In 1865 the Constitution's XIIIth Amendment was adopted, forbidding the keeping of slaves. In 1866 Congress passed a statute making slave-keeping punishable by a $5,000 fine, five years in prison. Not once in 70 years had the law been invoked until three months ago when a Federal Grand Jury at Little Rock, Ark. indicted Paul D. Peacher, Crittenden County cotton planter and former deputy sheriff, for "aiding and abetting in causing persons to be held as slaves."
Last week Planter Peacher, who now serves as city marshal of Earle, went on trial at Jonesboro before Federal Judge John E. Martineau, onetime Arkansas Governor, and a jury of twelve whites. On hand as a special representative of Attorney General Cummings, who was anxious to secure a conviction in the face of complaints from the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union against the usual calibre of Arkansas justice, was Brien McMahon, assistant U. S. attorney general in charge of the criminal division. As Planter Peacher sat sneeringly confident of acquittal, Prosecutor McMahon and his assistants presented the Government's story of peonage, 1936 Arkansas style. The story was pieced together from the testimony of some 30 witnesses, including many a frightened Negro who feared the big-jawed defendant, repeatedly referred to him as "De Law." Specifically the Government charged that last May "De Law," as a deputy sheriff, falsely arrested eight Crittenden County blackamoors for vagrancy, railroaded them through a Justice of the Peace Court, and forced them to clear timber on his plantation to work out 30-day sentences and $25 fines. The Negroes were enslaved, it was charged, because Peacher was short of labor due to a strike of cotton choppers in the vicinity. Best Government witness was Winfield Anderson, cowering 51-year-old Negro who sat in the witness chair with his paralyzed right arm hanging limp at his side. Witness Anderson testified that he was sitting on the front porch of his home, which he owns, when "De Law" accosted him, asked him where he worked. Anderson replied that he did not work, but lived on $10 a week he received as compensation for his injured arm. Peacher, he said, carted him off in his automobile, threw him into jail with other Negroes he picked up on the way. During their stay in jail they were given no food, Anderson said, were told by Peacher to "sharpen your teeth and gnaw those bars" when they asked for some. After two days in jail Anderson and twelve black companions were herded into the office of Mayor T. S. Mitchell, sitting as Justice of the Peace. "De Law" told them they were guilty of vagrancy, Anderson said, and that was that. Justice of the Peace Mitchell, who, Federal prosecutors declared, was no less cowed by Peacher than the Negroes were, required no explanation or evidence to justify his sentencing the Negroes to work on Peacher's plantation.
Defendant Peacher testified that he had an oral contract with the county to work prisoners on his place. A county judge had once expressed the opinion that "it would be all right" when he proposed the practice. "I arrested those Negroes because they were loafing around town. . . . They were loafers and a honky-tonk bunch," he declared.