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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 18, No. 1
March, 1940


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Judge Jesse James Dunn

Jesse James Dunn, son of James McCann and Alta Florina Dunn, nee Lewis, was born October 2, 1867, at Channahon, Will County, Illinois, where his parents were married on November 27, 1866, in an atmosphere still reverberating from the debates between Douglas and Lincoln. In 1868 the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, his father opening a grocery store. One year later they removed to Brooksville, Noxubee County, Mississippi, where for eight years his father operated a large cotton plantation, his early boyhood being spent near the home of Jefferson Davis. In 1877 the family returned to Illinois, locating at El Paso, in Woodford County.

The grandfather of Judge Jesse James Dunn was Dr. William Abram Dunn, who married Rachel Powers at Hillsboro in Highland County, Ohio, in 1835. She died at a point about ten miles east of Warsaw, Illinois, in 1850. He subsequently removed to Farmington, Fulton County, Illinois. The children coming to this union were as follows: James McCann, born February 4, 1836 in Ohio, the others being born in Illinois, as follows: Rebecca Ann, February 8, 1838; Jefferson, in 1840; Mary Jane, 1842; Imra, 1844; Almira, 1846, and Johnny, 1849. After the death of his wife, Dr. Dunn removed to St. Louis, Missouri, engaging in the practice of medicine, where, in 1851, he married Grace Taylor. Later returning to Illinois he located at Bloomington, where he died.

James McCann Dunn (Judge Dunn's father), in 1857, went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and freighted for Russell & Waddell to the then outpost of the United States Government. In 1858 he returned to Illinois and engaged in business until December 21, 1863, when at Woodburn under the name of Jandes M. Dunn, age 27 years and born in Ohio, he enlisted in the military service of the United States, being assigned to Company A, 97th Regiment Illinois Infantry, and later transferred to Company 11, 37th Regiment Illinois Infantry, and on detached service in the ambulance corps after October 16, 1864. He was honorably discharged August 15, 1865, at New Orleans, Louisiana.

His paternal Dunn ancestry were from Anglo-Saxon stock,1 and that of his maternal grandmother of Welsh extraction. The Dunns

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came from England to the Colony of Virginia in an early day, settling in the Valley of the Shenandoah, their descendants spreading out into the states carved out of the Northwest Territory.

In the fall of 1885, the father, James McCann Dunn, and son, Jesse James Dunn, when the latter was eighteen years of age, went to Garden City, Kansas, and opened a general store. In the spring of 1886 the rest of the family came from El Paso, Illinois, to Garden City, Kansas, and a claim sixteen miles north therefrom (Post Office Terry, Finney County, Kansas), was located. In the fall of 1886 Jesse James Dunn returned to Illinois, and matriculated at the State Normal School at Normal. At the close of the school year he returned to Garden City, Kansas, where the family was located in a new home. Immediately he became associated with the Garden City Business College as an instructor in Bookkeeping and Penmanship. In the early part of 1888, at Voorhees, in Stevens County, Kansas, he was manager of a grocery store for his father.

Beginning in 1889, he read law and pursued his legal studies in the law office of George Lynn Miller, Garden City, who later married his oldest sister.

Matriculating in the law school of the University of Kansas in 1892, he graduated with a degree of Bachelor of Laws on June 7, 1893.2

At the opening of the Cherokee Outlet on September 16, 1893, he made the run, settling at Alva and engaging in the practice of law with George Lynn Miller, Esquire, sharing the trials of the pioneers and the prosperity of those who persisted.

At Voorhees in 1888 he had become acquainted with the late Sam N. Wood,3 for whom the county of Woods in Oklahoma Terri-

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tory at Judge Dunn's instance was named. In the contest between Hugoton and Woodale for the county seat of Stevens County, Kansas, Sam N. Wood was the leading contender for Woodale. For a successful contest for the county seat, it was desirable to secure a railroad for the town, and in that early day Kansas townships frequently issued bonds to provide bonuses with which to subsidize such construction. Judge Dunn became a zealous follower of Sam N. Wood and supporter of Woodale.

In the noted murder case of the United States v. C. E. Cook. Orin Cook, Capt. C. E. Frease, Johnnie Jackson, Ed Boudin, John Colbert and five others, tried at the October term, 1889, of the United States Court for the Eastern District of Texas, at Paris, said defendants being charged in several indictments with the murder of John Cross (Sheriff of Stevens County, Kansas), and his possemen, Ted Eaton, Rollo Wilcox and Bill Hubbard, on July 26, 1888, growing out of the county seat controversy between said towns of Hugoton and Woodale, seven of whom were convicted of the crime of murder,4 and sentenced to death. George R. Peck of Chicago, General Attorney for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, John F. Dillon of New York City, former United States Circuit Judge, and then attorney for the Gould interests, William R. Day, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court, Joseph Frease of Ohio, and W. H. Rossington of Topeka, Kansas, appeared as attorneys for the appellants in the Supreme Court of the United States, and S. B. Bradford, former attorney general of Kansas, and J. C. Hodges of Paris, Texas, were attorneys for said defendants in the trial court.

In addition to the four men killed in what was known as the Hay Meadow massacre at a point in what was then called No Man's Land, but now is in Texas County, Oklahoma, Herbert Toney was left at the place of the crime, thought to be dead, but afterwards recovering he was used as a witness by the United States government. Sam Robinson, who was the actual principal in the killing, fled from the state of Kansas to Colorado, where he was soon afterwards arrested for another crime and convicted and sentenced to the Colorado state penitentiary for a term of ten years, where he died in prison, never being tried under the federal indictment for murder.

The convictions on appeal were set aside and a new trial ordered, but the case was never again tried.

Judge Dunn, immediately after the killing, on horseback from the adjoining county of Stevens had gone into No Man's Land and

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viewed the scene before the bodies of the parties killed or wounded were removed, and was used as a witness at the trial at Paris, Texas, which lasted more than a month.

Sam N. Wood ably and vigorously assisted the United States Attorney's office in the prosecution.

In 1894, as a candidate for the nomination of County Attorney of Woods County at the hands of the Populist Party, Judge Dunn failed to secure the nomination by only three votes. His public career began when two years later he secured such nomination and was elected on November 3, 1896, two years later being again nominated, and re-elected on November 8, 1898, serving two terms.

After Judge Dunn retired from said office in January, 1901, he resumed the practice of law at Alva, and formed a partnership with Francis Marion Cowgill, a Missourian and former resident of Kansas, under the firm name of Cowgill & Dunn, which continued until the erection of the state. Judge Dunn occupied a place in the front rank of his profession, and was one of the ablest among the pioneers who made the run into the Cherokee Outlet, commonly called the Cherokee Strip.

After the Populist organization disintegrated nationally and ceased to function generally as a party, he affiliated with the Democratic Party under the Bryan Leadership, becoming a leader of that party.

He also occupied a place of leadership at the Territorial bar. In 1903 he was elected and served as president of the Oklahoma Territory Bar Association.5 In 1904 he was unanimously elected as chairman of the Territorial Democratic Committee.

The Honorable Frank Matthews of Mangum, now of California, a member of the council of the Oklahoma Territory Legislature, having been at the Territorial Democratic Convention in 1904 nominated as its candidate for delegate to Congress, Judge Dunn, as chairman of the Territorial Committee, managed the campaign. Whilst the Democrats did not prevail in that contest, the Republican majority was reduced. As such party leader, he, in line with the plan of the Democratic party organization of Oklahoma Territory for admission of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory as one state, was actively aggressive. The Enabling Act to that end was passed by the Congress on June 16, 1906. In the campaign to elect delegates to the Constitutional Convention, which was to assemble under the provisions of said Enabling Act, the Democratic party organizations of the two territories with unanimity consolidated and selected Judge Dunn as their campaign manager, which resulted in

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electing ninety-nine Democrats, one Independent, and twelve Republicans to said Convention, a signal victory. In a great measure it was occasioned by his skill and ability as an organizer and leader.

At the election on September 17, 1907, for the adoption of the Constitution proposed for the new state, and election of officers, Judge Dunn was elected as a Justice of the Supreme Court from the Fifth Supreme Court Judicial District, and re-elected on November 8, 1910 for a six-year term to begin in January 1911 and to expire in January, 1917.

In 1904 there was strong support in the Democratic party organization for the nomination of Judge Dunn as a delegate to Congress, but he declined to permit the use of his name to that end.

On November 6, 1905, Judge Dunn was selected as chairman of a committee to go to Washington, D. C., after Congress convened in December and present to the committees on Territories appropriate resolutions in support of the passage of an Enabling Act for early statehood.

As preliminary to the campaign in 1906, Judge Dunn demonstrated great strategy in uniting the former Populist strength with the regular Democrats in support of the Democratic nominees for delegates to the Constitutional Convention. As a rule afterwards this contingent from the former Populist Party remained in the Democratic fold.

The Supreme Court at the erection of the State, under the constitution, adopted the "rotation" plan in its selection of the Chief Justice. When the time arrived for such selection in January 1909, Justices Dunn and Kane, under said plan, being equally eligible, it was so arranged that Judge Kane was elected and served for the first year of that biennium and Judge Dunn was elected as Chief Justice on January 11, 1910, and served as such during the latter year of said biennium.

Judge Dunn, in July 1913, resigned as a justice of the Supreme Court effective September 1, 1913, to remove to Oakland, California, to engage in the practice of the law.

Decisions prepared by him are reported in volumes 20 to 39, inclusive, of the Oklahoma Reports.

He was an able and upright judge. His opinions evidenced not only accomplishment in the law but also excellence in style.

In 1913 he formed a partnership with Judge John Yule, uncle of Mrs. Dunn, at Oakland to engage in the practice of the law. Later, on March 1, 1914, the firm of Dunn, White and Aiken was formed, which continued in the practice of the law as a marked success until the date of his death.

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After his death on July 28, 1926, his name was so highly prized that the firm name Dunn, White6 and Aiken was continued by the remaining members until the dissolution of their partnership on December 31, 1938.

The death of Dean Green,7 of the School of Law of the Kansas University, having occurred on November 3, 1919, unofficial inquiry was made on the part of its board as to whether Judge Dunn would accept the deanship as his successor. Whilst appreciating this unofficial offer coming from his Alma Mater he was so circumstanced by location and professional connection that he did not feel justified in indicating his acceptance.

6Excerpt from letter from Carlos G. White, dated December 7, 1939, Dunn Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society:

"Judge Dunn was one of the most effective story tellers I have ever known, and his repertoire seemed unlimited. He had a story to fit every situation.

"In one of our cases on appeal to the California Court of Appeals, opposing counsel sought to reverse a judgment for $4,500 * * * by cliaming that the broker was guilty of some alleged fraud toward his principal in the transaction. The defendant, whose counsel, urged this defense upon appeal, was the secretary and general manager of a corporation, and had given * * * the written authorization to act as broker, required by California law, and had done so in the name of the corporation. The broker found a purchaser ready, willing and able to pay the specified price and tendered performance. The corporation refused to consummate the sale, and when the corporation was sued by the broker, that action for compensation was defeated by proof that the secretary and general manager had no authority to enter into the contract, and judgment in the suit against the corporation went against the real estate broker. In a second suit (in which the judgment appealed from was secured) Judge Dunn, in his complaint, asked to recover the same amount from the secretary-manager as damages for breach of the agent's warranty of his own authority, and recovered judgment. In answer to the defendant-appellant's claim of fraud on the part of the broker, urged by the defendant who had defeated the claim against the corporation, Judge Dunn said, in his brief, that this reminded him of an Oklahoma poker game in which one of the players had carefully slipped the aces into his boot, and when a sizable pot was at stake he reached for the aces and found them missing. Whereupon the player yelled: 'Hold on, there is something crooked in this game.' The judgment was affirmed. (Borton v. Barnes, 48 Cal. App. 589, 192 Pac. 307).

"In another case in which Judge was arguing to a jury on behalf of a frail sickly-looking plaintiff who had been, in anger, assaulted by a jealous fellow worker, who had hit him in the mouth and knocked out two teeth, met the defendant's plea of self-defense with an answer something like this: 'The excuse of self-defense in this case, Gentlemen of the Jury, reminds me of a man in Oklahoma who was being tried for selling whiskey to the Indians. In the face of overwhelming proof, the attorney for the defendant had said: "The only evidence I desire to present is my client. Look at his face, his cheeks, his nose, and ask yourself, members of the jury, if he had a pint of whisky would he be willing to sell it at all?" 'So,' said Judge Dunn, 'look at our client, the plaintiff. His blood is half water. Then look at the defendant, the burly frame of Mars, and reach your own decision on this alleged plea of self-defense.' The jury brought in a verdict of $1,000 actual damages and $2,500 exemplary damages in favor of Judge Dunn's client, whose only complaint was concerning Judge Dunn's effective statement, 'His blood is half water.' * * *"

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From the time he was 18 years old in 1885, until his admission to the bar, his home was upon the prairie frontier of Western Kansas and Oklahoma, the surroundings consisting of the engaging in ranching and the following of cattle trails and the ranges, or the looking after the details of a country store or the practice of the law, or a printer and publisher of a weekly paper on such frontier. Had Judge Dunn been brought up in an appropriate environment he would probably have been a great actor or journalist. Though a marked success as an attorney at law and a judge, yet he possessed all the attributes, fitness and characteristics to have been an actor comparable to Edwin Booth, or a journalist of highest rank.

Waiting for clients by day and by night in his office on the prairies, in addition to his research in the law, he studied the writings of the sages. On July 19, 1915, at the Arkansas-Oklahoma building on Oklahoma Day at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco, California, he ably and eloquently represented the Governor of the state of Oklahoma in delivering an address at the dedication of the cornerstone.8

He was not only a success on the Pacific Coast as a lawyer, but also as a public speaker and advocate, as in Oklahoma Territory and State, he took front rank.

When he was taken by death on July 28, 1926, at the Livermore Sanitorium in Oakland, California, the citizenship of the state of Oklahoma, not having forgotten his public services and fine citizenship, was greatly saddened. He was survived by his wife, Saidee A. Matson, and three children, to-wit: Claud Dunn, oldest child and only son, married but no children, attended the University of California and its law school, admitted to the practice of law, and being now a Referee in the organization of the Industrial Commission of California, address, State Building, Civic Center, Los Angeles, California; second child, Constance, wife of J. M. Rutherford, Goleta (R. F. D. No. 1), California, two children, both boys, Laurie (12) and Bob (9); third child, Dorothea, husband D. G. White (no children), address, 1700 Le Roy Avenue, Berkeley, California. Judge Dunn's brothers and sisters are as follows, to-wit; Mrs. Laura Miller Smith (oldest sister, and whose first husband was George Lynn Miller), Garden City, Kansas; Mrs. Julius Lincoln (Gertrude), 3111 Seminary Avenue, Chicago, Illinois; Mrs. Fred Armour (Jane), 361 Clarkson Street, Denver, Colorado; Fred Scott Dunn, 109 West Tenth Street, Dallas Texas; Mrs. C. C. Herndon (Ethel), 1120 Woodward Boulevard, Tulsa, Oklahoma; now deceased, William Dunn, interred at Brooksville, Mississippi, and Frank Dunn, at Garden City, Kansas.

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The administration building of the Northwestern State Teachers College at Alva in 1935, nearly a decade after his death, destroyed by fire, when rebuilt, according to resolution adopted by the Legislature, was named and dedicated as "Jesse Dunn Hall."

Judge Dunn was one of the founders of an international luncheon organization known as The Loyal Knights of the Round Table or Round Table International, being its first International President.

The organization was carefully built of men of character and standing. Established prior to the depression in more cities than at present, it now exists in Birmingham, Alabama; Tucson, Arizona; Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Pasadena, Redlands, San Francisco, San Jose, and Stockton, California; Denver, Colorado; Wilmington, Delaware; Washington, D. C; Portland, Maine; Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York City; Dayton, Toledo, and Columbus, Ohio; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Norfolk, Virginia; Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma, Washington; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Calgary, Canada.

This organization having successfully weathered the adversities of the depression now seems to be steadily moving forward, being the only luncheon organization having a literary and legendary background.

One of the finest characters known to either territory or the state, as mentioned in the press, he could have been the governor of the state without a difficult effort.

From the time he opened his law office in the early days at Alva until he resigned as a member of the Supreme Court, he had been deeply interested in everything that stood for the betterment of his country and community, his moving concern being for the general good. Unselfishly devoted to the interests of the people, he merited their love and confidence.9

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He was a lover of the real things in life, a sincere and warm personality with a mind stored with interesting reminiscences—unsparing of his energies and unselfish in his devotion. He was a delightful companion, his enemies few and his friends more than legion.

A finished speaker whether at a banquet or on other occasions—on the forum or the hustings before the multitude, he was inspirational, witty, humorous, entertaining, eloquent and powerful. In communications personally or through the press, including law journals and other periodicals, he was interesting and instructive.

Though his body may sleep on the Pacific Shore, his memory is treasured in the state of Oklahoma which he served so well.10

10In The Chronicles of Oklahoma, IV (1926), on page 295, there appeared a slight discrepancy in the statement that Judge Dunn died July 27, 1926. The true date of his death was July 28, 1926 according to Associated Press dispatches appearing in the Tulsa Daily World, July 29, 1926 and in the Daily Oklahoman, July 29, 1926. Members of the Dunn family and others have also verified this date.

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