When Justice Came to the Plains— Judge William Gaslin, Jr., and Frontier Law in Western Nebraska, 1876‒1889
Judge William Gaslin has been compared to Judge Isaac Parker and Judge Roy Bean because all three sternly handed out justice on the western frontier in the 1800s. Gaslin administered the sixth judicial district of Nebraska, more than 70,000 square miles infested with gangs, horse and cattle thieves, and other criminals. Gaslin's story is told in rollicking prose underpinned by scholarly rigor. More
Once in a very great while, a fascinating historical character is discovered whose story is so captivating it must be put into print. We are indeed fortunate that the late Jerome Petsche found the relatively unknown Judge William Gaslin, Jr., in the archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society and decided to write a comprehensive account of his life. Gaslin's characterization as a "hanging judge" may have attracted Petsche’s interest. Gaslin ranked with the famous Judge Isaac Parker of, Arkansas, and with Judge Roy Bean of Texas, because all three earned their reputations by sternly administering justice on the rough frontier of the West in the 1800s. The difference, of course, between Gaslin and the other two judges was that Gaslin went about his duties in workman-like fashion and seldom drew attention except when his peculiar applications of the law riled the Nebraska Supreme Court.
One certain thing is that Jerome Petsche spent untold hours researching the judge’s life in the archives of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and in the archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society. He eventually found people who knew Judge Gaslin, and he conducted extensive interviews to piece together the judge’s biography and history on the Nebraska bench.
Jerome Petsche was no less a character than Judge Gaslin, The News Press of St. Joseph, Missouri, said that he was a “journalistic Indiana Jones” and an “adventurer who thrived on curiosity.” At the University of Nebraska, he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in anthropology, eventually landing a job as the editor of archaeological salvage papers at the Smithsonian Institution River Basin Survey Office in Lincoln. In the early 1960s, the office was transferred to the National Park Service and became the Midwest Archeological Center. Petsche also took on underwater archaeological work for the National Park Service in the Florida Keys and the excavation of the steamboat Bertrand as project archaeologist on the Missouri River in 1968. He wrote the definitive work on the history of the Bertrand, The Steamboat Bertrand—History, Excavation and Architecture in 1974.
Jerry served as a writer/editor for the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation in Washington, D. C., until he retired. At the time of his death in 2008, his daughter Catherine Liberty passed along Jerry’s notes and manuscripts to his longtime colleague and friend Ronald Switzer.
Gaslin was from stern Maine stock and grew up poor, working on his father’s farm, in the lumbering business, and on coastal ships. After studying at Kent’s Hill School in Augusta, Maine, and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, he was admitted to the bar in Kennebec County in 1858. In 1868, the lure of the West took him and his wife Catherine to Omaha, Nebraska. After his wife left him, Gaslin practiced law until 1875, when he was appointed circuit judge in the sixth judicial district of the new state of Nebraska. It was an immense district of more than 70,000 square miles of western Nebraska, infested with gangs, horse and cattle thieves, and other criminals.
In some ways, Petsche and Gaslin were cut from the same cloth. They both had strong wills and wanted things done, and done right. During part of the excavation of the steamboat Bertrand, Switzer learned to appreciate the exactness with which Petsche took notes and measurements and recorded the locations and nature of cargo in its hold. Petsche’s ongoing research about the steamboat was of great benefit when Switzer published The Bertrand Bottles–A Study of Nineteenth Century Glass and Ceramic Containers (1972) and The Steamboat Bertrand and Missouri River Commerce (2013). The former, edited by Petsche, earned the Federal Writer’s and Editor’s Blue Pencil Award in 1972.
In all, this is a captivating treatment of the life of one of the West’s true characters, an example of the best combination of historical research and journalistic writing.
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