by Mac Swinford. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 128pp. Cloth $19.95. ISBN: 9780813124803.

Reviewed by John R. Vile, Department of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University, jvile [at]

The University Press of Kentucky has reprinted a book initially published in 1963 by Mac Swinford (1899-1975), a lawyer who received his legal education from the University of Virginia and served for many years as a federal judge in the Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky. Law must have been in Swinford’s blood since his father, his son, and five of his grandchildren have chosen the profession. The dust jacket of the book further mentions that “Judge Swinford wrote the nation’s first post-BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION desegregation order, requiring Adair County to allow African-American students to attend the county schools,” but the precious little biographical information – clearly a missed opportunity – that the book provides is otherwise confined to a two and a half page introduction written by Judge Eugene E. Siler, Jr. of the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Good lawyers are, or used to be (one thinks particularly of Abraham Lincoln), natural born raconteurs and joke-tellers, and at a time when judges and lawyers often rode circuit, one can imagine them swapping some of these stories late at night in an inn with plenty of bourbon to go around. The book has no footnotes and makes no pretense at scholarship, and, were court room rules against hearsay to be applied, it is doubtful that a fourth of the text would survive.

Swinford appears to have attributed at least one good story to each of the notable Kentucky lawyers and politicians he met or knew by reputation. Swinford’s stories are about as good as any but probably lose something in the translation from oral transmission to the written page. Still, this reviewer doubts that many outside the Kentucky bar (and those largely of a previous generation) will, without the personal knowledge of their characters, think the stories are quite as funny as Swinford thought they were.

Tales include those of female defendants who borrowed or “rented” babies in order to avoid jail time, of a politician who uses the hanging of one of his clients as a occasion to direct political bombast at the assembled onlookers, of a schoolteacher who sues a former fiancĂ© for a broken heart, of a “gift” of moonshine during National Alcoholic Prohibition attributed to Santa Clause, of jurors’ fears of catching “obstetrics,” of a lawyer-politician’s attempts to repeal dog-collar laws by orating about the perpetual faithfulness of man’s best friend, and the like. Swinford, who sometimes strays from his initial tale, cannot resist telling a good story, even if it has more to do with a politician or other notable figure rather than with a lawyer. Swinford even includes a ghost story of a man wrongly convicted and hanged for a murder he did not commit. [*245]

Unlike similar collections of lore from the period that this reviewer has examined from other Southern states, Swinford’s stories are not racist, although his occasional identification of individuals by race and his references to “Negroes” seems a bit dated. After identifying an individual as “what was called in those days an old maid,” he hastens “to renounce” such a term as “unjust and unkind” and suggest that it should “be stricken from our lexicon” (p.58). Indicative of the time period that it covers, although women sometimes figure prominently as victims or defendants, not a single story features a woman judge or lawyer. By contrast, several stories feature throngs of locals gathered for public hangings, and most of the lawyer heroes are adept at quoting Shakespeare and the Bible.

Swinford was proud of his profession. He believed that law is “the most important of all the sciences” (p.28) and that the “watchword” of lawyers should be “liberty under law” (p.29). He romantically referred to lawyers as “plumed knights” committed to the profession’s “preservation and defense” (p.30). Although Swinford makes no reference to scholarly discussions of the role of a judge (or, indeed, to any other matter), he ends the slim volume by citing Woodrow Wilson’s observation that judges need to know that, like an oak tree, the law grows.

In brief, the book is what it is – a short collection of stories and anecdotes about the “good old days” of practicing law in Kentucky. It might be an appropriate source for tales for an after-dinner speech, provide background for a biography of Judge Swinford, make a nice gift for a senior lawyer from the state or for one of Swinford’s grandsons, or be appropriate for collections of Kentucky legal folklore, but its academic contribution is negligible.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, John R. Vile.