Judge Charles Carpenter, Albany County District Court judge, faced a choice in 1904. He could ignore mob violence or he could take a stand.
Born in southern Indiana on the Ohio River, Charles was the only child of his widowed father’s second marriage to Catherine Beesley, a woman of Southern heritage with polished refinements along with a good education.
Soon the family migrated downriver to southern Illinois where Charles received a public education. His father, a ship’s carpenter, would not live to witness the undergraduate degree in law he obtained in 1879 from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Charles practiced law for about a year before migrating in 1881 to Laramie, Wyoming Territory. His mother and two half sisters from his father’s first marriage—twins—would soon join him to become lifelong residents. For a while, they would share the same home at 514 Grand Avenue.
By 1884, Charles’ acumen, integrity and affability had set him on course to progressively hold office as Justice of the Peace; Laramie City Attorney; Albany County Attorney; Wyoming State Legislator; and finally, two terms (1902 and 1908) as Judge of Wyoming’s 2nd Judicial District.
At the time, Wyoming’s 2nd Judicial District comprised Albany, Natrona and Fremont Counties. Charles “travelled the circuit,” presiding over civil suits and criminal actions in the courthouses of the county seats. Through his friend and confidante, Father Bryant, a Catholic priest in Casper, Charles received support for his solemn responsibilities.
Also an accomplished keyboardist, Charles relaxed with invitations from churches citywide to play at their services, including weddings and funerals. It was while playing in the loft of the Baptist Church at the 1884 funeral of Aaron T. Williams, a Laramie pioneer who owned a lucrative confectionary business, that he caught the eye of the widow, Mary, an Irish immigrant.
A long courtship followed. Married in Laramie in 1890, Charles also became a devoted stepfather to Frances, Mary’s daughter. The union lasted 14 years.
In October, 1904, Charles, still grieving over the summer death of his wife, returned from his circuit to Laramie to face the most formidable challenge for which he should be remembered. A mob of hundreds of Laramie citizens—some of them prominent—had wrested prisoner Joseph Martin, an African American, from the county jail and lynched him one block from the public school.
Ever faithful to justice, Charles convened a grand jury. Taking extraordinary means, he wrote to fellow citizens in the newspaper, admonishing and reminding them that law was the bedrock of civil society.
Judge Carpenter also made it crystal clear to the grand jurors that no matter what Martin did, those who took him out and lynched him committed murder. He added that “obedience to the law is our only safeguard” against loss of liberty.
Charles’ effort would be in vain. The jury of twelve men (no women were allowed on juries at the time) had local businessman George Campbell as foreman. Noted resident Elmer Lovejoy also sat on the jury.
The jury failed to hand down any indictments despite clear evidence of who was involved.
It is almost certain that justice was ill served by the misguided ambition of county attorney Thomas Gibson, who aspired to higher office.
While later presiding over cases in Casper, Charles died of kidney disease in 1912. He was 56 years old. His body was returned to Laramie for burial and statewide eulogy by his peers in the law profession.
Standing at the unmarked grave of Joseph Martin, you clearly view Charles’ own grave some 40 yards away.
Caption: Member of the Albany County Bara Association circa 1901. Judge Carpenter circled. Photo courtesy Albany County Clerk of COurt