The Mystery Years of "The Judge"
Joseph Franklin Rutherford in Missouri


To begin, many people know of Jehovah's Witnesses who entrust their doctrinal interpretations to the Governing Body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, but few know a great deal about the Watchtower Society's second President, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, and, until now, very few have known about can be termed the Mystery Years of Joseph F Rutherford in Missouri, which came prior to his becoming the Watchtower President.  Therefore this article was researched and written during March 1998-August 2000.

Just as the Watchtower history, the Proclaimers book, states Joseph Franklin Rutherford was born November 8, 1869.  It further notes that he entered college when sixteen although not saying which college (there were several in the area), says he was under the tutelage of a Judge E.L. Edwards whom Missouri handbooks indicate had been a state supreme court justice.  Consulting the history and other works shows that in 1889 when twenty years old he was made an official court reporter, and he obtained a license to practice law on May 5, 1892.

His parents, according to the Catholic priest Rev Richard Felix who lived in the same Missouri county and wrote the booklet Rutherford Exposed (Our Faith Press, Pilot Grove, MO) were "honest, hardworked, respected" people.  They were James Calvin Rutherford and Lenora Strickland Rutherford who lived nearly fifty years on a small farm 3 ˝ miles north of Versailles.  Ironically, given the later anti-democratic ploys of their son Joseph, they were active in a church less than a mile from the farm which was called the Freedom Baptist Church.  The father died July 11, 1912.  Rutherford's mother died October 9, 1926.  There is no indication whether either parent left the Baptists and in fact both were buried in a small cemetery near their church.  His mother was a pensioned blind invalid the last three years of her life and Rutherford preached at her funeral.

Rutherford had seven siblings.  His oldest brother was W.P. Rutherford who died in the West, possibly California, a few years before Felix's book was printed in 1937.  Sisters who were deceased at that time were Mrs Flora Chism, Mrs Lena McDaniels and Mrs Anna Neville.  Mrs Ella Newkirk of Tipton and Mrs Virginia Ross of Versailles were then alive as was a younger brother, James B. Rutherford who then lived in Kansas City.  The Proclaimers history mentions that Rutherford's wife Mary died on or about December 17, 1962 in California where Rutherford sometimes wintered at the Beth Sarim mansion.  A surviving son was Malcolm.  He or more likely a descendant of his with a similar name may still be alive though not on the West Coast.  Mary was a practising JW but no indication is given that Malcolm was.  Quite possibly future researchers would find pictures and memoirs pertaining to JF Rutherford in the possession of descendants of such family members.

As said, Rutherford was sometimes an official Court Stenographer at Versailles (see Circuit Court Book 12, page 416) as well as in Boonville. (Book 19, page 181)  The Cooper County Court record Book 19 on page 84 says he was familiar enough with legal forms and procedures that he was admitted to the Boonville bar on May 5, 1892 although not registered at any Law School accredited in Missouri. In the state when a Presiding Judge was absent the bar picked a local attorney to fill in as a substitute judge. This occurred fours times in his own case.  Each time it was for only a day. Twice there were no trials that he presided over and on the other two occasions he presided over only minor trials.  Therefore his sometimes being called "Judge" Rutherford is rather misleading.

Rutherford was cited for contempt of court on at least three occasions.  Proof of this is found in Morgan County Book 13, page 251 for August 8,1894 and Cooper County Book 2,page 376 on May 15,1895.   His worst known impropriety in law during the Missouri years was recorded in Permanent File #5113 of the Cooper County Circuit Court dated February 4, 1896 and involved a case heard by Judge Dorsey W. Shackleford.  Rutherford was representing the National Cash Register Company against David Nicholson of Boonville. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1994, the NCRC was acquired by AT&T, only to be spun off again within a few years.  His representing the NCRC thus seems ironic in that he later would inveigh against all Big Businesses except for his own as manifested in his iron control of the Watchtower Society.

To continue, after Nicholson had levied a writ of attachement on a cash register machine that had been used at the saloon of Charley Derstetter, a deputy constable named Wright went to seize the machine but Rutherford met him at the saloon, held papers before Wright and told him that if Wright would go to see William Muir Williams the attorney representing Nicholson and who later became a state supreme court judge, then Williams would confirm that Rutherford held possession of the machine.  Wright left the machine to speak with attorney Williams and upon returning found that machine gone. Rutherford then lied that the machine had been sent on to Sedalia, Missouri, for deputy Wright found it "concealed" in a second office beneath some papers.

The court ruled against the National Cash Register Company which had the case appealed but it lost on appeal too as is shown by examination of Missouri Appeal Reports Volume 68, page 441 c.p.447.  And, of course, the Watchtower history, Proclaimers, never even hints at this early scandal.  Another point deserving further inquiry is whether or not Rutherford was a prosecuting attorney in the strict sense of the title.  Missouri state handbooks are also called "the Blue Books" and when those are examined for the years 1893 through 1902 they show that the Cooper County prosecuting attorneys were Ernest R Hayden, C.D. Corum and Ernest Chambers.  This does not entirely rule out his having substituted in such a function and acting in a prosecutorial or pugnacious manner; hence the issue is still unclear and for other researchers to resolve.   During Rutherford's years in Missouri as well as today in 1999, if one is a county's prosecuting attorney then this means he has been elected as such for a two year term.  Cooper County's elected officials during the Rutherford years were most all Democrats.

Another interesting issue is that the Proclaimers book notes that Rutherford was first contacted in 1894 when he was twenty-four by two traveling peddlers for the Watchtower Society who were then called colporteurs.  He bought some of their books and wrote an appreciative letter to the Society and yet he was not baptized a JW until twelve years later in 1906 at age 36.  Then a mere one year later he went off to the Society's headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, to serve as legal counselor.  Proclaimers notes that he was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar in May 1909.  After the death of the Society's founding President Charles Taze Russell on October 31, 1916, a Halloween, Rutherford became the next President, wrestled power from opposing board members, deleted all democratically-elected elders. Membership plunged until he compelled those who remained to recruit extensively from door-to-door.  His death occurred January 8, 1942 in San Diego.

One work in particular stands out from his early years in Missouri, and it may well have foreshadowed his later taking control of  the Society which, beyond the fact that it served as a promoter of religious ideas, was and is even more concretely a publishing firm for religious materials.  He compiled a 128 page work called "Laws Of Missouri. Compilation of the Laws and Legal Forms for the Convenience of Farmers and Mechanics Merchants And Bankers. Business Manual" (title spelled as it actually appears) which was printed by Stahl & Stahl.  A date is not included on his work but the publishers' preface states that he was then "one of the leading members of the Boonville bar."  The book was well-organized and roughly half of it consisted of advertisements from Boonville merchants. This must have realized quite a profit and showed him that there was much money in publishing.  Today the book is a genuine collectors' item seldom seen even within Missouri.

Rutherford's actual burial site is officially given as on the East Coast but this too is uncertain.  Another mystery is whether he was also a Mason, which is not an insignificant issue at all in view of the fact that much evidence exists that the Watchtower Society's first President, founder CT Russell, was also a Mason.  Therefore this writer concludes by expressing hope that other persons who have access to directories listing the Masons in Missouri will pursue this additional mystery as I myself am no longer able to return to my sources and hereby express sincere appreciation to Randy Watters and others who may also publish on their websites and elsewhere what I was able to find out.

A few final remarks about my sources. These were during early 1998 to August 2000.  As one might expect the best locations for the materials about JF Rutherford were found in and around his home town, Boonville, in central Missouri.  Further, state historical societies in St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri (UMC-Columbia), proved fruitful, being repositories for example of the Richard Felix booklet on Rutherford's family and the Rutherford laws-with-advertising compilation.  The involved court records are stored in his home county courthouse as well as in Kansas City, Missouri.  And, as stated, the Watchtower itself has published passing, if biased, comments about him in its Proclaimers publication and various other works for many decades.

I was especially impressed by the vehemence with which his efforts against American troops during World War I were denounced in editorials including in the Boonville area publications.  It is highly interesting too that others have lambasted Rutherford for encouraging or directing the smuggling of alcoholic drink into his Brooklyn headquarters during the Prohibition era, turning a blind eye to homosexual activities which only partly declined during the tenure of his successor, Nathan Knorr, and even noted that a brothel was run for the headquarters "Bethelite" men during his time of control. (Barbara Grizutti)  Unfortunately, due to health and age constraints, I am no longer able to pursue research efforts into any of these avenues but invite others to do so.  There are simply too many intriguing loose ends and side-mysteries that linger.

W. Hagen