Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From our legal department: about Gansevoort Melville's autograph on the old Common Pleas Roll

New York, NY about 1842 / Image Credit: AES Online
An 1897 article in the New York Sun lists the name of Herman Melville's older brother Gansevoort among "noteworthy autographs" entered on "sundry loose foolscap sheets containing signatures of the attorneys who had been specially admitted to the bar in the Common Pleas between the years 1823 and 1846." Retired court clerk Nathaniel Jarvis, Jr. is credited with having the loose sheets bound in one volume, eventually to be placed (the writer of the article speculates) with the"Bar Institute."

OK, we need our lawyer now. Would that be the New York City Bar Association, or something like it? Does this volume of the old Common Pleas Roll now exist? Where? Maybe it's in the New York City Department of Records. Historic records including some Common Pleas archives are held at the Division of Old Records at 31 Chambers Street.

The lengthy 1897 tally of "noteworthy" names on the old Common Pleas Roll includes (for 1842, between Aaron Vanderpoel, Sr. and Richard B. Kimball):
"Gansevoort Melville, honored in Tammany Hall."
Wonderful and surprising, really, to find Gansevoort remembered this late as a Tammany orator.

One early and illustrious signature on the Common Pleas roll is "the cramped autograph of Charles Fenno Hoffman, who soon gave up law for literature, and wrote lyrics and songs." Other friends of Herman Melville with autographs entered in the roll are Cornelius Mathews (1837), Theodore E. Tomlinson (remembered as "the young man eloquent of the bar"), and George L. Duyckinck (1846).

The 1897 New York Sun article titled THE COMMON PLEAS ROLL is available via Fulton History:

The same old roll was described by James Wilton Brooks in his 1896  History of the Court of Common Pleas of the City and County of New York:
The original roll of the Court from 1821 to 1848, during which period every aspirant to the bar of the City of New York had first to be admitted to practice in the Common Pleas, shows almost every New York name which was prominent at that period, whether in the legal, social or business world. In those days every would-be lawyer had to pass several examinations before he was admitted to full practice.
He was first admitted to the Common Pleas as attorney at law. After three years of active practice he applied for admittance as counsellor at law to the Supreme Court. He had also to pass a special and supposedly equally thorough examination in the Court of Chancery.  (28-29)
Brooks in his Preface mentions having contributed the May 19, 1895 report for the NY Sun on the "End of the Common Pleas," so possibly he also wrote the 1897 Sun article that mentions Gansevoort Melville. Then again, the Sun writer's considerable knowledge of long-gone lawyers suggests an older writer or accomplice--perhaps A. Oakey Hall.

As reported also in the 1897 NY Sun article, Brooks's 1896 History notes that besides promising to uphold the Constitution, attorneys had to take the anti-duelling oath and swear never to participate “directly or indirectly in any duel.”

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