Judge Holt and the Fish-Grass Case

It is said that Judge Thaddeus Goode Holt presided over the first session of the Superior Court of Lowndes County, GA in 1825, convened at the home of Sion Hall, and where Levi J. Knight served as foreman of the Grand Jury.

In Macon, the Honorable Thaddeus G. Holt  went into law practice with his brother-in-law, Allen Fleming, Esquire. A case of note was the Fish-Grass case, concerning the fishing for shad on the Ocmulgee River.

American Shad.

American Shad.

In The bench and bar of Georgia: memoirs and sketches, with an appendix, containing a court roll from 1790 to 1857, etc, Volume 2, Steven Frank Miller tells a story of the Fish-Grass case in which Thaddeus G. Holt and Allen Fleming represented defendants in the Superior Court of Twiggs County:

A little circumstance may be here related as occurring in 1832, or thereabout…

A well-known citizen of Macon, considerably advanced in years and of great wealth, had retained Messrs. Shorter and Gordon as standing counsel. The litigation in which he was engaged was quite extensive, and some of it very curious. Among other possessions he owned land on opposite sides of the Ocmulgee, and had resolved to permit no fishing on his property, except by his leave. In the shad-season, several poor men residing in Bibb crossed over, fastened their canoes to the Twiggs side, and threw out their nets for fish in the river. To warm themselves, they kindled a fire on the bank, burned pine-knots, and probably increased their comfort by adding a few sticks of other wood to the flame. This was the only ” breaking the plaintiff’s close and treading down his grass” for which his counsel were instructed to bring an action in Twiggs Superior Court, because it was for a trespass on the realty. The defendants employed a gentleman* [Thaddeus G. Holt] who had just retired from the bench of the Southern circuit, and his partner† [Allen Fleming] in the practice, whose modesty alone forced him afterward from the bar. The trial came on:  the plaintiff, trembling with bodily infirmities, yet resolute, appeared in court with his title-papers, scowling vengeance on the poor fishermen who had dared to trample on his rights,— “the grass aforesaid.”

The evidence showed a legal trespass of a very harmless character. Mr. Gordon argued the case for the plaintiff by stating the law, and maintaining that because the plaintiff was rich it was no reason why justice should be denied where a plain case of damage had been made out; for the law presumed damage whenever a trespass was committed. The effort was up-hill, a heavy strain to counsel, and the jury looked as if they had no disposition to encourage him by nods or smiles of approbation as he dwelt on the strong points of his argument.  After Mr. Gordon closed, the junior counsel of the defendants launched forth in a vein of goodhumored yet convulsive ridicule, and blowed the case so completely that the jury in five minutes returned a verdict for the defendants. Whereupon the plaintiff instantly paid the cost and entered an appeal, declaring that he would “give it to the rascals next time.” While the appeal was pending in the grass-fish case, Mr. Gordon found it inconvenient to attend Twiggs court, and the action was transferred into the hands of a gentleman‡ [John A. Cuthbert] who, as an advocate, (a former Representative in Congress,) evinced a high order of talent and very refined and uniformly-courteous address. His speech for the plaintiff was calmly logical, and was a fair specimen of Westminster deduction from small premises. The ex-judge, who was behind none of his compeers in blandness of manner, then touched the spark to the magazine of fun in the case, and away it exploded, causing much suppressed laughter, even at the expense of Mr. Gordon, who was accused of deserting his large practice in the court rather than appear in so pitiful a case or seeming to offend his rich client by a refusal,—a case so unequal, so much power on the one side and so much weakness on the other, as to remind one of a whale making war upon a minnow, if nature ever permitted such contests; a case where a rich man grudged a few straggling fish in a public highway (for all rivers in Georgia were such) to the poor families who looked to it for their daily support. The special jury readily gave a concurring verdict for the defendants. A motion was made for a new trial, on which a rule nisi was granted, and taken to the Convention of Judges, who advised a dismissal of the rule. Thus terminated the case,

* Hon. Thaddeus G. Holt, now of the city of Macon.

†Allen Fleming, Esq., then of Marion, but who for the last eight or ten years has been the Agent of the Marine and Fire Insurance Bank at Griffin.

‡John A. Cuthbert, Esq., then editor of the Federal Union, now a resident of Mobile, Alabama, and late judge of the county court.

 

Additional notes on Judge Thaddeus G. Holt:
His father, Thaddeus Holt, served for a short time in the state legislature and as a lieutenant colonel in the militia during the War of 1812. He participated in several duels during his life and was eventually murdered in October of 1813.

 

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