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|Booze cost Bruin judgeship, but his good name survived|
CONGRESS VIEWED IMPEACHMENT ON PETITION BY MISSISSIPPI LEGISLATURE
(Fourth in a Series)
Judge Thomas Rodney, a Delaware native appointed to the Mississippi territorial court by President Thomas Jefferson, arrived in Natchez in 1803 and quickly made friends with the senior judge on the bench -- Peter Bryan Bruin.
The first jurist to pick up a gavel in this region, Bruin was a man well-liked and well-respected. Rodney immediately learned that Bruin was a "a man of good education and good sense and when sober, upright in his judgments." But Rodney also quickly discovered that Bruin had acquired "such a strong habit of drinking spirituous liquors that he can not restrain himself."
On November 27, 1806, Rodney, then 62, said Bruin missed the last session of the Supreme Court because of his addiction and often missed circuit court sessions in Adams and Jefferson counties. Bruin was so drunk this day Rodney recorded in journal that he granted a request by the bar that court be adjourned.
On the docket that day was the case of Texada vs. Rapalje. The defense wanted to depose a witness but the plaintiff objected and the two attorneys were arguing the matter. Bruin, "appearing intoxicated on the bench," said Rodney, bristled when he thought one of the attorneys was being disrespectful. Rodney said the attorney, "instead of saying 'Your Honors,' in addressing the court...several times repeated 'Sir,' which Judge Bruin considered an address to me without regard to him."
Bruin stopped the lawyer in midsentence and angrily reprimanded him, pointing out the perceived offense and shouting: "You are mistaken in me. I suppose you think I am drunk and not worth your notice but I will let you know that I will support my dignity on this bench..."
Stunned, Rodney soon adjourned court at the lawyers' request.
Bruin immediately left the courthouse, crossed the street to the boarding house where he was lodging, paid his bill and "ordered his horse to go off home," proclaiming that he planned to resign.
Col. Benajah Ozmun, a friend, heard about what happened and rushed to the territorial capital of Washington. Bruin and Ozmun were both Revolutionary War veterans and both had served at the Battle of Quebec. Ozmun lived on Halfway Hill, located between Natchez and Washington.
Ozmun found Bruin before the judge reined his horse out of town and pulled him aside. "Go home with me," said Ozmun. "Get sober and then return and keep yourself correct until the court is over. Then you may resign with honor."
Bruin was persuaded. Before the two men left Washington, Ozmun stopped at Rodney's office.
"He (Ozmun) told me what he had said to Judge Bruin," said Rodney, "and then rode off."
"Bruin, when sober, is a very pleasant companion," said Rodney, "so that I very much regret his unhappy propensity to drinking." Rodney said Bruin was out of control and the court system bogged down because of his volatile state.
"Everybody, especially his best friends, think it high time for him to resign," said Rodney.
LEGISLATURE GETS INVOLVED
But Bruin didn't resign. His state of mind worsened when his wife, Elizabeth, died on Sept. 17, 1807. His drinking escalated and he continued missing court.
The lawyers' complaints landed in the lap of the Mississippi Territory Legislature. On April 11, 1808, the Legislative Council and the House of Representatives took up the matter and asked Congress to impeach the judge.
In a document entitled: "Complaint of the Legislature of the Mississippi Territory Against Peter B. Bruin, Judge of that Territory," the legislators outlined their case.
For a number of years, the document noted, Bruin neglected his lawful duties and frequently failed to hold court causing justice to be "most shamefully delayed."
The assembly said Bruin in recent years had "been addicted to drunkenness, especially during the terms of the courts, and has frequently appeared on the bench in such an extreme state of intoxication as to disqualify him entirely from performing the solemn and important duties of his office."
The consequences, said the Legislature, had been great. Court sessions were often canceled and proceedings rarely completed. This had "tended to degrade our courts of justice," said the legislators, "and to work a manifest injury to the people of this Territory..."
Because of this the General Assembly convened -- "constrained by a sense of their duty" -- to "pass a vote of censure on the official conduct" of Bruin and to "solicit his removal from office."
The assembly resolved that George Poindexter, the territory's Congressional delegate and the former Attorney General, "be instructed, and he is hereby required and directed to impeach the honorable Peter B Bruin...on the charges of neglect of duty and drunkenness on the bench, which said charges we pledge ourselves, in behalf of the people of this Territory, to substantiate and make good."
The document was signed by John Ellis, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Joshua Baker, President of the Legislative Council; and Joshua Downs, Secretary.
CONGRESS DISCUSSES BRUIN IMPEACHMENT
A few days later in nation's capital, Poindexter offered a resolution that a committee in the House of Representatives be appointed to "prepare and report articles of impeachment" against Bruin and that this committee be given the power to investigate, take depositions and subpoena documents. Poindexter said he didn't expect the matter to be considered in the 10th Congress but he wanted the matter "put in a state of progress."
This debate over this issue points to just how early in the development of American government Bruin's impeachment was considered.
Rep. Thomas Mann Randolph of Virginia, the son-in-law of President Thomas Jefferson, said he "was sorry that the Constitution of the United States had not provided a more adequate remedy for these acts of offense." He said Congress was bound by its own resolution to adjourn on April 25th and didn't have time to consider the matter in the present session.
Rep. Timothy Pitkin of Connecticut argued that a resolution of a legislature of a state or territory "was not of itself sufficient ground for a resolution for impeachment." A committee should first "inquire into the propriety of impeaching. Great respect no doubt was due to resolutions of state or territorial legislatures," but Pitkin "did not consider them as conclusive."
Rep. John Rhea of Tennessee wondered if the legislature of a territory was equal to that of a state. Was the report of a legislature "considered conclusive evidence of fact?" He didn't think so, adding that he didn't believe a territorial legislature had the authority "to act as a grand jury for this House, who would certainly call for evidence before they appointed a committee to prepare articles of impeachment."
Poindexter took the floor and modified his resolution by adding that a committee "inquire into the expediency of preferring" charges against Bruin. Then, Poindexter took a moment to reflect on the judge and his importance to the territory.
He said he had "very high respect" for the past services "of this venerable old man," who was "a patriot of the Revolution in the times that tried men's souls." For this, said Poindexter, he held the judge in highest regards.
But "his facilities were impaired by habitual intoxication." A lawyer himself, Poindexter said he had witnessed the judge asleep on the bench before being awakened by a clerk only to "relapse into sleep...five minutes afterward."
Poindexter said that "to judge correctly," a jurist' faculties "should be unimpaired."
Poindexter would later become a U.S. Senator and the governor of Mississippi. In 1836 at the Mansion House in Natchez, Poindexter spent the evening at the poker table and his losses were heavy. A man who may have been bi-polar, Poindexter was an alcoholic, too.
He stumbled through an opened door and fell 20 feet onto a brick bench in the gallery below breaking his right leg in two places, dislocating both ankles, fracturing his left leg above the knee, and cutting and bruising his body from top to bottom.
When a preacher saw the bumps and bruises on Poindexter he asked, "Governor, what did you fall against."
Poindexter snapped, "By God, sir, I fell against my will."
His fall at the Mansion House symbolized the beginning of a two-decade spiral from which he never recovered.
Men such as Poindexter sat in judgment of Bruin, a task he and the others clearly didn't enjoy.
On April 18, 1808, a seven-member Select Committee was appointed to investigate Bruin, inquire into his conduct and report its recommendations to the full House.
But no action was ever reported.
BRUIN'S GOOD REPUTATION
The committee was no longer needed because a short time later, the judge, now 55, finally saw the writing on the wall even though his vision may have been blurred. He resigned.
On Aug. 22, 1808, Frotesque Cuming was journeying through Natchez country on horseback and rode by Bruin's home and through the little community that sprung up near the judge's property on Bayou Pierre. The little town was called Bruinsburg.
Cuming said Bruin had recently sold much of his land along with "a claim to about three thousand acres of surrounding land...reserving to himself his house, offices and garden."
In the community of Bruinsburg, Cuming found a good landing on the high bank of Bayou Pierre. Located there was a cotton gin, a tavern, the house of an overseer of a local plantation and the judge's dwelling.
Cuming said Bruinsburg had been divided into lots for additional development of a town, but the land overflowed almost every rainy season and a local man had bought most of the lots and planned to plant cotton on the site.
Despite his recent problems on the bench, Bruin's name, said Cuming, "opens every door."
Throughout his days at Bayou Pierre, travelers by horse, foot or water always made a point to introduce themselves to the judge, who was known for his hospitality. When travelers landed at the mouth of the bayou on the Mississippi, about a mile away, Bruin sometimes sent a bottle of Madeira and an invitation to his home.
In 1806, two keelboats docked at Bruinsburg with four Presbyterian families from North Carolina. Dugald Torrey went to meet the judge and gain information about the territory.
As he neared Bruin's home he observed through an open window three men visiting. One was Rev. Brown, a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina who was now a missionary in Mississippi Territory. He had preached that day in the area and that morning had joined Waterman Crane for a visit with the judge.
Every path through Natchez country led to Judge Bruin's door.
Historian Dunbar Rowland said since the day Bruin arrived here in 1788 that he always drew attention and was a "leading character."
Another Mississippi historian, John F.H. Claiborne, wrote in the 19th Century that Bruin "was a man of high moral character, a devoted patriot and greatly esteemed..."
An Irishman, he fought all but six months of the eight-year Revolutionary War. The six months he didn't fight were spent on a British prison ship after his capture during the Battle of Quebec. He suffered greatly on that ship, contracted small pox and miraculously survived.
Bruin lived another 20 years after resigning from the court. During those days, he built a house on property he owned in present day Tensas Parish where he enjoyed a beautiful view of the big body of water then known as Lake Peter.
The lake was named for Peter Walker who along with his three sons became residents of Concordia Parish -- some briefly, others longer -- beginning during the Spanish days prior to 1804. Walker's son, Joseph Marshall Walker, who once owned Whitehall Plantation, served as governor of Louisiana from 1849-1852.
After his judgeship ended, Judge Bruin began to spend more and more time on Lake Peter. Eventually, out of respect, local residents began calling Lake Peter by another name -- Lake Bruin, a name which stuck.
Bruin died at the age of 72 on Jan. 27, 1827, at Bruinsburg. He was buried atop one of several Indian mounds near his home, which were believed to have been constructed by the Natchez Indians.
(New week: From Bruinsburg to Windsor ruins to Alcorn State University.)
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