a similar benefit.)
The article was about Fielding Hurst when he served as judge of Tennessee’s Twelfth Judicial Circuit during Reconstruction. I’ve been researching this period of his life, one that has largely been ignored by other Hurst researchers. I’ve defended him both on this blog and in my book Hurst’s Wurst: Colonel Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry U.S.A., pointing out that many of the bad stories about him were partisan in nature, written by ex-Confederates with a bone to pick.
The article was published in the Daily Memphis (TN) Avalanche on June 22, 1867 . Entitled “Radical Demonism,” it described how Judge Hurst interrupted a speech made in Purdy, Tennessee by Emerson Ethridge, former Congressman and gubernatorial opponent of Governor William G. Brownlow. Ethridge was a conservative Unionist who believed former Confederates should have their voting rights given back to them, rights taken away by Brownlow and his Radical supporters in the General Assembly two years earlier. Judge Hurst was a Radical and had voted for the suspension of ex-Confederates voting rights.
Disliking what he heard while standing in the crowd, Hurst finally jumped onto the platform where Ethridge stood, “swinging his arms back and forth like the levers of a windmill,” and let out a torrent of obscenities at him. “That’s a d–d rebel lie, I’ll bet a thousand dollars,” Hurst reportedly cursed. “God d–m the rebels!” He pointed in his mouth and showed the bewildered Ethridge (who had no idea who he was) two missing teeth he claimed a rebel knocked out. He then cursed the Masonic Lodge and the church where the candidate’s speech was being given (despite himself being a Mason).
When Ethridge learned his identity, he chastised him for being a judge and behaving how he was and “perjuring yourself here before high Heaven–here in this sacred building–here before this altar, where all meet to worship the one living God.” But Hurst was not moved; he cursed the church and its preachers, who were a “set of canting, hypocritical rebels” and once again showed him his missing teeth! Ethridge mentioned there were women in the audience who were offended by his tirade; Hurst cursed them too, as rebels who “were worse than the men.”
According to the story, Ethridge told the crowd “he was going to enter into the animal taming business” and it “was as good a time as any.” Hurst took it as a threat against his life and cried, “Oh! you can shoot me. I know you are armed. I have no pistol. Oh! you and the d—-d rebels can assassinate me if you will.” The headline of the article questioned whether Hurst was “drunk or crazy.”
The article was clearly biased toward the pro-Confederate Conservatives and against the Radicals, so it’s hard to determine its truthfulness. Still, it shows a darker side of Fielding Hurst, whom the article describes as “monarch to all he surveys” in McNairy County, “[n]arrow minded, of deficient education, without legal or other information, drunken and debauched.” It’s an interesting story. I wish I had uncovered it last year so it could’ve been part of my book.