Erwin A. Thompson’s tale from 1937: “My First Lawsuit”–catching the mule—and, the measure of a man

Photo by Y. Magier

This story emerged in my father’s memory as we had our morning telephone chat. When Pop came to the part where Harrold had his feet up on the desk, he said, with a glint of mischief in his voice: “He did not look to be gainfully employed.” This is so typical of my father’s sly, laconic humor. It could go right past you if you weren’t tuned to it. Pop also told me: “When I talked with Harrold about this years later he refuted my memory that he had his feet on his desk.” Can’t you imagine this conversation between old friends?

The story takes place during the litigation concerning the taking of our bottom land (“Evergreen Heights”) for the flooding caused by the Alton dam. The last crop we got from the land was 1937. My father wrote the story many years later. When I asked my father if Mr. Thomas were still living, he told me: “Mr. Thomas died maybe two years ago, I do not recall the exact date. Somewhere in the book of clippings there is an article on his receiving some honor from the legal profession.” Here then, is my father’s story. —JGR


Erwin A. Thompson, author of Thompson Western Series and Folk Treasure

MY FIRST LAWSUIT: A Mule Tale or The Tail of the Mule


I do not have the proper research to do justice to the accomplishments of my friend, Harrold Thomas. To mention a few of the most obvious: He is a true gentleman, whose character is above reproach. In addition to that, he has been a successful attorney, staying with the more traditional forms of legal battles. He has been involved with the hospital board for the Memorial Hospital for many years. His picture is in the lobby of the hospital. His charitable work is legendary. This is where he is today. I’m proud to say: “I knew him when.”

In 1938 we were involved in a lawsuit with the federal government condemning our bottom ground for flowage rights concerning the (then) new dam at Alton. We had retained Howard Chapman to represent us in this matter. At that time, Harrold Thomas was a very new partner of Mr. Chapman. This is the background.

This particular day I was enroute to a conference with Mr. Chapman concerning this suit of my aunts regarding the government seizure of our property.

As I traveled down the hard road [asphalt rather than dirt/rock] I saw a mule grazing along the shoulder. Loose livestock was a matter of serious consideration. Shortly before this time one of Frank Hoffman’s horses had gotten out at night, been hit by a car and killed all four of the occupants. Since the mule was near his farm site I assumed that it belonged to my friend, Frank Bowen.

Catching a loose mule is no easy task. I pursued it for a good length of time, and finally cornered it in the barn of Curtis Keidel, a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile from the original point of the chase. I always carried a light chain in the truck. I put it around the mule’s neck and set off for what I considered to be its home.

Frank Bowen happened to be at the barn when I arrived to proudly present my catch. “What are you bringing that thing to me for?” he demanded. “That’s not my mule!

Of course I asked him, then whose mule was it?

“That’s Rosenburg’s mule. He lets it run loose all the time. Turn it loose!”

After some negotiation I got him to agree to house the animal and tell its owner where it was.
I proceeded on to my appointment with Mr. Chapman. I was disgusted and not a little aggravated.

At the end of my conference with Mr. Chapman, I happened to look through the door into Harrold Thomas’ office as I turned to go.

Harrold was seated at his desk, with his feet on the desk. He looked to be comfortable and not too pressed for other duties. We had a speaking acquaintance, passing as I did in and out of the office if we met. On impulse I entered his office and asked him if he had time for some foolishness. He agreed, and asked the nature of my suggestion.

I unfolded my story of the mule and he was properly sympathetic. We set about to sue Rosenburg for my time spent in catching the mule. (All in fun, of course. Neither of us at that point was expecting to get anything out of it except a laugh.)

First we needed to establish the value of my time, and all of the other things involved with a real lawsuit. In the process he researched the laws about loose stock. We found laws that so far as we could tell were still in effect legally although they had been outdated in a practical sense years before. The “pound”, where stray animals were secured, pending their release by their proper owners was a revelation to both of us. It was a fun session, and both of us enjoyed it and profited from the products of our research.

I came home and related the story to my aunts and we laughed about it.

Harrold didn’t forget it. He wrote a letter to the Madison County State’s Attorney, detailing the incident.

The State’s Attorney wrote a letter to Mr. Rosenburg.

The mule was sold at the Carrollton Sale shortly thereafter.

A good story, but also a good measure of the man. It was no responsibility of his, but he did something about a situation that was potentially dangerous as well as an aggravation to the neighborhood.

It was the start of a friendship that endured through the years. Harrold Thomas served as the attorney for my aunts, myself and my wife. His thoughtful provisions saved us dollars and trouble. I have played music with his children.

I salute him! A legend in our world today. I am proud to say: “I knew him when—.”

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