A few years ago, local historian Mac Lackey showed me a photograph of a cow in the courtroom of the old Iredell County Courthouse on Center Street in downtown Statesville. We were both left shaking our heads over what a cow was doing in the middle of a courtroom trial, but there it was. I have wondered at the photograph ever since until recently Jimmy Alley of Troutman helped me identify it. Jimmy said it was not a cow, but rather a bull, and not just any bull, but a scrub bull. What’s more the bull was the accused and was on trial for his life. He didn’t have the date, but last week while searching through the old Landmark newspapers I finally found out the details on when this near cowtastrophe occurred.
The headline read, “Scrub Bull Found Guilty.” The date was Nov. 23, 1922 and the accused stood in a little stall to the right of the clerk’s desk. He is described as standing there, “ribs visible, narrow-chested, without pride of ancestry.” The honorable Judge Mayor Bristol presided as judge. For the prosecution was young W. Kerr Scott, county agent from Alamance County. Defending the accused was O.F. McCrary, district demonstration agent, and Oscar Phillips, county agent.
I had to learn some agricultural Iredell County history to understand what was occurring. In the early 1920’s the North Carolina’s agricultural leaders began an effort to improve the cattle herd in the state through the use of registered Jersey bulls. Robert.W. Graeber, Iredell County Agricultural Agent, led a campaign to rid Iredell County farms of the “scrub bulls” being used to sire local cattle. Articles began to appear in the local papers with statements such as, “That the number of cows kept on a farm is not as important as the quality of cows kept,” and “That a scrub bull, whether grade or pure-bred, will make himself 100 per cent of the future herd by making them all scrubs and will soon put the owner out of business.”
On November 16, 1922, the Landmark announced that the eleventh annual Live Stock and Poultry Meeting would be held in Statesville on Nov. 22, 23, and 24. One of the featured programs would be the “Trial of the Scrub Bull” in which arguments would be presented both for and against the elimination of the scrub bulls from all Iredell County herds. On Nov. 23rd, a scrub bull stood in the Iredell County court house fighting not just for his own life, but the lives of his brotherhood throughout the county. Prosecutor W.K. Scott, used his chief witness, C.G. Profitt of the Biltmore farm to assail his character. “He is a thief. He is robbing the children of N.C. of the milk they deserve. The time when each man kept his own cow has passed; population has drifted toward the city and the problem of supplying milk for the city has risen. The scrub cannot produce it, the pure bred can. I ask the jury to condemn the defendant, the best thing to do with him is to kill him and use him for fertilizer and soap grease.”
I know I would have started chewing hay then if I had heard those words directed at me. Marion Wall gave a spirited defense for the accused. “The scrub doesn’t require a white-coated attendant, and a steam-heated barn; turn him out in the snow on a winter’s night without shelter and it makes no difference to him. The pure bred hasn’t the resistance of the scrub; too much breeding has weakened him.” His colleague, O.T. McCrary, denied the scrub was a renegade, “Your pure bred won’t survive unless you pamper him like a poodle dog. The scrub is here as a result of the law of natural selection.”
Judge Mayor Bristol charged the jury to weigh the evidence carefully pointing out that the fate of the defendant was not only a personal matter; it affected the life and pursuit of happiness of every other bull of his breed to say nothing of the interest of the county and State. The jury rendered its verdict, “The Jury, after heated and prolonged trial, finds scrub bull worthy of death, but recommends mercy.”
The judge was Statesville Mayor L. Berts Bristol who served from 1917-1927. The prosecutor William Kerr Scott would go on to serve as Governor of North Carolina from 1949-1953 and in the U.S. Senate from 1954-1958. His son Bob Scott was N.C. Governor from 1969-1973 and his granddaughter Meg Scott Phipps served as N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture from 2001 to 2003. The photo was taken by the Stimson Photography Studio. I still don’t know how they got the bull up those stairs to the court room on the second floor. Of course, after hearing the verdict he may have danced back down.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “The bull in the courthouse” on Oct. 22, 2008