Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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JOEL HINMAN, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Errors of this state, died of pneumonia at his residence in Cheshire on Monday, February 21, 1870, aged 68. He was buried on Thursday, February 24, in the yard at Cheshire adjoining the Episcopal church, where he had been for years a faithful attendant. In accordance with a wish expressed some time before his death and entirely characteristic of the man, no sermon was preached and no eulogy pronounced. But he was followed to the grave by a large concourse of his old neighbors and friends, by the judges of the courts and by representatives of the bar from all parts of the state.
Judge Hinman was born at Southbury in this state, January 27th, 1802. The Southbury Hinmans are an old family, well known in the history of the region. They are a hardy, prolific, strongly individualized race; generally men and women of great physical proportions, vigor and strength, of strong wills and strong feelings, having considerable humor, not much veneration either by nature or cultivation, but very decided conservative tendencies, sound judgment, native shrewdness and good common sense. The family seem always to have gravitated towards the legal profession, and probably no name in the state is so frequently repeated on its rolls. They trace their descent from one Serjeant Edward Hinman, who is said to have held office in the body-guard of King Charles I., but who appears to have settled at Stamford in this state previous to 1650. From him doubtless they inherited their passion for the military profession, which seems to have been as marked and characteristic as their love for the law. The history of the family, compiled by one of its members, states that "there were more commissioned officers during the war of the Revolution by this name than by any other in Connecticut, being in all thirteen from the town of Southbury," and some conspicuous military title has been borne by a large proportion of its representatives. The grandfather of the judge, Col. Benjamin Hinman, rose to the rank of Lieut. Colonel in what is known as the "French war," and on the breaking out of the Revolution was appointed colonel of one of the Connecticut regiments and served with distinction during the war.
Col. Joel Hinman, the father of the judge, was a well-to-do farmer in Southbury, who inherited the family traits and transmitted them to his son. He had participated in the Revolution, was wounded in the attack on Danbury, and carried the ball in his thigh for many years.
The judge was the twelfth in a family of fourteen or fifteen children, and after having received a common school education early applied himself to the study of the law, first with Judge Chapman at Newtown, and afterwards with Messrs. Staples and Hitchcock at New Haven. He was admitted to the bar not long after reaching his majority, and settled in Waterbury in 1824. The following year he married Miss Maria Scovill, daughter of James Scovill, Esq., of Waterbury. In 1830 he was appointed Judge of Probate for the Waterbury district and continued to hold the office for ten years. He twice represented the Fifth District in the State Senate and several times the town of Waterbury in the House of' Representatives. While a member of the House in the year 1842 he was elected a Judge of the Superior and Supreme Courts, to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Hon. Roger Minot Sherman. There were at that time five judges who performed the duty now devolving upon both the Supreme and Superior Courts; holding the circuit singly and sitting in banc for the determination of questions of law. They received a salary of one thousand dollars per annum, with an extra allowance of fifty dollars to the presiding judge, probably added to mark and maintain the dignity of the position. The remaining judges at that time were Thomas Scott Williams, Chief Justice, Samuel Church, Henry Matson Waite, and William Lucius Storrs. Each of these in turn filled the office of Chief Justice, Judge Hinman having been elected upon the decease of Judge Storrs in 1861. Judge Hinman continued to reside in Waterbury until 1845, when he removed to New Haven, where he remained several years, and subsequently to Cheshire, where he died. He left a widow and four children; one son and three daughters.
The Judge was forty years of age when he was elected, and is said to have been the youngest man who had up to that time filled that position. His election was quite unexpected to him and to the public. The judges on the bench were mostly past the prime of life and men of marked ability. He was comparatively young and had attained no eminence at the bar. As a legislator he spoke seldom and then briefly, though he was acknowledged as one of the leaders and his opinion had much weight. In his profession he was possessed of considerable ability and on occasions showed it; but he was unsuited to active practice, slow of utterance, indolent and unmethodical in his business habits, and needed a spur to exertion which the limited practice of a country town did not supply. But he was much better adapted by nature for the bench than for the bar. He had an eminently judicial mind, and having now a sufficient inducement to exertion he soon won the respect in his new position both of his associates and of the bar; a respect which steadily increased during the remainder of his life. The whole action of his mind was deliberative, perpending, judicial. "Well - now let's see," was his favorite connecting and lubricating clause, in all the breaks and joints of conversation, discussion and argument. The members of the bar both old and young throughout the state regarded him with much respect, mingled with a feeling of complacency closely bordering on affection.
He was a man of close observation both of men and things, and a shrewd judge of character; not given to over-confidence in human nature. Before his election to the bench he was a successful manager in party politics, but afterwards, though he did not disguise his preferences and views, he took no active part in political matters. He was a rounded man in character if not in culture, presenting few salient points to lay hold of either for purposes of intercourse or of description. He was a large man, about six feet high, slightly inclined to stoop and quite fleshy. His ordinary weight must have been front 250 to 300 pounds. He had a large round head set upon a very short neck between broad, square, high shoulders. His gait was slow and ponderous. He had light, slightly curling hair, a fair fresh complexion, rather short nose, expressive mouth and light blue eyes. He wore a frock-coat and a full broad-ruffled shirt, and he had made no deviation in his style of dress for forty years. He had a keen relish for a certain quiet kind of humor, and in his social every-day life presented a pleasant picture to recall. With his slow, ponderous gait, his beaming though slightly cynical smile, his hearty chuckle at a joke, either of his own or another, rising up and spreading with a visible tremble all over his great surface and dying away with a suppressed gurgle, but rarely cropping out into a laugh; his easy good nature approaching indifferentism under nearly all the circumstances of life; his broad expanse of ruffled shirt and still broader expanse of face diffusing a sort of warmth about him. He was fond of young men and enjoyed their society and conversation. He called people by their first names, he knew the children and stopped to talk with them. He made equability a study, and though by no means devoid of temper he rarely showed more of it than a passing flush. "Whatever happens," was his advice to a young friend, "make it a point never to get angry. Lawyers will abuse you, witnesses disappoint you, clients deceive and cheat you, and judges will decide against you when you know you are right; but, whatever happens, take it all coolly, laugh if you can, if you can't laugh, smile, and wait for time to make things right."
In his habits and feelings he was the simplest and most unassuming of men. He had that sort of dignity of presence which attaches of necessity to large, slow-moving persons filling important positions; but it was wholly unconscious and was plainly seen to be so. An able jurist and intimate friend of the judge, in response to a request for a description of such traits of character as had most impressed him, says "The trait in Judge Hinman which most strongly attached me to him was his entire simplicity and directness. There was nothing artificial in his conduct, manners or opinions; everything about him was easy, quiet and natural. He seldom was excited, scarcely ever angry, keeping his emotions within easy control. His instinct was quick and remarkably correct, and he was disposed to rely with a good deal of confidence upon the impression which the first view of a subject made on his mind; but he was ready to correct the first impression if on further examination he found grounds for change. He had as little pride of opinion as any one I ever knew, and yet in general his opinions were fixed and definite and not changed except upon full consideration. I remember a case I tried before him where, when the testimony was closed, he asked the counsel opposed to me if he thought he had any case. The counsel very quietly stated the claims which he made, and the judge remarked that he had not looked at the case in that light, and after taking the matter home with him he told me on his return that his first impressions were wrong and that he must decide the case against my client. He was but little influenced by outside opinions, and though he did not disregard the good opinion of the public he made no unworthy sacrifices to be popular. The turn of his mind was eminently practical, and he seldom indulged in generalizations and philosophical speculations. He was not given to very hard study and was inclined to spend his leisure hours with a friend rather than in his library. His nature was kind and genial, incapable of malice or ill-will, and patient almost to a fault. His legal opinions are without the graces of style, but they are attractive because they come directly to the point and cover the whole ground in a manner quite peculiar to the judge himself. He seems without labor or effort to find the true solution of intricate questions, and the conclusions are so natural that the reader adopts them with confidence as being those of his own mind."
He was not a man of much constructive faculty and neither originated new enterprizes nor had any faith in them when originated by others. He had very small sympathy with what is called "progress" of any sort. By frugality and economy he raised and educated his family and accumulated a modest fortune on the very moderate salary of a Connecticut judge, but it was the slow accretion of small gains. Honesty, just judgment, was with him an instinct - a nature; the most intimate relations between him and your opposing counsel would never have caused you uneasiness. As has been well said by a distinguished member of the bar, "his honesty seemed rather to be constitutional than to come from any very nice conscientiousness. He seemed to go right because he could not help it."
The state of Connecticut has been extremely fortunate in the presiding judges of her highest court; and, though some have excelled him in legal acumen or brilliant genius, for that rarely balanced common sense which equals either of these gifts in utility, and for sterling honesty, few names will hold a higher place than that of JOEL HINMAN.