James E. Riddick (1849–1907)

James E. Riddick, the son of a Tennessee farmer, obtained a law degree from the University of Michigan, moved to a town in northeastern Arkansas, and followed the traditional electoral path to the highest judicial office in Arkansas: first state legislator, then prosecuting attorney, trial judge, and finally associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Coming after the tumultuous years of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the bitter aftermath, Riddick’s career in public office was unusually free of rancor and controversy. The Supreme Court had struggled for twenty years with a growing backlog of appeals, which even an expansion of the court from three to five justices had not rectified. A few years after he went on the court, the Arkansas Bar Association called for young men to run for Supreme Court seats and to work harder and longer every week so that it would not take years for litigants in Arkansas to obtain justice. Between 1903 and 1910, the court became current with appeals, but the long days and weeks seemed to exhaust Riddick. After fourteen years on the court, he took a trip north seeking rest, contracted typhoid fever, and died soon after his return home.

James Edward Riddick was born on August 29, 1849, at Macon in western Tennessee to Edward Garrick Riddick and Harriett Ann Mayo Riddick. He attended Macon Masonic College; taught school near Galloway, Tennessee; studied law at Cumberland Law School at Lebanon, Tennessee; and received a law degree at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1872. He settled across the Mississippi River from his native region and started a law practice in the town of Gainesville (Greene County), at the time the bustling county seat of Greene County. In 1876, he ran for prosecuting attorney for the Second Judicial District and was elected. In the next election, in 1878, he was elected to the state House of Representatives.

In 1879, he married Emma Wade Mack, daughter of a Gainesville lawyer who was the district’s circuit judge. They would have five children.

In 1886, he was elected to the judgeship that his father-in-law had occupied. When Justice William W. Mansfield resigned from the Supreme Court in 1893, Governor William M. Fishback appointed Riddick to finish his term. Riddick was elected for an eight-year term at the next election in 1894 and again in 1902.

The Arkansas Gazette article on Riddick’s death reported that he had delivered the opinion in the most celebrated case of his tenure, upholding state Senator Festus O. Butt’s conviction for bribery in the famous Boodle Scandal of 1905.

The prosecuting attorney at Little Rock (Pulaski County), with the help of detectives from St. Louis sent by the governor of Missouri, exposed widespread bribery, extortion, and perjury in the legislature and among lobbyists for railroads and other corporate interests, including the scandal over bribing legislators to pass an appropriation bill to finish construction of the new Arkansas State Capitol. The scandal implicated former governor (by then U.S. senator) Jeff Davis, but he was never charged. The prosecutor, Lewis Rhoton, secured grand jury indictments against sixteen legislators, a mayor, and three others but, with his tiny staff, struggled to get them tried and convicted, often with uncooperative trial courts. The prosecutor also sued many individuals and corporations and succeeded in fining a few of them for their misdeeds. President Theodore Roosevelt praised the prosecutor’s work in his famous visit to Little Rock on October 25, 1905, when he jousted with Davis and also criticized efforts by the courts and others to stymie the prosecutions.

Butt v. State was the case that made it—twice, in fact—to the Supreme Court. Butt was the only corrupt legislator who served any time in prison. After Riddick’s opinion upholding Butt’s conviction, $200 fine, and two-year imprisonment, acting governor Xenophon O. Pindall pardoned him after six months in jail. Riddick’s lengthy opinion recounted all the evidence presented in the trial in Perry County and Butt’s defense that he really did not engage in a conspiracy to collect bribes from agents of the capitol-building contractor for legislators to vote the appropriation, although he had refused to answer direct questions about it in the grand jury room.

Butt’s attorneys argued that the jury should not have convicted him, because the prosecutor had not produced solid evidence of every step of the conspiracy. Riddick compared the argument to a play: Does one need to see only the last scene of the last act to judge the play? “The law does not blindfold courts and juries in this way,” he wrote. Butt appealed that decision in a fresh case, but the Supreme Court rejected it, too. Having written the first opinion, Riddick recused himself, since he would be judging his own opinion.

In the summer of 1907, according to the Gazette report on his death, Riddick was urged to take a vacation for his health—“north” was the only destination mentioned. He became ill and came home, where it was diagnosed as typhoid fever. He seemed to rally but died suddenly on October 9, 1907. Antibiotic treatment had not yet been discovered. He is buried in Oakland and Fraternal Historic Cemetery in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Butt v. State, Arkansas Supreme Court, December 17, 1906.

“Justice Riddick Dies of Typhoid.” Arkansas Gazette, October 10, 1907, p. 7.

Willis, James F. “Lewis Rhoton and the ‘Boodlers:’ Political Corruption and Reform During Arkansas’s Progressive Era.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 76 (Summer 2017): 95–124.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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