William S. Pryor

Born on April 1, 1825, William S. Pryor came into a modest farming home in Trimble County, Kentucky. Although born on April Fool’s day, Will was no fool. Will’s dad was sheriff and two of his uncles were lawyers, soon to become judges.

Because his father died when Will was only about eight, his family became quite poor and the only education Will received was “common school.” He proved to be very good at Latin and Greek, showing unusual promise. On that basis, his uncle took Will aside and let him be an apprentice in his law firm. Will literally learned law at the knee of his uncle. He never attended college or a law school. His mother later remarried, to a judge in town, and Will greatly admired his stepfather, a man named Barbour.

Before he was 21, Will was ready to set up a law practice. Someone had pull so that the Kentucky State legislature passed a special law allowing Will to practice law before he was 21.

Will became a prominent lawyer and had a successful practice. He married and had two children right away and a farm as well. His wife died and he married a second time, to Mary Apphia Beazley, who was a young woman and the ward of a lawyer in town. Will and Apphia proceeded to produce ten more children. About 1859 will built a fine brick home in New Castle, the county seat of Henry County. And then the Civil War hit.

Will was outspoken against war. He traveled around and made speeches about avoiding it. But it was no use. War came, and Will was a Southerner. Yankee troops occupied much of this neutral State.

No one knows for sure why (Lincoln had some 13,000 Northern men put in prison for various reasons), but President Lincoln had Will tried by a military court and put into prison in Ohio in 1862. But there was a family connection and besides, the judge who tutored Will as a boy was a personal friend of Lincoln’s, so they prevailed on Lincoln to let Will go home on weekends to attend to his farm. An 1863 letter from A. Lincoln exists in which Lincoln told Sec. of War Stanton to let Pryor leave the area of his prison.  It is for sale for $21,500.

One day Confederate General John Hunt Morgan was captured and put into prison in Ohio. But he escaped after much work and went to New Castle to Will’s home. Will sheltered Morgan (a lawyer from Lexington, KY) and helped him get away to Tennessee where he organized another army and again fought the Yankees.

Maybe the Yankees suspected that the freed Will Pryor had helped Morgan. Word came to Will that if he went back to prison he would be killed, so Will mounted a horse and took a ferry across the Ohio River and found his way to Detroit and cross the River there into Canada and freedom. Later he sent for Apphia and the several children who were living at the time.

When the war was over and Lincoln was killed, Will and his family returned to Kentucky. He was immediately appointed as circuit court judge, and he carried out those duties for three years. Then he was appointed Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. He was Chief justice for ten years and was on the bench for a total of 25 years, longer than anyone before or after his term. Will loved the law and he gave up a lucrative practice to take that job. One of the things Will was known for was that he would not let the railroads and mining companies take a man’s home from him. His principle of homestead protection spread into the West as other states formed.

Will lived in a hotel in Frankfort, KY during the court season and in New Castle other times of the year in his fine home (which still stands). While Will was a Justice, he was also a farmer. He tried all new techniques and devices that came out. Farmers in the State said he was the best lawyer in Kentucky and lawyers said he was the best farmer. Whatever the case, he had a lot of notoriety.

Will was a Democrat and when all the Democrats were thrown out one year, Will was tossed off the bench with them. So, as an old man he set up a law office across the street from the capital building and represented clients who had cases in the Supreme Court. He did well, once again, at his law practice.

Will was eighty-nine when he died in 1914 at his home in New Castle. He had many friends and admirers and a lot of children, but not many grandchildren. One notable grandchild was Laban Jackson, who is also on these pages.

The only artwork in the large Kentucky Supreme Court chamber is a bust of a man—William Samuel Pryor—and he stares at the chairs of the justices day in and day out.

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