MEMOIRS OF DISTINGUISHED MEMBERS OF THE BAY
BY A. C. MAXWELL
In undertaking to write an account of
those men who have heretofore been members of the Bay county bar I have found
myself so embarrassed by any attempt at discussion of the character of those
members still living that I shall only give some account of those who are dead.
I settled in lower Saginaw (now Bay City) in March, 1857. When I arrived there I found that Messrs. C. H. Freeman, W. L. Sherman, and James Birney had preceded me, and they were all then actively engaged in the practice of law.
Hon. James Birney was born at
Danville, Kentucky, in 1817. His father, James G. Birney, candidate for
the liberty party for president in 1840 and 1844, resided in Lower Saginaw from
1840 and 1856. He was trustee of the old Saginaw Bay company, which owned
the section of land on which the original plat of Lower Saginaw was first laid
out, and no doubt the interests that he left in Bay City was the cause of the
settlement of his son at that place.
James Birney was educated at Center College, Ky., and at Miami University, Ohio, from which latter institution he was graduated in 1836. For the two years succeeding his graduation he occupied the position of professor of the Greek and Latin languages at that institution. He afterward studied law at New Haven, Conn., and subsequently entered upon the practice of that profession at Cincinnati, Ohio. While at New Haven he married Miss Moulton, cousin of Commodore Isaac Hull who captured the Guerriere on the 19th day of August, 1812. In 1856 Mr. Birney removed with is family to Lower Saginaw (now Bay City) and at once interested himself in the development of the place. From that time until his death Bay City was his home.
Mr. Birney was a prominent republican in politics and in 1858 was elected to the State senate, and in this office he displayed both great capacity and great independence. In the year 1859 most of that great grant of swamp land which the general government had made to the State for the purpose of drainage and reclamation was appropriated by the State for the building of State roads and to the construction of drains and ditches. And here Mr. Birney rendered services to northern Michigan, for which its people for all time to come should be forever grateful. There was a strong body of men in the legislature that year, who were determined to ignore and neglect the conditions of the trust, and to sell the swamp lands and apply the proceeds of the sale to the school fund, thus leaving the northern portions of the State with is swamps and morasses to take care of themselves. And as the phrase went, let them get out of the woods as best they can. Mr. Birney overcame this faction and secured the legislation which has opened up northern Michigan through every portion of it with the State roads.
So well did he perform his duty as senator as to attract general attention, and in 1860 he was elected lieutenant governor of the State. He was exceptionally well qualified for the office of president of the senate. He was careful, studious, and absolutely impartial and independent, and managed to perform his duties with a constant suavity and grace that caused the members of that body to be very proud of him, and justly too, for all the men who have succeeded him in that office, none has reached that high standard attained by Judge Birney as a presiding officer.
In the senate that year (1861) were Henry P. Baldwin, afterwards governor and senator, Byron G. Stout, afterwards a candidate of his party for governor and since a member of congress, and Solomon L. Withey, afterwards judge of the federal courts at Grand Rapids, and many other distinguished sons of Michigan. And it is safe to say that Judge Birney was the full equal of all these distinguished men. He frequently debated questions on the floor of the senate; always with sincerity and ability, and always with firmness and kindness. While he was ambitious he was totally above all the low schemes and practices of modern politicians.
In the spring of 1861 Governor Birney was appointed circuit judge of the eighteenth judicial circuit, then composed of the counties of Bay, Iosco, Alcona, and Alpena. He presided four years on the bench of that circuit. He was a dignified, prudent, and careful judge. His administration of justice was satisfactory. He was modest, kind, accommodating, fair and impartial, and generally right, but like all judges he made some mistakes. I remember once he intimated a decision against me. I mentioned to him that the supreme court had decided otherwise, and showed him the decision of Tannahill vs. Tuttle. He refused to modify his ruling and simply remarked "So much the worse for the supreme court". I cheerfully add that he was right, as Tannahill vs. Tuttle was afterwards overruled. He was not well adapted to a judicial position. While his mind was active and clear, he could not comprehend and would not follow many of the rules of law which to the general student appear unreasonable.
After leaving the bench he resumed his practice of law in Bay City. In 1867 he was elected a member of the constitutional convention and actively participated in the proceedings of that body. He was very conservative, perhaps too much so, as the work of the convention was rejected by the people.
In 1870 Mr. Birney established the Bay City Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, and in 1873 it was issued daily. It was published until after Mr. Birney's departure for the Hague, when it was merged into the Tribune. In 1872 he was appointed centennial commissioner for Michigan and as such was of considerable service to the State. He was noted as such for his affability and kindness.
In 1872 he was appointed minister to the Netherlands. This was a position to which he was exceptionally well adapted. He held this office until 1882, when he returned to Bay City. His father was a graduate of Princeton, a man of fine taste and elegant accomplishments. He was simple and free in his manner, liberal in his views in everything except upon the subject of slavery, perfectly honest, and no doubt from him Judge Birney acquired those elegant manners for which he was noted.
At the court of Holland, as a representative of the United States, he was highly distinguished, and it is probable that of all the representatives of the nations at that court he was the most respected and admired as a man. It is true the embassadors from Germany, France and Russia with millions of armed men near at hand, and England with her tremendous navy, each able to crush Holland in a month, must be shown great consideration; but this was due to force and to the position of affairs, not to the representative or to the man who might happen to represent the nation. Judge Birney maintained a high position there, and did much to elevate the embassy and in the building up of friendly feelings towards the people of the United States. He died in May, 1888.
Mr. Birney was a man of great public spirit and filled the many public offices, to which he was either elected or appointed, with ability and fidelity. He was devoted to the interests of Bay City and Bay county, and took an active part in promoting their growth and development.
At the time of his death he was president of the board of education of Bay City, and in this office, as in all other positions of public trust occupied by hi m, he made his duty to the people of paramount importance. He was a man of sensitive and refined feelings, firm in his convictions, of fine appearance, and eminently qualified by education and manners to shine in the higher walks of public life, loyal , tender hearted gentleman who could not play the demagogue.
Although Judge Birney was
self-possessed and circumspect in his conduct generally, one morning in the
spring of 1859 he said to me, "I feel most devilishly ugly this morning."
The next morning I learned the occasion of his wrath. At this time there
was not a rod of made road in Bay county. There was but one span of horses
in town. People's cattle, cows, pigs, and geese run everywhere at
large on the property of every land owner with impunity. Judge
Birney had cleared some blocks between Ninth and Tenth streets in Bay
City, and had made some clearing where the family homestead now stands. He
had cleared his lands, fenced it, and planted it. It so happened
that this enclosure embraced a sand ridge over which the settlers' cows had
passed out to the woods to graze. On each side of the judge's fences
were swamps, so that when the cattle got beyond his enclosure they could not
find their way home, and every night the settlers would pull down his fences and
let the cattle through to their homes. Finally he laid in wait for
them and one evening caught two old German settlers named Mikler and Steinbauer
letting down his fences. It was past one o'clock in the morning.
He at once woke up Squire Chilson
had both trespassers arrested, tried them before two o'clock in the morning and had them in jail punctually at three.
THEOPHILUS C. GRIER.
Among the members of the bar who gained
a special notoriety at an early age of his life was Theophilus C. Grier.
His reputation was known all over the State as one of the rising lawyers of our
Judge Grier was born at Ravenna, in the state of Ohio, on the 2d day of January, 1834, and was a descendent, on his mother's side, of Rev. John Cotton, of Pilgrim fame. His parents died while Mr. Grier was yet a mere lad, and he was taken and cared for during a short time by an uncle whose name was Carlton, and who was a minister of the Universalist denomination of more than ordinary reputation. At the age of fifteen
young Grier became apprenticed as a printer to one Joel D. Brattels, who was then editor of the Trumbull County Democrat. This training was subsequently of immense value to him as a writer. The young man's health became very delicate, and he was necessarily compelled to quit the printing business and cultivate his physical strength. After a short time he became strong enough to attend school and entered an educational institution
at Marietta, Ohio. Subsequently he made up his mind to enter the legal profession, and to this end he became a student in the law office of Riddle & Hathaway, of Chardon, Ohio. His circumstances were such that it was necessary for him to teach school during the winter season of the year and pursue his law studies during the summer, spending what he earned during the winter to enable him to prosecute his studies during the summer. While thus engaged and while yet a youth he became acquainted with Jennie Miller, whom he married in July, 1857. Three children were the fruits of this marriage, the oldest being Carlton Grier, who is now a resident of Spokane, Washington, the second, a daughter, who died in Bay City some years ago, and the third, Rev. A. Grier, who is now one of the most scholarly and eloquent ministers of the gospel in the state of Iowa.
Shortly after the marriage of Judge Grier, he was admitted to the bar in the state of Ohio, and moved with his wife to Pine Run, Michigan, where he commenced the practice of his profession. This practice for the first few years was confined chiefly to the justices' courts, as is the case with most of the lawyers of his training and advantages. In this field, however, Mr. Grier showed indications of his future merits and abilities. He soon sought a more extended opportunity in which to grow, however, and during the year 1859 he took up residence in Bay City. Here he found remunerative calls for his services from the beginning. His great ability as a rising lawyer was at once recognized, and in the year 1860 he was elected prosecuting attorney and circuit court commissioner of Bay County. As a public prosecutor he was the dread and fear of criminals and at once came to the front as a trial lawyer. During the month of September, 1861, he associated with him A. McDonell, now of Bay City, and this firm, under the name of Grier & McDonell, controlled a very extensive and lucrative practice until Judge Grier was elected to the bench. They were engaged in the trial of as many as one hundred and ten issues of fact during one term of the Bay County circuit court. In 1865, Mr. Grier was appointed city
attorney of Bay City. In 1867 he was elected a member of the State legislature. In this body he commanded the respect of his colleagues, and the attention of the State, by his power as a ready debater, his eloquence, and his acute and discriminating mind, as well as his sharp and incisive logic. Few men of the day were equal to him in debate on the floor of the legislative hall. His industry as a committee man was also noticeable. He was called by the press of the State the "Ajax of the House." Few men possessed the power of Mr. Grier before a miscellaneous audience. As a political speaker on the stump his influence was almost matchless, and during our political campaigns his services were in constant demand all over his State. In 1871 the territory of the tenth judicial circuit of Michigan was changed and the eighteenth circuit was organized, composed of Bay Iosco, Alcona, and Alpena counties. Mr. Grier was elected judge of the new circuit as the unanimous choice of both political parties, he being a democrat. This position on the bench he held until his death, which occurred on the 5th day of June, 1872. The decease of Judge Grier at this early day of his life, was sorrowfully and keenly felt by his many friends of the Saginaw Valley. It occurred at a period, as will be seen, when he was on the threshold of a brilliant and useful life. He was strictly a self made man, having no advantages except those given him by nature herself. The community in which he lived during the last ten years of his life looked upon him as one of the most brilliant men of his age; his judgment on law questions was considered eminently accurate and sound; he seldom erred in matters of opinion, and his power as a public speaker and especially as a jury lawyer was almost dangerous, because under the excitement of his addresses he ignored everything but the success of his client.
HON. SIDNEY T. HOLMES
The late Judge Sidney T. Holmes was
born at Skaneateles, N. Y., in August, 1815. His father, Judge
Epenetus Holmes, was a prominent attorney at that place, but he removed to
Morrsiville, a thriving village and county seat of Madison county, N. Y., when
the subject of our sketch was but four years old. Here the child
attended the village school and graduated from the village academy, afterwards
completing his education at the Waterville seminary. He then engaged in
teaching and in the study of the law and civil engineering. He was
appointed chief engineer of the Chenango and Black River canal, and afterwards
was engaged on the New York and Erie railroad. In 1838 he married
and settled in Morrisville in the practice of the law, a profession to which he
became greatly attached and in time acquired a great and well earned reputation.
In 1851 he was elected county judge, filling that position for twelve years, and
in 1864 he was elected to congress from the twenty-second congressional district
of New York, receiving the largest majority ever given to any candidate up to
that time. He served his term of two years in congress to the entire
satisfaction of his constituents, but declined a re-nomination, preferring his
profession to that of congressional life at Washington. Soon after
his return home he became associated at Utica in the practice of law with
Hon. Roscoe Conklin, remaining in the firm three years, but their large practice
devolving mostly upon the Judge, his health became impaired and he came to Bay
City to recuperate his failing health, and to visit friends and relatives, and
was so favorably impressed with the push and prospects of the place that he
determined to locate in Bay City. He returned to Utica and as soon
as possible with so large a practice, dissolved his connection with the firm and
removed with his family to Bay City, opened an office in the Watson block, with
Mr. Haynes and J. L. Stoddard, a young attorney who had come with him from
Utica. Mr. Haynes removing to the west the firm afterwards became
Homes, Collins & Stoddard. But for some years before his death the firm
was Holmes & Collins. Judge Holmes' death occurred January 16, 1889.
None stood higher in his profession or was better known throughout central New
York than Judge S. T. Holmes. He was republican in politics and
liberal in his religious belief. Honor and the strictest integrity
gave him influence not only at the bar but among the citizens who knew him best.
Judge Holmes was a great lawyer. This was true of him not only as counsel with parties about their business transactions, but also in the preparation and trial of causes. He was an all around lawyer. He had been an engineer in early life. Prior to his coming to Bay City, he had made political speeches from his early manhood all over the country. He was for twelve years surrogate judge of Madison county, New York. He acquired an intimate knowledge of the business affairs and details of the business life of the community in which he lived. He had a great knowledge of human nature. His knowledge of the law was profound. He studied hard, earnestly and deeply. His knowledge of New York case law and of the cases governing the general principles of the law was very great. He kept a large library well stocked with text books; kept up his reports and digest and kept abreast of the law as the decision came out. All of this combined made him an able and wise counselor. When it cam to advising about matters of law, particularly in connection with business transactions, his advice and judgment were able and shrewd. Before litigation commenced he was in favor of exhausting all reasonable means to effect a settlement which would avoid litigation, but after litigation was commenced his watchword the was "fight", and from the beginning to the end of litigation he was a zealous, earnest, and able combatant and advocate.
His preparation of causes for trial was thorough and exhaustive. On trial of causes he was alert, vigilant and active. In the examination and cross-examination of witnesses he was very able, and where there were any questions of fraud involved or any question where the motives of parties were in issue, his cross-examination was wonderfully ingenious and shrewd as well as combative and some of the events in this class of cases are long to be remembered by those who witnessed them.
His presentation of a case to the court was most able, and he analyzed and presented case law with great effect. In arguing cases to the jury he analyzed testimony closely. He argued strongly and made powerful and logical arguments, arguments that were homely and strong. And at the same time from his wide range of reading and study he had many apt illustrations and anecdotes at his command which he used with great effect to enforce his points. His antagonists and the witnesses whom he cross-examined very often thought he was entirely too severe and combative, but his own clients seldom have entertained that opinion. His repartee and hits on opposing counsel were sometimes quite caustic and in the heat of argument he was sometimes severe on opposing parties and witness and counsel; but he could take as well as give, and when the contest was over he carried no spite or ill feeling.
In a trial of a cause he contested every inch of the ground and never willingly gave up the contest that was against him until the last decision of the highest court had settled the question beyond recall.
To sum up in a few words, he was wise and able as a counselor in his office, as a trial lawyer he was shrewd, aggressive and strong before court or jury.
And whether in his office or in litigation he was both honest and honorable and had the strength that a reputation for honor and honesty gives.
While Judge Holmes was a very great lawyer, careful, studious and able, he was hampered by natural deficiencies of a very serious character. He was totally deficient of imagination. His speeches to court and jury were strong, direct, and logical, but he had not a trace of fancy. His earnestness lent some interest to his speeches, but he was not an orator, or even a good a good debater. While he showed greater familiarity with the New York reports than any man I ever saw, being able to turn to the book and page where almost any case was reported in an instant, he was totally unable to extract from the authorities the philosophical reasons on which they were founded. The case was presented by him to the court stripped of all interest, except the bare point of the decision. Here was a decision in his favor, and that was all there was of it. The reason or the rule laid down in the case seemed of no consequence to him. The decisions and the facts which they were founded were put fairly before the court, and such reasoning as followed was from the decision as a point established and not to sustain the reason and principle of the case.
These difficulties were apparent to those with whom he practiced law. He was conscious of them himself, but he overcame every obstacle by work. He supplied the place of qualities he lacked by work, work, work, till he became the great and learned lawyer that he was. Judge Holmes, outside of the contentions of the bar, was an amiable and sociable man, and the extent of his information about the public men of the country was astonishing.
One fall I went hunting with him for about a week. In the evenings he used to tell anecdotes about nearly all of the public men of the country. Of Lincoln, Seward, Marsey and about Kent, Walworth, and the other judges of the state of New York. Also about Seymour, Conklin, Tilden, and Charles O'Connor, and he had a marvelous amount of knowledge about them. His fund of anecdotes seemed inexhaustible. Besides this he had a great fund of knowledge of the inside or secret history of decisions of the courts and in regard to public measures. His mind was stored with this unwritten history more fully than any other man I ever met with the one exception of General Cass.
To the young man aspiring to eminence at the bar no better example could be set before him than the achievements of Judge Holmes which show that careful and continued study will make the good lawyer and overcome all obstacles and personal deficiencies.
In his manner, when out of the court room and out of his office, he was simple as a child. He was a man of simple truth. He had no vein for romance or exaggeration. His conversation was modest, chaste and delicate, yet highly interesting from the fullness of his store of information.
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