Saturday, April 13, 2024

'Probity Was Perhaps the Highest Good'

As a newspaper reporter I covered only one capital murder trial. This was in rural Indiana in 1983. At the age of eighteen, William Spranger had fatally shot a town marshal, William Miner, in the back with the officer’s service revolver. The jury found Spranger guilty and Judge James C. Puckett sentenced him to death.

I knew the judge the way reporters often know public figures. The relationship was genial but guarded. After the sentencing I asked the bailiff if I could see Puckett in his chambers. The bailiff passed on my request and, to my surprise, the judge agreed. I knew Puckett as a man of great dignity, always conservatively dressed and groomed, serious and scholarly, tall with a Lincolnesque manner. The judge was sprawled in the chair behind his desk, disheveled, sweating, tie undone, hair out of place. He could hardly speak and gave me a few brief answers to my questions, which I no  longer remember. I left the courthouse with a single word in my head, one we seldom hear anymore: probity. I think of the judge when I encounter the word.     


Puckett gave the lie to the stereotype of the “hanging judge.” Clearly, his decision had disturbed him severely. I saw a man who had wrestled with his conscience and his obligations as a judge. There was nothing cavalier or vindictive about him. He did what he was obliged to do, and it took something out of him.


Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary defines probity as “honesty; sincerity; veracity,” qualities we seldom associate with judges and other public officials. The meaning has shifted with the centuries. The OED gives us “the quality or condition of having strong moral principles; integrity, good character; honesty, decency.” Among the citations is one from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913): “In a few years his unprincipled wife warped the probity of a lifetime.”


I recently reread Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), my favorite among his novels. I remembered a brief essay Theodore Dalrymple wrote a decade ago about the great writer. He doesn’t mention Nostromo but he does examine probity, a quality that distinguished Judge Puckett:


“In finding something for his hand to do, and doing it with all his might, Conrad always kept morality in view. For Conrad, probity was perhaps the highest good, the moral quality he admired most; for him, very distant goals diluted probity and finally dissolved it utterly. The good that resulted from doing something with all one’s might had therefore to be tangible or immediate, and not so far removed that it entailed or permitted the doing of evil in the name of the eventual good that it would supposedly produce.”

No comments: