John “Poker Jack” McClure (1834–1915)

John McClure was an Ohio-born lawyer who came to Arkansas as the Civil War was ending and played a starring role in the political tumult that followed. Often ridiculed as “Poker Jack” owing to his fondness for gambling (he had been expelled from the Union army for playing poker), McClure was chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court during the latter years of Reconstruction. Democrats and a Republican faction accused him of malfeasance during the Brooks-Baxter War and its aftermath, and the Arkansas House of Representatives impeached him. The Arkansas Senate refused to convict and remove him from office and instead awarded him $2,000 for the trouble that the impeachment had caused him. When federal Reconstruction ended and conservative Democrats regained control of the government, McClure’s judicial career ended, but he remained a commanding and flamboyant figure in the capital into the next century with his bushy beard, wild hair, elegant black knee-length frock coat (sometimes called a Prince Albert coat), broad-brimmed black hat, and ever-present cigar.

John McClure was born on May 4, 1834, at Zanesville, Ohio, to Thomas Ramsey McClure and Faithful E. Ditter McClure. He attended public schools in Putnam County, Ohio. At his father’s insistence, he studied law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1855. He practiced law for six years in Kalida, Ohio. A newspaper in Cincinnati near his home reported that McClure had acquired his legal abilities “in bar rooms, at poker tables, and on the race course.” In 1858, he married Rumina Ayres in Wyandot County near her home.

When the Civil War began in 1861, he enlisted, at the age of twenty-seven, as a first lieutenant and quartermaster of the Fifty-seventh Volunteer Regiment of the Ohio Infantry. War records are confusing about his military career. He was court-martialed and relieved of his duties for playing cards, the reporting of which later earned him the jeering nickname of “Poker Jack” in Little Rock (Pulaski County), but war records indicated that his expulsion must have been temporary because he was still with the unit at the war’s end in 1865. The unit mostly skirmished on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, but elements of it participated in actions on the Arkansas side of the river, including the Battle of Arkansas Post. The regiment mustered out at Little Rock on August 14, 1865, and McClure stayed and started a new life in the state with his Ohio family.

McClure rented a cotton plantation that had been confiscated by Union forces at Swan Lake near the Arkansas River east of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). When the farming experiment failed, he briefly worked as an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was set up by the federal government to help former slaves, and then moved to Little Rock to practice law.

He also entered the tumultuous political fray of the Reconstruction era as a fiercely partisan Republican in the camp of Governor Powell Clayton. The history of the Reconstruction era was largely written by the dominant Democratic faction, and Clayton and McClure were perfunctorily characterized as domineering and corrupt men whose work was undone by a season of Jim Crow laws at the end of the century that re-established white control of elections and government.

McClure’s political career began with his election in 1868 as a delegate from Arkansas County to the convention that wrote the Reconstruction-era state constitution, which lasted only until 1874, when the Democrats, restored to power, drafted the constitution that exists today. The 1868 constitution expanded the Arkansas Supreme Court from three to five members. and McClure was elected to one of the new seats. He was an associate justice until 1871, when Chief Justice W. W. Wilshire resigned and Governor Clayton appointed McClure as the chief justice. McClure was chief justice until 1874, when the new constitution ratified that year ended the terms of the three justices who had been elected under the Constitution of 1868. McClure had served on the court for only six years, but they were tumultuous ones.

During the Civil War and under the Confederate constitution adopted in 1861, courts in much of the state ceased to function, so after 1865 a backlog of civil and criminal cases cascaded to the Reconstruction-era Supreme Court of McClure and his associates. Many of the cases confronted the court with conflicts between the constitutional and statutory laws of the pre–Civil War era, the Civil War era, and the Reconstruction constitution and legislative acts that followed. The court had to consider to what extent should the laws of the Confederate period be given legitimacy. A typical case was Kelley v. State. Kelley, a white man, had been charged with using a firearm to rob an African American man and convicted in 1866 upon the testimony of his victim. Kelley’s attorney argued that his conviction should be overturned because, at the time of the crime, the law on the books forbade testimony in court by Black people. Six months before Kelley’s case reached the Arkansas Supreme Court, however, the U.S. Congress passed a law giving Black people everywhere full citizenship rights, including giving evidence in court. Kelley’s attorney argued that the U.S. Congress had no right under the U.S. Constitution to regulate proceedings in a state court. Besides, the attorney argued, the governor had pardoned Kelley for the crime. The 1871 Republican-dominated Supreme Court, as expected, upheld Kelley’s conviction on the grounds that the U.S. Congress had the power to regulate state courts on constitutional grounds, but McClure, while concurring that the white man deserved conviction, said that, because of the pardon, it was a lousy case upon which to establish good law.

McClure concurred with decisions invalidating the repressive acts of the secessionist legislature and executives, but his opinions always leaned heavily upon the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of individual rights, whether they were trampled upon by Confederate or other legislative bodies.

McClure’s career was closely linked to Powell Clayton, the first Republican governor of Arkansas. A more radical faction of Republicans, led by Joseph Brooks, challenged Clayton for being too soft on Democrats and ex-Confederates, and the faction along with Democrats kept Clayton’s political life in peril—and also that of Justice McClure. The Brooks-Baxter War in the spring of 1874—to determine whether Brooks or Elisha Baxter had been the duly elected Republican governor in 1872—was the ultimate outgrowth of the intraparty feud. McClure also happened to be the editor and part owner of a newspaper, the Daily Republican, which had the state printing contract until Governor Baxter took away the printing business and gave it again to the Arkansas Gazette so that he could gain the support of Democrats. McClure later was editor of another Republican newspaper, the Evening Star.

In the early stages of the Brooks-Clayton feud, the Arkansas House of Representatives impeached Governor Clayton, partly for his efforts to prevent Lieutenant Governor James M. Johnson from serving as governor in Clayton’s absence if he took a seat in the U.S. Senate. Clayton’s impeachment never went to trial in the Arkansas Senate, but the House then impeached Justice McClure, who had issued a writ of mandamus preventing Johnson from being seated as governor in Clayton’s absence. McClure was charged with illegally conspiring with Clayton to deny Johnson his legitimate office and also with accepting bribes “at divers [sic] times and on various occasions” to influence his judicial decisions. The House voted 44–30 to impeach him. When the Senate convened to vote on the impeachment—whether to remove him from the Arkansas Supreme Court—McClure filed a demurrer in which he argued that the grounds for his impeachment and removal were ludicrous. The impeachment complaint did not allege that he did anything with corrupt intentions, he argued, but only that the critics did not agree with what he did. A book containing the verbatim record of the trial that was published by the Senate carries McClure’s long and eloquent defense of what he did and his arguments about the foolishness of the impeachment case. The Senate sustained McClure’s demurrer 19–0, with the other sixteen senators not voting or absent. It was the end of the dispute.

When the state constitution of 1874 was ratified, McClure and the other two justices who had been elected after ratification of the 1868 constitution left the court. McClure went into law practice with his son—he had three children—and they practiced until McClure’s death on July 7, 1915.

Historians and the state press for much of a century were not kind to either Clayton or McClure. Governor Clayton’s portrait was not hung in the Governor’s Conference Room of the Arkansas State Capitol or in the portrait room of the Old State House until 1978. In his book Arkansas, a version of the state’s history written in 1947, John Gould Fletcher, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and essayist, called McClure “the bushy-bearded radical”—a tall, rawboned Midwestern lawyer who perpetually smoked cigars and was “cynically profane in conversation.” He described him aptly, probably from firsthand observation, as Fletcher had lived in McClure’s neighborhood as a youngster.

McClure is buried in Little Rock National Cemetery.

For additional information:
“John McClure.” National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: J. T. White & Company, 1927, 1930.

Pomeroy, James M. Reporting for the Bar of Little Rock. Supreme Court of the State of Arkansas Before the Senate of the State of Arkansas on Impeachment by the House of Representatives. Little Rock: Little Rock Printing and Publishing Company, 1873.

Stafford, L. Scott. “The Arkansas Supreme Court and the Aftermath of the Civil War.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 23 (2001): 355–407. Online at (accessed February 8, 2023).

Stafford, Logan Scott. “The Arkansas Supreme Court and the Civil War.” Journal of Southern Legal History 37 (1999): 37–114. Online at (accessed February 8, 2023).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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