The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



As Judge Williams was a somewhat noted character, more particularly for eccentricity than for legal attainments, though we believe he had the reputation of being a good judge, we deem it proper to give a brief sketch of him.

With regard to his history we know but little, either previous to the time of which we are writing, or since. At that time he was about fifty years of age, and had worn the ermine many years. In a territorial act fixing the appointee over what was then called the Second District, composed of the counties of Louisa, Muscatine, Cedar, Johnson and Slaughter. He was a person of remarkably good conversational power, and delighted in telling anecdotes. His musical talent was much above the average, both vocal and instrumental. Often after delivering a temperance lecture, full of eloquence, and interspersed with humorous passages, he would sing a favorite song called "Little Billy Neal," with an effect seldom surpassed, calling up an applause of such hearty, boisterous delight as had seldom greeted a star actor. He was master of most musical instruments, but for drawing tunes out of that sweetest, sweetest toned of all, "the fiddle and the bow," he was particularly distinguished in this attainment. In addition to his vocal talent as a singer, he possessed that weird, mysterious power of using his voice as a ventriloquist, and could imitate the cry of various kinds of animals so correctly that the uninitiated could not fail being deceived. He would sometimes imitate the squalling of a belligerent cat, to the great alarm and mystification of the ladies, who could neither discover the brawler, nor learn from whence the noise came.

At this point we beg leave to introduce a couple of anecdotes bearing upon his notoriety as a musician: Many years ago, on the occasion of a convention at Iowa City in the interests of a proposed railroad from Muscatine to that place, Judge Williams and LeGrand Byington were in violent opposition to each other upon some points of which we are not informed, nor does it matter so far as the interest of this sketch is concerned. After the convention, a young amateur in the art of drawing produced a caricature representing Joe. Williams seated astride an enormous bull, playing a clarionet. The bull was on the railroad, with tail erect and head down, pawing up the earth, and prepared to combat the further progress of a locomotive which was close upon him, upon which was LeGrand Byington as engineer, and from the whistle of which ascended the words, " Music hath charms, but cannot soothe a locomotive."

On another occasion, being that of an election of Supreme Judge and United States Senator, by the State Senate, Judge Williams was before the Democratic caucus for the judgeship, and Geo. W. Jones (sometimes called Nancy Jones, and known as a dancing master), for the Senate. Their competitors of the same party were S. C. Hastings, formerly president of the territorial council, for the judgeship, and Hon. T. Wilson for the Senate. The last named gentlemen were at Iowa City just previous to the time of election, laboring earnestly with the members of the Senate to secure their choice. But at the caucus, which came off during the night preceding the day of election, it was decided to elect Williams and Jones.

The following instance of his peculiar powers as a ventriloquist is related of him: It occurred during the first term of the District Court at Knoxville. Most of those attending court there boarded at Babbit's, and it so happened that one night the little boarding-house was so full that it was barely possible for all to find sleeping room. The Judge, with lawyers Knapp, Wright and Olney, were supplied with beds in the lower story, whilst the jurors and numerous other attendants found room to stretch themselves on the loose upper floor, using blankets, coats and whatever else they had provided for beds. When, after much ado, they had all got setteled down for a nap, they were suddenly startled by the terriffic squalling of what appeared to be a couple of tom-cats in mortal combat in the room. Instantly all hands were up and in search of the supposed disturbers, but no cats could be found, and the surprised boarders returned to their beds without any very satisfactory conjectures as to the whereabouts of the nocturnal brawlers. But they had hardly composed themselves again for rest, when the loud and boisterous growling and snapping of a couple of belligerent bull-dogs, apparently in their very midst, brought them all up standing. And then followed an uproar such as language could convey but an indistinct idea of, the dogs maintaining the combat with mingled growling, barking and whining, and the men endeavoring, with all the noise they could make, to oust them from the room. How they came to be there was a wonder indeed, but the evidence of their presence was too unmistakable to admit of a doubt, even in total darkness. Presently the fight ceased, and with that the general uproar abated. Then came a solution of the mystery. The Judge and lawyers could no longer restrain their merriment at the expense of the frightened and mystified lodgers up stairs, but let it come in a gush of laughter that quickly reminded some of the company that the Judge was a ventriloquist, and had undoubtedly just played them one of his mysterious tricks. But so far from being offended at it, they took a sensible view of its ludicrousness, and all joined heartily into the laugh.

Judge Joseph Williams, above referred to, should not be confounded by young readers with M. T. Williams, the clerk of the first court, and currently known as Judge Williams. This latter gentleman is not eccentric, nor a great fiddler, nor a ventriloquist. The only analogy we think of is in his temperance proclivities, and his ability to tell a good story.

M. T. Williams is justly regarded as one of the oracles of Mahaska county. His duties as first clerk of the county brought him in contact with its pioneers and territory in such a manner as to afford him a more thorough knowledge of the very early history of Mahaska county than any other man now living. Sometimes Mr. Williams is induced by his friends, publicly, or in a small circle, to narrate his early experience and reminiscences, which he can do in a most irresistible manner. The Judge is not fond of making a speech, not for the reason which kept "Single Speech Hamilton" in the background, but from an unassuming and retiring disposition, and a probable under-estimation of his own abilities, for the Judge can make a good address. This peculiarity, the modesty of Mr. Williams, is illustrated by the following anecdote:

In an early day, when he was running for county clerk, and without any opposing candidate, he was, after much persuasion, induced to go out with a campaign speaker from abroad, to hold a meeting in a school-house in one of the border townships. While on the way the stranger asked Williams how the Whig ticket was going to run in the county.

"Oh, I guess all right, unless it be the clerk," said M. T.

"Clerk! why, what is the matter with that? Are you not popular, Williams?"

"No, not very, I guess. Some of the Democrats are finding fault." " Well, who is running against you?"

"Oh, well—ahem—oh, there is not anybody else running in particular." Of course the laugh was on the agitated independent candidate, with no opponent in the field.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!

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