The Judge Builds a House

Watercolor of the Fullerton House by Mary Evelyn Whitehill (1920-2012)

It is an unfortunate coincidence that 1868 was the year in which ex-Judge Fullerton found himself accused of extortion and criminal conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Treasury.

From the New York Times, March 10, 1869

At the beginning of 1868, ex-Judge William S. Fullerton was 52 years old. He was not yet famous — that would not come until 1875 — but highly respected among New York City’s elite trial lawyers. It had been a long hard slog for the former farm-boy from rural Wawayanda. In the twin, Thornton Niven-designed courthouses of Newburgh and Goshen they remembered him as the “Orange County Cyclone,” but he had long since moved his practice to the ever-expanding metropolis, while parking his wife and two children sixty miles up the river in Newburgh.

Thornton Niven Courthouse in Newburgh

Thornton Niven Courthouse in Goshen

Modesty was not expected in successful Gilded Age circles. It was time to provide Cornelia, Gussie and Willie with a comfortable home that would also announce that Judge Fullerton had arrived.

The lot was carefully selected, roughly 1.5 acres on a slight rise west of Grand Street, which at the time offered sweeping views of the Hudson River in a neighborhood that was dotted with architectural gems. Only one block to the North, A.J. Downing’s picturesque Gothic mansion, Highland Gardens, was still standing, although its visionary creator had died in a steamboat accident in 1852.

Long-vanished Highland Gardens (early 20th century photo)
“View from Ruggle’s House, Newburgh,” William Bartlett, Hand-colored Engraving

William Hilton was a carpenter/builder who lacked formal training as an architect, but made rich use of the models that were available. The Fullerton’s house can best be described as Italianate-eclectic, (The front porch was added some 50 years later, by patent-medicine king Harry Cathcart. We will get to him in due course.) Although the house interior has suffered from the ravages of the time, and the original furnishings and wall paper have long since disappeared, surviving details suggest a great deal of expense and careful attention to decor.

We know very little about Cornelia, but one of her grandfathers had been a respected Judge in the Revolutionary War period (when Judge Fullerton’s ancestors were barely eking out a living and coping with Indian raids) so she likely had her own ideas about status and style. New York’s Victorian ideal held that the woman was the ruler of her domestic sphere. Some of the surviving features, like the ornate white marble fireplace in the salon and the nature-themed (grapes and morning glory) crown molding in the dining room should be viewed as her surviving contribution.

Dining Room, with Crown Molding
Marble Fireplace

The salon features remarkable acoustics, and music must have played an important role in their home life. A well-bred young lady like Gussie (and her own daughter Daisy) was expected to learn an instrument, and singing around the piano with friends and extended family must have filled many evenings. Prosperous Newburgh had its own musical instrument dealers and sheet music publishers in the now-vanished business district along Water Street.

The Fullerton Music Room

Willie obviously showed early promise as a musician and composer — his earliest surviving piece is a waltz dated 1871 — the year in which he turned 17.

Silver Strains, courtesy of the Library of Congress
View from Library

For those weekend visits home, the Judge had his sanctum. At the end of the long formal hall, a curved, Moorish-revival doorway opens into a small but dignified library/study, with dark wood bookshelves and a fireplace. The room features its own overhanging arch, which frames the windows looking out onto the gardens behind the house.


From the apex of the central bookcase, a carved monogram “F” reminds us of the now forgotten lawyer who had little doubt of his own importance.

“F” for Fullerton

Becoming Judge Fullerton

President Chester Alan Arthur in Yellowstone (1883)

On a quiet evening, it can be pleasant to lose yourself (like Edgar Allan Poe) in a “quaint and curious volume” of 19th century New York local history.   

Unfortunately, genuine historical facts are often found floating randomly in a sepia-tinted haze of folklore.  

Take, for example, the summary of William Fullerton’s judicial career in Chapman Publishing Company’s 1895 history of Orange County:

In 1867, while in Canada on his annual salmon-fishing trip in company with Chester A. Arthur and other friends, he was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy in his district, this being without his knowledge. The appointment thus made him ex-officio member of the Court of Appeals, and at the following election the people of this district elected him without opposition. His services in the Court of Appeals added to his reputation as an advocate and jurist.

True: In August 1867, following an elected judge’s death, Fullerton was temporarily appointed by Governor Reuben Fenton to a Supreme Court post, which under the system in effect at the time, also placed him on New York’s prestigious Court of Appeals.  

19th century Seal
Charles O’Conor

False:  That he was elected for the next term or built a reputation as a jurist. What might have been is another story entirely.  Biographical sketches reproduce letters exchanged between two of Fullerton’s closest associates —  John K. Porter and Charles O’Conor. Fifteen years earlier, an invitation to become O’Conor’s law partner was the reason for Fullerton’s professional move from Newburgh to Manhattan.  Notoriously solitary and irascible, O’Conor was considered by many to be the greatest trial lawyer of his era. Porter’s career had many parallels to Fullerton’s.  They were classmates at Union College (class of 1838), although Fullerton never graduated. In 1867, Porter was a full member of the Court of Appeals, but had decided to return to the financial rewards of private practice. 

The letters discuss O’Conor’s and Porter’s unsuccessful effort to persuade Fullerton to seek the Court of Appeals position that Porter was giving up. Both felt that their mutual friend could make a genuine contribution to that renowned court.  A year later, all three must have looked back with regret.  Porter and O’Conor would soon combine forces again — to defend ex-Judge Fullerton against Federal criminal charges. 

Also false:  That he was away on a salmon fishing trip with future-President Arthur at the time of the appointment. 

21st U.S. President Chester Alan Arthur’s love of fishing was legendary. In 1867, Arthur was beginning to emerge as a force in New York’s Republican political machine, but he was part of a faction that was hostile to Governor Fenton.  It was eight years later, in the summer of 1875, when ex-Judge Fullerton joined Chet and other friends on a salmon fishing vacation in the Canadian wilds.

We know this, because the month-long 1875 fishing trip was memorialized by one of their companions — George Dawson, the politically-connected editor of The Albany Evening Journal.  Dawson had a lighthearted weekly column in the paper, where he wrote up his recreational adventures.  He compiled some of these in his classic homage to fly-fishing — The Pleasures of Angling with Rod and Reel for Trout and Salmon. 

George Dawson, The Pleasures of Angling (1876)

And so generations of fishing aficionados have been treated to a comparison of trial lawyer Fullerton’s fishing techniques with his painstaking courtroom methods, as well as the story of the former Judge’s confused first efforts to haul in a large salmon. There is even a cartoonish illustration of the moment he realizes that he is facing in the wrong direction as the hooked fish breaks water, a long way off.

Dawson, Pleasures of Angling, p. 123

But all the fun was eight years and many scandals down the road from those few months on the bench in 1867.

Probably False: That William Fullerton was unaware of the judicial appointment when it was made. New York state politics was a byzantine universe of connections, rivalries and payback.  And the circumstances around his temporary elevation to the bench remain a mystery.

The horse “Judge Fullerton” driven by Dan Mace

Still, the honorific Judge Fullerton had a nice ring to it.  Hopefully, he was flattered when the owner of a promising young racehorse borrowed the name.  In the mid-1870’s, the equine Judge Fullerton graced the covers of popular sporting magazines and was featured in Currier and Ives illustrations. 

Spirit of the Times, January 13, 1877, Author’s personal collection

Later, his expatriate composer son Willie apparently told his friends and patrons that he was the son of an American Judge.  This description is engraved in the white marble base of Willie’s recently rediscovered monument in a time-hallowed English churchyard. 

Gravesite, William Fullerton, Jr., All Saint’s Churchyard, Crondall, Hampshire County, U.K.