John Worth Edmonds’ Eminent Career

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John Worth Edmonds, who led the founding of the Prison Association of New York, moved among the elite in early nineteenth-century New York. Edmonds attended private schools and prepared for college at the Hudson Academy in Columbia County, New York. After graduating from New York’s Union College in 1816, Edmonds studied law with George Monell, Joseph D. Monell, and Abraham A. Van Buren. George Monell, who resided in Cooperstown, became Chief Justice of Michigan. Joseph Monell, who lived in Hudson (the county seat of Columbia County), was prominent in legal and political affairs. At least the latter, and probably also the former, were sons of Dr. George Monell, a prominent physician who lived in Hudson. George Monell was one of the organizers of the Union Pacific Railroad.^ Abraham Van Buren was Martin Van Buren’s brother. Martin Van Buren grew up in Kinderhook in Columbia County. Martin Van Buren became President of the United States in 1837.

From the fall of 1819 to May, 1820, Edmonds worked as a law clerk for Martin Van Buren in Albany. He lived with Van Buren’s family and became Van Buren’s life-long friend. Edmonds was admitted to the Columbia County Bar in 1820. He then began practicing law in Hudson.

Edmonds participated in a variety of activities over many years in his native place. In 1818, Edmonds became a lieutenant in the 47’th infantry regiment for Columbia County. Edmonds rose to captain by 1821.^ He retired from service in the infantry regiment at the rank of colonial about 1828.^ Edmonds practiced law in Hudson from 1820 through at least 1824. Edmonds was also active in the Democratic Party. In 1824, leading Democratic Party members chose him to be editor of the Hudson Gazette.^ Edmonds served as a vestryman for the Christ Church Parish in Hudson from 1821 to 1824^, commissioner for the construction of a courthouse in Hudson in 1835^, and as the first Chief Engineer for the volunteer Hudson Fire Department until 1837.

Edmonds held important political offices. In 1827, New York Governor De Witt Clinton appointed Edmonds to the office of Recorder of the city of Hudson.^ In 1830, Edmonds was elected as a Democrat to the New York State Assembly. In 1831, he was elected by a large margin to the New York State Senate. He achieved prominence in the Senate. In the Senate, he served on the joint committee on South Carolina’s claim to tariff nullification, as chairman of the Committee on Canals, as chairman of the Bank Committee, on the Court for the Corrections of Errors, and as Senate President. Edmonds was also a leading member of the Albany Regency, an influential political network that Martin Van Buren developed. Edmonds resigned from the New York Senate in 1836 reportedly for health reasons.

Immediately after resigning from the Senate, Edmonds accepted U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s appointment to serve as a United States Commissioner for a peace treaty between the U.S. and the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The summer of 1836 Edmonds spent camping among native Americans. He learned several of their languages. As a United States Commissioner, Edmonds also investigated a disturbance involving the Potawatamie people in Indiana. He took testimony concerning the claims of their creditors and issued a resolution of these claims.

After working in the West on Indian affairs, Edmonds became a successful New York corporate lawyer. In the autumn of 1837, Edmonds moved to New York City and established a law practice there. A biography of Edmonds written in 1851 observed, “He almost immediately found himself in an extensive and profitable business, among the merchant princes of the commercial emporium.”^ In 1838 and 1839, Samuel J. Tilden, another native of Columbia County, served as a law clerk to John Edmonds in New York City. Tilden became a highly successful corporate lawyer, Governor of New York State in 1874, and was nearly elected U.S. President in 1876. Edmonds helped to tutor Tilden in law and spent much time discussing politics with him. Edmonds and Tilden subsequently helped each other develop their careers.^

Edmonds was both industrious and passionate. In his first session as a New York legislator in 1830, Edmonds wrote reports that impressed observers calculated could fill “a printed volume of 600 octavo pages.” Like many bureaucrats, Edmonds was also intensely passionate. In 1831, one of Edmonds political opponents described Edmonds as being in his youth a “violent and determined politician.” Edmonds’ political opponent then tendentiously observed:

But from his present course, it would be supposed that he has tempered his strong feelings, and as the hey-dey of his youth passes away, his judgment will, no doubt, prevail entirely over his feelings. If this should be the case, and he does not lose his praiseworthy industry, he must hereafter stand high among our distinguished men.^

Edmonds remained both industrious and willing to engage in fierce arguments. About the beginning of 1833, Edmonds supported a report denouncing the doctrines of nullification and succession. An observer noted:

This report, when it came up for consideration, was very vehemently assailed by five or six of the strongest men in the senate, and was defended by Mr. E. {Edmonds} alone. The contest lasted nearly a week, resulted in the triumphant adoption of the report, and placed New-York on the high ground, on the side of the Union and its integrity.^

Edmonds, with Samuel Tilden, Martin Van Buren and others, formed about 1842 a staunchly anti-slavery faction that split the Democratic Party. They were called “barnburners” in reference to a farmer who would burn down his barn to get rid of rats inside. As a politician and a lawyer, Edmonds demonstrated that he had the ability and desire to study a subject, develop an informed position, and win support for it.

Edmonds also achieved prominence as a judge. On February 18, 1845, Edmonds was appointed circuit judge for the First Circuit of New York. In June 1847, he was elected to Justice of the New York Supreme Court. The judicial reforms that the Constitutional Convention of 1846 enacted increased the workload of Supreme Court Justices.^ Edmonds’ distinguished himself in this difficult job:

it is remarked by all, that he transacts a greater amount of business, in a given time, than any jurist who has ever been upon the bench in the city of New-York.^

Edmonds was elevated to the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, in 1852. Throughout his judicial career, Edmonds continued to serve in addition as an officer of the Prison Association of New York. By 1853, Edmonds’ private character and judicial repudiation were beyond impeachment, and his “ability, integrity, and judgment were beyond dispute.”^

John Edmonds’ Communicative Practices

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John Edmonds, who led the founding of the Prison Association of New York, had strong non-familial personal relationships. He had a life-long friendship with Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was older and even more politically prominent than Edmonds. Edmonds also cultivated relationships with younger and less prominent persons. A profile of Edmonds in a law journal in 1851 noted:

With the younger members of the bar Judge E. is an especial favorite. He always receives them with words of kindness and encouragement, and hears them with patience. By the rising generation of lawyers – those who must, in a score of years hence, be the masters of the field now occupied by their seniors, he will be long and affectionately remembered^

In 1860, nine of Edmonds’ law students, “wishing to circulate more widely the high intellectual and religious standard that {he} set,” requested that Edmonds publish an “address delivered before us.” The students wrote:

In making this request, though not unmindful of your public career, our hearts turn instinctively to that closer social and scholastic relation which your unlooked-for kindness and beneficence have instituted between us, and which gave rise to the address we now solicit; by reason of the one, you must feel that you are entitled to our highest esteem; in consequence of the other, you know that you enjoy our warmest affection.^

While Edmonds devoted a large amount of time and energy to his career, he evidently also made time to teach young lawyers and win their affection. He in turn valued their friendship. Edmonds’ final wishes included:

I want as bearers at my funeral those who have been students of mine, viz.:

  • Judge Amasa J. Parker of Albany;
  • Judge Claudius I. Monell
  • Samuel J. Tilden
  • Wm. H. Field
  • Samuel G. Jolliffe
  • Thomas Allison, lawyer, New-York
  • Herbert Smalls, lawyer, New-York
  • G. W. Lyon, District Attorney’s Office
  • Charles P. Shaw, lawyer, New-York
  • Israel L. Gosling, lawyer, New-York^

Edmonds undoubtedly had many friends and appreciated friendship.

John Edmonds spent considerable time personally communicating with held and released prisoners. On February 22, 1851, Edmonds explained in a letter to the Executive Committee of the Prison Association:

I have, myself, stood day after day, for hours at a time, at the doors of the cells of the prisoners, listening to the details of human depravity and human suffering, until the sickness of the heart was even more intolerable than the weariness of the body. Still it was a duty which our experience told us ought not to be omitted, and which our Association rigidly exacted from those upon whom they devolved the duty of examination.^

While Edmonds connected this experience of communication to the “duty of examination,” his description highlighted listening rather than examining.

Edmonds also personally communicated with released prisoners. The Recording Secretary of the Prison Association, who had access to Edmonds’ personal papers, stated in a memorial sketch of Edmonds:

A most voluminous correspondence has been preserved, showing his care for and interest in individual cases. Both while on the bench and afterwards, when in full practice at the bar, he hunted up persons who had been discharged; he visited them at their lodgings; he advised with them; he sought out their friends; he obtained for them employment.^

Edmonds tended to depreciate “sentiments of pity and of good will to men”; he favored “sober results rather than emotional or pathetic impressions.” An acclaimed authority on penal reform, Edmonds emphasized science and expertise in treating prisoners:

the care and treatment of criminals…must be pursued upon scientific principles. The reformatory treatment and discipline of criminals is a department of social science.^

Edmonds probably helped to establish in New York about 1872 a system of supervision of released prisoners. The prisoners were required to pledge to follow certain rules, to write a helper every two months, and to report to this person any changes in residence or employment.^ This system was a forerunner of the current parole system.

Edmonds communicated extensively with prisoners, but he described that communication as a matter of duty and science. He considered the ultimate aim of prison reform to be a state in which “prison-keeping and all penal discipline, were in the hands of broad-minded and enlightened experts, free from embarrassing relations to political strife, and the selfish aims and dictation of partisan leaders.”^ That aim reflected the values and interests of elite public reason. That aim biased Edmonds’ understanding of his own communicative practices.

John Edmonds’ Communication with His Dead Wife Sarah

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John Edmonds, a prominent public figure in mid-nineteenth-century America, grieved deeply at the death of his wife Sarah. She died on November 12, 1850.^ John had been married to her for more than thirty years. While he served on the Executive Committee of the Prison Association, his wife “Mrs. J.W. Edmonds” had served on the Executive Committee of the Female Department.^ After Sarah’s death, John described her as having been “the one most near and dear to me on earth.”^ Edmonds subsequently lived at home without any immediate family members present. For a month or two after his wife’s death:

He {Edmonds} slept very little during the time, it frequently occurring that he would not retire to bed at all during the night.^

Edmonds described his condition in January, 1851, thus:

I was at the time withdrawn from general society; I was labouring under great depression of spirits. I was occupying all my leisure in reading on the subject of death, and man’s existence afterwards.^

The Prison Association that John Edmonds had helped to found and lead was at this time engaged in an extended, frustrating, and unsuccessful battle with state prison inspectors over communication with prisoners. Edmonds’ personal and professional circumstances after his wife’s death were conducive to a mental breakdown.

About that time, Edmonds began to communicate with spirits of the dead. In December, 1850, only about a month after his wife Sarah’s death, Edmonds had an experience that most persons could easily image: “he distinctly heard the voice of his wife, speaking a sentence to him.”^ In the presence of a medium in early 1851, Edmonds experienced sensations like those he had probably experienced for years:

I was touched a number of times, first in my neck, by a gentle push, as with the ends of fingers. This was repeatedly done. I was patted on the head many times as if by a gentle female hand. As I sat by the table, I felt a hand gently laid on my head and moved around, and the last touch was several gentle taps on my arm.^

Across the next year, intimate acquaintances perceived spiritual communion with the dead to have transformed Edmonds’ character:

From being irascible and excitable at times, he has become calm and moderate; from being, occasionally, stern and unyielding, he has become kind and gentle; from being a doubter as to the future, he has become well-grounded in the belief of man’s immortality and his redemption through the mercy of God.^

During 1852, more than a year after Edmonds began spiritual communion with the dead, he was, according to a spiritualist source, “calmly adjudicating in the Court of Appeals, at Albany.”^ Other sources provide a much different picture more consistent with Edmonds’ character and full life. Nonetheless, spiritual communion with the dead probably did help Edmonds to cope with his grief, disappointments, and doubts.

Edmonds’ communication with his dead wife allowed him to experience again her presence. Recognizing Edmond’s deep grief after Sarah’s death, Edmonds’ professional colleagues erected a monument in the Hudson cemetery in her memory. The monument, probably inscribed according to Edmonds’ direction, included on one side “an enumeration of her virtues.” At the monument’s base was an epitaph:

Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux
Et fondez vous en eau,
La moitie de ma vie
A mis l’autre au tombeau.
{Weep, weep, my beloved one
And dissolve yourself with tears,
Half of my life
Has put the other half in the grave.}

John did not remarry after Sarah’s death in 1850. In 1873, sick and expecting his imminent death, Edmonds wrote:

I wish to be buried in Hudson, in the same grave with my wife, not by her side, but in the same grave, that our ashes may mingle, and be one on the earth, as our souls will be one in the spirit world.^

Edmonds could communicate in the style of presenting facts of a case or enumerating virtues. But what he seems to have sought in communicating with his wife Sarah was communion — being together.

Edmonds considered spiritual communion with dead family and friends to be possible for everyone. In 1904, a lawyer and local historian who grew up in Hudson wrote of Edmonds:

He had an affection for relatives that had died that seemed almost abnormal. …It is said that Judge Edmonds was often seen standing beside his wife’s grave conversing with her.^

Edmonds himself did not consider his affections and his actions abnormal. Edmonds argued that spiritual intercourse offered “the restoration of our friends to us from beyond the grave”:

Spiritualism teaches that our dear ones deposited in the grave are not separated from us. They are manifesting their warmest affection for us, and demonstrating that that affection, instead of being quenched by the grave, has been augmented and increased by the spiritual life into which the lost ones have entered.^

Fyodor Dostoevsky, who spent four years in a Siberian prison camp, used death as a major figure for imprisonment in his 1860 fictional chronicle, Notes from the House of the Dead. Edmonds’ concern for communication with prisoners may have contributed to his imagination of spiritual communication with the dead.