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Charles O'Conor (Jurist)

Famous 19th century Amercian jurist

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


O'Conor, CHARLES, b. in the city of New York, 22 January, 1804; d. at Nantucket, Mass., 12 May, 1884. His father, Thomas O'Conor, who came to New York from Ireland in 1801, was "one of the active rebels of 1798", a devoted Catholic and patriot, less proud of the kingly rule of his family than of the adherence of the O'Conors to their ancient faith and patriotic principles. He married (1803) a daughter of Hugh O'Connor, a fellow countryman, but not a kinsman, who had come to the United States with his family in or about 1790. Of this marriage Charles O'Conor was born. In 1824, in his native city, he was admitted to the practice of the law. In 1827 he was successful as counsel in the case of a contested election for trustees of St. Peter's Church in New York. From the year 1828 his rise in his profession was continuous. As early as 1840 an interested observer of men and events, Philip Hone, refers in his diary to "an able speech" by this "distinguished member of the New York bar" (Tuckerman, "The Diary of Philip Hone", New York, 1889, II, 37). In 1843 by the case of Stewart against Lispenard, his professional standing became most securely established. At the June term in this year of the highest court of the State twenty cases were argued. Of these he argued four. In 1846 he had reached "the front ranks of the profession, not only in the City and State of New York, but in the United States" (Clinton, "Extraordinary Cases", New York, I, 1). Doubtless, to his repute as a jurist should be attributed his nomination by all political parties for the New York State Constitutional Convention of that year. Subsequent to his very early manhood, office-holding could not have attracted him. He once wrote that if elected to office he would accept only, if impelled by "a sense of duty such as might impel the conscripted militia-man" (see "U. S. Catholic Historical Magazine", New York, 1891-92, IV, 402, and his response to tender in 1872 of the presidential nomination, ibidem, 399). Concerning voting for public officers he expressed himself in a similar manner, such voting being, he contended, "the performance of a duty" and no more a personal right than payment of taxes or submitting to military service, although termed "somewhat inaptly" a franchise (see "Address before the New York Historical Society", New York, 1877). During the convention "it was the wonder of his colleagues, how in addition to the faithful work performed in committee he could get time for the research that was needed to equip him for the great speeches with which he adorned the debates" (Alexander, "A Political History of the State of New York", New York, 1906, II, 112). His views, however, were not those of the majority. First of a minority of only six members he voted against approving a new State Constitution of which after it had been in force many years, he stated that it "gave life, vigor and permanency to the trade of politics, with all its attendant malpractice" (see Address, supra).

Notable among cases previous to 1843 in which he was counsel was Jack v. Martin, 12 Wendell 311, and 14 Wendell 507; and during the twenty years following 1843 the Mason will case as well as the Parish will case (see Delafield v. Parish, 25 New York Court of Appeals Reports, 9) . Probably, the most sensational of his cases during the latter period was the action for divorce brought against the celebrated actor, Edwin Forrest, O'Conor's vindication of the character of his client, Mrs. Forrest, eliciting great professional and popular applause (see Clinton, op. cit., 71, 73, U. S. Catholic Historical Magazine, supra, 428). When in 1865 after the overthrow of the Southern Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason, O'Conor became his counsel. Among O'Conor's later cases, the trials concerning property formerly of Stephen Jumel (see, for narrative of one of these, Clinton, op. cit., c. XXIX) displayed, as had the Forrest divorce case, his ability in the capacity of trial lawyer and cross-examiner, while one of the cases in which his learning concerning the law of trusts appeared was the case of Manice against Manice, 43 New York Court of Appeals Reports, 303. In 1871, he commenced with enthusiasm as counsel for the State of New York proceedings against William M. Tweed and others, accused of frauds upon the City of New York, declaring that for his professional services he would accept no compensation. In the autumn of 1875 and while these proceedings were uncompleted, he was prostrated by an illness which seemed mortal, and the cardinal archbishop administered the sacraments. Slowly, however, he regained some measure of strength, and, on 7 February, 1876, roused by a newspaper report, he left his bedroom to appear in court, "unexpected and ghost-like" (according to an eye-witness), that he might save from disaster the prosecution of the cause of the State against Tweed (see Breen, "Thirty Years of New York Politics", New York, 1899, 545-52). In 1877 he appeared as counsel before the Electoral Commission at the City of Washington. His last years were passed on the Island of Nantucket, where, in 1880, he took up his abode, seeking "quiet and a more genial climate". But even here he was occasionally induced to participate in the labours of his beloved profession. When he passed away, many seemed to concur in opinion with Tilden that O'Conor "was the greatest jurist among all the English-speaking race" (Bigelow, "Letters and literary memorials of Samuel J. Tilden", II, 643). United States Catholic Historical Magazine, IV (New York, 1891-2). 225, 396; FINORI, Bibliographia Catholica Americana (New York, 1872), 209, 216; LEWIS, Great American Lawyers, V (Philadelphia, 1908), 83; COUDERT, Addresses, etc. (New York and London, 1905), 198; VEEDER, Legal Masterpieces (St. Paul, 1903), 11, 820; HILL, Decisive Battles of the Law (New York and London), 212, 221, 226-7; JOHNSON, Reports of cases decided by Chief Justice Chase (New York, 1876), 1, 106. CHARLES W. SLOANE


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