Cooperstown, Otsego, NY
AMBROSE L. JORDAN
This distinguished lawyer and eloquent advocate was born in Hillsdale, Columbia Co., N. Y., in the year of 1791. His father was a farmer of Scotch-Irish descent, who, possessing a very strong physical constitution, and endowed with superior judgement, lived to a very advanced age, and was always held in high esteem by his neighbors. The son, having received the limited education of a common school, was at an early age set to work on the paternal acres; but it soon became apparent that agricultural labor was not his proper vocation, and, after some futile trails in farming, whereby it was demonstrated that he had a strong taste for study and books, but was incurably indolent as a worker on the farm, his father wisely determined to permit the boy to work out his career in the way indicated by his own wishes.
He was sent to an academy, where he soon acquired as much Latin, and other miscellaneous learning, as could then be obtained in such an institution. For several months h sought to recruit his limited finances by teaching a school himself. As soon as he could command the means to pay his board he entered a law-office in Albany, where he distinguished himself by the closest attention to study and office business, and, by the intelligent performances of extra duties, was able to provide, in a great degree, for his own support. Having been admitted to the bar in the year of 1813, he commenced the practice of law at the village of Cooperstown, having formed a copartnership with Farrand Stranahan, Esq., who was an established lawyer at that place. At the time he thus commenced the serious business of life, Mr. Jordan was only about twenty-two years of age. He was quite six feet in height, was slight and graceful in figure, had regular, oval features, a profusion of brown natural curls, expressive blue eyes, and a complexion as fine as a woman's. His voice was not loud nor particularly powerful, but it was most agreeable in quality, and had a distinct carrying force which always enabled him to be heard in the largest and most crowded court-rooms. He had great powers of endurance, and could work many hours a day for consecutive weeks, without any apparent signs of fatigue. In long and exciting trials, in the heat and foul air of crowded courts, he was always able to appear fresh and strong, when other distinguished advocates became worn out and exhausted. He had a natural command of language. In extemporaneous speaking his sentences were regular and complete; he never hesitated for the appropriate word; he had a natural aptitude for going to the bottom of any subject, and when an adverse witness had been cross-examined by him, the witness was like a sponge squeezed dry. His methods of managing a cause, examining witnesses, and summing up the evidence were exhaustive and complete. When he had finished his address to a jury no point was left unnoticed, no argument failed to be duly elaborated, and nothing further could be said with effect.
Several anecdotes are still remembered in connection with Mr. Jordan's career at Cooperstown, which give an insight into the character of the man. He hated all unfairness, and would not submit himself to extortion or imposition. Having gone to a neighboring town in Otsego county to try a cause in a justice's court, on his return home in the early evening his wagon broke down. There was some snow on the ground, and just after the accident happened a farmer drove up in a lumber sleigh. Mr. Jordan asked if he would assist him to get to Cooperstown, some five miles distant. The man replied that he would, and then the two put the broken wagon on the sleigh, and leading the disengaged horse, drove on to Cooperstown. No bargain had been made as to compensation, and when Mr. Jordan inquired what he should pay, the sharp farmer replied, naming a sum that was very extortionate. Mr. Jordan was annoyed, but calmly stated that the pay demanded was three times as much as the service was worth; that rather than any hard feelings about the matter, he would pay double price, but no more. The offer was refused, and the farmer departed, breathing threats. Within a very few days a summons was served on Mr. Jordan to appear before a justice, who was a near neighbor and friend of the farmer. On the trial the justice gave judgment for the plaintiff for the full amount of his claim, and costs. As soon as the law would permit, execution was issued on this judgment, and placed in the hands of the deputy-sheriff for collection. Mr. Jordan managed to have information of the coming of the officer to collect this judgment. Mr. Stranahan, the law-partner of Mr. Jordan, was the owner of a handsome gold watch and chain, which for that occasion Mr. Jordan borrowed, and hung up conspicuously on a nail on the front of a deck at which he was writing. That being done, the officer came in and told Mr. Jordan he had an execution against him. Mr. Jordan said he did not intend to pay it. "Then." Said the officer, "my duty requires me to levy on your property, and I shall take this," at the same time taking the watch and putting it into his pocket. Mr. Jordan said to the officer, "My friend, I advise you to put back the watch. If you do not you will get yourself into trouble." The man, thinking he was quite safe, left the office, taking with him the watch. With all possible expedition a writ and other papers in a replevin suit were prepared in a suit of Stranahan against the deputy-sheriff. The sheriff of the county was found, the replevin writ put his hands, which he at once served on the deputy, took back the watch and delivered it to the owner. The deputy-sheriff called on the farmer to indemnify him in the replevin suit, which he felt compelled to do. The result of the affair, which was soon arrived at, was this; the plaintiff succeeded in the replevin suit, the costs of which amounted to over one hundred dollars. The judgment obtained by the extortionate farmer was about twenty dollars, and he finally had to pay over to Mr. Jordan, as Stranahn's attorney, the difference between these sums. The attempted imposition was amply punished.
At the period referred to, and, indeed, all though life, Mr. Jordan was sensitive in regard to public opinion, and the following story, as related by himself, illustrates that feeling: "After I had settled at Cooperstown, but before I was much known in Otsego County, I had occasion to go to Albany to attend a special term of the supreme court. My friend, the cashier of the Otsego County bank, who know of my intention, requested me to take a sum of money,--I think it was $1800,--to be deposited in a bank in Albany. I agreed to take it, and the money was counted in my presence, separated into parcels of $100 each, and the whole nicely put in a package. I received the money, and with my satchel of law papers was conveyed in due time to Albany. Before going to court the morning after my arrival I thought I would deliver the money at the Albany bank. The moment I looked at the package I saw that it had been tampered with. Examining it hastily, I found that one parcel of $100 had been abstracted. The loss was a serious one to me at that time, but I decided in a moment what it was proper for me to do. I went out to the office of a friend, borrowed $100, put it into the package, and hurried to the bank and deposited the whole amount which had been intrusted to me. I said nothing to the officers of the Otsego County bank about this loss, or to any one else except the kind friend who lent me that money to replace it, and secrecy was enjoined upon him."
A peculiarity of Mr. Jordan--an unfortunate one in some respects, as it caused him to labor a large portion of his life for those who never paid for his services--was this, that having once enlisted in a cause nothing could detach him from his client. Whether he was paid anything or not, he went through to the end of the controversy. He was often imposed upon by unfortunate or unworthy clients.
While practicing at Cooperstown he became the legal guardian of certain minors, who ha a presumptive title to a military lot of 600 acres, situate in a central county of the State of New York. The lot was in the possession of another party, holding adversely. An action at law was brought by Mr. Jordan to recover this property. Upon examination it was found that the evidence to support the claim of the plaintiffs was very defective; and particularly that one witness, who had knowledge of decisive facts, was imperatively necessary. That witness, when inquiry came to be made, could not be found. He had disappeared. The time for the trial of the ejectment suit was approaching, when Mr. Jordan determined that he would not be beaten in it if any possible effort on his part could prevent it. Having only a slight clue as to persons with whom the missing witness was connected, Mr. Jordan set out with his own horse and wagon from Coopestown, drove to Albany, then to Columbid county, making minute inquiry by the way; then to Dutchess county, where some slight information was obtained; then to New York city, and finally to a small hamlet on Long Island, where the desired witness was found, and his attendance secured for the trial. Mr. Jordan hastily returned home, and had barely time to reach the circuit court where the cause was to be tried. By the aid of the witness thus found, the title of Mr. Jordan's wards to the lot in question was established. He had devoted much time to examination and preparation of the case, had spent fifteen days in hunting up the missing witness, and five days more in attending the circuit court, and he was successful.
When Mr. Jordan's accounts as guardian came to be settled, the law permitted him to change against his wards the items of money actually paid out on their account, but nothing for is professional services. For all his time, trouble, and skill in the affair, he never received a cent of compensation.
The professional progress of Mr. Jordan was rapid and solid, and in two or three years he became acknowledged leader of the Otsego County bar. Soon after he had settled at Cooperstown, he married Miss Cornelia Caroline Phillips, of Claverack, Columbia Co., N. Y., and of this marriage the issue in subsequent years were six children, three of whom have died, and three at the present time (1887) survive.
In the year 1820 he determined to return to his native county, and accordingly established his law-office in the city of Hudson, where he remained in full and successful practice for the next eighteen years. The first difficulty to be encountered at the Columbia county bar by any one aspiring to a prominent position as an advocate, was, that it became necessary to meet and contend with Elisha Williams, who had long held almost undisputed sway in the courts of that district. Mr. Williams was than in the full maturity of his wonderful powers, and then and ever since considered by three most competent to form a judgment on such a subject, the greatest jury lawyer ever produced by the United States. He was certainly the best actor the writer has ever seen on any stage. He commanded with equal effect the springs of laughter and of tears. The most stoic of judges could with difficulty resist the spell of his eloquence, and ordinary juries seemed to delight in being quite carried away with it. It was against this colossus of the law-courts that Mr. Jordan was at once brought into antagonism, and it is still remembered to his credit that he did not shrink from the encounter. Indeed it soon became an established fact in the courts of Columbia and the neighboring counties, that Mr. Williams could no longer succeed in winning a bad cause when he was opposed by the, painstaking methods, and ready eloquence of Mr. Jordan. They were generally employed on opposite sides, and tried all the contested cases on the calendar.
On one important occasion the writer remembers that Williams and Jordan were employed on the same side for he plaintiff. A suit was brought to collect an ordinary note, which note the defendant alleged to be a forgery. From the notable position of the parties, the question was discussed with much bitterness of feeling, and public opinion was convulsed on the subject. A the trial in Columbia county, a New York city judge presided, and a city lawyer was the leader for the defense, with half a dozen other counsel to aid him. The judge was somewhat deaf, and that gave the plaintiff's counsel opportunity to keep up a fire of jokes at the expense of the judge and the opposing counsel within hearing of the jury, but unheard by the court, which tended to and did greatly prejudice the jury against the defendant and in favor of the plaintiff. The cause was easily won for the plaintiff, and the judgement was finally collected. Many persons, however, continued to think that the superiority of the plaintiff's counsel rather than the justice of his case secured the verdict. Upon the retirement of Mr. Williams from actual practice a few year after Mr. Jordan settled in Hudson, Mr. Jordan became the acknowledged leader of the Columbia county bar, and retained the position until he finally removed from Hudson. Some years before that event he became introduced to a New York city audience by a peculiar suit at law, which then attracted much attention by reason of its novelty. A young house-painter at Hudson was engaged to be married to a young lady of the same city, whose father was possessed of considerable property. The lady happened to make the acquaintance of a merchant In New York, whom she (and her father also) considered a more eligible parti, and when he offered he was accepted, and the house-painter was thorn over. The mechanic did not rest satisfied with this arrangement. He consulted Mr. Jordan, who brought an action against the fickle fair one and her husband. The cause was tied at a circuit court in the city of New York, attracted great public attention, and was fully reported. The defense was conducted by henry R. Storrs, Esq., an advocate of very distinguished reputation; but, in spite of all his efforts, the jury found a verdict of $1000 for the plaintiff, which was considered, in view of all the adverse circumstances, a great triumph.
In the spring of 1838, Mr. Jordan, with his law-partner, Edward Clark, Esq., removed from Hudson to he city of New York. From May, 1838, to the spring of 1860, Mr. Jordan was continuously engaged in the practice of this profession in the city of New York, with the exception for two years, during which he filled the office of attorney-general of the State of New York, and had his official residence in Albany. During this long period of twenty-two years he was retained and prominently engaged in a large proportion of the severely litigated causes which occupied the courts of New York.
It is impossible in a sketch like this to allude to the many important trials of causes in which he took a conspicuous part. It will be sufficient to say that he was opposed from time to time, and almost constantly, to the foremost advocates at the New York city bar. His success in those forensic struggles was satisfactory to his clients and himself, and was equal to his distinguished reputation for ability and eloquence.
Mr. Jordan was always too much engrossed wit his professional labors to have time or inclination to accept political office. But his views in regard to political parties and governmental policies were always distinct, and were freely avowed and advocated. Besides holding the office of attorney-general, as before stated, he was at one time elected to the senate of the State of New York, but resigned the office before the end of his term. He was also a member of a convention to revise the constitution of the State of New York, and served in that capacity with much industry and ability.
After a painful and lingering illness, Mr. Jordan, died at his residence in the city of New York, on July 16, 1865. (The History of Otsego, NY, by Duane Hamilton Hurd, 1878)
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Transcribed by Holice B. Young
Copyright Debbie Axtman and Holice B. Young
December 24, 1999