Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Although Judge Richard Lawrence Dixon is buried at this site in Fresno’s Mountain View Cemetery, no one could ever tell. His tombstone was covered over by this monument to his son, Harry St. John Dixon. The elder Dixon is buried beneath the bench.
Judge Richard Lawrence Dixon was a prominent figure in the history of the San Joaquin Valley. He first came to what is now Madera County in 1870 to settle along Cottonwood Creek. At one time, he owned Refuge, the Mordecai Ranch, when it was part of the Alabama Colony.
This cooperative farming venture by a handful of expatriate Southerners had been in operation for two years when the Judge lent considerable fortitude to the effort with his inimitable sternness
I have had an interest in Judge Dixon for years. He was a man of “marked peculiarities,” according to his son-in-law, George Washington Mordecai. The Dixon family patriarch lived by one basic principle: “Give no insult, and take none,” Over the years, I have come to understand a bit more clearly just how firmly the Judge embraced this axiom that has had such an impact on our part of the Valley.
On a trip to Mississippi six years ago to do research on the Dixon family with a group of eighth grade history students, new documents surfaced that I had never seen before, and one of them told a most illustrative story about Judge Dixon.
The document was written by the Judge’s son, Harry St. John Dixon and took us back to Jackson, Mississippi in the year 1838.
Richard Lawrence Dixon and Julia Rebecca Phillips had only been married a year, when James Phillips, the bride’s father died. It fell to Dixon to manage the estate, which included the affairs of the State Treasurer’s office, and apparently in this he incurred the displeasure of Mississippi Governor McNutt.
For some reason, Governor McNutt, without accusing Judge Dixon of criminal activity, began to suggest that he had not been completely above board while handling his father-in-law’s public affairs.
Of course this rumor mongering reached the ears of Judge Dixon, and one morning, while on his way to the Capitol Building, he ran into Governor McNutt. As he passed him, Dixon spat in the Governor’s face as a large number of men who were sitting in front of a nearby tavern looked on.
“To the astonishment of all, the Governor walked on, wiping the spittle from his face,” but that wasn’t the end of the story by a long shot. A few days later, one A.J. Paxton, the Governor’s nephew and a member of his staff, published a derogatory statement in the local newspaper, which impugned the integrity of Judge Dixon. This was done in response to the indignity inflicted on Paxton’s kinsman.
When Dixon read the public insult in the paper, he grabbed his cane and headed to the Capitol and took up a position under the Rotunda, knowing that Paxton would have to show himself in the building sooner or later.
Sure enough, Paxton shortly appeared, having just left the Governor’s office. As he reached the Rotunda, Dixon stepped forth and administered a devastating caning to the Governor’s mouthpiece, who immediately sought refuge from the beating behind the door of a room that opened up into the main corridor. There he remained brandishing a pistol in every direction and putting several people besides the Judge in jeopardy.
The standoff continued until the Judge walked to the front steps of the Capitol and announced that he would meet Paxton or anyone who wanted to take up the matter in his stead. No one came forward except the deputy marshal. It just so happened that United States Supreme Court Justice John McKinley was holding a session of the U.S. Circuit Court in the Mississippi Capitol Building that day, and he was upset by all the commotion.
After submitting to arrest by the deputy, Dixon marched into the court to face Justice McKinley and explain that he was not responsible for the disturbance. Dixon’s demurrer, however, simply landed him a $100 fine. With that, Judge Dixon’s turned on the court.
“That is cheap,” said Dixon.
“Fine him $100 more, Mr. Clerk!” came the reply.
“That is equally cheap,” came Dixon’s retort.
“Fine him $250, Mr. Clerk,” roared the Justice.
“You better make it $500,” replied Dixon.
“Fine him $500, Mr. Clerk,” ordered McKinley.
At this point, Judge Dixon realized that he didn’t have $500 on his person and had to rely on his friends in the court, many of whom tossed him their wallets so that he could pay the fine.
Richard Lawrence Dixon never did fight a duel with Paxton, McNutt, or anyone else, but he certainly would have, as one observer attested. Col. Alexander McClung, who had had a quarrel with Dixon the year before said, “Gentlemen, I will have nothing to do with this affair, but I will inform you of one thing; Dixon will fight.”
I think that could have been the Judge’s epitaph, “He will fight,” but there is one problem, he doesn’t have a tombstone. When he and his wife died, they were buried in Fresno’s Mountain View Cemetery, and sometime later their graves were covered over by a huge marker belonging to someone else.
Not long ago, I stood at the Dixon plot and thought, “It’s a good thing he is dead, or someone would have a good fight on their hands. Most assuredly, he would have considered the situation “an insult.”