D. Hamilton (Duane Hamilton) Hurd.

History of Plymouth County, Massachusetts : with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men (Volume 2) online

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utterance, but moved right on with steady, self-poised,
and successful action. As a lawyer in his uative
town, where he practiced for so many years, we find
him no noisy or cunning pettifogger, seeking to profit
in pocket or reputation by the disputes of the people,
no stirrer-up of strifes, but one who remembered that
the peacemakers are blessed.

It was as judge of probate that Judge Wood more
especially endeared himself to the people, for in that
position he was brought into more direct aud intimate
relation with them, so that they could observe and study
the rare characteristics of the gentleman, the lawyer,
and the judge. Although a lawyer of vast legal
knowledge and attainments, and a judge of established
reputation and wisdom, he was always a kiud and
courteous gentleman. No one ever went away from
his court feeling aggrieved because they were not fairly
heard. Every one felt in his court- room that it was
a place " appropriated to justice, where there was no
respect of persons, where there was no high nor low,
no strong nor weak, but where all were equal, and all
secure before the law" under his administration. He
never lowered the character of the great office which
he held, but his presence gave it dignity. One well
said after his death, "Nearly twenty- four years ago
Massachusetts clothed him with the official robe of a
judge of probate; to-day that official ermine is laid at
her feet, pure and unsullied, without spot or blemish."
Benjamin Winslow Harris 1 was born in East
Bridgewater, the 10th of November, 1823. His

1 By Win. II. Osborne.

. fl/.^t




parents were William Harris and Mary Winalow
Thomas. William Harris was likewise a native of
East Bridgewater, and was a man of remarkable
purity of character. He filled the office of town
clerk in his town for a period of twenty-five years.
He also filled the office of town treasurer for several
years, and was a member of the General Court for
four years. He died Aug. 4, 1S52. at the age of
fifty-eight years. Mary, the mother, was a direct
descendant of Kenelm Winslow, brother of Governor
Winslow, of the Plymouth Colony. She was a woman
who typified in her character the virtues of the Pil-
grims, with something of their austerity. She was of
commanding person, dignified, and deeply religious.
She possessed a natural gift of language, and a manner
which made her society always attractive. She was
very humorous and original in her sayings and de-
scriptions of odd characters, and had a keen knowl-
edge of human nature. She was blessed with good
health and consequent longevity. She lived to see
her sou (the subject of this notice) attain not only
high professional, but political honors. She was hale
and hearty when he was first elected to Cougress, and
speut her eightieth birthday with him in Washing-
ton. She died at East Bridgewater on the 20th day
of June, 1882, aged eighty-five years.

Mr. Harris, the son, received his education in the
public schools of his town, the East Bridgewater
Academy, under Mr. Daniel Littlefield, and in the
classical department of Phillips Academy, Andover,
where he remained about two and a half years. For
several years he taught school winters, being com-
pelled to do so in order to procure the means of pur-
suing his studies. He taught schools in the towns of
Halifax, Hanover, Kingston, and East Bridgewater.

In April, 1847, he entered the Harvard Law-
School. Among the members of school at that time
were Hon. George F. Hoar, Hon. Horace Gray,
Hon. Thomas Russell. He graduated at that insti-
tution in June, 1848, when he at once entered the
law-office of John P. Putnam (late justice of the
Superior Court), 19 Court Street, Boston. Mr.
Harris remained in Judge Putnam's office till the
12th of April, 1850, when, upon motion of Judge
Putnam in the Supreme Judicial Court, he was ad-
mitted to practice. He came to East Bridgewater on
the 22d of Juue, and formed a law partnership with
Hon. Welcome Young for one year. Ou the 4th
day of June, 1850, he was married to Julia A. Orr,
daughter of Robert Orr, Esq., of Boston. At the
close of Mr. Harris' engagement with Mr. Young he
opened a law-office in the brick store building, where
he remained, with the exception of a few years, till

the fall of 1864. Mr. Harris at once secured a good
practice. He was a gifted and fluent debater, and
soon acquired a county reputation as an advocate.
The first important case which he argued was an ac-
tion against his own town for damages, caused by a
defective highway. In 1857 he was junior counsel,
with Hon. Charles G. Davis as senior, for Mrs. Gard-
ner, of Hingham, who was indicted for the murder of
her husband. The case was tried twice. The first
trial resulted in a disagreement of the jury, the sec-
ond in her conviction of murder in the second degree.
She was sentenced to imprisonment for life, and is
still liviug in confinement. On the 1st day of July,
1858, Governor Banks appointed Mr. Harris district
attorney for the Southeastern District to fill the va-
cancy caused by the resignation of Hon. James M.
Keith, of Roxbury. This was a new field of pro-
fessional labor, and one that called for the exercise of
all his talent and industry. There were many able
criminal lawyers at the bars of both Norfolk and
Plymouth Counties at that time. With these dis-
tinguished lawyers he was often opposed, but his
popularity with juries and his native tact for manag-
ing trials, especially his felicity in handling unwilling
and untruthful witnesses, caused him to be very suc-
cessful. It came to be remarked by the lawyers, who
had often tried their hand in defending criminals,
that " Harris uniformly got everybody convicted, and
that the most judicious course was to advise their
clients to plead guilty, and then rely on the district^
attorney's good nature to let them down easy, with a
light sentence."

One of the most important criminal trials which
took place during his incumbency of this office was
that of George C. Hersey, of Weymouth, for the
murder of Betsey F. Tirrill, on the 3d day of May,
1860, at Weymouth. The evidence for the govern-
ment in this case was largely, almost wholly, circum-
stantial, and required the highest skill to collect,
arrange, and present. There was little else than sus-
picion of guilt to start with, but this was supple-
mented by untiring and diligent search for evidence
by Mr. Harris and the faithful officers under his
direction. This culminated in an indictment against
Hersey for murder in the Superior Court, held at
Dedham, on the fourth Monday of April, 1861. On
the 28th of May, 1861, the trial took place before
the Supreme Judicial Court, consisting of Chief
Justice Bigelow, and Associate Justices Merrick,
Dewey, and Chapman. Mr. Harris was associated
with Attorney-General Dwight Foster for the com-
monwealth, and George S. Sullivan, Esq., and Hon.
Elihu C. Baker were for the prisoner. The trial was



long and exciting, with many brilliant passages at
arms between counsel, and many questions as to ad-
missibility of evidence were raised. It was a deter-
mined and able effort on the part of the government
counsel to convict a man charged with the greatest
crime known to our laws, and on the part of the
able counsel for the defense to prevent the visitation
of the dread penalty upon their client.

Mr. Harris opened the case for the government in
a very clear and able presentation of the govern-
ment's evidence, in which he summed up the princi-
ples of law applicable to the case. His opening
address fills fourteen closely-priuted octavo pages in
the published report of the trial. Some parts of
Mr. Harris' speech were eloquent and touching,
which we would gladly reproduce but for the limited
space assigned to his biographical notice. Suffice it
to say that this trial resulted in the conviction of the
accused, and also in his execution. The death-war-
rant, which was signed by Governor Andrew, was
executed on the 8th of August, 1862, in the jail at
Dedham, and the execution was preceded by a written
confession of the deed by Hersey.

As we are about to take leave of Mr. Harris as a
lawyer, we desire to say that during all the time
he filled the office of district attorney, and up to
the time of his entering Congress iu 1872, he was
actively engaged iu the general practice, having a
large and lucrative business, and trying many im-
portant causes iu Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk
Counties. During the early winter of 1863-64 he
opened a law-office in Barrister's Hall, Court Square,
Boston, associating with him as partner soon after
Payson E. Tucker, Esq., a learned and able lawyer.
Iu 1866, Mr. Harris removed to Dorchester. June
20th of that year he received from President John-
son the appointment of collector of internal revenue
for the Second Congressional District, whereupon, on
July 1, 1866, he resigned the office of district attor-
ney. The office of collector was a lucrative and im-
portant one, and he continued to hold it till the 1st of
January, 1873, then resigning.

In the early summer of 1872, Mr. Harris returned
to East Bridgewater, which has ever since been his
home. At this time the highest honors of his busy
life were awaiting him. Hou. Oakes Ames, who had
long and honorably represented the district in Con-
gress, declined to be a candidate on account of ill
health. The Republican voters seemed almost of one
accord to think of Mr. Harris as their standard-bearer.
He had been identified with the party since its birth
iu 1856, taking an active part iu its many campaigns,
notably in its first and in that which brought Abra-

ham Lincoln to the executive chair of the nation and
John A. Andrew into that of our State. The conven-
tion which nominated Mr. Harris was held at Tauu-
ton on the 10th day of October, 1872. He was elected
on the 5th of November following, receiving 13,752
votes against 5090 votes cast for Hon. Edward Avery,
of Braintree, the Democratic candidate. Mr. Harris'
majority of 8662 votes attests his popularity.

His estimable wife, a lady of rare attainments and
great culture, who had watched with keen interest
the progress of her husband's candidacy, did not live
to witness his triumph or to share with him the
honors and pleasures of public life. After a painful
illness of several weeks' duration she died on the 5th
day of October, 1872, five days only before his nom-
ination. Mr. Harris began this part of his public
career at the first session of the Forty-third Congress,
and was appoiuted to the Committee on Indian Affairs.
During this and the second session he took part in
debate on several occasions, notably upon a bill to
pay the Choctaw Indians the balance due them from
the proceeds of the sale of their lauds east of the Mis-
sissippi River, which they surrendered to the govern-
ment in 1830 upon the promise of receiving such
proceeds. More than seven million dollars had been
realized from these sales, and yet the tribe had re-
ceived only two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
The government had dealt sharply, if not dishonor-
ably with them, and Mr. Harris' strong sense of jus-
tice led him to advocate the payment of their claim,
which amounted, under the terms of a treaty with
them, ratified by the Senate in 1869, to two milliou
nine hundred and eighty-one thousand dollars.

At the first session of this Congress Mr. Harris
made a report in relation to the grant of six hundred
and forty acres of land in Idaho Territory, known as
the Lapwai Mission, which of right belonged to the
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mis-
sions, but of which the government had taken posses-
sion for military purposes without making the above
board any compensation. Mr. Harris' attempt was
to secure these lauds to the person who had pur-
chased them of the board. In his report ho gave a
history of the noble efforts of the Rev. H. H. Spalding
and his devoted wife in civilizing, educating, and chris-
tianizing the Nez Perce' Indians. The report was a
short but touching history of the trials and sufferings,
the sacrifices and devotion to duty, as well as the won-
derful success and triumph over difficulties and dan-
gers of two of the most worthy missionaries who ever
labored for the elevation of the Indian race. Mr.
Harris accompanied his report by a brief but elo-
quent speech upon the floor of the House, where the



bill was passed by a very flattering vote, failiDg, how-
ever, in the Senate for the want of a champion aud a

In the summer of 1875 a commission was organ-
ized to investigate certain charges made by Professor
0. C. Marsh, of Yale College, in reference to the
management of affairs at the Red Cloud Indian agency.
Governor Thomas C. Fletcher, of St. Louis, Hon.
Charles J. Faulkner, of Martinsburg, W. Va., and
Mr. Harris were appointed by Mr. Delano, Secre-
tary of the Interior, as members of this commission,
aud President Grant afterwards added to it Hon.
Timothy 0. Howe, senator from Wisconsin, and
Professor G. W. Atherton, of Rutgers College, of
New Brunswick, N. J. The commission met in
New York July 20, 1875, and took preliminary
testimony, including that of Professor Marsh, and
then proceeded on their missioD, arriving at Omaha
on the 27th, and at Cheyenne on the 29th, taking
evideuce at both places. On the 1st day of August
the commission started for the Sioux agencies, stop-
ping at Fort Laramie on the way, where they were
provided with a cavalry escort, arriving at the Red
Cloud agency on the 7th of August. The commis-
sion also visited the Spotted Tail agency, receiving
testimony at both places from the Indians by aid of
interpreters. The commissioners in returning visited
several places, and separated for their homes at Kan-
sas City, Mo., reassembling in Washington, and, by
adjournment, in New York City in September, where
their report was written.

Much of this report, which with the testimony fills
more than nine hundred printed pages, was written
by Mr. Harris, for which, as well as for the rest of
his labors upon the commission, he received no pay.
On account of the strong prejudice which existed
against the management of Indian affairs, a prejudice
largely created by seusatioual and unscrupulous news-
papers, the work of the commission was a very diffi-
cult and delicate one to perform. The Secretary of
the Interior and his subordinate officers had been
convicted of dishouest aud hard treatment of the In-
dians by the public without hearing their testimony,
aud any report which the commission might make,
short of wholesale condemnation, was certain to re-
ceive from prejudiced press writers the appellation of
" whitewashing." The commission investigated and
reported the facts as they fouud them to be, and bore
the censure of the public press without complaint.
The report was of great value, and the public accepted
it. Abuses were pointed out and corrected, and un-
founded charges were met with facts and disproved.

Mr. Harris was re-elected in the four succeeding

Congressional elections, namely, in 1874, 187G, 1878,
and 1880, receiving large popular majorities at each
electiou. At the beginning of the Forty-fourth Cou-
gress he was appointed a minority member of the
Committee on Naval Affairs. During the first ses-
sion of this Congress a partisan investigation into
alleged abuses, errors, and frauds in the naval service
was instituted. The investigation was conducted in
the most bitter partisan spirit, and continued till near
the close of the session. The report of the majority
was prepared by the chairman, and was read to and
approved by the majority members in secret meeting,
but at the request of Mr. Harris, earnestly persisted
in, it was finally submitted to the whole committee.
No change, however, was made in it, every suggestion
of the minority members being disregarded. A mi-
nority report was therefore prepared, the major part
of which was written by Mr. Harris. Here again
Mr. Harris faced popular clamor. It was at that
time more popular to condemn the administration of
naval affairs than to say anything in its favor. The
public press had, as it has ofteD done in the history
of the republic, pronounced a verdict of guilty with-
out hearing or caring to hear the evidence. The ad-
vocacy of the weaker cause is always proof of the
bravery of its advocate, and generally the result of
strong moral convictions. It is always an easy task
that of picking to pieces the reputation or character
of a citizen iu public or private life, especially the
former, but the man who steps forth in the defense is
liable to have his own motives impugned. Mr. Har-
ris' report, which was in defense of the naval depart-
ment, and supported by convincing testimony, was
vehemently attacked by the class of newspapers to
which we have alluded; but their bitter and malignant
criticisms found no lodgment in the minds or hearts
of his constituents, who returned him to the next
Congress with the usual significant majority. Mr.
Harris' position was indeed a hard one. lie stood
almost alone in a legislative body made up largely of
his political opponents, with a corps of correspondents
in the gallery constantly sending dispatches to the
papers they represented full of abuse and downright
misrepresentations of the facts. But the manner in
which he conducted himself on this trying occasion,
aud the fearlessness with which he adhered to his
position, is creditable alike to his intelligence aud his
personal courage. Mr. Harris closed the debate for
the minority in an able and spirited speech, which is
to be found in vol. iv. part v. of the " Congressional
Record." l

1 Page 4959.



At the beginniug of the Forty-fifth Congress Mr.
Harris was again placed upon the Committee on
Naval Affairs. Daring this Congress Mr. Harris
devoted himself especially to an investigation into
the condition and needs of the navy. A bill pre-
pared and introduced by him for the establishment of
a Board of Admiralty for the navy was unanimously
adopted by the committee and reported to the House,
and ably debated by him. His earnest efforts in
behalf of the navy continued through this and the
two succeeding Congresses. At the first sessiou of
the Forty-seventh Congress he was made the chair-
man of the Committee on Naval Affairs, a position
which he had honorably earned by faithful, laborious,
and highly intelligent research. In this Congress
Mr. Harris' work ripened into law. The old and
condemned ships were ordered to be sold upon the
plan recommended by him. The question of using
steel in the construction of new vessels was investi-
gated and settled. The new cruisers now under con-


struction are the first fruits of his patient and per-
sistent efforts. His report of March 2, 1882, was
an exhaustive one, and, with the evidence reported as
to our ability to manufacture steel of the right quality
and in sufficient quantities, put at rest forever the
long-existing controversy as to whether ships should
be built of wood or steel or iron. Steel won the
victory, and hereafter ships of war will be ships of

Much was accomplished in behalf of the navy
during Mr. Harris' service in Congress, for which the
whole country owes him its most profound gratitude,
aud we doubt not be will receive it. Upon the close of
this Congress Mr. Harris determined to retire. He
had been desirous of doing so at the last two elections,
but there was such an unhappy lack of harmony in
his party as to candidates that he was practically com-
pelled to accept the nomination. In 1876, when
Mr. Harris had signified his desire to retire, the con-
test in the nominating convention was a very bitter
one, it being a triangular fight, and resulting in the
defeat of each of the candidates. At last one of the
delegates nominated Mr. Harris by acclamation. The
hall at once resounded with loud cheers and cries of
approbation. Mr. Harris was declared nominated by
the secretary of the convention, when it at once ad-

The voters of the Second Congressional District
were determined that Mr. Harris should not retire
from public life without giving him some additional
proof of their esteem for him, however unnecessary
that would seem to be.

A few days before the return of Mr. Harris from

Washington, in March, 1883, the citizens of East
Bridgewater, irrespective of party affiliation, tendered
him a public reception, and the 13th of March was
selected as the time. The limited size of the town
hall made it necessary to limit the invitations, and
accordingly about three hundred prominent gentle-
men residing in the other cities and towns in the old
Second District were invited. Long before the hour
appointed for the commencement of the exercises the
body of the hall was densely packed. More than one
hundred prominent gentlemen occupied seats upon the
platform. Hon. Aaron Hobart presided, and opened
the exercises with a singularly graceful speech. In
the course of the evening Mr. Harris made an ex-
tended speech, reviewing in a highly interesting
manner the principal national events in the course of
the ten years covered by his life in Congress. He
was followed by Lieutenant-Governor Oliver Ames,
ex-Governor John D. Long, Secretary of State Henry
B. Pierce, and others, and the exercises were closed
by an elegant banquet.

We have thus traced the subject of this notice
from his early struggles to obtain an education into
the learned profession of the law aud through a suc-
cessful career in its practice into and through an
equally successful career in public life, aud have seen
him yield up his high trust with the approbatiou of
his constituents towards all his public acts, accom-
panied by the most touching manifestation of their
strong personal regard, the recollection of which we
doubt not will solace him in his decliuiug years.

On retiring from Congress he resumed his practice
of the law, and the firm of Harris & Tucker is still
continued, but the son of Mr. Harris, R. 0. Harris,
Esq., became a member of it.

Charles G. Davis. — The grandfather of Mr.
Davis has already been referred to as the father of
Nathaniel Morton Davis, a sketch of whom has been
given. The father of Mr. Davis was William Davis,
of Plymouth, a brother of Nathaniel Morton Davis,
and a merchant for many years in partnership with
his father, Hon. William Davis, of the same town.
William Davis, Jr., married, Aug. 4, 1S07, Joanna,
daughter of Capt. Gideon White, of Shelburne, Nova
Scotia, a native of Plymouth, and fourth in descent
from Peregrine White, who adhered to the royal
cause and held a commission in the British army
during the Revolution. The childreu of Mr. Davis
were William Whitworth, born in 1808; Rebecca
Morton, 1810, who married Ebenezer G. Parker, the
first cashier of the Old Colony Bank of Plymouth,
and after his death, George S. Tolman, of Boston ;
Hannah White, 1812, who married Andrew L. Bus-

:- ■«. .:'- Vlitc'ue




sell, of Plymouth ; Sarah Bradford, 1814, who died
iu infancy; Charles Gideon, 1820; William Thomas,
1822 ; and Sarah Elizabeth, 1S24, who also died in
infancy. Of these, Charles Gideon, the subject of
'this sketch, was born in Plymouth, on the 30th
of May, iu the year above stated, and received his
earliest education in the schools of his native town.
He was fitted for college with Hon. William G. Rus-
sell, of Plymouth, at Bridgewater, by Hon. John A.
Shaw, and graduated at Harvard in the class of 1840,
with Mr. Russell, Johu Chandler Bancroft Davis,
Judge George Partridge Sanger, and others who have
won distinction at the bar. He studied law in the
offices of Jacob H. Loud, of Plymouth, and Hubbard
& Watts, of Boston, and in the Harvard Law-School,
and was admitted to the bar at the August term of
the Common Pleas Court in 1843. He settled in
Boston, where, until 1853, he was engaged in an ac-
tive and increasing practice, in partnership at various
times with William H. Whitman, now clerk of the
courts of Plymouth County ; George P. Sanger, of
his own class at Harvard ; and Seth Webb, of the
Harvard class of 1843.

In 1S53 temporary ill health induced him to relin-
quish practice in Boston and return to hia native
town, where he has since continued to reside, adding
to his professional pursuits the avocation of opera-
tions in real estate, in which he lias exhibited a pub-

Online LibraryD. Hamilton (Duane Hamilton) HurdHistory of Plymouth County, Massachusetts : with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 118)