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Two Justices of the Supreme Court of Maine


IN THE days when court was held at Norridgewock and the Danforth Hotel was in its glory, there were several residents of that little town on the Kennebec whose deeds of fame have long outlived their own generation and are well worth a passing thought in the busy commercial world of today. Two of these men rose to the dignity of the Supreme Bench one a real son of Norridgewock, the other hers by adoption.

Thither from the Byfield Parish, in the little town of Rowley, Massachusetts, came John Searle Tenney and opened a law office on the north side of the river. Mr. Tenney was born in 1793 on the very farm where his ancestors had settled in 1639. His childhood days were spent on this farm; his early education was begun at the district school where he laid the foundation of a vigorous physical and mental constitution which lasted him through long years of usefulness. He received his college preparation at Dummer Academy, under the instruction of the famous Abiel Abbott, and entered Bowdoin College in 1812, where he ranked high as a scholar, particularly in the Greek classics, and graduated at the head of his class.1

He taught in the Academy at Warren, Maine, for a few months and then studied law at Hallowell, under the instruction of Elias Bond, who prepared him for the practice of his profession. In 1820 the young lawyer came to Norridgewock, the shire town of Somerset County, ostensibly to practice law, but in reality to perform pioneer work not only in the way of shaping and moulding the character and habit of thought of the young lawyers who came to settle later in the town, but also to impress his stamp upon the character of the entire community.

The practice of law in those days was very different from the present time. The litigated cases were in the hands of a few eminent lawyers, well-grounded in the arena of argument, who made a circuit of all the counties, monopolizing the important business of the courts. These men were regular giants in their mastery of law and certain of the confidence of the community. What chance was there for a beginner full of distrust of his own powers and with no political backing?

For twelve years Mr. Tenney confined himself to the dull drudgery of a lawyer's office. In 1832 the crucial moment came, in a closely contested case with the Hon. Peleg Sprague, then a United States Senator, as the opposing lawyer. Mr. Tenney was successful; henceforth he was an advocate as well as a sound lawyer.

In 1837, he was elected a member of the House of Representatives. This was to him a new experience. His law practice had been confined to his own county, hence he was less known throughout the State than he was entitled to be from his real merits. It so happened that on the election for Governor2 for this year, the votes of the two parties were so nearly equal as to leave each a chance to challenge the other. When the official count was made, the result depended entirely upon whether the returns from certain towns claimed by one party to be erroneous were to be received or rejected. The validity of these returns became the all-absorbing topic of conversation. The leading members of each political party held caucuses to decide what course to pursue. At one of these private meetings, Mr. Tenney was called upon for his judgment. He complied with the request and removed all doubts of those present. The following day he repeated his speech in the House. The question was settled in accordance with Mr. Tenney's views. His speech was printed and circulated, thus extending throughout the State the reputation which he had established in his own county, and when a vacancy occurred upon the bench, he was appointed as the person fitted to fill it.3

In 1841 he was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court a voluntary offering to his fitness for the place.4 "Into this position" says Judge Danforth, "he carried the same nice sense of honor that had characterized his professional life. Here, too, was exhibited the same self-possession, the same patience under trying and difficult duties by which he had hitherto been distinguished. His courtesy toward the members of the bar never failed. In his courtesy, however, he never forgot his dignity, or rather that never forgot itself. It was natural to the man a part of his very being; existing within him, the result of native force, and an innate sense of the right and proper, ever-present, regulating and controlling all his conduct without effort and almost unconsciously to himself."

Judge Tenney was re-appointed without opposition and, at the end of his second term, he was made Chief Justice with "universal approbation." At the expiration of his term of office as Chief Justice he retired in the full vigor of life, his "ermine unsullied," carrying with him the universal respect of those with whom he had been closely associated.

Late in life he was twice elected State Senator,5 immediately after he retired from public life. He had given many years of service to the state, the evening of his life belonged to himself. Henceforth he attended only to his own affairs and spent much of his time in social intercourse with his friends.

The formal published opinions of Judge Tenney, numbering six hundred and seventy-three (over thirty a year), may be found in Volumes twenty to fifty-two inclusive of the Maine Reports. These opinions treat of a wide variety of subjects likely to arise in common law courts and cover a much longer term of years than the average judicial life.6 "It is his written opinions" says Gen. Hamlin, "which evidence his knowledge of the law and strength as a judge. They are characterized by strength rather than by ease of composition and by soundness of conclusion rather than rapidity of reaching results. To the profession they are a living source of authority adding harmony to the growth of the law."

At the time of the dispute over the northeast boundary of Maine, Mr. Tenney was employed to effect a settlement with Great Britain and made several trips to Quebec with horse and carriage for that purpose.7 This was about the year 1840. Before the final Ashburton Treaty was negotiated by Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State under President Tyler, Judge Tenney had been appointed to the Supreme Bench and as a result of this had no part in the final settlement of the boundary line.

So much for Judge Tenney as a professional man. There are other points to be emphasized, however, in such a versatile man, for example his personal interest in his Alma Mater. In spite of his great mental strain in the legal profession, he found time to serve as Overseer and Trustee of Bowdoin College8 during a period of twenty-seven years and for twenty years was lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence. In 1856 he received the degree of LL.D., and two years later, at the celebration of the semi-centennial of the college, Judge Tenney was invited to take part in the exercises. He read a paper9 which was received with such universal favor by the audience that a request was made to have the paper printed.

In stature Judge Tenney was tall and portly, standing six feet three inches and weighing two hundred and fifty pounds. His massive frame, his imposing figure, his face, handsome and majestic, his high forehead and full eye all characterized him as a life long student. He would be looked upon today as a typical gentleman of the old school.

Possessing remarkable conversational powers, all classes of men interested him; believing in the precept that all men are created equal, he made no distinction between an inferior and a superior, but made it is his custom to speak courteously to every one he met on the Tillage street.

Coming to Norridgewock fresh from his college life, with his brilliant wit and his commanding presence, he naturally became the idol of the town in social events his company was sought in every household.

In 1814 the Danforth Hotel was opened, which became at once the home of the Somerset bar and was familiarly called the Court Hotel. Here young people danced the stately minuet in the old dance hall, which still remains intact with its big fireplaces and chandeliers at each end.

The young lawyer could have had his choice of the belles of the town, but he chose instead Miss Hannah Dennis10 of Ipswich, Massachusetts, as his life companion. Two children came to brighten their household, a son and a daughter,11 and of their beautiful home life, his daughter, Mrs. Hathaway, who is still living, has much to tell.

After making a home of his own, Judge Tenney set at work to make an attractive home for others. Thither came young students to study law at his office and become members of his own household. Among the number were Sanford Ballard,12 Noah Woods and William G. Barrows.13 The Aroostook War14 broke out while Mr. Ballard was a student and he enlisted, taking with him a curl from each of the Tenney children's hair. saying that when he was dying on the battlefield he would kiss those locks of hair but not a shot was fired and he came back to finish his study of law. Judge Barrows, when a student in Judge Tenney's family, always spoke of the two Tenney children as the "little plagues." Mrs. Hathaway remembers these incidents of her childhood with much pleasure and recalls them vividly, although more than three score years have elapsed.

Judge Tenney

The public schools were not just what Judge Tenney wanted for the education of his children; he preferred to employ governesses for them. Among the number was Miss Fanny Dunlap from Portland15 who remained several months as private teacher for the two Tenney children and for the two small children of the Hon. Cullen Sawtelle, Henrietta and Charles,16 who came to the Tenney house for lessons.

Miss Dunlap went directly from Norridgewock to act as governess for James Russell Lowell's little daughter Mabel, and shortly after married the poet. Mrs. Hathaway, after a period of more than seventy years, reviews with pleasure the happy hours spent with the young teacher, and says of her, "She was an uncommonly beautiful and lovable young woman and we children just adored her." Mrs. Hathaway also speaks with much feeling of her father's loving care of her in her childhood and recalls many a time of returning home on a cold winter's night to find her bed heated for her with an old-fashioned warming pan. He used to say that he had no enemy that he hated badly enough to want him to sleep cold.

Miss Sarah Clark recalls Judge Tenney as a regular attendant at the village church and says of him: "In my early days I loved to watch him in winter, clad in a long, black broadcloth cloak fastened by a metal clasp, as he walked with stately stride up the aisle to his seat in one of the central body pews."

Judge Tenney's love for his native town was quite unusual and nothing delighted his soul better than to tell some of the stories connected with the scenes of his boyhood. When he was a lad it was customary to carry on family worship, even when the head of the household was not gifted in prayer. He was fond of relating in his manhood days a form of family prayer habitually used by a worthy old gentleman who lived not far from his father's farm:

Bless me and bless my body,
Bless my wife and bless Molly,
Bless Thomas and prosper him,
Bless Dudley and his offspring,
Bless Sol in his store
And bless Sally forevermore. Amen.

A tender attachment that years could not weaken bound him to his birthplace. Byfield17 was to him the "Sweet Auburn" in Goldsmith's "Deserted Village."

Judge Tenney "still had hopes, his long vexations past,
Here to return and die at home at last."

He always18 reserved one room in the ancestral home for his own occupancy. The same old furniture tall clock and straight back chairs, remained intact till long after his death. Some of the old inhabitants of Byfield recall his noble figure as he sat in pew No. 41 when he chanced to spend a Sunday in his native town. Judge Tenney died Aug. 23, 1869, and is buried in the family lot at Byfield.

Such was Judge Tenney the man, the scholar, the citizen, who, for almost half a century, spoke words of wisdom and kindness to those about him, until they became a part of the very constitution of society. That part of the man can never die, we shall see his influence upon a younger fellow-townsman, who shortly after followed in his footsteps.

* * *

The influence of Judge Tenney's life bore fruit near home, for next door to him and right under the shadow of the Court House, another master of the law was growing into manhood.

Charles Danforth, the sixth son of Israel and Sally (Wait) Danforth, was born at the Danforth Hotel, August 1, 1815. The family is of English origin. His ancestors came to America in 1634. One of them, Thomas Danforth,20 was an associate Justice of the Supreme Court under the charter of 1691.

Young Danforth was self-reliant and resourceful from his youth upward. His older brothers and sisters always liked to tell the story of his falling from a boat that was moored on the banks of the Kennebec River not far from his home. He was only four years old and no help was at hand. A few minutes later, however, dripping from head to foot, he appeared before his frightened mother, who asked him how he got out. "Why I went kick and paw like the dog" was his ready response.

It was his delight as a young boy to watch the pomp and ceremony attendant on court proceedings, for there was much more splendor then than now. On the morning of the opening of court, two officers bearing poles (their badges of office), used to appear at the Hotel and escort the Judge to the Court House. All this, together with listening to the most able lawyers of the county by day and dreaming of it all by night, was quite enough to turn his naturally legal mind to the study of law as his life work.

His playfellows, too, were boys of unusual minds who gave promise of high hopes for the future. Squire Allen's sons, Charles and Stephen,21 were his constant companions. With them he fished and roamed through the woods, forming then perhaps his love for Nature which afforded him so much pleasure and relaxation from labor in later years.

Charles Allen's dream when a boy of nine years has always been a favorite story in both the Danforth and the Allen family.

The two lads were walking past the Court House when young Allen suddenly said: "Charles, I dreamed last night that you were Judge in that Court House and I opened the court with prayer." As neither of the boys had formed any definite plans for the future, the statement was rather startling and for the time was soon forgotten. It proved, however, to be a forecast of coming events, for many years after, while Judge Danforth was holding court in his native town, Dr. Tappan, the Congregational minister, was away from home. The Sheriff in charge was somewhat disaffected with Parson Nugent, the Baptist minister. What was to be done? The court could not open properly without prayer. The Sheriff heard that Dr. Charles Allen had arrived at Squire Allen's the evening before. Here was his chance. Without consulting the Presiding Justice, he escorted Dr. Allen to the court house. As they entered he asked the minister if he wouldn't like to meet the Judge, who had arrived early and was in his room. He assented and the two men met face to face. After a lapse of half a century, the dream of the boy had come true.

Judge Danforth's early education began in the village school of his native town; later he attended Bloomfield Academy and then became a student in Judge Tenney's law office at the same time that Mr. Noah Woods was there; the two became fast friends and were afterwards law partners in Gardiner, Maine.

The young lawyer settled in Gorham, Maine, and remained there two years. During this time he made one legal contract that was permanent; he became engaged to Miss Julia J. Dinsmore22 of Norridegwock, a young woman of unusual beauty and personal charms, whom he had known from early childhood. With the prospect of increased responsibilities, a larger field for professional work was desirable and with this idea in view the young people settled permanently in Gardiner, Maine. For ten years a law-partnership existed under the name of Danforth and Woods, until Mr. Woods retired from legal practice.

Various offices of trust came to Mr. Danforth in Gardiner such as member of the school board, selectman of the town, etc. When Gardiner became a city in 1850, he was elected a member of the common council, acting as president of the same for three years. In 1849 he was nominated by the Whig party as representative to State Legislature and served during the sessions of 1850-1-2, during which time he was a member of the Judiciary Committee and Chairman of the Insane Hospital Committee. In 1855 he was a member of Governor Anson P. Morrill's Council and in 1857 again represented Gardiner in the Legislature, for the second time serving on the Judiciary Committee.

In 1858 he was elected County Attorney and almost unanimously re-elected in 1861. In 1864 he received an appointment as Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court which by three re-appointments upon the expiration of the terms, he continued to hold till the day of his death. The principal part of Judge Danforth's life work consisted in the faithful discharge of the duties of this high office and since his reputation and fame rest upon this, it is fitting to review some of his legal work.

"His formal published opinions number three hundred and thirty-five and present a remarkable range.23 Some thirty of them have passed into the list of oft-cited cases a good test of his judicial powers and their value as precedents."

Ever since Maine became a state there have been laws for the assessment and collection of State, County and Municipal taxes on real estate. But until the year 1870, the prescribed rules of law had never been sufficiently followed in assessing taxes and taking the necessary steps for the sale of real estate to enforce payment thereof, so that a sale for non-payment of taxes was held by the Courts to be valid.

In 1870, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine upheld the tax-title in the action of Greene against Lunt (town of Peru, Oxford County). Judge Danforth drew the opinion of the Court and this has been the leading case in Maine on the question of tax titles. In his opinion regarding the case of Greene against Lunt24 the Judge says the collector must obtain his information from the assessment, which must be complete in and of itself as much as a deed or contract. The description in the assessment of many of the lots sold is defective and insufficient. One is described as one half island whether an undivided half or not does not appear, or if undivided no means are furnished by which we can ascertain which half is intended.

Such a description is plainly insufficient in a tax title, when the lien is fixed by the assessment and nothing is left to the discretion of the collector or purchaser as to the location of the lot sold. Under such a description the person assessed could not tell whether it was his property or that of a stranger which was taxed, nor could the purchaser have sufficient knowledge of the identity of the land to enable him to bid intelligently. Therefore as to these lots the action must fail, but for the lots whose identity is fixed, the plaintiff must have judgment, but for those which the person assessed could not tell whether it was his property or that of a stranger the judgment is for the defendant.

Judge Danforth's Home in Gardiner
Birthplace of
Judge Danforth

Judge Danforth's manner of procedure in court always created a clean, wholesome judicial atmosphere, characterized by good common sense. The absence of catch phrases, the direct and manly way at which he arrived at conclusions, sometimes caused him to be accused of having a commonplace style. But commonplace, when used with aptness, is always the most telling thing in a judicial opinion.

An intimate friend of his once said: "His pages are like the air we breathe. There is little color, little variety, but there is an interior harmony and fitness about them not unlike a constant quantity in an algebraic formula."

Chief Justice Peters,25 his life-long friend, speaks thus in analyzing his characteristic qualities: "He was a very helpful associate in judicial consultations. He never allowed first impressions or first expressions to hold him to indefensible positions; never being so wedded to his own opinions as to love them better than he loved the truth. * * * Such a man often possesses an unusual degree of what may be called reserve power, a power only occasionally called into action a power behind power the waters that linger in the eddy until some condition arises to sweep them into the general stream. He possessed such power."

By reason of Judge Danforth's sound judgment in the affairs of his legal profession, Bowdoin College, in 1858, conferred upon him the honorary degree of A.M. This degree meant more to him than it would to the majority of men who might receive that honor, because he had never had the advantage of an A.B. from any college. The honor came unsought and was a recognition of the ability of a self-made man.

But outside the affairs of state, Judge Danforth had natural and cultivated tastes. He was a discriminating reader and enjoyed not only serious books, but inclined also to the lighter romances and poetry. He was especially fond of Tennyson and could repeat with rare enjoyment both to himself and his listeners long poems from that author. It was his delight, in the evening twilight after the long, arduous business tasks of the day, to gather his family about him and recite poems from his favorite authors. "Those Evening Bells" always entered into some part of the evening's entertainment. These tastes brought out the genial side of his nature; the lighter pleasures of the evening acted as a fitting complement to the sterner tasks of the day.

His seriousness never allowed him to indulge much in humor, but he often spoke of his experience as Justice of the Peace, and used to say that he never married but two couples and that before a year had elapsed he had occasion to divorce them both.

In his personal appearance Judge Danforth was most prepossessing. He was almost six feet tall, standing always erect, with pleasing address and easy manners. His complexion bore the of good health and temperate living; he was unaffected and true in every fibre of his being and simple in all his tastes.

The late Orville D. Baker26, thus eulogizes him: "His dress, his speech, all his pleasures were quiet and modest. Simple himself he loved most the things that were simple, Nature and his God, and he lived very close to both. Long walks in the woods and by the streams, long looks at the mountains and the sky brought him that deep refreshment which others vainly seek from cards and wine. * * * Above all he was a gentleman, I do not know that anyone ever heard him speak harshly and I am certain that no man ever did or could speak harshly to him. Even his learning of which he had accumulated much, sat softly on him and in all his living gentleness became him like a flower."

Judge Danforth's love for his native town was as strong as ever Judge Tenney's had been for his. He never missed an opportunity of going back to Norridgewock. One afternoon coming up from Gardiner a gentleman greeted him on the train and inquired where he was going. He replied: "I am going up home tonight." "Why," said the man, "I thought you lived in Gardiner." "I live in Gardiner," said the Judge, "but my home is in Norridgewock."

Judge Danforth was stricken with pneumonia while attending court in Skowhegan and died March 30, 1890, at his home in Gardiner. At his request he was carried to Norridgewock for his final resting place and laid beneath the old oak tree near the bank of the Kennebec river, so dear to his heart. He was survived by one son, Frederic Danforth, a well known civil engineer, who served his city as Mayor during the years 1901-2, and was State Railroad Commissioner, 1894-1900. Mr. Frederic Danforth died June 6, 1913.

Judge Danforth Weighing His First Grandchild

Judge Danforth lived to see great changes in his native town. For, over sixty years court had been held in Norridgewock, but suddenly there came rumors of the ambitions of an adjoining town to become the shire town of the county. When court was held the lawyers around the Franklin stove in the little office of the Danforth Hotel and threshed out the pros and cons of the removal of the court to Skowhegan.

It was argued that Skowhegan was a larger town; that she was more centrally located; that she could boast of a railroad;27 that ex-Governor Coburn had offered the gift of a court house.

While Norridgewock had none of these inducements to offer she still felt that possession was nine points of the law and one lawyer drily remarked that it would be a great mistake to locate the court house any further from the Danforth Hotel than it now stood. But the pressure brought to bear was too strong and in 1872 the March term of court was held in Skowhegan. Shortly after, the Danforth Hotel sign was taken down and the house has remained ever since a private residence, but always kept in the Danforth family.

Such was the life of these two noted men of Norridgewock; unlike in personal appearance, but in the essentials that go to make up the real man, as much alike as father and son. With both these men the love of justice and truth was inborn and their moral nature worked in unison with the intellectual. Each man acted well the part given to him by the State to perform.

Their lives were well lived, well ended, a success to themselves and a blessing to others. The Norridgewock of today has good reason to point with pride to these two sons who, for terms aggregating forty-seven years, so creditably performed their duties in the highest judicial offices the State of Maine could offer. No other town in Somerset county and but few cities in the whole State can boast of such a record. No particular reason can be assigned for Norridgewock 's good fortune, we take it as a natural course of events and thank God for it.


1 There were eleven in his class. Professor Packard, for over fifty years teacher and professor at Bowdoin College, was a classmate.

2 The two candidates for Governor were Edward Kent (Whig) and Gorham Parks (Democrat). In the official count Edward Kent received 34,358, Gorham Parks received 33,879.

3 For my knowledge of Judge Tenney's rise in his profession, I am indebted to his fellow townsman and contemporary Judge Danforth, in the Maine Report, Volume LVI, appendix pages 594-596.

4 Maine Report, Volume LVI. Appendix. page 596.

5 State Senator 1864 and 1865.

6 The Green Bag, Volume VII. page 510.

7 Mrs. Hathaway, Judge Tenney's daughter, is my authority for Judge Tenney's part in the North East Boundary controversy.

8 Overseer of the College 1842-1849. Trustee of the College 1849-1869.

9 The authorities of Bowdoin College can find no trace of this paper ever being published.

10 John Searle Tenney and Hannah Dennis were married at Ipswich, Massachusetts, in February, 1831.

11 Martha Jane was born Sept. 21 1832; married Joshua Warren Hathaway April 30, 1860. Samuel William, born March 10, 1834, died June 23, 1864.

12 His sister, Emily Ballard, was the first Preceptress of the Female Academy, established in 5837, at Norridgewock.

13 William G. Barrows afterwards became Judge of the Supreme Court from 1863-1884.

14 The Aroostook War was caused by a dispute in 1837 over the boundary line between Maine and New Brunswick. It was finally settled by arbitration.

15 Her sister, Miss Elizabeth Dunlap, had previously been a preceptress at the Female Academy in Norridgewock.

16 Miss Henrietta Sawtelle now resides in Inglewood, New Jersey.

Charles Sawtelle graduated from West Point in 1854. Brevet Brigadier-General U. S. Army March 13, 1865, for "Faithful and meritorious services in the Quartermaster's Department during the war." Died at Washington, D. C., January 4, 1913.

17 The story of Byfield by John Louis Ewell, page 204.

18 The Tenney Family by M. J. Tenney, page 069.

19 [skipped in original text]

20 The Green Bag, Volume VII., page 460.

21 Charles Allen was president of the Maine State College, 1871-1878. Stephen Allen was principal of the Maine Wesleyan Seminary, Kents Hill, Maine, from 1841-4. Presiding elder of the Augusta district from 1879-1883. He wrote several books. "The History of Methodism in Maine" was one of

the most important.

22 Charles Danforth married Julia J. Dinsmore at Norridgewock in 1845.

23 The Green Bag "The Supreme Court of Maine," written by General Charles Hamlin. Volume VIII, page 112.

24 Greene vs. Lunt, 58 Maine, 518.

25 Maine Report, Volume LXXXII, page 592. Published by Loring, Short & Harmon.

26 Maine Report, Volume LXXXII, page 587-8.

27 The railroad first came to Skowhegan in 1856.

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