Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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William Lyon Bennett, born May 19, 1848, in New Haven, died at the advanced age of ninety-four on June 2, 1942, in New Haven. He was the son of Thomas Bennett and Mary Ann (Hull) Bennett of New Haven. His father attended the Yale School of Law from 1835 to 1837, practiced in New Haven and was for a time a judge of the Municipal Court. Brothers of William were Thomas G. Bennett, Yale `70S, who was head of the Winchester Arms Company for a long time and a trustee of the, Sheffield Scientific School; Joseph H. Bennett, Yale `73, and George H. Bennett, ex-'74. William attended General Russell's Collegiate and Commercial Institute in New Haven and took the degree of B.A. at Yale in. 1869 and the LL.B. Degree at the Yale School of Law in 1871. In his student days, he was active in many ways, being a member of his school baseball team and in college a member of Beethoven Society, Delta Kappa, Linonia and Phi Theta Psi fraternities. He was admitted to the bar in 1871. Quite early in his practice he became a partner with Tilton E. Doolittle and Henry Stoddard in the firm of Doolittle, Stoddard & Bennett, and after Henry Stoddard's retirement from the firm continued in partnership with Mr. Doolittle and later with George A. Fay. From 1895 to 1898 he taught insurance, and later contracts, in the Yale Law School.
Judge Bennett was appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas for New Haven County in 1905 and to the Superior Court Bench in 1908. On his retirement from the Superior Court upon reaching the age of seventy he was appointed corporation counsel of the city of New Haven by Mayor David E. FitzGerald and served in that capacity during Mayor FitzGerald's two terms of office, until 1923.
Judge Bennett was married on June 5, 1878, in Brooklyn, New York, to Frances Theodosia, daughter of George Woolsey and Mary Ann Bardin (Richardson) Welles, who died October 25, 1888. They had three children: Ethel Welles, well known as an artist the wife of Walter Boudewyn Schiffer; Mary Elizabeth Sanderson, who for a time studied at the Yale School of Music and died August 9, 1920; and Francis Theodore, who died December 16, 1918, a few years after graduating college.
For a time after his retirement from the Superior Court bench Judge Bennett continued actively at work as state referee and, as has already been noted, as corporation counsel of New Haven. He gradually relinquished his professional activities and enjoyed well-merited quiet, the satisfaction of life with his daughter and her family and the indulgence of reading and of words, spending a large part of his time in his summer home in the retirement of the hills of the southern Berkshires. Until the last he retained his facilities, his interest in affairs and his enjoyment of humor, and within but two hours of his sudden death he was dressing to join his family circle. He had given away his professional library and destroyed his papers. His death was due to acute heart failure. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven.
There are now almost none who can remember Judge Bennett in his active professional career. The writer of this memorial recalls him on the Superior Court bench as a quiet, courteous, attentive trier, of sound and deliberate judgment, applying his knowledge and long experience readily but never hastily, and off the bench giving to the problems presented to him the careful consideration of a scholar.
In his earlier practice he may have been more aggressive than he appeared to be as a judge upon the bench, but that is doubtful. His two partners, Tilton E. Doolittle and Henry Stoddard, were both of the aggressive type. In 1896 ex-Governor Charles R. Ingersoll, in presenting resolutions in the Superior Court upon the death of Mr. Doolittle, said this of Judge Bennett's partner: "He never posed for what he was not. He never posed, indeed, for anything that he was. In all his ways, in all his moods, under all circumstances, he was simply himself, -- he was Doolittle." While according to the writer's recollection William Bennett and Tilton E. Doolittle were strikingly opposite to one another in manner, yet of Judge Bennett, with his quiet but unassuming assurance based on unwavering principle and sound conviction, those same words of Governor Ingersoll might well be spoken.
It is interesting to go back and look at one of the earliest cases in which our friend appeared, City of New Haven v. New York and N. H. R.R. Co., 39 Conn. 128, argued at the February Term of the Supreme Court in 1872, Doolittle and Bennett for the plaintiff. The question was whether it was the duty of the defendant to keep in repair a certain portion of a highway leading to a railroad bridge. The defendant had been notified to repair and upon its neglect to do so the city made the needed repairs and sought to recover the expense in an action of assumpsit on the common counts, which was first tried before a justice of the peace, then in the Court of Common Please and reserved for advice in the high court. George H. Watrous, afterwards president of the railroad, appeared for the defendant. The Supreme Court at that time consisted of Butler, C. J., Park, Carpenter, Foster and Seymour, Js. We here see the beginning of a notable career dating far back of the memory of anyone now at the bar-a battle between the stalwarts Doolittle and Watrous with the probability, on the side, that Bennett, the younger participant, had prepared studiously a case involving the respective legal obligations of the two great corporations brought upon a small bill within the jurisdiction of a justice of the peace and yet fought out to the limit to establish a principle. In little more than a year after that case, Doolittle and Bennett for the plaintiff city were again before the Supreme Court against the railroad company in two cases in an effort to collect taxes alleged to be due to the town and city of New Haven, with Watrous again for the defendants. Judgment in both was for the defendant but in one case the force of Mr. Doolittle and the industry of our friend Bennett won the approval of two of the five judges.
While on the Superior bench, Judge Bennett was called to sit as a member of the Supreme Court at two or more full terms of court to fill a vacancy caused by the death of absence of one of the justices.
He lived and served his clients and his fellow citizens through a period which marks a notable development of the law and its practice - a change too, to be regretted, in the free intimacy of daily life of the lawyers. Mr. Doolittle, Judge Stoddard and our friend, when they were associated, occupied offices in what was afterwards known as the Law Chambers, next to what was then the county court house. In the same building were the offices of Charles R. Ingersoll, John S. Beach, his son John K. Beach and others. Those men in those days knew and visited one another and suspicion might be warranted that occasionally they indulged with one another in lighter pastime than argument of legal questions. They fought with one another nobly in the courts-in their offices fraternized as sympathetic, even jovial neighbors. From the start in that company William L. Bennett lived the life and did the work of an active professional and judicial career and when his work was done retired with the respect and affection of all his associates to enjoy the quiet of a peaceful old age.