05 March 2011

How a true-life character in “True Grit” made possible the existence of my family

The current Coen Brothers’ film of “True Grit” has generated an unusual amount of interesting web responses.

Languagelog (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2873) considers whether the paucity of verb contractions in “True Grit” is not a realistic depiction of American speech of the later nineteenth century. Analysis of other literary works, including Mark Twain’s, indicates that it isn’t.

Another linguistic take on “True Grit, “ specifically on Rooster Cogburn’s incredible diction, is in a subtitled video on Collegehumor.com (http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1945368.)

Cocktail Party Physics admires the physics of “True Grit” in http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/2011/02/and-the-oscar-goes-to.html. The time delay between Rooster’s pulling the trigger on his rifle and the shot hitting the distant bad guy, and the effect of the recoil of Maggie’s rifle are both noted.

The film opened in France and in Spain a couple of weeks ago, and two different people have told me how much they liked it: J. in San Sebastian and G. in Anglet, near Biarritz. I felt obligated to tell each the following story.

“True Grit” takes place around 1885, at first in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and later in the Choctaw Nation, part of Indian territory, now in Oklahoma, the state of my birth. The film was not shot in Oklahoma, but further west in New Mexico, so you don’t see the rolling green hills of Eastern Oklahoma. In Fort Smith we see a hanging and a courtroom scene. The presiding judge at that time was Judge Isaac Parker, and he was a real person who is depicted in the film. Parker was famous as the “Hanging Judge,” because he sentenced 160 defendants to death, of whom 79 were actually hanged (according to Wikipedia.) The film showed three desperados being executed on the same gallows; Parker’s gallows could actually accommodate six.

In 1892-93, my grandfather, C S Petty, worked for Judge Parker.

Clarence S. Petty was born 11 November, 1871 in Gadsden, Alabama. In 1892 he received a degree in Business from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and moved to Ft. Smith, Arkansas where he taught at the Business College for two years, studying medicine with Dr. J. C. Daly and working as a clerk some of the time in the court of Judge Parker= “the Hanging Judge.”

In 1894 he entered the Chicago Homeopathic Medical School and was graduated in May, 1897; one of the seven to graduate with honors out of a class of fifty seven. After graduation, upon the strong urging of [Oklahoma Territorial] Governor Barnes, he moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma to open his office. It is interesting to note that Governor Barnes had lost his personal physician, a homeopathic physician, and wrote his friend, Judge Parker, to ask if he knew of anyone he might interest in coming to Guthrie to open an office and also care for him….Judge Parker spoke highly of Clarence and Governor Barnes’ invitation was forthcoming.

-Germaine Petty. The Petty Family (1985), page 5

Because of my grandfather’s work for Judge Parker, he gained a very good position in Guthrie, the new capitol of the Oklahoma Territory. If this had not happened, he would not have met my grandmother…

The Parker court of 1893 was very different from that of 1885 shown in “True Grit.” In the 80’s, Parker had jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory, which covered most of what is today Oklahoma. And indeed, federal marshals did go into the Indian nations and capture criminals, many of whom had fled into what was then the last of the Wild West. A few years later, in 1889, the first of five land runs began the process of stealing land from the Indians and allowing white settlers to claim it. What later became Eastern Oklahoma remained under the control of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, but when Oklahoma Territory was organized out of the newly white-settled part of Western Oklahoma, a new federal court was organized to deal with both Oklahoma and Indian Territories; Parker’s domain shrank accordingly. So it is not very likely that my grandfather saw colorful federal marshals or multiple hangings.

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