Today we have a guest column by Deputy Greene County Historian, Vedder Research Library Archivist and Athens native Jonathan Palmer.
Last week you may recall my assurances that eras of great political and social turmoil are pretty much par for the course in our democratic system. I spoke at length on one particular manifestation of this long tradition of divisiveness by expounding on the the circumstances surrounding the rather audacious naming of the “Town of Ashland” as a new town in Greene County in 1848. For those of you who still harbor strong opinions about Henry Clay I’m sure you were thoroughly convinced of the merit of my argument, but I understand that there are many of us who no longer have strong feelings about the Whig platform.
In light of that I convey a highly abbreviated summary of a sketch by the late Mr. Jesse W. Olney about his grandfather the late Justice Malbone Watson of Catskill, the latter of whom’s experiences as an elected official in the Jacksonian period left him so withered and distraught following an election in 1847 that he quite literally assaulted the first person who offered congratulations to him as a newly elected Judge on the New York Supreme Court.
In case you were unaware - backdoor political dealings, unsavory party machinations, and electoral ambushes were just some of the things that made politics in New York a rather unpleasant business in the 1830s and ‘40s. Malbone Watson, a thoroughly well-regarded lawyer from Catskill, was nominated to run for a vacant post on the Supreme Court in 1847. He accepted of course, knowing the nomination was a complement by his peers and a natural advancement for a lawyer of his regard.
Mr. Olney, while perusing selections of his grandfather’s old papers, speaks glowingly of his ancestor’s intellect and character: “… Latin verses composed in such a scholarly vein that I have been unable to translate them. His verses in English, however, were filled with witticism and satire of the keenest relish… these little fragments all show Mr. Watson’s warm appreciation of all that was good in life, always the bright happy side… this was the prevailing characteristic of Justice Watson — live the life of the day with all its pleasures, and enjoy it to the full.”
Following the ratification of the new New York State Constitution in 1846 pressure was great among Whig and Democratic factions to place a judge of their party on the Supreme Court seat in the district which included Greene and Columbia County. To summarize the contest for the Bench in 1847 Mr. Olney writes: “The low cunning and trickery practiced towards Mr. Watson has seldom been equaled in the political annals of the State.” There was an effort to suppress public awareness of his candidacy, attempts by factions of both parties to edge him out of potential votes, and quite possibly some mishandling of ballots (though this is uncorroborated). The end result was that when the election finally rolled around in June Mr. Watson cast his ballot and stormed off into the Catskills for several days to be alone with his thoughts. Much to everyones surprise when the ballots were counted Mr. Watson came out as the clear victor - a result many would not have predicted - however, the newly minted Judge was nowhere to be found.
A week passed, and word had not yet reached Judge Watson through official channels when a passerby spotted Watson storming back along the road to Catskill looking haggard and unwashed from his days in the hills. Not knowing the circumstances of the Judge’s ignorance to the good news, the man called out “Good Morning, Mr. Justice Watson!” In a fit of rage at what Watson supposed to be a rather mean-spirited jab at his electoral defeat he quietly approached the greeter, promptly dispensed with his coat and proceeded to unapologetically thrash the man for several minutes until neighbors intervened. To say that the Judge felt the need to make one last statement about his heinous treatment at the hands of local party bosses would be an understatement, and I would love for any reader to offer a tale of local election shenanigans to top this anecdote of a Supreme Court Judge beating one of his constituents to a pulp for offering a kindly salutation.
To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”