HON. JOHN TURNER WAIT, NORWICH: Advocate, Jurist, Politician, Statesman.
The subject of this sketch presents so marked a character in contemporary state biography, that the author of these
papers is reluctant to attempt to give, in the brief space to which he is confined, so condensed a history as these
limits require. A full half century in the state's service, with active intellect, earnest purpose, and constant
application, has accomplished what can be scarcely more than hinted at in this brief resume. We must be content,
therefore, to refer chronologically to some of the important events in the life of this distinguished son of Conneaticut,
and leave their more elaborate record to the future historian of the commonwealth.
John Turner Wait was born at New London, Conn., August 27, 1851. He received a mercantile training in early life,
and, leaving that, pssed a year at Bacon Academy, Colchester, and two years at Washington, now Trinity, College,
Hartford, pursuing such studies as would benefit him in the profession he proposed to enter. He studied law with
Hon. L. F. S. Foster and Hon. Jabez W. Huntington, was admitted to the bar in 1836, and commenced to practice at
Norwich, where he has since remained. He was states' attorney for the county of New London in 1842-44 and 1846-54,
and has been president of the Bar Association of that county from its organization in 1874 to the present time.
He was candidate on the democratic ticket for lieutenant governor in 1854, 1855, 1856, and 1857, and with his associates
on the ticket failed of an election. He was the first elector-at-large as a war democrat in 1864, on the Lincoln
and Johnson ticket, the republican state convention nominating him for that position by acclamation. He was a member
of the state senate in i865 and x866, being chairman of the committee on the judiciary both sessions also serving
the last year as president Pro temporal. He was a member of the state house of representatives in 1867, 1871, and
1873, serving as speaker the first year, his party nominating him for the place by acclamation, and subsequently
declining that position, but acting as chairman of the committee on the judiciary on the part of the house, and
serving on other house committees. He was candidate for lieutenant governor on the republican ticket in 1874, but
with his associates on the ticket failed of an election. He received the degree of A.M. from Trinity College in
1851 and from Yale in 1871, and the degree of LL.D. from Howard University in 1883, and from Trinity College in
1886. In 1876 he was elected to the forty fourth congress (to fill the vacancy caused by the death of the Hon.
H. H. Starkweather), and reelected to the forty fifth, forty sixth, forty seventh, forty eighth, and forty ninth
congresses. Subsequently he declined a further renomination. While a member of congress Mr. Wait served on the
committee on commerce, on elections, on foreign affairs, and on several subordinate committees; and wag also one
of the three members of the house associated with three members of the senate, as a joint commission to consider
the existing organizations of the signal service, geological survey,coast and geodetic survey, and the hydrographic
office of the navy department, with a view to secure greater efficiency in those bureaus.
It may also be stated here, that while a member of the house of representatives in 1883 the compliment was bestowed
upon him of an appointment as chairman of the select committee of the house to attend the unveiling of the statue
of Professor Joseph Henry at Washington, his associates on that committee being among the most distinguished and
prominent members of the congressional body thus represented.
As a member of congress Mr. Wait cared for the interests of his constituents with untiring vigilance and zeal.
The extensive industries which give employment to thousand of citizens in the two eastern counties of the state
had in him an intelligent and watchful guardian. As the advocate and friend of home industries he steadily opposed
in Congress every attempt to impair or weaken the laws under which Connecticut manufacturing and mechanical interests
have sprung up and prospered, and gave his support to every measure calculated to advance the commercial, and agricultural
prospects of the State.
During his ten yet of service at Washington he was invariably attentive to the demands made upon his time and consideration
by his constituents in matters affecting their private interests. Courteous and frank toward all who approached
him, he allied men to him by the strongest personal ties, and became universally popular as a consistent representative
and champion of his district and state.
The speeches as well as deeds which marked the congressional career of Mr. Wait, were admirable and effective.
Among those best remembered, perhaps, have been his very elaborate and able tariff speech delivered in April, 1884,
his speech on the Chinese indemnity fund in 1885, and his earlier effort in 1882, when the South Carolina contested
election case of Smalls vs. Tillman was under consideration in the house; also, earlier than either of the preceding,
his speech in the election case from Colorado of Patterson and Belford, delivered December 12, 1877; and that in
a similar case from California, of Wigginton and Pacheco, July 6, 1878, three clear and forcible presentations
of evidence ; and his effectual effort in 1880 for an appropriation for the New London Navy Yard, finally carrying
a bill through giving $20,00o for a building. His address of welcome delivered at Roseland Park in Woodstock on
July 4, 1879, has been characterized as "a gem of oratorical expression and patriotic sentiment;" and
his published eulogy of the late Hon. LaFayette S. Foster, delivered September 28, 1880, before the superior court
at New London on presenting the resolutions adopted by the bar of New London county, bears testimony to the versatility
of his genius, and the depth and sincerity of his friendships. stitutions and trusts in New London county, to refer
in detail to which would require more space than can be given here. Among these may be mentioned his connection,
as trustee, with the Norwich Savings Society, as vice president with the Chelsea Savings Bank, and his directorship
of the Uncas National Bank of that city.
Before entering upon legislative and congressional duties, in the interim between sessions, and since retiring
from public service, Mr. Wait's law practice has been extensive and profitable, his commanding influence at the
bar insuring him all the business that could possibly be attended to. For forty years he was engaged in nearly
all the important cases, civil and criminal, that have come before the New London county courts. His practice has
included scores of important cases, not only in his own county and the state, but before the United States courts,
all of which he conducted in a masterly manner, and was generally able to bring to a successful and satisfactory
termination for his clients. He is still in active practice, in his eightieth year, at his office every day, enjoying
good health, with faculties practically unimpaired. During the past year Mr. Wait has made several public addresses,
all of which were spoken of in very complimentary terms by the press of Norwich. It is believed that there is,
at the time of 'writing this sketch, not another lawyer in this state still in practice who was contemporary with
him in admission to the bar. From his youth up Mr. Wait has been a liberal contributor to the public press. He
was a writer for Greeley's New Yorker in 1839, and when in 1840 C. W. Everest (not then Rev.) prepared a beautiful
gift volume and engaged John Williams (not then Bishop), Mrs. Sigourney, Wm. Jas. Hamersley, Park Benjamin, James
Dixon, Willis Gaylord Clark, Robert Turnbull, Melzar Gardner, and others of the brightest writers of the day to
contribute to it, Mr. Wait's contribution was one of the best of the collection. And now, when a special historical
event is to be written up or an obituary notice of some prominent citizen furnished, his ready pen is the first
one thought of to be called into service.
It should be mentioned that Mr. Wait is one of the corporators of the "W. W. Backus Hospital" of Norwich,
incorporated under the general laws of this state, and organized April 8, 1891, to make available the munificent
gift of W. W. Backus and W. A. Slater for the charitable purpose indicated. He is also president of "The Eliza
Huntington - Memorial Home" for aged and infirm ladies in Norwich, a most worthy institution which was created
by the benefactions of the late Jedediali Huntington and wife, the latter having been a sister of Mr. Wait. By
his will, of which Mr. Wait was one of the executors, Mr. Huntington provided buildings and grounds for the Home,
and $35,000 cash to insure the proper maintenance of the charity. Mr. Wait is and has been connected, officially
and otherwise, with many financial instutions. Mr. Wait is connected by blood with many of the oldest and leading
families in eastern Connecticut. On his father's side he is associated with the Griswolds and Marvins of Lyme,
while on his mother's side he is a lineal descendant of William Hyde and Thomas Tracy, two of the thirty five colonists
who settled at Norwich in 1659. His family has given many prominent members to the legal profession. His father
was long one of the leading lawyers at the bar of New London county, and for several years a judge of the old county
court. He was a presidential elector in 1793, and cast his vote for Washington. He represented the town of New
London for nineteen sessions in the general assembly of Connecticut. Before the war of the rebellion Mr. Wait was
a democrat. The outbreak of the war, however, found him a strong union man, and from that time his political sympathies
and efforts have been with and for the republican party. His son, lieutenant Marvin Wait, of the Eighth Connecticut
Regiment, served with distinguished courage on the field, and in the gallant charge of that command at Antietam
he fell mortally wounded. Enlisting as a private soldier when but eighteen, the story of his heroic fortitude amid
the battle will be preserved upon Connecticut's historic page along with that of Nathan Hale, the youthful martyr
spy. Though severely wounded in his right arm Lieutenant Wait refused to go to the rear, and seizing his sword
with his left hand, encouraged his men to press on, until he fell, riddled by bullets.
In the history of the part Connecticut took in the war of the rebellion, as written by Rev. John M. Morris and
W. A. Crofut, and published by Ledyard Bill, a very high compliment was paid to Mr. Wait by the formal dedication
of the work to him. This history contains about nine hundred pages, and gives a record of the splendid services
of our state regiments, and the leading officers in the same, with portraits of a large number of the officers.
The following is the text of the dedication:
JOHN TURNER WAIT,
OF THE CONNECTICUT HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:
WHOSE ONLY SON FELL IN DEFENCE OF HIS COUNTRY,
AND WHOSE MANY ACTS OF KINDNESS HAVE
ENDEARED HIM TO THE SOLDIERS OF CONNECTICUT:
THE RECORD OF THEIR SERVICES AND SUFFERINGS,
IS CORDIALLY DEDICATED.
Mr. Wait married, in 1842, Mrs. Elizabeth Harris, who died in 1868. He has not married again. Two daughters are
now living; the elder the wife of Col. H. W. R. Hoyt of Greenwich, the younger the wife of Mr. James H: Welles.
Those who have known Mr. Wait most intimately in the social relations of life, bear ready testimony to his exceptional
worth as a neighbor and friend. He is a gentleman of the old school, courteous, hospitable, and generous to a fault.
It is the sincere hope of his fellow citizens that he may yet survive many years to enjoy the honors which he has
earned and which are cheerfully accorded to him by his contemporaries of all political parties throughout his district
and the state.
Illustrated Popular Biography
Compiled and Published by J. A. Spalding
Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co.
Hartford, Conn. 1891
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