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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  April, 2009

Did You Know? (Nutt/Dukes Part 1)

Did you know the slang term “nutty” (the jocular word that refers to a person of diminished mental capacities, i.e. “as nutty as a fruitcake,” or “he’s nuts”) was first used as a reference to a Uniontown native? The proof of that rather odd historical fact is contained within a newspaper article written over a hundred years ago.

The short version of that story is of a young man who committed murder near Uniontown’s “round corner,” in the early 1880’s. He would be put on trial for his deed, but acquitted by reason of insanity.

The origin of the term nutty, owes itself to the fact that the man’s name was James Nutt.

There is much more to this story. In the days when dime novels were plentiful, the sensational drama that placed Uniontown, Pennsylvania on front pages throughout America was far stranger than any fiction. This is the long version.

On Sunday morning December 24th, 1882 families had gathered for Christmas and were on their way to churches across Uniontown. But at the Jennings Hotel (on the corner where the First National Bank now stands) the sound of gunfire pierced the holiday calm.

One man lay dead. Another man was charged with his murder. Both had been among the most respected of the town. The dead man – Capt. Adam Clark Nutt - had been a family man, (the father of nine children, among them James Nutt mentioned above), and a frequent local speaker on matters involving education. He was the Cashier of the Pennsylvania Treasury in Harrisburg.

The 33 year-old attorney who killed him – Nicolas Lyman Dukes - was a Princeton College graduate who had been elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature only a few weeks before.

Those facts alone sent the nation’s presses into a daily frenzy in efforts to satisfy newspaper readers with their voracious appetites for scandal.
The New York Times, December 25th: “The weapon used by Dukes was a 32 calibre Smith and Wesson. Capt. Nutt was armed with a 38 calibre self-cocking Colt. The entire affair has cast the deepest gloom over the entire community.” Yet, there was more to the killing that fueled added interest.

The Reno (Nev.) Evening Gazette, December, 26th: “Reports say the cause of the shooting of Captain Nutt by Hon. N.L. Dukes was the refusal of the latter to marry Nutt’s daughter after ruining her.” Nutt’s daughter, Lizzie, was still in her teens. Her father had apparently gone to the Jennings Hotel merely to protect her honor.

Most of Uniontown immediately took his side. That not only made Dukes a killer, but the taker of a young girl’s innocence, with no intention of sheltering her good name. The Colorado Springs Daily Gazette, December 27th: “It is quietly hinted that there is a possibility of the citizens taking the law in their own hands.”
On the same day, the Oshkosh (Wis.) Daily Northwestern reported that Dukes had furnished enough proof that he may have acted in self-defense, so he was released from jail on $12,000 bail. His trial was set for the March term.

Within days, there were reports a series of letters that had been sent between Dukes and Nutt. The released details of those correspondences caused even more public anger. Dukes had sent two letters to Nutt. (One of 16 pages, the other of 12) He had claimed Lizzie Nutt had suffered from a “laxity of virtue,” according to the Decatur (Ill.) Morning Review. That, despite those close to her proclaiming, “She has always been, and is today, in public estimation as chaste and as pure as snow.”

On December 29th, Connellsville’s Keystone Courier uncovered more details of the letters. Dukes had hinted at Lizzie Nutt’s pregnancy as an indication of her promiscuity. Nutt’s response, according to the Courier was, “I would be justified in killing you.”
That, the article continued, led to the tragic meeting - and Duke’s claim of self-defense.
Yet, eyewitnesses were claiming otherwise.

And further, the article detailed Capt. Nutt’s funeral. “No man in the county was more highly esteemed than Capt. Nutt, by those interested in education. Thus was laid to rest one of the principals in a tragedy unparalleled in the history of Fayette County,” it said.

On January 13th, 1884 Dukes appeared in Harrisburg and asked to be sworn in as a state legislator. The New York Times writes, “The question will be raised whether a man who is awaiting a trial in a homicide case can be sworn.”

The answer to that question could be found on the pages of the Williamsport (Pa.) Daily Gazette and Bulletin nine days later when it was reported, “Dukes has left Harrisburg and gone to his home in Uniontown. He did not have the courage to appear at the bar of the house to be sworn in.”

In early March, the trial began in Uniontown, with jury selection taking place in a crowded Uniontown courtroom. The New York Times, on March 12th, had front page coverage of the high winds that had caused levee breaks near New Orleans.
But, too, there appeared the headline in regard to the matters that had begun in Uniontown: “ON TRIAL FOR HIS LIFE,” it said.

It was not noted in the early trial coverage that Dukes, a Democrat, had been in the custody of a Democratic sheriff, and that all 12 jury members were also Democrats.

It was a fact that would later call into question a verdict that led to even more local and even nationwide furor, and more bloodshed.

For that I will offer a further explanation next week.