Moman Pruiett: "He made it safe to murder"

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Back before I came across blogs, I used to be a regular reader of the websites of many newspapers, including the online edition of the New York Press, an alt-weekly that was at the time published by Russ "Mugger" Smith, who was fairly conservative for an alt-weekly publisher. (I starting reading Smith's column from the Jewish World Review website.)

The Press varied widely in decency and quality, but one column was always worth reading: "Old Smoke" by William Bryk. Bryk wrote about history, mainly some aspect of the history of New York City which shed light on a current event. (I seem to recall one piece about Five Corners, providing the historical background to the movie Gangs of New York.)

But there's one article that I've been looking for years, something Bryk wrote in 2002 about an obscure but fascinating figure in Oklahoma's history, a criminal defense attorney named Moman Pruiett. The story vanished during one of NYP's site redesigns, but it's up and available once again. Here's how it begins:

Next month, when a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opens on Broadway, audiences will have a taste of how entertaining history can be. Set nearly a century ago, on the eve of the Sooner State’s admission to the Union, the musical’s vision of life before statehood is accurate, up to a point. But Oklahoma’s real history is far more entertaining. Whether as the Oklahoma and the Indian Territories or as a new state, Oklahoma was a gold mine for an unscrupulous lawyer, and it had many of them. Among the greatest was Moman Pruiett (1872-1945), "The Black Stud of the Washita," "the murderer’s messiah," himself a man "as liable to punctuate a point with a bullet as an epigram." "Brutal murder–single, triple, five at a time, with poison, axe and firearm," was his meat. "I ain’t no attorney," Moman said. "I’m a lawyer."

Yet he had no respect for the law, and took immense pride, as he put it, in putting the prong to the blind goddess. In half a century at the bar, he defended 342 murder cases. Of those, 304 were acquitted; 37 were convicted of lesser charges; the one sentenced to the rope received a presidential commutation. Perhaps the title of Howard K. Berry’s delightful biography, published last year by the Oklahoma Heritage Association, says it all: He Made It Safe to Murder.

It is a fascinating sketch of an utterly charismatic and unscrupulous man who embodies the wildness of Oklahoma's early days. Your centennial assignment this week: Go read the whole thing.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 14, 2007 12:13 AM.

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