The Story of Cooperstown
by Ralph Birdsall
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The public is warned against trespassing on the Three-Mile Point, it being the intention of the subscriber rigidly to enforce the title of the estate, of which he is the representative, to the same. The public has not, nor has it ever had any right to the same beyond what has been conceded by the liberality of the owners. J. FENIMORE COOPER.

Immediately upon the publication of this notice, a handbill was put into circulation, which, in sarcastic terms, called for a public meeting of protest. "The citizens of the Village of Cooperstown," it ran, "are requested to meet at the Inn of Isaac Lewis, in said Village, this evening, at 7 o'clock, to take means to meet, and defend against the arrogant pretensions of one James Fenimore Cooper, claiming title to the 'Three-Mile Point,' and denying to the citizens the right of using the same, as they have been accustomed to from time immemorial, without being indebted to the LIBERALITY of any one man, whether native or foreigner."

The meeting was held, and stirring speeches were made. A series of resolutions was passed, following a preamble setting forth the facts as understood by the meeting of citizens:

Resolved, By the aforesaid citizens that we will wholly disregard the notice given by James F. Cooper, forbidding the public to frequent the Three-Mile Point.

Resolved, That inasmuch as it is well known that the late William Cooper intended the use of the Point in question for the citizens of this village and its vicinity, we deem it no more than a proper respect for the memory and intentions of the father, that the son should recognize the claim of the citizens to the use of the premises, even had he the power to deny it.

Resolved, That we will hold his threat to enforce title to the premises, as we do his whole conduct in relation to the matter, in perfect contempt.

Resolved, That the language and conduct of Cooper, in his attempts to procure acknowledgments of "liberality," and his attempt to force the citizens into asking his permission to use the premises, has been such as to render himself odious to a greater portion of the citizens of this community.

Resolved, That we do recommend and request the trustees of the Franklin Library, in this village, to remove all books, of which Cooper is the author, from said library.

Resolved also, That we will and do denounce any man as sycophant, who has, or shall, ask permission of James F. Cooper to visit the Point in question.

It was said that the meeting resolved to take Cooper's books from the Library and burn them at a public bonfire, but if so, this proposal did not appear in the resolutions as finally drafted.

The actual point at issue in this controversy was soon settled. In a letter to the Freeman's Journal Cooper showed that his father's will, drawn up in 1808, made a particular devise of Three-Mile Point. The words of the document were explicit: "I give and bequeath my place, called Myrtle Grove [Three-Mile Point], on the west side of the Lake Otsego, to all my descendants in common until the year 1850; then to be inherited by the youngest thereof bearing my name."

But the results of the controversy were far-reaching. The quarrel gave rise to Cooper's unfortunate book Home as Found, to new controversies, and to the long series of libel suits.

Home as Found was intended to set forth in the course of a story the principles involved in the dispute about Three-Mile Point. It gave the author an opportunity also to enlarge upon his criticisms of America, and particularly of New York City. For this purpose the story brought upon the scene an American family long resident in Europe whom the writer called the Effinghams. Against the vulgar background of American life the members of this family were intended to personify all the accomplishments of culture and social refinement.

Cooper's own attitude was astonishing in his failure to realize that in the Effinghams he would be supposed to be representing himself and his own family. The intimation was sufficiently obvious. The family returned from residence abroad; the removal to the village of "Templeton," with direct reference to The Pioneers; the story of the Three-Mile Point controversy—the inference seemed to follow from the parallel that the Effinghams were the Coopers. But Cooper's general unwillingness to acknowledge that any of his characters were drawn from life was here carried to the last extreme. It was evident that he was honestly unconscious of any such inference; his purpose was to deal with principles, not persons. When the name of Effingham was derisively applied to him, he resented the imputation.

The controversy between Cooper and his critics had now reached a degree of violence that was grotesque. To stand alone, as Cooper stood, against furious assaults that represented the sentiments of nearly the whole public was not conducive to playful moods of the spirit; yet the controversy had its humorous side, and if the novelist had had a keen sense of humor he would have been spared much trouble. Certain aspects of the ludicrous appealed to Cooper, and there was a range of absurdity within which his merriment was easily excited, as when he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks because his man-of-all-work thought that boiled oil should be called "biled ile"; but his attempts to create and sustain humorous characters, such as the singing-master in The Last of the Mohicans, justify Balzac's comments on Cooper's "profound and radical impotence for the comic." Nothing could be more comic than his role of lecturer to the American people upon refinements of social usage and manners. The many who were guilty of the vulgarities which he wished to correct were precisely those who could not be made to see the impropriety of them, and most fiercely resented any attempt to improve their deportment. If Cooper had possessed an acute sense of humor he would never have written Home as Found, nor would he have dignified with a reply the attack of every scribbler who assailed him. But he took all criticisms seriously, and felt it a solemn duty, in justice to himself and to the principles for which he stood, to defend himself against all and sundry. There is no doubt that in standing alone against the whole world he believed himself to be performing a public service, and displayed a degree of courage which is too rare not to command extraordinary admiration. At the same time those of his friends who described him as borne down by the weight of his sorrow at the misunderstanding and ingratitude which he encountered had not taken the full measure of his character. So splendid a fighter as Fenimore Cooper usually finds some pleasure in fighting, especially if, as in his case, he is habitually victorious. He leaped into the fray of each controversy with such alacrity that it is difficult to avoid the belief that Cooper was animated not only by a sense of justice, but by a joy of battle.

The occasion of the libel suits was the publication in August, 1837, in the Otsego Republican, a Cooperstown newspaper, of an article copied from the Norwich Telegraph, in which Cooper was roundly abused in reference to the Three-Mile Point controversy, and to which the Republican added comments of its own, repeating the disproved statement that the father of the novelist had reserved the Point for the use of the inhabitants of the village. Cooper promptly notified the editor of the Republican, Andrew M. Barber, that unless the statements were retracted he would enter suit for libel. Barber refused to retract; the suit was begun; and in May, 1839, at the final trial, the jury returned a verdict of four hundred dollars for the plaintiff. The editor sought to avoid the payment of the whole award, and a great outcry was raised against Cooper because the sheriff levied upon some money which Barber had laid away and locked up in a trunk. Cooper sued also the Norwich Telegraph, and when other newspapers took the side of their associates he entered suit promptly against any that published libelous statements. In this way one suit led to another, until Cooper was bringing action against the Oneida Whig, published at Utica; the Courier and Enquirer of New York, edited by James Watson Webb; the Evening Signal of New York, edited by Park Benjamin; the Commercial Advertiser of New York, edited by Col. William L. Stone; the Tribune, edited by Horace Greeley; and the Albany Evening Journal, edited by Thurlow Weed. This list includes the leading Whig journals of the time in the State of New York, which were among the most influential in the whole country. Col. Stone, Thurlow Weed, and Watson Webb were former residents of Cooperstown, the two first named having each served an apprenticeship as printer in the office of the Freeman's Journal. Weed was recognized as the leader of the Whig party in the nation, and his newspaper was correspondingly important. He was Cooper's most persistent opponent, and in 1841 the novelist had commenced five suits against him for various articles published in the Evening Journal. It is a curious fact that Weed was noted as a bigoted admirer of his adversary's novels. Weed himself afterward related that when about to leave Albany by stage-coach to attend one of these trials, and inquiring at the booksellers for some late publication to read on the journey, he was informed that the only new book was The Two Admirals, which had just been issued. "I took the book," said Weed, "and soon became so absorbed that I had hardly any time or thought for the trial, through which the author who charmed me was trying to push me to the wall."

The libel suits extended over the period from 1838 to 1844. Cooper acted almost wholly as his own lawyer, and argued his own cases in court. He was pitted against leaders of the bar in the greatest State in the Union. He had become personally unpopular, and was engaged in an unpopular cause. He won his verdicts from reluctant juries, but, in nearly every case, he won. The libel law of the State of New York was made, to a great extent, by the Fenimore Cooper cases.

To complete the story, the final disposition of Three-Mile Point, the innocuous cause of all this controversy, must here be anticipated. In 1899 Simon Uhlman, a wealthy hop merchant, purchased a summer home on the lakeside nearest to Three-Mile Point, and, desiring to acquire this tongue of land for his own use, made inquiries of Samuel M. Shaw, the veteran editor of the Freeman's Journal, to ascertain from whom the purchase might be made. Shaw learned from G. Pomeroy Keese that under the terms of Judge Cooper's will, the Point was then owned by William Cooper of Baltimore, and hastily arranged for the purchase at a moderate price, not for Uhlman, but for the village of Cooperstown. Thus Uhlman lost a desirable water front, and William Cooper a big price for his land, but the citizens of Cooperstown gained a playground, the denial of which to their forebears had nearly caused a riot. Uhlman afterward sold his place, Uncas Lodge, to Adolphus Busch of St. Louis.

Cooper's reputation as an author suffered from his success as a litigant in an unpopular cause, and his prosecution of the libel suits injured the sale of his books, not only then, but for some years after his death. In 1844, just after Cooper had reduced the newspapers of the State to silence, Edward Everett Hale visited Cooperstown, and says that when he tried to buy a copy of The Pioneers at a local bookseller's the dealer coolly declared that he had never heard of the book.[113]

While public attention was engaged by the libel suits, Cooper was occupied with much else. It was during this period that he published his important Naval History, besides ten of his novels. Nor was there any loss of interest in his various avocations, among which, in 1840, he found time to plan and supervise extensive alterations in Christ Church, of which he had become a vestryman in 1835. With his mind full of the Gothic splendor of churches that he had seen in England, he set out to beautify the village church at home. The broad windows with rounded tops he caused to be somewhat narrowed, and pointed, in the fashion usually described as Gothic. Traces of this change still appear in the exterior brickwork of the church, for the outline of the original windows has never been obliterated. To this alteration Cooper added the buttresses all about the church, not for structural necessity, but as an architectural embellishment. The interior he caused to be entirely remodeled, and finished in native oak. Cooper especially prided himself upon an oaken screen which, as his gift to the church, he erected behind the altar. The alterations in the church are referred to in a letter dated "Hall, Cooperstown, April 22nd, 1840" and addressed to Harmanus Bleecker of Albany:

"I have just been revolutionizing Christ Church, Cooperstown, not turning out a vestry, but converting its pine interior into oak—bona fide oak, and erecting a screen that I trust, though it may have no influence on my soul, will carry my name down to posterity. It is really a pretty thing—pure Gothic, and is the wonder of the country round."

This screen remained in the church, with some alteration, until 1891, when, at the time the chancel was built, it was unfortunately thrown out and not replaced. In 1910 the remnants of the old screen were reconstructed to fit the two archways that open into the church on either side of the chancel, and the panels of the original work were cut out, allowing a vista through the tracery. The screen that stands at the left hand as one faces the chancel is almost entirely of the original design and material.

Amid his manifold interests, Fenimore Cooper at one time amused himself in the study of the so-called occult sciences. Having advocated with apparent enthusiasm a belief in animal magnetism and clairvoyance, he caused public meetings to be held in the old Court House in Cooperstown, where, evening after evening, the mysteries of hypnotism were discussed. On one of these occasions a negro, who had proved at several meetings to be an excellent subject, was hypnotized in the presence of the audience, and pronounced to be both clairvoyant and insensible to pain. While Cooper was descanting eloquently upon this strange phenomenon, the darkey, suddenly rolling up his eyeballs, and displaying all his ivory, sprung spasmodically into the air, and then tumbled back in his seat. This startling interruption of the lecture remained unexplained for many years, until Elihu Phinney, the young friend and neighbor of Fenimore Cooper, confessed to being responsible for it. It seems that, during the course of the lectures, Phinney had had an argument with Harvey Perkins concerning the possibility of a truly hypnotic state, which Perkins affirmed and Phinney denied. Perkins finally said:

"So, you won't admit that the negro is rendered insensible to pain?"

"Never, no, not for a moment," was the reply.

"Well," said Perkins, "here is a darning needle four inches long. Take this with you to the lecture to-night, and at the first opportunity thrust it slyly for a full inch into his thigh. If he flinches, I will give up; if not, you will believe."

"Most assuredly," said Phinney, and it was this test which caused the interruption of Fenimore Cooper's lecture on hypnotism.[114]

In the summer of 1843, at about eleven o'clock every morning, Fenimore Cooper was seen coming forth from the gates of Otsego Hall escorting a strange-looking companion. The figures of the two men offered a singular contrast. Cooper, tall and portly, with the ruddy glow of health upon his countenance, was swinging a light whip of a cane more ornamental than useful, and stepped forward with a firm and elastic tread. The man by his side was a shriveled and weather-beaten hulk, hobbling, and with halting step pressing heavily upon a crooked stick that served for his support. Sometimes they walked the village streets together. At other times they came down upon the border of the lake for a sail upon its waters in a skiff which Cooper had rigged with a lug-sail in recollection of early Mediterranean days. Here the stranger was more at home, for the man was Ned Myers, an old sailor who had been Cooper's messmate on board the Sterling nearly forty years before. The old salt, who had passed a lifetime on many seas, developed a great respect for Otsego Lake, which he found to be "a slippery place to navigate." "I thought I had seen all sorts of winds before I saw the Otsego," he afterward declared, "but on this lake it sometimes blew two or three different ways at the same time."

It was a strange chance which renewed the acquaintance between Fenimore Cooper and Ned Myers. Their ways were long separated. Myers had continued to follow the sea, and became at last a derelict at the "Sailor's Snug Harbor" at the port of New York. Here it was that having read some of Cooper's sea tales it occurred to the old sailor that the author might be the young James Cooper whom he had known aboard the Sterling. Accordingly he wrote to the novelist at Cooperstown, seeking the desired information, and received in reply a cordial letter beginning with the words, "I am your old shipmate, Ned."

On his next visit in New York, Cooper got into touch with Myers, and invited the old tar to spend several weeks of the summer as his guest at Otsego Hall in Cooperstown. The novelist had much in common with Ned Myers, for his own experience at sea was sufficient to qualify him as a sailor. "I have been myself," said Cooper, "one of eleven hands, officers included, to navigate a ship of three hundred tons across the Atlantic Ocean; and, what is more, we often reefed topsails with the watch." While in Cooperstown as the guest of the novelist the old sailor who had shipped on seventy-two different craft, and had passed a quarter of a century out of sight of land, spun the yarn of his experience which Cooper wove into the story of Ned Myers.

It is remarkable that one whose writings evince so strong an orthodoxy of Christian faith, with a championship of churchly doctrines too rigid for many of his readers, did not himself become a communicant of the Church until the last year of his life. On Sunday, July 27, 1851, Bishop de Lancey visited Christ Church, Cooperstown, and among those to whom he administered the sacrament of Confirmation, in the presence of a large congregation, was his brother-in-law, James Fenimore Cooper. The novelist's family pew was one which stood sidelong at the right of the chancel. He had by this time become quite infirm, and the bishop, after receiving the other candidates at the sanctuary rail, left the chancel, and administered Confirmation to Fenimore Cooper kneeling in his own pew.

Fenimore Cooper died less than two months later, on Sunday, September 14, 1851, aged sixty-two years lacking one day. The body lay in state at Otsego Hall, and on Wednesday the funeral services were held in Christ Church, the interment being made in the Cooper plot in Christ churchyard. This grave, covered by the prostrate slab of marble marked by a cross, and bearing an inscription that sets forth nothing beyond the novelist's name, with dates of birth and death, has become a shrine of literary pilgrimage. The hurried tourist is disappointed in not being greeted by some conspicuous monument to beckon him at once to the famous tomb; but a more genuine tribute to the novelist's memory appears when the visitor's eye lights upon the path leading from the gate of the enclosure, and deeply worn in the sod by the feet of wayfarers in many a long journey, through the years, to Cooper's grave.


[Footnote 102: James Fenimore Cooper, by Mary E. Phillips, p. 262.]

[Footnote 103: In 1826 he applied to the legislature to change his name to James Cooper Fenimore, since there were no men of his mother's family to continue the name. The request was not granted, but the change was made to James Fenimore-Cooper. He soon dropped the hyphen.]

[Footnote 104: Now in the hall at Fynmere, the home built in Cooperstown by the novelist's grandson, James Fenimore Cooper of Albany.]

[Footnote 105: James Fenimore Cooper, by Thomas R. Lounsbury, American Men of Letters series, p. 80.]

[Footnote 106: Now at Fynmere.]

[Footnote 107: Now at Edgewater.]

[Footnote 108: Pages and Pictures, Susan Fenimore Cooper, p. 322.]

[Footnote 109: James Fenimore Cooper, W. B. Shubrick Clymer, p. 90.]

[Footnote 110: Livermore, p. 204.]

[Footnote 111: John Worthington, afterward United States Consul in Malta.]

[Footnote 112: Lounsbury.]

[Footnote 113: Cooperstown Centennial Book, p. 133.]

[Footnote 114: Reminiscences, Elihu Phinney, 1890.]



Samuel Nelson, LL.D., who became a resident of Cooperstown in 1824, made this village his home for nearly fifty years. At the time of his death in 1873, he had long been recognized not only as the first citizen of Cooperstown, but as a man of national reputation.

Before taking up his residence in Cooperstown, Nelson had become judge of the Sixth circuit, which included Otsego county; in 1831 he was promoted to the bench of the Supreme Court of the State, of which, six years later, he became chief justice. In 1845 he went upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, and served with distinction until his voluntary retirement in 1872, which brought to a close the longest judicial career in history, covering a period of half a century. In 1871 Judge Nelson was one of five members representing the United States in the Joint High Commission appointed to devise means to settle differences between the American and British governments, and contributed not a little to bringing about the agreement which resulted in the Treaty of Washington.

During this long public career, Judge Nelson retained his home in Cooperstown, where he was in residence much of the time. In that day the drift of successful men to the cities had not yet become a law of growth, and many a big man dwelt by choice in a small community. So it was with Judge Nelson, who, on retiring from the highest tribunal of the nation, could imagine nothing more grateful than to spend all his time in the village from which the pressure of judicial duty had kept him too much away.

Judge Nelson first became widely known in 1837, when he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The court was then composed of three judges, whose principal duty it was to hear and decide questions of law. It was a judicial body of great dignity and learning, with a fame so illustrious that its decisions had long been cited as authority in Westminster Hall, and in all the States of the Union where the common law prevailed.

In the Supreme Court of the United States, when he was promoted to that tribunal, and in the United States Circuit Courts, Judge Nelson was called upon to administer branches of law with which he was not in practice familiar, and some fears were expressed that these untried duties might cause him embarrassment. It was suggested that his long and severely critical administration of the common law, through its pleadings and practice, might have so educated him that he would fail in appreciating the more liberal and expansive systems of Equity, Maritime, Admiralty, and international jurisprudence administered in the national courts; and it was also thought improbable that a judge who had been early in professional life elevated to the bench of a common law court, would be able to explore and understand the complicated mechanical, chemical, and other scientific questions, which in Patent causes were constantly arising for exclusive adjudication in the federal courts.

But these apprehensions were all disappointed. Judge Nelson had no sooner taken his seat on the bench of the Circuit Court in New York City,[115] than he perceived that the cases on the calendar, though few in number, were so complicated, and embraced so many intricate questions, that they must be mastered according to a method that his former experience did not furnish. He investigated every new question as it arose. He listened earnestly to the arguments of counsel, and ever seemed resolved, before they concluded, to understand the points on which the case must finally turn. Often he descended from the bench when complicated machinery, or specimens illustrative of science, or models of vessels intended to develop the relations of colliding ships, were before him, and by their close and repeated study strove to understand the real points in controversy.

Thus Judge Nelson built up a sound knowledge of the principles and practice of every branch of law which he was called upon to administer. An appeal or writ of error from his decisions was seldom taken. So familiar did he become with the jurisprudence involved in the administration of the Patent laws of this country, so thoroughly did he investigate questions of science and mechanics, and so sound a judgment was he known to form on these subjects, that his opinions concerning them were by courts and counsel accepted as of greater authority than those of any other judge. For many years before the close of his labors at the Circuit, patentees felt that when he had judicially passed upon their rights they were substantially settled, and hence there came before him repeatedly from distant points cases involving the validity of the most valuable patents in the country, and to his decision the parties generally submitted without appeal. On questions of admiralty and maritime law also he came to be considered a great authority. In his later years he was so adept in reaching the essential points of complicated cases that he was generally credited with a marvellous faculty of intuition. He was not guided by any intuition, however, but by the results of his careful study and legal experience.

In 1857 the Supreme Court of the United States rendered the famous Dred Scott decision, which became one of the contributory causes of the Civil War. Only two members of the court dissented. Justice Nelson concurred in the conclusion of Chief Justice Taney, who delivered the decision, dissenting on one point only, and adding that, in his opinion, the power of Congress could not be one-sided; if it existed to destroy slavery, it could also establish slavery.

Judge Nelson had gained some acquaintance with slavery in his own home town, for, when first he took up his residence in Cooperstown, in 1824, there were a number of slaves in the village. Some of the earliest settlers had negroes in bondage. Among these was James Averell, Jr., who worked his tannery by slave labor. One of his slaves, known as Tom Bronk, was for many years well known in Cooperstown as the servant of the former owner's son, William Holt Averell, and lived to a great age. The clumsily written bill of sale by which Tom Bronk became the property of James Averell, Jr., is still in existence:

Know all men by these Presents, that I, George Henry Livingston, of the town of Sharon, County of Schoharie and State of New York, for and in Consideration of the Sum of three hundred Dollars Lawful money of the State of New York to me in hand paid by James Averill Jr of the town and County of Otsego and State Aforesaid At or before the Sealing and delivery of these Presents, the Receipt whereof, I the said George Henry Livingston do hereby acknowledge, have granted, bargained and sold, and by these presents, do grant, bargain and sell, unto the said James Averill Jr, his Executors, Administrators, and assigns, one negro man About thirty Six years of age and known by the name of Tom to have and to hold the said negro man Tom to the said James Averill Jr. his Executors, Administrators, and assigns forever; and I the said George Henry Livingston for myself, my heirs Executors, and Administrators the Said negro man unto the said James Averill Jr. his Executors, administrators, and assigns, against me the said George Henry Livingston, my Executors, and Administrators, and against all and every other person or persons Whomsoever Shall and will warrent. And forever Defend by these presents. And also warrent the said negro man to be Sound and in health. According to the best of my knowledge in witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and Seal the Second Day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand Eight hundred Fifteen.

Signed, Sealed, and Delivered In Presence of ZACHARIAH HUGER KOERL VAN SCHAYCK GEORGE X HENRY LIVINGSTON. his mark

A group of settlers who came from the Barbadoes brought with them slaves, who were afterward freed, and the tombstone of Joseph Stewart, in the Cooper family plot in Christ churchyard, emphasizes, in capital letters, the fact that, although born a slave, he was for twenty years a free servant of Judge Cooper. These instances, and an advertisement in the Otsego Herald in 1799, show that slavery was not uncommon here in the early days:

A YOUNG WENCH—For Sale—She is a good cook, and ready at all kinds of housework. None can exceed her if she is kept from liquor. She is 24 years of age—no husband nor children. Price $200; inquire of the printer.

The act which entirely abolished slavery in the State of New York did not take effect until July 4th, 1827, on which occasion about sixty Cooperstown negroes marched with a flying banner and martial music to the Presbyterian church, where Hayden Waters, a village darkey, delivered an address that was heard not only by his colored brethren, but by a large assemblage of white citizens.

Justice Nelson's concurrence in the Dred Scott decision did not necessarily register his approval of slavery, but only his interpretation of the law as it then existed. He never owned any slaves, and was regarded by the negroes in Cooperstown as a powerful friend of their race. A favorite servant of his household for some years was a free negro named Jenny York, who had been a slave in her youth. She was a unique character, famous as a cook, having an unusually keen appreciation of a cook's perquisites. Choice provisions and delicacies disappeared through systematic dole at Judge Nelson's kitchen door, or sometimes being reserved against a holiday, reappeared to furnish a banquet in the servants' hall, to which Jenny's many dusky friends were bidden. The current story is that, when Jenny died, the negroes of the village chose for her grave an epitaph which, at their request, Judge Nelson caused to be inscribed upon her tomb exactly as they had worded it. This inscription may still be seen upon a tombstone that faces the street at the eastern end of Christ churchyard, in the part which was reserved for the burial of negroes. Jenny was sincerely mourned at the time of her death, but with the passing of the years no tears are shed at her grave but those of sympathetic laughter. A just appreciation of the delicate balance of mercy and justice in her unusual epitaph requires some definite knowledge of both the virtues and weaknesses of Jenny York. The enigmatical eulogy reads as follows:


* * *


When Nelson went upon the bench of the national Supreme Court he became acquainted with Stephen A. Douglas, who was then springing into prominence in Congress; and it was said that the "little giant" got much of the legal ammunition for his speeches from the new associate justice. More than once Justice Nelson was suggested as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, and at the Democratic national convention held in Chicago during the Civil War Governor Horatio Seymour of New York attempted to carry his nomination. It was known, however, that Judge Nelson had declined to allow the use of his name, and had expressed the opinion that a justice of the federal supreme court never should be regarded as a possible candidate for political office. Nelson at this time was in many ways the strongest man on the bench of the Supreme Court, and Salmon P. Chase, who was appointed chief justice in 1864, placed great reliance upon his advice and judgment. On one occasion at the table of John V. L. Pruyn in Albany, when his host addressed Chase as "Mr. Chief Justice," the latter pleasantly interrupted him—"Your friend Nelson is Chief Justice," he said.

During the Civil War, although a member of the Democratic party, Justice Nelson won and retained the confidence of the party in power, and his loyalty was never questioned. He disapproved of what he held to be invasions of the rights of citizens which were made under military authority, but never by word or act obstructed the maintenance of the federal government. President Lincoln and Secretary Seward reposed great faith in Judge Nelson's wisdom, and in critical emergencies consulted him upon delicate questions of international law which arose during the progress of the war.

An episode of the Civil War period in Cooperstown, although the truth of the matter was a state secret at the time, had a relation to Justice Nelson that is of interest in this connection. In a visit of the diplomatic corps from Washington the village enjoyed such memorable emotions of civic pride that the date of the event, the twenty-first of August, 1863, was long afterward referred to, by the oldest inhabitants, as "Cooperstown's great day."

It was said that the entertainment of the legations at Cooperstown was included as part of an excursion through New York State which Secretary Seward had planned to impress upon foreign governments the strength and resources of the North.

The party arrived from Sharon Springs, and had luncheon at the Inn at Five-Mile Point, on Otsego Lake. Secretary Seward's guests included Lord Lyons, of England; Baron Gerolt, of Prussia; M. Mercier, of France; Baron Stroeckel, of Russia; M. Tassara, of Spain; M. Molina, of Nicaragua; together with the representatives of Italy, Sweden, and Chili; and several secretaries and attaches of various legations. A few citizens of Cooperstown, including Judge Nelson, were invited to take luncheon with the visitors. The master of ceremonies was the Hon. Levi C. Turner of Cooperstown, who was at that time Judge advocate in the War Department, and had accompanied the party from Washington.

The luncheon passed without incident, except that a weighty citizen of the village undertook to demonstrate, for the benefit of the foreigners, the American method of eating corn on the cob, to the great disgust of a dapper attache of the British legation, who was horrified by the performance. When the guests had left the table, which had been set beneath the trees, and were lounging about in peaceful enjoyment of the forest shade and lakeland view, there appeared upon the scene a person who impressed the foreigners as being a veritable pioneer. He was a tall, loose-jointed creature, bearded and long-haired; he wore a slouch hat and a hickory shirt, while one suspender supported blue jean overalls, which disappeared in a pair of cowhide boots of huge proportions. This uninvited guest calmly inspected the assembled company, drew near to the deserted tables, helped himself to a tumbler and a bottle of brandy, from which he poured out four fingers of the fiery liquid, and drank it raw. He seemed thoughtful for a moment; then repeated the dose. Thus agreeably stimulated the stranger made himself at home in the company, and became talkative.

"I say," he said, bustling alongside the French minister, "you're goin' to stand right by us in this muss, ain't you?"

The polite diplomat hastened to assure him that the French government desired nothing but the most friendly relations. The man drew nearer than was necessary for diplomatic intercourse:

"Honor bright, now, and no foolin'?"

The ambassador repeated his assurance of friendship, and edged away from the pioneer, whose gesticulations became alarming as he shouted,

"You've got to, don't you see—"

What he wanted the Frenchman to see was the power of the Union Government, and, as words failed him to describe it, the uninvited guest attempted to make visible, in his own person, the frightfulness of the god of War. He leaped into the air, flung his hat on the ground, struck a pugilistic attitude, and began to dance around the ambassador, squaring off with his fists, as though preparing a knockout blow for the French Republic. The two were quickly surrounded by a ring of diplomats and citizens of Cooperstown, the foreigners being doubtful whether the matter should be taken in jest or earnest, while the villagers were hesitating between enjoyment of the comedy and a sense of duty toward their guests. As for M. Mercier, he was aghast at the rudeness of the challenge. He folded his arms, drew himself up, shrugged his shoulders, puffed out his cheeks, and stared at the adversary with eyes aflame.

Before the pugilistic stranger could execute his threats Judge Hezekiah Sturges of Cooperstown interposed his burly form; at a nod from him two muscular citizens of the village seized the invader by the back of the neck and the seat of his overalls, made him "walk Spanish" quickly to the shore, and heaved him into the lake.

In the late afternoon the party of diplomats were conveyed by carriages to Cooperstown, where they became severally the guests of various citizens. The distinguished visitors were greeted by a salute of guns; while fireworks and bonfires were the order of the evening. The Fly Creek Band, accompanied by a large crowd of villagers, under the leadership of James I. Hendryx, serenaded the foreign ministers at their various places of sojourn, and speeches were called for, which were loudly applauded. Judge Turner's house, the old Campbell homestead, which stands on Lake Street, facing Chestnut Street, was first visited, for there William H. Seward, Secretary of State, was the guest of honor. The band played a waltz, and the crowd cheered. Judge Turner soon appeared, and introduced the Secretary of State, who made a brief speech. He said that the weather in Washington had become exasperatingly hot; matters of complex nature and of international importance had to be discussed; there was danger that he and the foreign minsters might become fretful and peevish; and so he had asked the entire diplomatic corps to take a vacation, and meanwhile affairs of State might go hang.

The speech pleased the crowd. The band played another waltz, to the tune of which the procession marched through the main street and across the river to Woodside, where Lord Lyons, the British minister, was the guest of John F. Scott. Here the band played a third waltz, while hundreds of cheering men clambered up the terraced slope of the garden. Some one called for Lord Lyons, and the whole crowd took up the cry, "Lord Lyons! Lord Lyons!" This soon became "Lyons! Lyons!" although one enthusiastic Irishman of great vocal power kept crying, "Misther Lynes! Misther Lynes!"

At this point the leader of the band was instructed to play "God Save the Queen," as a compliment to the guest of Woodside.

"My heaven!" he whined, "we can't play nothing but three waltzes!"

One of the waltzes was then repeated, and the host of Woodside appeared. He explained that Lord Lyons had been paying a visit across the river, but was expected to return at any moment. Just then Lord Lyons himself came hopping up the steps of the terrace, short, fat, lively, a man of talent, who soon recovered his breath, and made a speech that elicited hearty cheers.

The Russian ambassador was the guest of Edward Clark at Apple Hill, where Fernleigh now stands. The diplomat had retired when the crowd of serenaders arrived, and was awakened by the blare of the band and loud demands for "a speech from the great Roosian bear!" The guest was assisted by his host to crawl through the window over the porch, in scanty raiment, to speak to the assembled citizens. At the residence of Jedediah P. Sill, which stands on Chestnut Street next to the Methodist parsonage, the Italian ambassador received the crowd with bows and smiles.

Similar visits were paid at the places of sojourn of the other representatives of foreign powers; but the most uproarious assembly was that which gathered before the home of George L. Bowne, where the Spanish ambassador was being entertained. This house stands on the west side of Chestnut Street, next south of Willow Brook, which here ducks beneath a culvert to cross the highway.

The representative of the Queen of Spain had only a limited knowledge of the English language, but what he lacked in vocabulary he made up in gestures, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.

"Gentlemen," he began, "you will excuse me from a speech. In my country, we, the nobility, do not make speeches to the common people."—(Vigorous cheers greeted this statement, and Judge Turner, who stood near the speaker, remarked, "True, every word.") "I the English language not well do speak,"—("Go on, go on; you're a daisy, that's what you are," cried voices from the crowd, while Judge Turner kept saying with judicial gravity, "Every word true.") At this point the Spaniard became incoherent, but, although nobody could understand a word, wild cheers greeted him at every pause in his discourse. He let loose a flood of eloquence, which being consistently endorsed by Judge Turner, was applauded until the speaker stopped from sheer exhaustion.[116]

It was long after midnight when the last speech had been made and the crowds dispersed.

A pair of small boys, who had made the occasion an excuse for staying out a good part of the warm summer night, passed Justice Nelson's residence on Main Street, as they strolled homeward, and noticed that here a light was still burning. The deserted street was feebly lit by a few gas lamps, but the other houses in the neighborhood were dark, and the boys were attracted as moths to a flame by the glimmering through the blinds of Judge Nelson's windows. The lighted room was the one on the ground floor at the right of the doorway. Because of the warmth of the night, the window-sashes had been raised, and the curtains drawn back, so that the interior of the room was screened from passers-by only by the closed slats of the blinds. These were temptingly near to the sidewalk, and the young imps, standing on tiptoe, did not hesitate, when they had discovered a chink between the slats, to peek into the apartment.

They saw a room lined with rows of books bound in law-calf, for it was Judge Nelson's library. In the midst a student's lamp shed a mellow light upon the usual paraphernalia of a lawyer's desk, and dimly illuminated the features of two men who sat facing each other across the table. The large form, massive head, and long gray hair of Judge Nelson, who sat with his back to the fireplace, were instantly recognized by the peering eyes at the window. The man who faced him was of a different type, a rather small figure, with nothing commanding in his appearance; he had a shock of sandy hair, blue eyes, and a smoothly shaven mouth and chin somewhat receding from a finely chiseled nose. He was speaking earnestly, and in a tone of conviction. His voice was harsh, but his manner was suave, agreeable, and persuasive.

"Who's he?" whispered one of the boys.

"That's Mr. Seward from Washington," replied the other, "I heard him make a speech in front of Judge Turner's house."

The eavesdroppers continued to listen, but the conversation between Judge Nelson and Mr. Seward was carried on in such low tones that they could make little of it. Now and again they caught a phrase—"more troops"—"President Lincoln"—"save the Union,"—but the purport of the matter was beyond them.

The spying youngsters crept into their beds that night laden with a sense of mystery in this weird consultation, of which they had been witnesses, between the senior justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Secretary of State of the United States. Next day they boasted among their comrades of having discovered some secret affair of state.

Years afterward, through Justice Nelson's son, Judge R. R. Nelson of St. Paul, Minnesota, it came out that these young spies had rightly divined the truth. The conference which the Secretary of State held with Justice Nelson during the small hours of the morning of August 22nd, 1863, was had at the instance of President Lincoln, and was importantly related to the conduct of the Civil War. The conference itself, in fact, was the secret motive of the diplomatic excursion, which had been designed especially to divert attention from it.

It seems that the administration at Washington had become greatly worried over a situation that had developed concerning the drafting of troops. A heavy draft had been ordered,—Otsego county had been called upon to furnish nearly a thousand men,—and there was great excitement throughout the northern states. At this critical juncture one of Justice Nelson's associates on the bench, who was sitting in the United States Circuit in Pennsylvania, had granted a writ of habeas corpus directing a certain drafted man to be brought before him, and the position taken by counsel was that the draft was unconstitutional and illegal. This justice, like Nelson, belonged to the Democratic party, and was therefore in many ways opposed to the Lincoln administration. He was known to entertain opinions which might lead him to decide that the draft was unconstitutional.

President Lincoln became apprehensive, and sent for Secretary Seward.

"We must have more troops," said the President, "and we can get them in only one way. Now if this draft should be declared unconstitutional, it would create a most serious state of affairs at the North, and would greatly encourage the South; it might even defeat our efforts to save the Union. In some way, if possible, this situation of affairs must be prevented."

"I know of but one man who can prevent it," replied Seward. "He is a strong personal friend of the Pennsylvania justice, and of the same political party, though more loyal to the Union. I think he can influence him. I refer to Justice Nelson of the Supreme Court, who is now at his home in Cooperstown."

When the President urged the Secretary to confer with Judge Nelson without delay, Seward was somewhat taken aback. To summon Nelson to Washington in order to ask of him so delicate a favor was not to be thought of. On the other hand for the Secretary of State to go to Cooperstown to confer with the Democratic justice would be certain to provoke political gossip and newspaper speculation, at the risk of defeating the object desired.

But President Lincoln was determined.

"In some way it must be done," he said. "You must see Justice Nelson."

The upshot of the matter was that the fertile brain of the Secretary evolved and carried out the plan that brought the diplomatic corps from Washington to Cooperstown on an excursion, under color of which he had his interview with Justice Nelson.

The result was all that the Secretary of State had hoped for. Judge Nelson held that the draft was not unconstitutional, and promptly so informed his friend in Pennsylvania, whose opinion was soon given in accordance with the views of his learned associate.

Thus "Cooperstown's great day" turned out to be of wider import than the cheering crowds of villagers imagined.

Justice Nelson's appointment by President Grant in 1871 as one of the five American members of the Joint High Commission to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain was a just tribute to his personal character as well as to his knowledge of international law. The matters in dispute concerned British possessions in North America, as well as the so-called Alabama claims arising out of the Civil War. Justice Nelson was already known by reputation to the British members of the commission, and they accorded him the fullest respect and confidence. In this controversy, which rankled in the hearts and affected the judgment of millions of people, Judge Nelson brought to the solution such wisdom and acuteness, accompanied by persuasive manners, frankness, conscientiousness, and learning, that all accorded to him the highest consideration and regard. His brilliant and successful service in the Joint High Commission during the seventy days of its sessions was regarded as a fitting culmination of half a century of public office. For his signature of the Treaty of Washington turned out to be his last official act. During the final hours of the session the chill of the rooms in which the commissioners sat was the cause of an illness from which Justice Nelson never fully recovered, and which occasioned his resignation from the bench of the Supreme Court in 1872. In commenting upon his resignation, the New York Tribune said, "It would be difficult to exaggerate the respect and regard which will follow this able and incorruptible jurist from the post he has so long filled with honor to himself and profit to the commonwealth, when he retires to the well-earned repose which his gifts of mind and heart will enable him so perfectly to enjoy."

In the village of Cooperstown the street called Nelson Avenue is named in honor of the distinguished jurist, and three different places of residence are associated with his memory. When in 1825 he married, as his second wife, Catharine A. Russell, daughter of Judge John Russell of Cooperstown, they began housekeeping at Apple Hill, on the site now occupied by Fernleigh. In 1829 they removed to Fenimore, which still stands just outside of the village, near the western shore of the lake, and lived there until 1838, when they took up their residence at Mrs. Nelson's homestead, the large brick house on the north side of Main Street near the corner of Pioneer Street, and made it their home for the rest of their lives.

Although Judge Nelson survived Fenimore Cooper by more than twenty years, he was only three years his junior, and the two men became intimate personal friends in Cooperstown. They were often seen together on the street, and in fine personal presence and noble bearing they bore some resemblance to each other. In the old stone Cory building on Main Street, when the lower part was conducted as a hardware store, Judge Nelson and Fenimore Cooper used often to spend an evening, sitting about the stove in a circle of admiring auditors gathered to hear the great men talk. It was shortly after Fenimore Cooper's return to Cooperstown to live at Otsego Hall that Judge Nelson was appointed Chief Justice of the State, and Cooper ever thereafter spoke of his friend as "the Chief." The novelist had a good deal of the lawyer in his composition, and he often discussed legal matters with Judge Nelson, as well as political affairs of state. Both were fond of farming and rural pursuits, and as their farms lay on opposite sides of the lake, Judge Nelson's at Fenimore, and Cooper's at the Chalet, they were able frequently to compare notes of their success as agriculturists, perhaps with the more interest because Cooper himself had formerly owned the farm at Fenimore.

Judge Nelson was not seldom seen on horseback in Cooperstown, and continued this form of exercise long after he had passed the limit of three score years and ten. In his later years he was described as a broad-shouldered and magnificent figure, with a massive head crowned with a wealth of gray hair. He was simple and unaffected in his manners, and never assumed any magniloquence because of his exalted position. On returning from Washington to Cooperstown for the summer, he seemed to delight in holding a kind of indiscriminate levee in the main street of the village, greeting old neighbors, shopkeepers, and farmers alike, and remembering most of them by their Christian names. In those days the merchants were accustomed to leave their empty packing-boxes on the sidewalk in front of their shops, and it was no uncommon sight to see this Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States seated carelessly on a dry-goods box, while he chatted with a group of admiring villagers. His conversation was always entertaining, not only because of his wealth of mind, but on account of his prodigious memory of men and events. His gift of memory was undoubtedly of great use to him on the bench, for he could restate complicated facts in cases so long since heard by him that the issues had been forgotten by the counsel concerned in them.

Judge Nelson was for many years a vestryman, and later a warden, of Christ Church in Cooperstown. In his day there was no thoroughfare through the Cooper Grounds, and he walked to church by way of River Street. Above the stone wall on the west side of River Street was an abundant growth of tansy. It was Judge Nelson's invariable habit to pick a sprig of tansy on his way to Sunday morning service, and he entered the church absently holding the pungent herb to his nostrils, as he made his way to the pew now marked by a tablet in the north transept.

On February 13, 1873, the honors paid to Judge Nelson on his retirement from the bench of the United States Supreme Court were of a character never before known in America, and not in England since Lord Mansfield was the recipient of similar honors at the hands of Erskine and the other lights of the British bar. A committee which included several of the foremost lawyers in New York City, and officially representing the Bar of the Third District, came in a special car from New York to Cooperstown to present to Judge Nelson an address expressive of appreciation of his long service on the bench, and of regret at his retirement, in sympathy with similar resolutions adopted in Albany and Washington.

It was a gala day in Cooperstown when its most distinguished citizen was so honored. The streets, glistening with snow, were filled with people careering about in sleighs. The American flag flapped in the breeze from the tall liberty-pole which then stood at the midst of the cross-roads where Main and Pioneer streets intersect. A horse-race upon the frozen lake had been arranged for the entertainment of the visitors, and some of the young people had bob-sleds ready, prepared to give the distinguished metropolitan lawyers a thrilling ride down the slope of Mt. Vision when the ceremonies should be over.

In the early afternoon the legal and judicial delegation walked quietly two by two to the residence of Judge Nelson, which, although now invaded by the business requirements of the village, still holds its place on Main Street. In the procession were three federal judges, and a dozen chosen members of the bar of New York. The door of the old house, at which nobody stops to knock any more, was thrown open to receive the distinguished delegation. The villagers had gathered in the drawing-room, at the left of the entrance, to take part in the ceremonies. Among many ladies who graced the scene the three daughters of Fenimore Cooper were particularly noted by the visitors. The retired judge sat in his armchair, arrayed in black, wearing a high choker necktie, while Mrs. Nelson, a lovely old lady with a face as fresh at seventy as a summer rain, supported herself on the arm of the chair. The judicial delegation came into the parlor led by Judge Woodruff, E. W. Stoughton, Judge Benedict, and Judge Blatchford, while Clarence A. Seward, Sidney Webster and others followed. Judge Nelson retained his seat, and the most impressive silence prevailed. Then Stoughton, chairman of the committee, after some introductory remarks, read the address which had been prepared by the Bar of New York.

At the conclusion of this address Judge Nelson drew out his spectacles and read his reply, in a voice that trembled with emotion. Then he rose slowly and received the personal congratulations of the delegation and of the village friends assembled.

When, a few months later, Samuel Nelson was dead, and the press of the nation was printing lengthy eulogies of his career as a jurist, a few lines in the little weekly newspaper of his own home town gave the highest estimate of his life that can be accorded to any man:

"In his home Judge Nelson was a great man. The almost extreme modesty which characterized his public life had its counterpart in thoroughly developed domestic virtues, which not only made him beloved to devotion by all the members of his family, but endeared him to all with whom he was brought into contact. There was in his disposition a placidness of temper which made him always easy of approach, and rendered intercourse with him a permanent spring of pure enjoyment."


[Footnote 115: From the beginning justices of the Supreme Court of the United States sat, from time to time, as circuit judges. (Stuart v. Laird, 1 Cranch, p. 308.) Justice Nelson was assigned to the Second Circuit, which includes New York.]

[Footnote 116: Perry P. Rogers.]



When in 1856 Frederick A. Lee and Dorr Russell formed the Lakewood Cemetery Association, and purchased the beautiful tract that lies along the hill on the east side of the lake, a half-mile from the village, the older burying-grounds within the town began gradually to be disused. Christ churchyard, which contains the oldest graves of the original settlement, has long since ceased to be used for burials, beyond those occasionally permitted, for special reasons, by act of the Vestry of the parish. This disuse has secured to the churchyard the right to grow old gracefully, without the too frequent intrusion of recent death, and to acquire the picturesque charm of antiquity which in cemeteries seems to dispel all the terrors of mortality.

The love of old burial-grounds belongs to a distinct type of mind and temperament. To some minds all cemeteries are equally devoid of interest. Among visitors in Christ churchyard, of whom there are thousands during every summer, the classification of sightseers is automatic. Some glance at Cooper's grave, peep into the church to glimpse the memorials of the novelist, and hurry away with an air of duty done. The lovers of churchyards linger, and stroll thoughtfully among the tombs. They find a charm in the most obscure memorials of the dead. They read aloud to each other the quaint inscriptions. Now and again they pause, note-book in hand, to copy some chiseled epitaph that strikes the fancy. They kneel or lie prone upon the turf before a crumbling tomb to decipher its doleful couplets, thrusting aside the concealing grasses, lest a word be missed. They wander here and there beneath the shadow of the venerable elms and pines, and, before departing, enter the old church, to rest and pray within the stillness of its fane.

Aside from the part of the churchyard reserved for the burials of the Cooper family, the only enclosed plot is the small one just south of it, squared in by a low fence of rusty iron. This belonged to the family of the Rev. Frederick T. Tiffany, who succeeded Father Nash as rector of Christ Church, and afterward became a chaplain in Congress.

The oldest tomb in the churchyard holds an inconspicuous place two tiers east of the Tiffany enclosure. It is the grave of Samuel Griffin, the inn-keeper's child, who died at the Red Lion Tavern. The gravestone is dated 1792, which is ancient for this part of the country.

In the first burials within these grounds, it was the intention to regard the old Christian tradition in accord with which the dead are buried with the feet toward the east. Yet, since the graves naturally follow the parallel of the enclosure, which is not exactly east and west, but conforms to the general bent of the village, they fall short, by a few points of the compass, of facing due east.

Among the early settlers of Cooperstown there was one family not to be put off with any vagueness of orientation. It was that of Joshua Starr, a potter, whom Fenimore Cooper describes as "a respectable inhabitant of the village." To the mind of Joshua Starr, who survived the other members of his family, it was plain that if a proper grave should face east, it should face the east, and not east by south. Accordingly, the graves of the Starr family, a few steps northward from Samuel Griffin's, are notable among the tombs of Christ churchyard in being set with the foot due east, as by a mariner's compass. The wide headstones split the plane of the meridian; their edges cleave the noonday sun and the polar star. To the casual observer these three tombstones, as compared with all others in the churchyard, seem quite awry. In reality they alone are meticulously correct, a standing tribute to the exact eye of Joshua Starr, the potter.

Southward from Samuel Griffin's grave, in the next tier to the east, a curious use of verse appears upon two stones, whereby Capt. Joseph Jones and his wife Keziah, both dying in 1799, seem to converse in responsive couplets. Mrs. Jones avers, majestically,

Within this Silent grave I ly.

To which the hero of the Revolution quite meekly replies,

This space is all I occupy.

The crudeness of some epitaphs gives them a grotesque touch of realism. Here is one just south of the squared-in Tiffany plot:

Mourn not since freed from human ills, My dearest friends & two Infants still, My consumptive pains God semed well, My soul to prepair with him to dwell.

Northward of this tomb is a sarcophagus that shows a well laid plan in a state of perpetual incompletion. Besides serving as a monument of the dead, the tomb was intended to be a kind of family record. The names of children and grandchildren were inscribed, and as they departed this life their names were marked with a chiseled asterisk referring to a foot-note which pronounced them "dead." Four deaths were so recorded; then the sculptured enrollment was discontinued. Written still among the living there remain four names, of those who have been long dead, while the name of one born after the monument was erected, and survivor of all the others, was never included in the memorial.

Near the orientated tombs of the Starrs the grave of an infant who died in 1794 bears this epitaph:

Sleep on sweet babe; injoy thy rest: God call'd the soon, he saw it best.

A more severe view of the Deity appears upon a gravestone six rows east of this, commemorating James and Tamson Eaton, who died in 1846. Tamson was fifteen years old, and, as the verse reveals, was a girl:

This youth cut down in all her bloom, Sent by her God to an early doom

Tamson's brother James was killed by lightning a few months later, and the event is thus versified:

What voice is that? 'Tis God, He speaketh from the clouds; In thunder is concealed the rod That smites him to the ground.

Near the driveway and toward the church is the tombstone of Mary Olendorf, which bears these feeling lines:

Tread softly o'er this sacred mound For Mary lies beneath this ground May garlands deck and myrtles rise To guard the Tomb where Mary lies.

A short distance eastward from the centre of the churchyard, and nearly abreast of the obelisk commemorating Father Nash, stands somewhat apart the rugged tombstone of Scipio, an old slave. Aside from the graves of Fenimore Cooper and his father, the founder of the village, not forgetting the grave of Jenny York,[117] which is the joy of the churchyard, no tomb in the enclosure receives more attention from strangers than that of Scipio, with its quaint verses descriptive of the aged slave.

North of this stone, after passing three intervening tombs, one comes upon an odd inscription that marks the grave of a fourteen-year-old boy, who was drowned December 3, 1810:

Thus were Parents bereavd of a dutiful son and community of a promising youth, while pursuing with assiduity the act of industry.

What this act of industry was that cost the life of young Garrett Bissell is not related.

A number of those buried in Christ churchyard died violent deaths; one was murdered, and another was hanged, but that story has been already told.

"Joe Tom," a negro whose tomb fronts the east end of the churchyard, where the members of his race were buried apart from the whites, was for more than a score of years sexton of Christ Church, and when he died, in 1881, had been for a half a century a unique figure in the life of the village. "Joe Tom" was always the general factotum at public entertainments, and had won a title as "the politest negro in the world." Music of a lively sort he scraped from the fiddle or beat upon the triangle. He was head usher at meetings, chief cook at picnics, a stentorian prompter at dances, and chief oar at lake excursions.

On one occasion there was to be a burial in the churchyard in the afternoon, for which Joe had made no preparation before escorting a picnic party to Three-Mile Point in the morning. Suddenly he remembered the funeral. Seizing a boat he rowed hastily back to the village, commenced digging the grave, tolled the bell, and, while the funeral service was being held in the church, completed his task, standing ready with solemn visage to perform the final duty of casting the earth upon the coffin. He then went back to the Point, and finished the day by escorting his party home. Not infrequently his day's work was protracted far into the night. If there was a midnight country dance the tinkle of his triangle could be heard until near sunrise, and often he was seen returning by daylight from some nocturnal festivity, fast asleep in a farmer's wagon.[118]

If his versatile life rendered him somewhat uncertain at times in the discharge of his duties as sexton of Christ Church, he never failed to disarm criticism by his plausible and polite excuses. In his day the bell rope was operated from the vestibule of the church, and Joe Tom, arrayed in Sunday finery, was a familiar figure to church-goers, as he stood in the church porch tolling the bell with measured stroke, and inclining his woolly head with each motion to the entrance of every worshipper.

Joe was born in slavery in the island of Barbadoes, and was brought, when quite young, to Cooperstown, by Joseph D. Husbands. Few persons in his day were better known than Joe Tom, yet, in his latter years, ill health withdrew him from public notice, and at his funeral he was laid away in the churchyard, unsung, if not unwept. A contemporary expressed a hope that the dead can have no knowledge of their own obsequies, for "poor Joe, who was the very soul of music, would hardly have been satisfied with a service in which not a key was struck, or note raised for one who had so often tuned his harp for others."

Within the Cooper enclosure in Christ churchyard, the grave of Susan Fenimore Cooper attracts the attention of all who are familiar with local history. A daughter of the novelist, Miss Cooper's memory is revered in Cooperstown for qualities all her own. After her father's death her home was at Byberry Cottage. She gained more than local fame, in her time, as a graceful writer, and was distinguished for her knowledge of the birds and flowers of Otsego hills. But her life-work was given to the Orphan House of the Holy Saviour, which she established in 1870, where homeless and destitute children were cared for and educated, and where now, on the broader basis of the Susan Fenimore Cooper Foundation, unusual opportunities for vocational training are extended to boys and girls. Nor shall it be forgotten that, while others gave more largely of funds, the Thanksgiving Hospital, founded in gratitude for the close of the Civil War, originated in Miss Cooper's heart and mind.

A memorial window in Christ Church idealizes in form and color the spirit of this noble woman, without attempting portraiture. A real likeness of Miss Cooper, as she appeared in her ripest years, would recall a sweet face framed in dangling curls, a manner somewhat prim, but always gentle and placid, a figure slight and spare, with a bonnet and Paisley shawl that are all but essential to the resemblance. She would best be represented in the midst of orphan children whom she catechises for the benefit of some visiting dignitary, while the little rascals, taking advantage of her growing deafness, titter forth the most palpable absurdities in reply, sure of her benignant smile and commendatory "Very good; very good indeed!"

One of Miss Cooper's most devoted helpers in the early days of the Orphan House was Dr. Wilson T. Bassett, who for many years gave his professional services without charge, and greatly interested himself in the welfare of the children. Dr. Bassett was for a long time the most widely known physician and surgeon of the region, while his wife, who followed the same profession, was the pioneer woman physician of Otsego county, and did much to allay the popular prejudice against women in the field of medicine. Dr. Wilson Bassett became noted as an expert witness in medical cases that were carried to court, and in murder trials when insanity had been set up as a defence. The resourcefulness which he displayed on such occasions led to his being described as "the most accomplished witness that has ever been placed upon the stand in Otsego county." Dr. Bassett's personal appearance marked him as belonging to the old school. He was the last man in Cooperstown to wear a black stock about his collar. His face suggested both firmness and a sense of humor. The quality of decision appeared in the mouth which the smooth-shaven upper lip displayed above the white chin-whisker, while the tousled shock of white hair and twinkling blue eyes were indicative of the whimsical turn of mind that manifested itself in witty and sententious sayings. His long experience in the court-room made him alive to the vast expense which the trial and punishment of criminals imposes upon the State, and led to his belief that criminality is usually to be attributed to lack of proper training in youth. His favorite plea for the support of the children in Miss Cooper's orphanage was "It's cheaper to educate 'em than to hang 'em!" The daughter of the two physicians, Dr. Mary Imogene Bassett, inherited the talent of both parents, and later enjoyed the singular distinction, while still in active practice, of having a monument erected to commemorate her professional career, when, in 1917, Edward Severin Clark began to build the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital and Pathological Laboratory, merging with it the traditions of the older Thanksgiving Hospital.

Christ churchyard has been the scene of many impressive funerals, when, as in olden times, the unity of design in the order for Burial has been carried out, so that the outdoor function appears as a natural sequence to the service of the sanctuary, and is connected with it by an orderly processional from the church to the churchyard. Here, in the glory of summer foliage, is a superb setting for such a service; and the rare occasions of interments within this quaint God's acre are long remembered by those who witness them. After the service in the church the procession of choir and clergy, headed by the crucifer, issues from the doorway, followed by stalwart men carrying the bier upon their shoulders. The mourners and congregation come reverently after, and with the thrilling chorus of some hymn of triumph over death the procession moves slowly to the grave. The sunshine sifts through the foliage of the over-arching trees, glitters upon the processional cross, gleams upon the white robes of the choristers, and transforms into a mantle of glory the pall that drapes the body of the dead. A solemn hush falls upon the company as the priest steps forward for the formal act of burial. The dust flashes in the sunbeams as it falls from his hand into the open grave, while the rhythmic phrases of the committal float once again over the consecrated ground. No words in the English tongue have vibrated more deeply in human hearts than the majestic and exultant avowal of faith with which the Church consigns to the grave the bodies of her dead.


[Footnote 117: See p. 306.]

[Footnote 118: A Few Omitted Leaves, G. P. Keese.]



Cooperstown had its representation in the Civil War, for, aside from the soldiers who enlisted from the village, it was a former schoolboy of Apple Hill, Captain Abner Doubleday, in command of the batteries at Fort Sumter, who aimed the first big gun fired in defence of the Union. Another officer from Cooperstown, Lieut. Marmaduke Cooper, died at Fortress Monroe; a third, Lieut. Morris Foote, was taken prisoner, and escaped, with thrilling experiences, from a detention camp in South Carolina; while his brother, Lieut. Frank Foote, lost a leg in the battle of the Wilderness, for three months was mourned as dead by his family, and had the pleasure, on his return to Cooperstown, of reading his own obituary.

Among the citizens who stayed at home during the war were some who did much to stir up Union sentiment in Cooperstown, where the political opinions of not a few had taken the form of opposition to the Northern cause. Among these enthusiasts was John Worthington, who was cashier in the bank established by his father, John R. Worthington, in a building which stood on the north side of Main Street not far west of Fair Street. There were then two divisions of the Democratic party, known as "War Democrats" and "Peace Democrats." The motto of the latter, as applied to the Southern States, was "Erring sisters, go in peace." This was too much for Worthington, who caused a large banner to be stretched across the entire front of the Worthington Bank, surmounted by the Stars and Stripes, and the words, "Victory will bring Peace."

Worthington had a strong spirit of adventure in his composition, and, just before the war, had astonished the village by one of his characteristic exploits. In July a traveling aeronaut had appeared on the Fair Grounds, which were then in the region of the village south of Christ Church, proposing to make a series of flights for the entertainment of the public. He had an enormous balloon which was floated by being filled with heated air and smoke. The first ascension was a great success, and the aeronaut landed safely beyond the top of Mount Vision. When the next flight was to be made, just as the inflation was completed, John Worthington stepped out of the crowd, and asked to take the place of the aeronaut, who readily consented. There was a southerly breeze, and the balloon, as it sailed over the village, barely escaped the top of Christ Church spire. It then rose straight upward and, as the air within it cooled, began rapidly to descend. By a strange coincidence the balloon dropped in the main street, within a short distance of the Worthington Bank, at the very moment when its proprietor was descending the steps. The street was agog at the sudden appearance of the balloon, but none was more amazed than the elder Worthington when he saw his own son extricating himself from the folds of smoking cloth.

"John," he called out in astonishment, "Did you go up in that balloon?"

"I came down in it," said John, and would admit no more.

John Worthington was many years afterward included as a belated member of the Shakespeare Reading Club, an organization which began in 1877, and held regular meetings, with reading of the plays and of original papers by the members, during a period of thirty years. This organization, with the Cooperstown Literary Association, kept up the intellectual traditions of the village during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The Shakespeare Club included the choice minds of the town, and the study of the master poet was undertaken with becoming reverence. While Worthington's sisters were already members of the club, and Worthington himself was second to none in the village in keenness of literary appreciation, he was notorious for eccentricities of whimsical wit and humor, and it was only after long deliberation that it was finally decided to elect him to membership. His first appearance at a meeting of the club gave rise to an unforeseen situation, for the order in which the members sat about the table had become fixed by traditions of precedence, and the attempt to place another chair caused a flutter of debate in politely subdued voices. Worthington was kept standing while this discussion was going on, and suddenly astounded the company by gravely seating himself upon the floor.

John Worthington was appointed United States consul in Malta under President Arthur, and continued in office under Cleveland's first administration. This was the heyday of his life. In Malta he made friends in the army and navy and diplomatic service of many nations. His conversational gifts and capricious drollery gave him great social popularity in the brilliant shifting throng that passed through the gates of the Mediterranean, and his wife, who was Cora Lull, of New Berlin, was charmingly adapted by nature and acquirements to the graces of diplomatic life. During his term of service at Malta in 1883 Worthington was instrumental in removing the body of John Howard Payne, author of "Home, Sweet Home," from the cemetery in Carthage, Tunis, to the United States. He made a stubborn effort to procure a band to play Payne's song as the remains left Tunis aboard the ship homeward bound, but not anyone could play "Home, Sweet Home," although Worthington had brought the notes with him. However, after the disinterment, of which Worthington was a witness, the body was placed in the chapel of the little English church, and a few Americans and English reverently gathered there, while Mrs. Worthington, who was known as "Cooperstown's sweetest singer," sang touchingly the famous song of home, written by the man who had no home during the last forty years of his life, and whose body, thirty years after his death, was going home at last to be interred in its native soil.

While traveling in Egypt, Worthington had an audience with the Khedive, Tewfik Pasha Mohammed, in his palace on the Nile. The conversation was formal and perfunctory, until, in reply to an amiable inquiry, Worthington stated that his home was in a village, in New York State, named Cooperstown. At the mention of this name the Khedive exhibited genuine interest.

"Cooperstown," he repeated, "Is not Cooperstown the home of Fenimore Cooper, the great author?"

It was now Worthington's turn to exhibit interest, for in boyhood he had been next door neighbor to Cooper; and he asked if his Highness was acquainted with the writings of the novelist. The Khedive had read all of Cooper's books. Some of them he cared little for, but those he did care for he loved. The Leather-Stocking Tales had opened a new world to him, and he was charmed. The Deerslayer he "adored." The sublime and shadowy forests, the silent lakes high up in evergreen hills, the cool rivers—how they captivated his imagination! how they invited his soul! He would, he exclaimed, give a year of his life if he might view the Glimmerglass, if he might tread a forest trail. In his library the Khedive showed to his visitor, with evident satisfaction, his three magnificent sets of Cooper's works, in French, in German, and in English.

John Worthington's later days were passed in Cooperstown, where he lived to be the village man of letters, delighting his contemporaries with contributions of picturesque prose and graceful verse that would have given him a wider renown had he written otherwise than, as it seemed, for the mere pleasure of writing for the entertainment of his friends. His twelve years of service at Malta, with many excursions in the ancient world, developed in him an oriental color of mind, and gave even to the Otsego of his childhood, when he returned hither to live, the dreamy glamour of the mystic East. At home he lived altogether among books, and in the companionship of poetic imagination passed the years of almost exile from Malta, his fondest retrospect. A winning soul was John Worthington, widely beloved for what he was, and mourned for all that he might have been.

During the Civil War a girl of extraordinary beauty and vivacity, skilled as a musician, drew many suitors to her home, the house which still stands at the southwest corner of Pioneer and Elm streets. Her name was Elizabeth Davis, and her happy disposition made her a universal favorite in the community. Toward the close of the war she suffered a disappointment in love, the exact nature of which was not made known, but so seriously affecting her attitude toward life that she registered a solemn vow never again to be seen in public. From this time forth she kept to the house, although it was said that she sometimes walked about at night. Years passed. Father, mother, brother, and sister, followed one another to the grave, until Elizabeth Davis became the only inhabitant of the old house. Nobody ever saw her except a negro who brought her supplies. In the village there grew up a new generation to which she was a stranger. The windows of the house showed an abundance of the choicest plants, always carefully tended. Passers-by often arrested their steps to listen to the sound of a piano splendidly played within. But nobody ever caught a glimpse of a face or form. The most that the nearest neighbors saw was a hand and arm that were stretched forth from the windows every evening to close the blinds. Thus Elizabeth Davis lived for more than thirty years after the close of the war, and carried her secret to the grave.

In the time of the Civil War the favorite reading matter of the soldiers in camp and hospital throughout the northern armies was supplied by the enterprise of Erastus F. Beadle, who had learned the publishing business in the employment of the Phinneys in Cooperstown, himself being a native of Pierstown, just over the hill. He became known throughout the United States as the publisher of "Beadle's Dime Novels," and on his retirement from business in 1889 purchased "Glimmerview," the residence which overlooks the lake next east of the O-te-sa-ga. Here he died in 1894. This inventor of the "dime novel" made an amazing success of publishing paper-covered books adapted to the popular taste on a scale of cheapness and in quantities which had never before been dreamed of. After leaving Cooperstown, he began business for himself in Buffalo, publishing magazines, and on his removal to New York, in 1858, discovered, in the publication of "The Dime Song Book," the field which he afterward made so profitable. To the song books were added, in rapid succession, the "Household Manual," the "Letter Writer," and the "Book of Etiquette." In the summer of 1860 the Dime Novels were started. These little salmon-covered books became immediately popular all over the country, and the business grew to vast proportions, until Beadle had about twenty-five writers employed in the composition of stories for his imprint. The business was afterward expanded to include the publication of popular "Libraries,"—the Dime Library, the Boy's Library, the Pocket Library, and the Half-Dime Library. After his retirement from business, as a resident of Cooperstown, Beadle did much for the development of the village.

The village had troubles of its own during the progress of the war. In the spring of 1862, a disastrous fire, the largest conflagration in the history of Cooperstown, destroyed at least a third of the business district. The fire started near the Cory stone building, which alone survived of the stores and shops in the path of the flames that spread on the north side of Main Street, and extended from the building next to the present Mohican Club as far east as Pioneer Street. The fire then crossed to the south side of Main Street, destroying the old Eagle Tavern, originally the Red Lion, and burning westward as far as the present Carr's Hotel. Up Pioneer Street, on the west side the flames ate their way as far south as the Phinney residence. The buildings at the eastern corners of Main and Pioneer streets were several times on fire, and were saved only by supreme efforts of the village firemen. The survival of the Cory building was due in part to its solid stone construction, but chiefly to the efforts of two plucky men, David P. House and George Newell, who stationed themselves on the roof, and while the fire worked its way around the rear of the building, succeeded in defending their position, although so terribly scorched that for weeks afterward they went about swathed in bandages.

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