Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 69, page(s) 731-736


ELISHA CARPENTER, during a great part of his mature life a judge of the Supreme Court of the state, was born in that part of the old town of Ashford now known as Eastford, on the 14th day of January, 1824, and died at Hartford, where he had for several years resided, on the 22d of March, 1897. His father was a farmer in moderate circumstances, but was much respected in the community, and entrusted with its most important public offices. Judge Carpenter was his fourth son. He was brought up on his father's farm and divided his time between labor upon it and study. The latter he pursued in the public schools and at the Ellington Academy, at the latter fitting himself for, and intending to obtain, a college education. At the age of seventeen he engaged in school teaching and continued to teach school at intervals for seven years. Circumstances combining to defeat his plan of going to college, he entered in 1844 upon the study of law, in the office of Jonathan A. Welch of Brooklyn, Conn., and in December, 1846, was admitted to the bar of Windham County. He began practice in his native place, but in March, 1851, removed to Danielsonville (now Danielson) in the same county. In that year he was appointed state's attorney for Windham County, and held the office for one year, and by a later appointment from 1854 until 1861. In 1857 and 1858 he represented the fourteenth district in the State Senate. At the opening of the civil war in 1861 he was a member of the House of Representatives, and as chairman of the committee on military affairs rendered valuable service to the Union cause. By that legislature he was elected a judge of the Superior Court, to succeed Judge Butler who was promoted to the Supreme Court. In 1865 he was elected to the Supreme Court, to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Dutton, taking his seat in February, 1866. Soon after his appointment as judge of the Superior Court he removed to Wethersfield in this state, where he resided a few years, but finally removed to the city of Hartford, where he had lived for over twenty years at the time of his death.

Judge Carpenter was re-elected to the Supreme Court judgeship for three successive terms of eight years each, including the fraction of a term preceding his retirement under the constitutional limitation as to age, and lacked but one month of twenty-eight years of continuous service upon that court, making over thirty-two years of ,judicial life. For twenty-three years previous to 1889 he was the youngest man on the court. He was an efficient member of the state board of education from its organization in 1865 to 1883. For several years he served on the state board of pardons. On his retirement as judge he was appointed a state referee by the legislature, with a salary for life of $2,000 a year.

Judge Carpenter's career on the Supreme Court was identified in an unusual manner with public interests. The noted " boycott" case opinion, a few years ago, which defined the rights of the workingman so clearly that there has been no controversy with regard to the matter since, was written by him. The opinion of the court relative to the forfeiture of wages in case of a violation of contract, was also prepared by him. He was also prominent in the secret ballot and quo warranto decisions, and in those in support of the property rights of married women. He was identified throughout his judicial life with all the true progress of the law, so far as the decisions of the courts could promote it.

Though Judge Carpenter was limited in his educational opportunities to our common schools and academies, he yet got from them all that they could give to a boy of vigorous intellect, of earnestness of moral purpose, and of the most diligent and industrious habits. When he came, with less than the usual training, to the study of law and to its early practice, he brought with him an honorable ambition to succeed, a high ideal as to what is true success, and a determination to make the most of himself. He had great confidence in his power to accomplish his purposes, but no foolish conceit, and felt that his success was to depend on his industry and his fidelity to a high conception of his professional duties. He never attempted while at the bar to be rhetorical in his addresses to the court or jury, but his arguments were always clear and logical. And when on the bench he never attempted in his written opinions to use any language but that which would, with most simplicity, express fully and clearly the idea which he wished to present. He kept himself deeply interested in and well informed upon public affairs. He was strong in his political and party predilections, but was never consciously influenced by them in his judicial decisions, yet where the case demanded a decision in accordance with those predilections he had the courage to make it.. No judge could have a higher conception of judicial uprightness. No judge could be more anxious to be right in his decisions. Where he had an important case under consideration, involving some difficult question of law, he was glad to get the impression of others upon it, and often wrote out an experimental opinion which he would read to some judicial or professional friend; but where he had reached his conclusion by passing through such an ordeal he settled down upon an opinion to which he pertinaciously adhered, often dissenting in the Supreme Court where the other. judges did not agree with him. He always had the courage of his convictions. He was not very regardful of technicalities, had no fondness for the casuistries of the law, and was never led astray by the mere logic of a case; but he had a strong sense of justice and excellent common sense in applying legal principles. He was a plain man, without imagination or brilliancy of any sort, but was always practical both in the view which he took of questions before him and in the expression of his views. He was a man of the most industrious habits, and generally had the opinions which he was to write in the Supreme Court prepared in advance of all his associates. He had in the highest degree the public confidence as an honest-minded, able and fearless judge. He was one of the best fruits of our New England civilization, and one of the best products of our common schools and academies.

By a long established usage whenever a vacancy occurred in the chief-justiceship of the Supreme Court, the next senior judge, unless there were some strong reasons against it, was appointed to fill it. When Chief Justice Park retired, in April, 1889, Judge Carpenter was the next judge in seniority, and it was expected by the entire bar of the state that he would be made chief justice, and he himself fully expected it. His service on the court had been long, able and faithful. A few years before this a constitutional amendment had been adopted which provided that judicial appointments should be made by a nomination of the governor and a confirming vote of the legislature. Governor Bulkeley, to the surprise of everybody, did not nominate Judge Carpenter, but, it was reported and generally believed, tendered the nomination to two other leading lawyers, not on the court, both of whom declined it. He then offered it to Judge Charles B. Andrews, of the Superior Court, who accepted it, and his nomination was confirmed by the legislature. The bar generally felt that great injustice was done to Judge Carpenter, whose appointment would have given universal satisfaction, but all acquiesced in the appointment of Judge Andrews, who was a tried judge and a man of fine judicial ability as well as of legal learning. The writer has it on good authority that Judge Andrews hesitated greatly about taking the place, and took it only when it became certain that it would not be given to Judge Carpenter. The term of Judge Carpenter as an associate judge of the Supreme Court was to expire on the 11th day of February. 1890, and if he was reappointed it was to be by the nomination of the governor at that session of the legislature. He would then be sixty-six years old, with only four years more to serve before he would be disqualified by age. Gov. Bulkeley nominated him for reappointment and the nomination was confirmed by the legislature. He continued on the bench as an associate judge for these four years, and retired, under the constitutional limitation as to age, on the 14th day of January, 1894.

Judge Carpenter felt what he regarded as the injustice done him very keenly and never got over it. He was reasonably apprehensive that the members of the profession who should come later upon the stage, without any knowledge of the circumstances under which he failed of the chief-justiceship, would infer that he was regarded as unworthy of the place, and this statement of the facts is made under a promise given him by the writer that, if he should survive him, the matter should be fully explained in the obituary notice of him in the law reports.

About fifteen years ago Judge Carpenter suffered a shock of paralysis which left him with a permanent lameness, but from which he wholly recovered in all other respects. His mind was not at all impaired and he never did better judicial work than after it. In January, 1895, he slipped upon the ice and broke his hip, a most serious and painful injury, which was greatly aggravated by a fall in his room after he had begun to recover. He lived from that time about two years in much feebleness and suffering, which he bore with great patience and serenity, finding at last in death a much desired release.

Judge Carpenter was married in 1848 to Harriet G. Brown, of Brooklyn in this state. She died in 1874, leaving three daughters and one son. The son died in 1879 in his eighteenth year. The daughters survive him and are married respectively to Myron H. Bridgman of the Hartford Bank, Joseph F. Wattles of Boston, and Frank E. Stone of Hartford. In 1876 he married Sophia Tyler Cowen of Hartford, a granddaughter of Judge Esek Cowen, a distinguished member in his time of the Supreme Court of New York, and daughter of Sidney J. Cowen, of Saratoga, N. Y., who was a lawyer and legal writer of great ability and promise, but who died in his twenty-ninth year. She is through her mother a lineal descendent of Thomas Hooker, the first minister in Hartford, and of Johnathan Edwards, the distinguished divine. She survives the judge, with a son and daughter. Judge Carpenter was through life an active church member in the Congregational denomination, a teacher in its Sabbath schools, and for many years a deacon in the Asylum Hill Congregational Church.

In a notice of his death in the Windham County Transcript, published in Danielson, where he had resided in his early life, the editor well and justly says of him:

One of God's noblemen passed through the pearly gates last Monday. Judge Elisha Carpenter was human, as well as humane, therefore was not free from the temptations, limitations or mistakes of this earthly life; but, judging from the fruits of his long, eventful and useful life, not only his relatives and personal friends, but all impartial observers, will agree in this estimate of his character - that it was exceptionally free from any indulgence or feeling that lowers a manhood that is ever true, high-minded and thoughtful of the rights and needs of our common humanity. In a profession that is full of temptation toward deception and selfishness, in which so many bright and promising young men make shipwreck of honor and integrity for paltry fame and gain, Elisha Carpenter lived, toiled and won the highest honors, without tarnishing or lowering the high ideals awakened in his bosom when a poor lad in a country school in his native town of Eastford. Neither his services nor his soul could be bought to advocate any cause that did not appear to his clear and conscientious conviction to be worthy of advocacy and support.

At a meeting of the Hartford County bar, held on the occasion of the judge's death, several eulogistic addresses were made upon resolutions that were reported by a committee. Among others Ex-Judge Dwight Loomis said in part: -

No one outside the sacred precincts of the home circle can miss Judge Carpenter more than I do. The shaft of death fell near me when it took this friend and comrade from my side.

I am also reminded that all the judges with whom I served on the Supreme Court for any considerable time (Foster, Beardsley, Granger, Pardee, Park, and now Carpenter) have passed over to the spirit land, and this fact produces in me a feeling of loneliness akin to that depictad by the poet Moore, in his reference -

"To one who treads alone some banquet hall deserted,

Whose lights are fled, whose garland's dead,

And all but he departed."

I do not recall a friend in whom the domestic virtues were manifested in greater perfection than in Judge Carpenter. He was kind, confiding, generous, courteous, self-sacrificing, pure and devoted in his affection; and hence he always held a first place in the hearts of all with whom he was connected by ties of blood or association. Few men have had more or truer friends or fewer enemies than he. As a citizen he was public-spirited, patriotic, loyal to the truth and righteousness and good order.

Perhaps the best estimate of the man stay be derived from his long and conspicuous career as a judge. All the elements that enter into the mingled warp and woof of human character, it seems to me may be best exhibited and tested in the judicial office. When we think how the lives and fortunes of men hang suspended upon the strength, purity and integrity of one frail human soul, you say how great, yea, how awful is the responsibility resting upon him! Great temptations intrude upon him to swerve him from the line of perfect rectitude, and if he has prejudices (and who has not) an artful advocate will be advocate in waking them to action. To the great and eternal honor of Judge Carpenter it may be said he followed boldly and faithfully in the narrow path of justice and truth. True to himself, true to his high office, unawed by fear, unseduced by affection, his standard of legal morality was of a high order. His love of truth was spotless, and his honesty of purpose above suspicion.

His legal opinions as round in the Connecticut Reports show a mind of clear perceptions, practical and logical. But the polar star which guided his course in every discussion seemed to be his love of right. He always wanted to put some right in the place of some wrong, and this should be the inspiration of every lawyer and judge.

Finally and above all, he had a profoundly religious nature. He was always humble, patient, unostentatious and forgiving, and delighted to minister to others. He believed in the realities of the spiritual world and the higher life. He could subscribe to the creed of Dr. John Watson: "I believe in the fatherhood of God. I believe in the words of Jesus. I believe in a clean heart. I believe in the service of love. I believe in the unworldly life. I believe in the beatitudes. I promise to trust God and follow Christ; to forgive my enemies and to seek after the righteousness of God."

Judge Carpenter's character was tried in the furnace of sorrow and pain and it came out as gold.

The resolutions passed by the bar were as follows:

Whereas, The State of Connecticut has, in the recent death of the Honorable Elisha Carpenter, lost one of its most eminent judges, and most respected and beloved citizens-

Resolved, That we, the bar of Hartford County recognize that Judge Carpenter, in the breadth of his knowledge and the soundness of his intellect, and especially in the rarer and more important elements that make character - in shrewd common sense, in conscientious, untiring industry, in courageous integrity, in fairness, in courteous, patient. unfailing kindliness, was preeminently fitted for that most important and most dignified office in the gift of the people which he had so long and so honorably filled.

Resolved, That we feel that Judge Carpenter's death comes as a personal loss and sorrow to the bench and the bar of this whole State, and especially to us, his brother lawyers of this county, who knew him longest and best; and that we extend to his bereaved family in their so much greater loss and sorrow our sincere and deep sympathy.

Resolved, That these resolutions be recorded in the records of this bar, and that a copy be transmitted to the family of the deceased.