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Justice William Samuel Pryor

 The following is a very brief outline of one of many Pryor jurists.  Most of the material is offered courtesy of Northern Kentucky Heritage magazine.

 Born on April 1, 1825,  in Henry County, KY,  little William Samuel Pryor was certainly no April fool.  He was to become Kentucky's most famous jurist of his life-time. 

      Will's genealogy was easy to follow.  It was almost a joke in the family.  Nearly every male Pryor in his line was named Samuel.  First, there were Robert and Betty (Green) Pryor.  Robert was the exception.  Then Robert's son Samuel Pryor in VA, 1693 to !760.  Next came Samuel, II (1725-?).  After that came Samuel, III (1762-1811) and Samuel, IV (1804-1833).  (The Roman numerals are the author's for ease of explanation.)

      This line of the large Virginia family had moved west to Henry County, KY, when the fourth Samuel was born.  Samuel, IV, was married to Ann (Nancy) Marshall Samuel, who came from several legal families.   The Country's best known U.S. Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall was one of her cousins as well as the Clark family of lawyers, generals and explorers.  Her brother was a judge as well.

      So little Will Pryor grew up in a household where the Law was honored.  (His dad's brother was Judge James Pryor of Covington, KY).  Will's father was not a big-time lawyer, though.  He was a farmer who also served as sheriff of his county twice before he was twenty-nine years old. 

      Murder may have been the reason Samuel, IV Pryor died so suddenly at the age of 29, leaving a widow and five children in poverty.  The extended family helped with the children, even providing some education.  Will was about eight years old, and the eldest child when he lost his father. 

      Will's mother eventually re-married to Joseph Barbour, who was also a judge, and the new family had several children.  

      Fascinated with the law, Will studied under his Samuel and then his Pryor uncle.  He never went to college.  He passed the KY bar exam about age nineteen.  He must have had some "pull."  The Kentucky legislature then passed a special law that allowed Will to practice law before he was twenty-one!

      Developing a well-paying law practice, Will had enough money to marry.  He courted Mary Brinker, married her in 1848 and they began to have children.  The eldest was was Joanna, who married Judge David Castleman, Sr., who was a lawyer.  Then came Samuel Morton Pryor in 1853 (I met uncle Sam about 1950 when he was nearly 100 years old). 

      Then Mary died.  After a few years Will married the ward of a lawyer in New Castle, KY, Apphia Beazley.  They had ten children, the middle one of whom was my grandfather Robert Pryor.

      The War Between the States was brewing.  Will was a Southerner, but hated war and made speeches against it.  None-the-less, war came, and Will was too old to be a soldier.  He did what he could to help his side.  This help included assisting Gen. John Hunt Morgan escape from the Yankees.

      The Yankees learned of Will's help and tossed him in prison.  Uncle Judge James Pryor knew the President and a Pryor cousin was married to one of the Lincoln's nephews.  Somehow these people got Lincoln to allow Will to go home from prison on weekends to tend to his home, family and farm.  The President must have been tired of the name "Pryor" between the antics of Roger A. Pryor and William S. Pryor.

      One day, Gen Morgan was so successful against the Yankees that the Yankees decided to go after the man who helped him escape.  Will was warned that if he went back to prison on the following Monday, he would face much harm.  So Will escaped across the Ohio River, up through Indiana and across the Detroit River into Canada, where he settled down with many other displaced Southerners.

      Will sent for his family, which made a long hard trip to stay with him for two years.  In 1866 they returned.  Lincolon was dead and the War was over.  Will had to make a pledge that he would no longer try to divide the Nation.  He was appointed Circuit Judge, a job he loved, even though it paid very little compared to his legal practice.  He was well liked and became popular as a judge.   After three years he was appointed chief justice of the KY Supreme Court (known as the Court of Appeals).

      This was the job Will Pryor really loved and he stayed on the bench for 26 years.  To do this, he had to live in a hotel in Frankfort, KY where the court was.  Then he would go home to New Castle on weekends.   Ten of the years he was on the supreme court, Will served as chief justice. 

      One year, when all Democrats were swept from office, Will was swept out, too.  He was ready to retire, but decided instead to open a law office across the street from the Supreme court, his old bailiwick.  There he tried cases that were destined for the same court!

      The only adornment in the courtroom these days is a bust of Will Pryor, the man who served longest on that court.

      Will turned to genealogical interests when he was in his eighties, and several letters written to him on this subject have been in print. 

      Will died in 1914 at the age of 89, in the beautiful brick home he had built in 1859.  The home still stands and is in great shape.  Farmers  said Will was the best lawyer in the State, and lawyers said Will was the best farmer in the State.

 Tom Fiske

Jan. 1, 1999


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