No joke

Image of man believed to be Hugh Turner, taken on Main Street in Kerrville around 1900.

At the turn of the last century, Kerr County held an election. In one of the races, something very interesting happened.

Here’s the story, as told by Merrill Doyle in his Kerrville memoir, “Reminiscences of My Youth, and Other Catastrophes,” which was printed by my father in 1975.

In the election of 1900, the incumbent justice of the peace was held by an over-confident fellow who believed the office was his for as long as he cared to serve.

“The idea that he could be defeated,” writes Doyle, “was so remote as to be inconceivable.”

Such an attitude, especially when so obviously expressed by the incumbent, demanded action.

“So the ‘boys’ about town decided to play a joke on him. They would find an opponent for him. Give him a race.”

It was a matchup Aesop would appreciate: The incumbent was the hare. Now to find the tortoise.

“After much discussion and looking over the field of rather unlikely candidates, it was decided to place the name of Hugh Turner upon the slate as the people’s choice. A more unpromising person could have hardly been found. This newcomer to the field of politics was of rather short stature, and while not being given to obesity, was the possessor of what was then tactfully described as a ‘pot belly.’ His clothes, in keeping with the custom of the day, were worn casually and unpressed, reminding one of the old saw that states, ‘I have a suit for every day of the week, and this is it.’ There was the usual evidence of soup and gravy upon his necktie and upon the upper reaches of the aforementioned pot belly.”

Hugh Turner, of course, will be the tortoise in our story.

“Upon hearing that his name had been placed in nomination as a challenger to the formidable incumbent, he immediately took stock of himself. I do not know what he came up with, but it was apparently enough, as he took the campaign in dead seriousness. His adversary, on the other hand, accepted it as a great joke and continued along his merry way.

“While the current office holder was spending his time in quaffing a cold beer ... with his cronies, Mr. Turner was out bruising his knuckles upon the doors of prospective voters and lining up their support.

“Election Day rolled around, and the faithful flocked to the polls. The friends and consorts of the incumbent rallied to his support with much back slapping and assurances of an easy victory. But to their amazement and chagrin, the doors that bore the imprint of Mr. Turner’s knuckles spewed out voters by the gross. When the ballots were tallied, it was found that Mr. Turner was the winner by a couple of lengths.”

Merrill Doyle concludes his story with this assessment: “The joke paid off, and Judge Turner was regarded as one of the best J.P.s we ever had.”

This opinion was widely held and reported in several of the other articles about Hugh Turner I found in the newspaper archives. He served our community well for more than 35 years.

In addition to the other duties of his office, Judge Turner was often called upon to perform marriage ceremonies, sometimes in the middle of the night. One account tells of an ardent couple who awakened Judge Turner, standing at the foot of his bed, before he had the advantage of putting on his clothes. Undeterred, the Turner wrapped himself in his quilt, put on his glasses, performed the ceremony, collected his fee and went right back to sleep.

My favorite wedding story, though, was reported in the Kerrville Mountain Sun on Dec. 6, 1928, in an article recounting Judge Turner’s many years of service.

“It seems that a certain young swain without much experience in the marrying business was made the butt of a joke by his friends, who told him it was necessary to get the endorsement of certain officials before the splicing could be legally accomplished. After he had secured the license, the young man was sent to the mayor, who in turn sent him to some others being in on the joke.

“The couple finally landed in the chambers of Judge Turner, who was busily engaged and had not been tipped off. He forthwith and without further ado stood the bride and bridegroom up and made them man and wife. When he announced that they were married, both were highly indignant and protested vigorously that they were to have a brilliant church wedding the next day and merely wanted a permit to get married.

“The big church wedding came off the following day, but Judge Turner was unsuccessful in his efforts to have the Methodist pastor split the fee with him.”

Although he performed hundreds of weddings in Kerrville and Kerr County, Hugh Turner was a bachelor until he was 55, marrying Verda Cowden in 1926.

Judge Turner passed away in 1944 and is buried next to his wife in Center Point.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who once secured a marriage license in Kerr County for a ceremony performed in Austin. His column appears each week in The Kerrville Daily Times.

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