Biography of James Murdock Smith


Smith, James Murdock.—The history of Buffalo during its municipal existence would be quite imeomplete without a sketch of that one of her favored and favorite citizens whose name stands at the head of this article. Judge Smith cane from New England stock, and brought with him here to this western country, in the early days, a supply of physical, moral and mental health, which have all served him a good purpose and brought him to three score years and ten in the full enjoyment of his faculties unimpaired, and with his zeal and energy still equal to all the numerous calls made upon him for the good of his family and friends and the advancement of his fellow-citizens’ interests, both public and private. He was born at East Poultney, Rutland county, Vt., August 23, 1816, being the only son of Hon. Harvey D. Smith and Harriet Murdock Smith, and is a lineal descendant of the Rev. Henry Smith, an English clergyman, who came to America in 1634 and settled in Wethersfield, Conn., in 1636, and was the first minister in that place. That line of descent is as follows: Rev. Henry Smith of Wethersfield, Conn.; Samuel Smith of Northampton, Mass.; Ebenezer Smith of Suffield, Conn.; Nathaniel Smith of Suffield, Conn.; Nathaniel Smith of Pawlet, Vt.; Harvey D. Smith of Gouverneur, N. Y.; Hon. James M. Smith, the subject of this sketch. On his mother’s side he descends from John Murdock, once a rich merchant of Limerick, Ireland, but who being a staunch Jacobite was impoverished by the Civil war of 1688—90. His son Peter fled to this country in 1696, and settled at East Hampton, Long Island. His son, Major John Murdock, of Saybrock, Conn., was one of the leading men of Connecticut. His son, Rev. James Murdock, was the maternal grandfather of Judge Smith. Mr. Smith also is a descendant from the famous Douglas family of Scotland, through his paternal grandmother. Sarah Douglas, who was sprung from the Loch Leven Douglases. And thus there came together, in the subject of this sketch, the clergyman and the merchant; a good commingling of morals, religion, letters, finance, judgment and affairs, exceedingly well exemplified in the life and character of James M. Smith. Mr. Smith’s father was a merchant and held a prominent position in business and official life in his town, which he represented several times in the Vermont Legislature. In 1824 he moved to Gouverneur, St. Lawrence county, N. Y., where he passed the remainder of his life and died in 1864, full of years and honored, respected and lamented by a large community over which he had exerted an active influence for good, and in which he had filled the offices of supervisor, justice of the peace, surrogate, and special county judge. Mr. Smith’s education began in the village school and was continued at the Gouverneur Academy, and having graduated from that institution he began the study of law in the office of Bishop & Thompson, at Granvile, in Washington county. In 1835 he went to Albany and entered the office of Hon. Edward Livingston, then the district attorney of that county, and he remained there as managing clerk for two years. In November, 1837, he was admitted to the bar as an attorney in the Supreme Court and solicitor in chancery. It was in February, 1888, that Mr. Smith, a young and enterprising lawyer with his own way to make in the world, moved to Buffalo, then a city of very small proportions, and struggling to recover from the great financial disasters of 1836, which, bad enough every where, had fallen with crushing force on the infant city. He formed a partnership with Henry W. Rogers and John J. Leonard, but this was speedily dissolved with the retirement of Mr Rogers, and Leonard & Smith continued the business a year or so longer, when Mr. Leonard removed to Detroit and Mr. Smith became associated with Mr. James Smith, esq., and so continued till 1840, when the firm became dissolved. Mr. Smith again went into partnership with Henry W. Rogers, who had been for some years the district attorney of Erie county, and so continued for a number of years after. This firm became noted and prosperous, and conducted a very large law business, and one which gave scope to Mr. Smith’s abilities and talents and brought him prominently before the business men of the growing city; who soon learned to appreciate his sound legal attainments and his careful, shrewd advice, not only in matters of law but in matters of business and finance. This partnership continued till 1848, when, Mr. Rogers having become collector of customs for the port of Buffalo, the firm was dissolved and Mr. Smith associated himself with the late Solomon G. Haven, who had been till that time a partner of Millard Fillmore. The firm of Haven & Smith was a successful one and had a large and lucrative practice, and Mr. Smith made himself still more acceptable to the solid financiers of Buffalo, and was recognized as a man peculiarly adapted to banking and business; and finally became so necessary to certain men of capital that in 1856 he was persuaded to abandon the law and to take charge of White’s Bank as its cashier, and a year later, when the Clinton Bank was started by some of the ablest and soundest men in Buffalo and New York, he became its cashier. The financial disasters of that well remembered season did not wreck the Clinton Bank, as they did many others, but made serious inroads upon its capital, which, however, in the four years following, were entirely made good. Then the war broke out, and financiers were uncertain and money was scarce, and the men who had faced the panic of 1857 feared for the future, and it was decided to wind up the Clinton Bank and pay both depositors and stockholders in full; and this was done, and in 1861 Mr. Smith was again at liberty. The Hon. John Ganson, who then occupied a very deservedly high position at the bar of New York, and had perhaps the largest practice in Buffalo, sought Mr. Smith as his associate, and on January 1, 1862, the firm of Ganson & Smith was formed, a firm which at once attained, and during its existence held a wide reputation in State and national courts. No lawyers in Buffalo probably ever did a larger or more profitable business, or had a greater success in the management of an exceedingly extended practice. Their advice was sought by individuals and corporations, and the calendars of all the courts were filled with their cases, while matters of vast importance were conducted to favorable and judicious settlement without the intervention of the courts. In all matters of contract, of trusts, of real estate and of wills, Mr. Smith was and is pre-eminently an authority, and to this day his guiding hand is seen in the disposition of numerous large estates, which have been from time to time distributed to generous testators. In 1873 Hon. Isaac A. Verplanek, one of the judges of the Superior Court of Buffalo, died, and Mr. Smith was appointed by the governor and Senate to till the vacancy, and in 1874 he was elected his own successor for the term of fourteen years. Judge Smith ascended the bench with the hearty approval of all classes of citizens—even his political opponents congratulating themselves that a man so pre-eminently qualified, for judicial position should have been made the nominee of his party and the choice of the people. He brought to his position a vigorous mind, clear perceptions, with a happy faculty of expressing his ideas in terse, strong language, calculated to instruct jurors in their duties and to lead them to a clear understanding of the real points in the case before them, and his firm, strong manner in his charges could not fail to give evidence of his own views as to the justice of the case in hand,while his fairness left everything to the jury which of right belonged to them to pass upon. His large experience and great industry made him an exceedingly strong member of the court which had in the city of Buffalo a jurisdiction equal to the Supreme Court of the State,and the member of cases which he tried and the opinions he wrote show what labor an industrious judge, with health and strength of mind and body, can accomplish. On the 1st of January, 1887, Judge Smith, having reached the constitutional limit of years, was retired from the bench which be had adorned and occupied, to the great satisfaction of the bar and litigants, and in testimony of the respect and love they bore him, the lawyersof Buffalo invited him to a complimentary banquet, and distinguished men then took occasion to express their appreciation of the patience, the conscientiousness and courage with which he had presided over the court of which he had lately been chief judge. Though greatly engrossed with the cares of his profession and with the unusual number of private trusts, Judge Smith aiwaysfound time or made time to give attention to public matters of interest and value to his fellow citizens. He was, until he went upon the bench, chairman of the commissioners who built the City and County Hall, which stands a monument of honest work and money well and faithfully expended, an achievement which is unfortunately too rare in cur own time and country. He was chairman of the citizens’ committee for the erection of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which so beautifully adorns La Fayette Park in Buffalo. In 1871 Mr. Smith, as counsel for the executor of the will of Jesse Ketchum, deceased, prepared the deed of trust which conveyed to the City of Buffalo the fund of $10,000, designated as “The Jesse Ketchum Memorial Fund,” from the income of whichvaluable and beautiful gold and silver medals are annually awarded by the trustees of the fund to meritorious scholars of the public schools. Mr. Smith was one of the trustees named in the deed and for eighteen years past has been the president of the board. In 1873 Hobart College conferred on Judge Smith the honorary degree of LL.D. Soon after taking up his residence in Buffalo Judge Smith became a member of Trinity church, and as vestryman and warden he served it long and well, and has always been an exceedingly liberal contributor to church work. In 1871 he was appointed chancellor of the Diocese of Western New Ycrk and has held that position to the present time, and has represented the diocese as lay delegate to each of the triennial general conventions of the Protestant Episcopal church since 1874. In June, 1840 Judge Smith was married to Martha Washington, daughter of Elias Bradley of Buffalo. She died in May, 1841, leaving a son who survived her but a few months. In June, 1845, he was married to Margaret, daughter of John P. Sherwood of Vernon, Oneida county, N. Y., and their children are Margaret L., the wife of Robert P. Wilson, esq., a member of the Erie county bar, and Philip Sherwood, who is also a member of that bar. Judge Smith has always been recognized as an able financier and an excellent judge of values and securities. His foresight and his faith in the growth and prosperity of Buffalo have enabled him to accumulate a handsome fortune for his declining years. Prosperity, however, has not had the effect to render him sordid or penurious, but on the contrary he has always given freely and liberally to all public purposes and to charitable, educational and religious objects, while his private charities, done in secret, have been the source of great comfort to many recipients, and no worthy charity has ever been refused aid from his purse, and that, too, not once or twice, but many times repeated. Judge Smith is a man of very marked literary tastes and habits and is the possessor of a large and valuable library, and his friends have always been scholars and men of letters. Genial, kind and affable, he has always won the esteem and hearty good will of his fellow citizens, who trust that many and happy may be the years remaining to James Murdock Smith.

Our County and its people
A descriptive work on Erie County, New York
Edited by: Truman C. White
The Boston History Company, Publishes 1898


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