Recently I was doing some research and discovered that the first female justice of the peace in the civilized world was Esther Hobart Morris, a resident of South Pass City, Wyoming (now a ghost town). In 1870, she was tapped to serve as the town’s lone judicial officer. A woman with no legal background whatsoever.
Why? Why choose her?
The funny thing is, after researching it, I’m not sure I’ve got the answer. I have a theory, but is it right?
We know that Esther, born in New York, but orphaned at a young age, apprenticed for a while to a seamstress. Ambitious and intelligent, she translated those sewing skills into a successful millinery. Esther not only had an independent streak as far as taking care of herself, she also had some strong opinions on suffrage and slavery and was involved with several politically active groups.
After eight years of pursuing her own financial independence, however, she gave it up to marry Artemus Slack in 1841. Perhaps she was thinking she could lighten up, settle down, enjoy some simple domesticity. Death, however, wasn’t’ done stalking Esther. Three years into the marriage, Artemus died, leaving her alone with a young son.
Esther immediately took stock of her options and realized her late husband had property in Illinois. Thinking she would inherit it and all of his holdings, she moved there to claim it and start over. Unfortunately, in Illinois women were not allowed to own property–inherited or otherwise.
This didn’t sit well with Esther and she fought the legal knot for as long as she could, but to no avail. Six years after Artie’s death, she married John Morris, a successful Illinois merchant. In ’68, he and Esther’s son, Archie, moved to South Pass City, Wyoming to attempt to capitalize on the gold strike there by opening a new mercantile. A year later, Esther and her two children from the marriage with John joined them. By the time they arrived, however, the town was going bust. The population had dropped almost overnight from 2000 residents in ’68 to only 460 in 1870.
In that same year, a district court judge asked Esther to serve as a justice of the peace—I emphasize, a woman with no legal background. Apparently it took a little prodding, and a willingness to override her husband’s objections, but Esther accepted, was voted in by the town commission, and became the first known female justice of the peace in the US, probably the world. Really. The story got national attention.
She replaced official R.S. Barr who had resigned the post in a fit of rage. The state of Wyoming had just passed legislation giving—gasp!— women the right to vote. Barr was livid over the insanity and stepped down in protest. So, naturally, a woman was appointed to replace him. As one of her first official acts, Esther had the man arrested because he wouldn’t release his docket to her court. She went on to adjudicate 26 (possibly 27) cases, none of which were overturned, though a few were challenged. By all accounts, she did a competent job.
Now, all this brings us back to the question, why nominate Esther in the first place?
Here’s my theory.
She was friends with William Bright, a South Pass City resident who, though a Southerner, had fought for the North. I imagine the two would have talked in detail about their hatred of slavery and inequality. Bright, it turns out, was the man who wrote the suffrage bill that Wyoming turned into law—the law giving women the right to vote. It’s not a stretch to think he could have had input from Esther on the wording. She was intelligent, articulate, and passionate about the subject.
Simultaneously, the new territorial governor, John Campbell, was looking around Wyoming trying to identify friendly judges and, if necessary, replacements to unfriendly judges. R.S. Barr, South Pass City’s JOP, did Campbell a favor by resigning. Someone needed to assume his office, though. Hmmm. Who could they get?
I think Bright saw what poetic justice it would be to appoint a woman. It didn’t hurt that Esther’s husband was a respected businessman, her children were all grown, and one of her sons ran a newspaper. Not to mention, in a town of four hundred people, there weren’t that many women from which to choose. In fact, in a mining town, there probably weren’t that many women who came out in the daylight, if you know what I mean.
Esther, with her opinions, connections, and business and political background, was a perfect fit. Politics being an incestuous mess, I’m sure it was not difficult for Bright to contact district judge John Kingman and suggest he nominate her for the seat. Hence, Esther Morris made history … and a few enemies.
At least one of whom was her husband.
When her term was up, Esther couldn’t cajole an endorsement from either party, and, therefore, couldn't run again. Coincidentally, a few months later her son’s newspaper in town burned to the ground. He and his wife moved to Laramie. Shortly thereafter, Esther kissed South Pass City and her husband good bye and headed back to New York. I get the sense it wasn't a friendly parting.
Esther bounced around some over the next couple of decades, living in New York and Illinois, spending summers in Wyoming, and supporting the suffrage cause. She spent her last years living with her son Robert and his family in Cheyenne. The old gal passed away there in 1902, blessed to have seen slavery go away, and women go to the polls. She never remarried. Not a very romantic ending, I suppose, but a judicious one.