Roy Bean has gotten a lot of ink over the years, but he wasn’t Texas’ only
colorful justice of the peace. |
The antics of the so-called Law West
of the Pecos have always made great copy for Western writers, but Norman Porter,
Sr., a retired school principal from South
Texas, has rescued another notable Lone Star jurist from obscurity – Paul
Born April 25, 1876 in the community of Amphion
in Atascosa County, Desmuke came into the world normal in every way except one
– he had no arms. With the help of a loving mother, he learned to compensate for
his lack of upper appendages by using his feet. Before long, he could use his
feet as adroitly as others used their hands.
As a school student, he
wrote his lessons on a slate board just like the other kids, only he used his
toes. If called on to solve a math problem on the chalkboard in front of the class,
he stood on one foot and raised his leg up to add and subtract with the other.
His disability also did not affect his voice. He led the choir at the Amphion
Methodist Church. Desmuke also learned to play a mean fiddle.
apparently did not affect his personality. With one of his feet, he politely tipped
his hat to the ladies or warmly shook someone’s hand.
Despite his successful
efforts to overcome his disability, Desmuke had his limits. He obviously couldn’t
use both of his feet at the same time unless seated or reclining. But people like
him with severe disabilities almost always could count on landing a job with a
circus, becoming a sideshow freak.
But Desmuke’s mother, naturally wanting
as normal a life as possible for her son, believed the circus life would be demeaning
for him. She argued strongly and successfully against it and Desmuke honored her
wishes. He got by as best he could until, at the age of 26, he got a break.
When the incumbent Atascosa County Precinct Three justice of the peace resigned
from office in May 1902, Desmuke gained appointment as his replacement. From all
accounts, the young JP served his constituents well, handling a variety of statutory
duties ranging from accepting criminal complaints to pronouncing people dead and
ruling on their cause of death to performing marriages.
and Mae Desmuke Gravesite at Jourdanton City Cemetery|
Photo courtesy Terry
Jeanson, July 2007
| Still, a yearning
for adventure or money – or both – eventually led him to sign on with the A. G.
Barnes Circus and Sideshow. Somewhere along the way, he learned to throw knives
with his feet and developed an act around that. He went on to be part of the 400-plus
entourage with Zack Miller’s 101 Ranch Wild West show.|
The armless judge
from South Texas also played an armless
man in a silent movie called “The Sideshow” (1926) and got paid as a stunt double
for Lon Cheney in “The Unknown” a year later.
After the wild west show
went bankrupt at the height of the Great Depression, Desmuke got a gig at the
Century of Progress Expo in Chicago in 1933-34 with Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Odditorium. In that show, Desmuke would send 10 butcher knives swooshing toward
a human volunteer, each blade twanging into a backboard within an inch of the
living target. Demonstrating the power of trust in a marriage, the target was
his wife, Mae Dixon.
By the early 1940s, Desmuke had come home to Atascosa
County. Porter, then a youngster living in Jourdanton,
saw Judge Desmuke (as he was known locally) walk into the Post Office and do something
he considered quite routine but which Porter considered extraordinary.
“He slipped his shoe off, with his toes protruding through the end of his ‘prepared’
sock, lifted his foot almost head high, turned the combination with his toes,
and opened the box,” Porter wrote in a short article published by the Atascosa
Writer’s Guild. “Sticking his long toes into the box, he retrieved his mail, stuck
it in his pocket and closed the box. He slipped his shoe back on and walked out
In addition to everything else he could do with his feet,
Desmuke could play a spirited game of dominos.
The armless former judge
and sideshow star spent the rest of his life in his native Atascosa County. He
died June 19, 1949 and is buried in the Jourdanton City Cemetery.
"Texas Tales" June 7, 2007
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