Street Smarts: Judge Meyer had scant legal knowledge but dispensed justice

2014-02-04T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T15:32:10Z Street Smarts: Judge Meyer had scant legal knowledge but dispensed justiceBy David Leighton For the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 04, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Charles H. “Charlie” Meyer was born on June 6, 1829, in Hanover, Germany.

He first set foot in present-day Arizona during his time in the U.S. Army, when he was in charge of the commissary department of the Hospital Corps. In 1854 (some sources say 1858), he established himself in Tucson and later opened the first drugstore in the village of Tucson. Meyer had gained extensive knowledge of mixing and preparing drugs while in the Army Hospital Corps, and upon entering the druggist business, turned his knowledge into financial gain.

At the organization of the Arizona Territory in 1864, Meyer was elected justice of the peace in Tucson. He served either in that role or as city recorder until 1903. In the 1860s and 1870s, with lawlessness common, he began to dispense justice more than he dispensed medication.

To Judge Meyer, the letter of the law was of less importance than the facts of the case or fundamental justice. He knew almost nothing about the law — it was said that his “law library” held just two books, both large tomes related to medicine. The books were used more for making an impression and allowing more time to ponder the case than for any practical application. Only during particularly difficult trials would he adjourn the court and consult a legal reference or consult a trusted attorney before deciding a verdict.

In 1869, under the direction of Judge Meyer, the chain-gang system was instituted. People convicted in his court of lesser crimes were given the opportunity to work for the city, cleaning streets, or accept other punishment. Most of the guilty chose the former, and the citizens of Tucson could boast of its immaculately clean roads.

Meyer believed so much in fair play that one day, traveling down Congress Street in a buggy, he was stopped and told he was driving at an illegal speed. The following day in court, he harshly criticized himself, in his thick German accent, and fined himself $25, a hefty amount in those days.

Charlie H. Meyer died in the first decade of the 20th century.

The downtown street that bears his name was named Meyer Street around 1870 and later became Meyer Avenue. According to a 1937 interview with then-City Councilman Lautaro Roca, the street was named when Charlie Meyer deeded the right of way to the city.

Sources:

Frank Lockwood, “Pioneer Portraits,” The University of Arizona Press, 1968

Unknown Author, “Old Tucson Fast Disappearing Will be Perpetuated in the Names of City Streets,” Tucson Daily Citizen, June 21, 1919

Historical Notes and Glossary (Street file at Arizona Historical Society)

G.W. Barter, “Directory of the City of Tucson for the Year 1881,” H.S. Crocker & Co., 1881

Charles Meyer family website: http://judgecharleshermannmeyer.net/

University of Arizona website related to Charles Meyer http://southwest.library.arizona.edu/hav2/body.1_div.11.html#page227

“Roca, native Tucsonan, sees reason for unchanged names,” Arizona Daily Star, July 14, 1936.

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