Ray H. Jenkins, trial lawyer and chief counsel for the U.S. Senate in the Army-McCarthy hearings, was born in Cherokee County, North Carolina, in 1897. The family soon moved to the community of Rural Vale in Monroe County, Tennessee, and then to the neighboring logging town of Tellico Plains. Jenkins's early years were shaped by his distinct personal character, his family, and the rural life of the early 1900s, which included the limitations of local schools, hunting and fishing experiences, participation in sports, summer odd jobs, and the antics and escapades of boyhood. These influences contributed not only to Jenkins's nickname, the “Terror of Tellico Plains,” but also affected his courtroom style.
In 1916, after high school graduation, Jenkins volunteered with the Tennessee militia to fight Pancho Villa along the U.S. and Mexican border. During World War I, he joined the navy and spent his enlistment in San Diego, California. In 1920 Jenkins graduated cum laude from University of Tennessee Law School, having already passed the bar exam and received his license in 1919.
Jenkins began his career in the Knoxville office of Alvin Johnson. The court appointed the fledging attorney to represent indigent defendants, in addition to his work collecting debts and defending clients before the justice of the peace. By 1922 Jenkins had established his own practice and quickly developed a reputation as a courtroom dramatist and orator. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Taylor identified Jenkins's legal knowledge, his handling of witnesses, and his forceful arguments as the qualities of an extraordinary lawyer. When Jenkins defended clients in the courtroom, people came to witness the event.
In 1954 Jenkins received national attention when he was appointed chief counsel for the U.S. Senate committee investigating the Army-McCarthy hearings. Jenkins worked closely with minority counsel Robert Kennedy to ferret out the truth of the conflict between Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Although Jenkins adapted his emotional courtroom style to accommodate the more conservative expectations of Washington, D.C., courtrooms, his skills became evident to the millions of television viewers who witnessed the hearings. Now a national figure, Jenkins appeared on the cover of Time magazine. As perhaps the most interesting consequence of Jenkins's Army-McCarthy exposure, cartoonist Al Capp adapted his likeness and personality for the creation of “Cragnose,” a character in the Li'l Abner comic strip.
Many Tennesseans expected Jenkins to pursue a political career following his national exposure. Jenkins returned to Knoxville, however, and resumed his practice in criminal and civil law. While his public reputation derived from the more than eight hundred homicide defendants he represented, civil law accounted for more than 90 percent of his practice. In 1979 Jenkins published his autobiography, The Terror of Tellico Plains: The Memoirs of Ray H. Jenkins. He died in 1980.