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Kentucky by Heart: For tormented KY Judge Richard Reid, doing the right thing led to tragic demise


By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

I recently came across a story about the demise of a Mt. Sterling man in the 1880s that made eerie connections — at least in my mind — to some of the scenarios of our modern-day, particularly political life. More specifically, the idea of societal grievances and the belief that in order to resolve perceived grievances, “taking the law into one’s own hands” might be acceptable, and even honorable. For Richard Reid, it brought about unnecessary tragedy.

Sketch of Richard Reid (Image courtesy of Montgomery County Library Reid Collection)

A significant number of Americans, both in Kentucky and the old South, carried that distorted view of personal justice in the era. They often acted upon it with violent actions.

Richard Reid was born on a family farm in Montgomery County in 1838. His mother died when he was three, and he and his younger brother were given over to be raised by their grandparents. But in 1942, his father married his deceased wife’s sister, and the Reid boys became part of a larger and blended family.

Young Richard was not close to his father, and one might surmise a probable reason. As a 15-month-old child, Richard received reckless treatment from a servant that would bring him chronic pain. It interfered with his ability to do normal physical activities, and he compensated by focusing toward a life of books and academic pursuits. He has been called “brilliant” in that regard.

But in Dr. James Klotter’s book, Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood, Klotter mentioned that one author noted that “traits such as size, strength, speed, and endurance earned a boy respect among his peers.” And, Klotter continued, “Reid could not measure up to those standards,” thus was disrespected by his father. The son bore a difficult burden.

Reid’s later life of success as a lawyer and judge in Mt. Sterling appeared to be overshadowed by both physical and emotional challenges which began in his youth and, though he seldom shared that information with others, were negatively impactful. That, and later even greater complications, likely brought his life to a tragic end. Apparently, most people in his community saw him as an upright Christian man, teaching Sunday school and attending Wednesday night prayer services at the local Christian church — and who was very good at his chosen profession of law.

Reid’s Mt. Sterling grave site (Photo by Steve Flairty)

In 1865, he began practicing law with his brother in Mt. Sterling and had a respectable practice. In succeeding years, Reid worked with other partners. In 1882, he was elected a judge on what was then the new Superior Court in Kentucky, and he was praised for his legal knowledge and ability. Then, in 1884, a vacancy for the state Court of Appeals opened and Reid chose to run for the seat.

That’s when the first tragedy occurred. John Jay Cornelison, another attorney in Mt. Sterling and a fellow church member with Reid, was offended by what he perceived as Reid’s part in a court suit that discredited Cornelison, though it had nothing to do with the political campaign. In revenge for what he considered a slight to his honor, Cornelison thought it would be honorable to exact revenge. He pummeled the unexpecting Reid with a cane and cowhide whip, leaving the judge badly injured.

Not only did the word quickly spread around town, but the story became a national one. Within the harrowing narrative, there were a few storylines that were, I believe, chilling. First was the idea that the perpetrator felt justified in physically attacking someone for a personal grievance. It was revealed later that Judge Reid had nothing to do with the perceived wrong to Cornelison. A significant part of the population had a similar view during the times, and it only takes a cursory look at the number of jail lynchings that took place in the times to make the point.

Reid didn’t retaliate in like manner. Though he endured great suffering, he abided by what he considered his Christian values and used lawful processes to bear on Cornelison. But for many around him, likely including others of Christian beliefs, he was deemed “dishonorable” for not responding with physical vengeance. Initially, even his wife believed he should have killed Cornelison for his hateful act.

Inscription on Reid’s gravestone (Photo by Steve Flairty)

Trying to do the right thing, Judge Reid found himself in a difficult spot. He was hurting with bodily aches and surely must have felt horribly violated by the attack. Then there was the mental anguish visited upon him while being characterized as dishonorable, not living up to a “code of honor” by not personally bringing justice to Cornelison.

On May 15, 1884, Reid shot and killed himself, a shock to the townsfolk and an event that reverberated around America. In death, Richard Reid perhaps had more supporters than he thought. Likely, they hadn’t realized the torture he was feeling inside. A number of lawyers pushed the matter and Cornelison eventually received three years in jail for his crime after it looked like he first might get off scot-free.

In today’s climate of political and social disunity, I see some of the elements emerging that remind me of Reid’s time. Grievances, retribution, and similar threatening terms are thrown around, with social media often being the vehicle. That is a disheartening fact.

Kentucky — and America — were designed to be entities relying on lawful processes to hold our ideals of living together in place. Let’s get on that path, doing all we can to promote understanding. And let’s hold up the integrity of people like Judge Richard Reid as honorable and desirable.

Sources: Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood, by James Klotter; findagrave.com; Montgomery County Public Library Reid Collection; Kentucky Travels (Facebook page)

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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