Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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AUGUSTUS HALL FENN, member of the Supreme Court of Errors, whose death occurred in Winsted, September 12th, 1897, was born at Plymouth Conn., January 18th, 1844. His parents were Augustus L. and Maria Hall Fenn. His ancestors settled in New Haven in 1635, and the sterling characteristics he exhibited indicate inheritance from sturdy ancestry of colonial days.
The foundation of his education was laid in the common school of his native town, upon which he built, later on, at the Waterbury high school. He early showed unusual literacy talent, and at fifteen published a volume of poems, which he studiously hid from public eye, however, in later years.
He began the study of law at the age of eighteen with Hon. Amma Giddings in his native town, but relinquished it after a few months to enlist in the army. He entered the military service as lieutenant in the 19th Conn. Volunteers, in July, 1862. The following year, when his Regiment became the 2d Conn. Heavy Artillery, he was advanced to a captaincy. The adjutant and historian of his regiment says of him: "He proved himself one of the best drill masters and disciplinarians in the regiment, and one of the most competent officers in every position." He served for a time on the staff of Gen. Emory Upton, and was five times detailed as judge advocate. At the battle of Cedar Creek he lost his right arm. Hospital surgeons who attended him proposed to muster him out for disability, but he protested, and through the influence of Gen. Ranald S. Mackenzie he was retained. "In less than seven weeks from the time his arm was taken off at the shoulder he reported for full duty," writes his regimental historian, and he subsequently participated in several engagements. He was promoted to major in January, 1865, and was brevetted lieutenant-colonel and colonel for conspicuous instances of bravery.
Colonel Fenn was mustered out of the military service with his regiment August 18th, 1865, and the following month resumed the study of law with Gen. S. W. Kellogg in Waterbury. He was admitted to the bar of Litchfield county, February 15th, 1867, after which he pursued a course of study for a year at the Harvard Law School, from which he received the degree of bachelor of laws. After practicing a year in Waterbury he opened an office in his native town, where he continued in the practice of his profession until 1875. He was judge of probate several years in Plymouth, holding also several other minor public offices. In 1875 he was republican nominee for secretary of state, but his party ticket was unsuccessful in that election.
In 1876 he removed to Winsted, which since that time has been his home. He became an ardent admirer of Samuel J. Tilden in his fight against the "Tammany ring" of New York, his admiration being so strong as to lead him to remark that if Tilden should be a presidential candidate he should support him. He was true to his word, and thus became allied with the Democratic party. He was judge of probate of the district of Winchester several terms, and by careful study of that branch of his profession became known as one of the best authorities in the State on probate law. In 1884 he represented Winchester in the General Assembly, serving on the judiciary committee, and as chairman of the committee on forfeited rights. In 1885 he was appointed by the Governor member of a committee to revise the statutes, a task of which he performed his full share.
Notwithstanding his changed political affiliations he continued to hold the highest esteem of his former political associates, for he was never regarded as strenuously partisan. He was nominated judge of the Superior Court in 1887 by a Republican governor, and as associate justice of the Supreme Court of Errors in 1892 by another governor of the same party. His appreciation of these advancements at the hands of his political opponents was such as to lead him to say - when his name was mentioned in various newspapers in connection with gubernatorial honors - that he should never allow himself to accept a nomination for any position which would bring him into competition with any Republican. He had been advanced in his profession by his political opponents and felt that it would indicate lack of appreciation, or ingratitude, were he to take advantage of his promotion to the bench as a stepping-stone to further political preferment.
It may be well doubted if there can be recalled, within the remembrance of the present generation at least, another equally conspicuous instance showing firmer or more intimate friendships than existed between Judge Fenn and those who differed with him politically . His relations with his towns-people, with his professional associates, and with him comrades of the war, were such as to indicate that political differences were not thought of, or if thought of, were no bar to the most intimate confidences. His loyalty to his personal friends and neighbors was not unlike that he exhibited to his country - firm and unwavering. In the presidential campaign of 1896 he affiliated with the Republican party.
As an advocate, Judge Fenn is remembered as possessing gifts which, if they did not draw spectators in the court room, at least prolonged their stay. His addresses were listened to with an attention rarely warranted by the merits of the cause at issue. His language was concise, and he had such excellent choice of expression as to make his arguments models of diction. It was clear to the listener that he had the main points of his argument well arranged in his mind. His citations from authorities indicated not only a well read lawyer, but the happy faculty of weaving them into the warp and woof of his argument with harmonious effect. His success as an attorney was so fully recognized during his period of practice that he was never without a long list of clients.
Judge Fenn first sat on the supreme bench as a regular member at the May term in Norwich, in 1891, although his appointment by the legislature was not completed until the 2d of February, 1893. His last duty was at the May term in Norwich, 1897. He was regarded by his associates of that tribunal as an agreeable companion, cheerful, kindly, sympathetic and generous. He had unusual power to acquire knowledge, a singularly clear and retentive memory, great industry and wonderful endurance. He had read not only the common books of the law but some which are not commonly looked at. He had read most of the text of Littleton in the Norman French, Fearne's Contingent Remainders, and had gone over Coke's second, third and fourth Institutes. His mind worked rapidly and he came to conclusions quickly. It is said of Lord Eldon that he was never quite ready to decide a case, because he always doubted. Judge Fenn, while he was always conscious that all human judgments are liable to error, gave to every case his best judgment, came to that conclusion which he deemed to be the correct one, and then laid it aside. He never seemed to be distressed by doubts. He had very little pride of opinion, and not any pride of position.
In consultation, Judge Fenn was always considerate and forbearing. He listened to others with the greatest patience, and was always ready to yield, so far as possible, in order to secure a unanimous judgment. It is difficult to recall a dissenting opinion written by him; he has joined another judge sometimes in a dissent. He was a favorite with lawyers who argued before the court, because he was always attentive. His written opinions are regarded as a pretty accurate reflex of his mind. He worked rapidly; his opinions indicate that quality, and some of them show a want of careful revision. His relations with his associates on the bench were always intimate and confidential rather than professional, and he appeared to be regarded as a younger brother rather than as a rival in his profession, or in the struggle for preferment, and his death came to them like a personal affliction.
Judge Fenn was president of the Connecticut Army and Navy Club at the time of his death, a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, and of the Loyal Legion. His patriotic impulses found their best medium of expression in public addresses on Memorial Day and on similar occasions. He was president of the Winchester Memorial Park Association, trustee of the Gilbert School and Home, and identified with various other local organizations. He possessed a reverent nature, and though not a communicant, was a regular attendant of the Congregational church. His domestic relations were of an agreeable character, and to him there was "No place like home." He was twice married in - 1868 to Frances M. Smith of Waterbury, and in 1879 to Mary E. Lincoln of Winsted. His widow and four children survive him - Emory, Augusta, Lucia, and Lincoln - two by each marriage.