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Coate Tales: Judge Dixon suffered ‘grave’ injustice

 

A few days ago, I received notice from The Madera Tribune that a federal judge was trying to reach me. Needless to say, this caught my attention right away, and I looked into the matter.


Come to find out Judge Leslie H. Southwick, a Bush appointee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals who maintains chambers in Jackson, Mississippi, had read an article written by this writer and published in the Tribune. The story was about Judge Richard Lawrence Dixon, a member of the Alabama Colony who sold his plantation in Mississippi and came to what is now Madera County after the Civil War.


Judge Southwick wrote that he was making a presentation to a legal group in Jackson and was looking for a photo of Judge Dixon.


I immediately forwarded his request to my friend and Mississippi historian Daryl Lewis who supplied the judge with the photograph.


After the judge acknowledged his receipt of the picture, I went back to see what I had written about Dixon that would pique the interest of a federal judge.


It is a fascinating story.


Several years ago I went to Mississippi to do research on the Dixon family with a group of 8th grade history students. We found some new documents that I had never seen before, and one of them told a most illustrative tale about Judge Richard Lawrence Dixon and his wife.


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, McNutt, without accusing 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 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 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, Dixon 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, 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.”