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.

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