Blind Justice of the Peace Showed Christmas Compassion

Justice, as doled out by one man in Moundsville in the early 1960s, really was blind. One chilly night near Christmas, I was lucky enough to observe that he was also unexpectedly compassionate.

Chester Burk lost his sight as a child, grew up in Marshall County, held a series of jobs associated with the West Virginia Penitentiary, made lots of friends, and, at some point, became one of the County’s two elected Justices of the Peace – an office he held until he became too ill to do the job in his 70s.

Along the way, he became friends with my Grandma, Lizzie Minns, who was also blind. Every week, my Mother, Mabel, drove my Grandma and me in the old Rambler from our home in Elm Grove to Moundsville for our usual Wednesday night visits with “Uncle Chester,” his wife, “Aunt Jessie,” who was also blind, and “Aunt Alma,” Jessie’s sister who lived with the blind couple. Their home was in a very old block-long apartment complex on 9th Street about where a Dairy Queen parking lot is today. My Mom would later describe Chester and Jessie as very frugal, serious, and conservative.

“I’d hate to have him throw the book at me,” she said one time years later.

Being older than me, my brother Terry was permitted to skip out on most of these visits thanks to a busy schedule of school and social events in Wheeling. Sometimes, he would take me to the Strand Theater a few blocks away, where we watched old Vincent Price horror movies until Mom picked us up.

But most times, I sat on the floor in the corner of Uncle Chester’s living room and played with a couple dozen plastic toy soldiers – the contents of a beat up old crinkled paper sack they kept just for me behind a bedroom door. The adults engaged in the lost art of general conversation on a range of topics from President Kennedy’s election to local news events.

I always thought it was funny that Uncle Chester chain-smoked a brand of cigarette called “Chesterfields.” He sat in his designated yellow chair and, between long deep drags on his cigarette, he would cup his left hand under his cigarette-bearing right hand in a futile effort to catch falling ashes. The brown carpet, in a near perfect semi-circle around his favorite chair, was dotted with tiny burn marks from the ashes that evaded his attempts.

It was usually a quiet evening that was topped off with strawberry ice cream – a cone for me and tasteful little bowls for the adults. But, sometimes, I got to watch as Uncle Chester responded to his own kind of “bat signal” and jumped into action as Moundsville’s “Squire Burk” – justice of the peace.

It always started with the sound of an annoying but effectively loud buzzer that signaled Uncle Chester that it was time for him to assume his other identity as Squire Burk in the Spartan office he maintained next door to his apartment. Aunt Alma oversaw the forms and paperwork for the proceedings and acted as a kind of bailiff by administering the oath to witnesses, so the buzzer meant she was off to work too.

I would tag along like a meek little church mouse following my legal heroes as they moved through the kitchen, into the dining room, and then through a bedroom where a simple door led into the justice of the peace office. There was a spacious back room set up for formal proceedings. It had a big oak desk, rows of chairs facing the desk, and a big orange bench against the wall. But the action always occurred in the front room where there was a desk for Alma with an old beat up typewriter, an older worn padded chair where Squire Burk sat, and a kind of counter space where police presented people who were in custody. Chairs lined the back wall of the room. There were cigarette burns on the linoleum floor around where Squire Burk sat.

I never ventured into that front room while proceedings were under way. Instead, I took a seat on the big orange bench in the other room where the lights were never on. That’s where I listened intently to the drama played out in the next room.

The cases often were violence-related – bar fight losers swearing out assault and battery warrants on their successful attackers were common. But, there were also drunk drivers, speeders and general moving violation defendants brought in by tall WV State Troopers in their forest green uniforms and “Smokey the Bear” hats.

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It was like listening to an episode of Judge Judy 40 years before that show hit the airwaves. Law enforcement would present its case. The defendants would plead their side of the story with Squire Burk halting their digressions and talking back inconsistencies. Alma kept short hand notes which she would type up later. Finally, Squire Burk would render judgement which usually involved a fine if law enforcement’s story was more compelling than the defendant’s.

One Christmas, in the early 1960s, from my secret perch on the orange bench in the darkened room, I got to see what official kindness on the lowest rung of the West Virginia judiciary looked like, courtesy of Squire Burk. It was a cold mid-December evening long before domestic violence was a commonly-discussed issue or shelters were available to help women in crisis. State Troopers brought in a crying, disheveled woman who they found wandering in Moundsville. She was distraught and there was a big black bruise under her left eye.

“We do not believe this woman to be intoxicated and she isn’t seriously hurt,” a Trooper explained to Squire Burk. “She does appear to have been beaten. She has bruises and needed assistance to walk up your front steps. We stopped by the emergency room and they said it’s nothing serious. We know her husband because we have responded to calls to the house before.”

“Why did you bring her here if you aren’t seeking charges?” Squire Burk asked, lighting a Chesterfield with a Zippo lighter.

“Honestly, we thought you would know best what to do,” the Trooper responded.

“Young lady, do you wish to press charges against anyone?” Squire Burk asked.

“No sir,” she answered in a barely audible whisper.

“Do you want to go home?” he asked.

“No sir,” she responded more aggressively.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked as a cigarette ash dropped to the floor and created another burn dot in the linoleum.

“I don’t know. I have no money.”

Squire Burk lowered his voice and turned toward Alma who was taking notes.

“Alma do you have the number for that woman from the church who said she could help in these types of situations?” he asked as he smashed out his smoke in an old standing ash tray.

“Yes sir,” she responded. “I have it right here.”

“Young lady,” he said turning again to the frightened woman at the counter. “I am going to direct these Troopers to give you a ride to a place where you will be safe for tonight. Then, I want you to come back here tomorrow at, say 3 p.m. so we can talk about your situation.”

He stood, dug his hand into his left pocket and produced a $20 bill.

“Take this for incidentals you may need. We will make a call and they will be ready for you when you arrive.”

The two troopers exchanged approving glances and the young woman struggled for words. Alma wrote an address on a piece of paper and handed it to the troopers.

“Go now, rest up and we will see how things look tomorrow,” Squire Burk ordered as the troopers and the woman shuffled out the door.

As we passed back through the bedroom, dining room, and kitchen and entered the living room where my family and Aunt Jessie still sat chatting next to a giant Christmas tree, Squire Burk became Uncle Chester again. There was no discussion of what had just happened. No explanation of the young woman’s plight ensued.

“I just don’t know about that new school levy,” Uncle Chester said, picking up the conversation he left when his Justice of the Peace duties called.

On the way home, I couldn’t help but relate what I observed.

“I though you said Uncle Chester was kinda cheap,” I blurted out to my Mom and Grandma’s mortification. “Wait till you hear what he did.”

Note: Under the old justice of the peace system, justices received no salaries. They were compensated by the costs assessed against the losing party in civil cases and against criminal defendants who were convicted. In the early 1970s, the system was ruled unconstitutional and in 1974, voters approved the establishment of the magistrate system. Now, magistrates are elected, but they are paid a salary and are subject to the discipline of the Supreme Court.