The death of Henry Stoddard, of Woodbridge, on February 9, 1941, brought to a close a unique legal career. For variety of experience, length of active work, originality of method and success in litigation it would be difficult to find a duplicate in the life of any lawyer. Born in Bethany in 1843, of a sound old Connecticut family, he was one of four brothers who distinguished themselves as professional men. His brother, Goodwin, was an illustrious member of the Fairfield County bar. William practiced law in New Haven County, and Robert was a successful physician in Texas.
After attending the Albany Law School, Henry Stoddard was admitted to the bar of New York State and the New Haven County bar in 1864. His early years as a lawyer were not easy. He at once exhibited a talent for court room work, which was characterized by that pertinacity which in later years, combined with ripe experience and extraordinary resourcefulness, produced such favorable results in the trial of causes. His name first appears as counsel in the Supreme Court of Errors in the case of Shelton v. French, 33 Conn. 488, in 1866. From that time on for a number of years he appears very often in a constant succession of small cases of great variety. This records shows that Mr. Stoddard's skill and judgment as an advocate in later life were developed by many years of hard experience at the bar. To this was later added deep thought upon the problems he had to decide while on the bench.
Before he was appointed to the Superior Court, he was active in politics on the Democratic side. He held for brief periods successively the offices of assemblyman, state senator, city attorney of New Haven, judge of the New Haven City Court, corporation counsel of the city of New Haven, and judge of the Court of Common Pleas. In 1882 Judge Stoddard was appointed a judge of the Superior Court. Almost immediately upon his appointment he was called upon to sit as a judge of the Supreme Court of Errors, and throughout his term in the Superior Court he acted frequently in the higher tribunal as well. His first opinion as a judge of the Supreme Court of Errors appears as early as the 50th volume of the Connecticut Reports in 1882.
When he resigned as a judge in 1888, Judge Stoddard entered immediately upon practice in New Haven County and throughout the state. He was at first a member of the firm of Bristol, Stoddard & Bristol, which subsequently became Bristol, Stoddard, Beach & Fisher. In this latter firm he was associated with the late Louis H. Bristol, John W. Bristol, John K. Beach, subsequently a judge of the Supreme Court of Errors, and Samuel H. Fisher, now of Litchfield. Subsequently Judge Stoddard became a member of the firm of Bristol & White, and since 1934 he has been senior partner in the firm of Wiggin & Dana. For more than a generation Judge Stoddard served as senior counsel for Yale University, in whose legal affairs he retained an intense interest until the time of his death. He lectured for some years at the Yale Law School and received the degree of M.A. from the University in 1888. He was trial attorney for the University in early tax cases, and upon one occasion was sent to England to collect in the British courts a large legacy coming to Yale from the estate of Archibald Henry Blount.
With the late C. R. Ingersoll he was counsel for Luzon B. Morris in the latter's spectacular clash with Governor Bulkeley arising out of the 1890 gubernatorial election in which the vote was so close between Morris, the Democratic candidate, and Samuel E. Merwin, Republican, that the legislature was unable or refused during the next two years to declare either man elected, and the previous governor, Morgan C. Bulkeley, served throughout the ensuing two years despite the fact that he had not even been a candidate in the election. Judge Stoddard was also counsel for The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the cases of Austin B. Fuller et ux. v. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., landmarks of the Connecticut law of insurance. Perhaps his most famous case was Bryan's Appeal, in 1904, in which he successfully opposed William Jennings Bryan's claim to a legacy under the will of Philo S. Bennett of New Haven. Judge Stoddard was before the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors with great frequency for a period of sixty-eight years. His name appears for the last time in Volume 118 in 1934 as counsel for the plaintiff in the case of MacKay v. Aetna Life Insurance Company.
As recently as 1936 he was in his office almost daily, and up to within a few months of his death he was at his desk at least once or twice every week. An article in the American Bar Journal for June, 1939, claimed for him the distinction of being the oldest practicing lawyer in the United States. He was much troubled by digestive difficulty in middle age, but his physical and mental vigor in later years was truly remarkable. He was able well into his ninth decade to stand the strain of hard trials. Though short of stature, his physique had been well developed in his youth by athletic sports, especially boxing. He was an excellent golf player until he was nearly ninety, and long after that, early risers in New Haven would meet him on his morning walk at 7 o'clock. He took great pleasure in country pursuits at his farm in Woodbridge.
It would be desirable, if possible, to convey some impression of his extraordinary power in the courtroom. He was accustomed to long and meticulous analysis and intense mental concentration in preparing for trial. When an interesting case was on his mind, there was no room there for anything else. Every day and sometimes often in a day he would bring to his associates new ideas for weighing and discussion. His inventiveness was inexhaustible. His experience had been so vast that nothing appeared to be capable of surprising him. He had always met a similar situation years before. His alertness in court was astonishing. He could sense a danger almost before it existed. And he was rarely at a loss for a means of anticipating it. He had a rugged integrity and a mental honesty which at once enabled him to pierce a specious argument and to plainly see and effectively answer the strength of an opponent's case. Fortified by most exhaustive thought about a case, and armed with complete knowledge of all the technical weapons of the advocate, he was indeed a formidable antagonist. His courtroom manner was customarily serious as befitting a serious occasion; but this would be illumined by surprising flashes of wit, which often verged upon audacity. When his advocacy was at its best, his voice and personality reached a pitch of intensity that held a courtroom breathless. This is an inborn quality possessed only by the greatest of orators and advocates. Yet he was no mere spellbinder. Though a powerful jury lawyer, he was probably at his best in the appellate courts. That is to say, he had a keen instinct for the strong point of a case, and a great ability to emphasize it and make it memorable by an argument. He might not make it prevail, but it always had to be considered.
He was an extraordinary and in some ways a typical product of old New England. Those times are gone, and we shall not look upon his like again. In closing we may borrow a quotation from Mr. F. J. Kingsbury's biographical note upon Hinman, C.J. in 35 Conn. 599. This well sums up a similar family of Yankee lawyers:
"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 toward the legal profession."
Judge Stoddard's wife, formerly Amelia E. Augur, of Woodbridge, whom he married in 1869, died in 1928 at the age of 89. He leaves surviving him two children, Clifford I. Stoddard, of Woodbridge, and Grace A. Ray, of Lancaster, New Hampshire, as well as six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.