Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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William Hamersley, the subject of this sketch, was born in Hartford, September 9th, 1838, and died there September 17th, 1920 aged eighty-two years. His adult life was devoted to the service of the State, first in prosecution of crime and later to the discharge of his judicial duties.
Fortunate in his ancestry, his mother Laura Sophia, a daughter of Oliver Dudley Cook of Hartford, could readily trace her American lineage back to Puritan sources; while the Hamersley line started in this country with William Hamersley, an officer on the British warship Valeur which was stationed on 1716 in New York harbor. This officer resigned his commission, married a woman of Dutch descent, and settled in New York. The genealogy of the Hamersley family, distinguished in England, can be traced back there for several centuries.
But aside from their noted ancestry, William's parents were themselves prominent. His father, William James Hamersley, was twice Mayor of Hartford (1853, 1862), once postmaster, was editor of the American Mercury for two years or more, and always a welcome contributor to the newspapers of the day. One describing the "Times" office of the period "before the war," wrote: "Pleasantly and lovingly remembered as important individuals in that lively group, were William James Hamersley, Thomas H. Seymour, Charles Chapman and many more." Mrs. Hamersley was conspicious in good works as well as in her social life.
It may not be amiss to recall here the fact that the Hamersley family in Hartford had for many years the unique distinction for sayings and doings of an odd, whimsical, and usually laughable, character, happily devoid of malice and ill-will, thus unconsciously enlarging the circle of their amused and delighted friends.
But to return to our own William. His education was gained in the public schools, plus one or more years of study at Trinity College, an abbreviated course in the Harvard Law School, and finally study in the law office of Welch and Shipman in Hartford. Admitted to the bar in 1859 he practiced independently; became a member of the city common council, its vice-president and president; was elected city attorney, and in 1868 resigned that post to accept the position of State's Attorney for Hartford County. This office he filled for twenty years to the complete satisfaction of everybody except the criminal classes.
It was in this field that William Hamersley, in the opinion of many, rendered his most valuable service, and is entitled to remembrance accordingly. Possessed of mental, as well as moral honesty, high-minded and broad of view, he scorned pettiness of all kinds and had little patience with prosecutions actuated by local or personal prejudice. Akin to these traits was his kindliness of heart, manifested occasionally in behalf of one who was down and out through pure hard luck. His zeal and sincerity impressed his hearers, and jurors seldom disappointed him in their verdicts. When his convictions were aroused he would follow up the culprit with a tenacity that was relentless. He possessed, and well did he merit, the confidence of the community. Take it all in all, he was a great prosecutor, not only for what he did, but also for what he refused to do. Sometimes the public overlooks this distinction.
Hartford County has been happy in the character and ability of its State's Attorneys. With a single exception of two years, we have had since 1846 but four incumbents of that office: Richard D. Hubbard, William Hamersley, Arthur F. Eggleston and Hugh M. Alcorn. What a quartet! Another triumph for the land of the steady habits.
In 1886 Mr. Hamersley was elected a member of the lower house in the General Assembly, serving on the judiciary committee. His interest in simplifying the cumbersome methods of legal procedure in the State led him to advocate the adoption of the Practice Act which he had helped to frame. The passage of this bill redounded to his credit and speeded the administration of justice.
It was in 1893, when Mr. Hamersley was again a member of the lower house, that Governor Luzon B. Morris named him for a judgeship upon the Superior Court. He at once resigned his legislative post, accepted the nomination, and served somewhat less than a year on the bench, when he was promoted to the Supreme Court of Errors. Here he continued for nearly fifteen years, when he was obliged to retire, having reached the age of seventy, the constitutional limit.
Mr. Justice Hamersley was essentially a lawyer, and a somewhat original one at that. He did his own thinking from the ground upward. Probably his inability to use his eyes in a normal way encouraged this self-reliant tendency; but its existence while he was a member of the Supreme Court was obvious. Our system of limited government was one he loved to dwell upon, and he could not understand those who, in his estimation, would do away with these restrictions by judicial legislation or interpretation. But he dug even deeper than that. The three departments of our governmental structure, executive, legislative, and judicial, he believed should be kept essentially separate, and that each should mind it own business; and when the occasion permitted, he expressed himself accordingly. See McGovern V. Mitchell, 78 Conn. 545. Judge Hamersley's opinion in the case cited (increase of the judges' salary) also suggests another trait he possessed and that was courage - moral courage. Popular opinion adverse to the increase ran high, and the court was, as it declared, greatly embarrassed and "reluctant" to hear the cause. Justice Hamersley regarded the distasteful matter in the line of his judicial duty, and wrote the opinion of the court uninfluenced by the views of the public.
The variety and scope of his written opinions attest his legal scholarship, but his literary style hardly did justice to the clarity and vigor of his mental conceptions. His oral consultations, however, left nothing to be desired in that line. Few men can qualify to shine in all three departments of our governmental system, but Judge Hamersley possessed those qualities and generously brought them to the service of his fellowmen.
A lecturer on constitutional law at Trinity College for many years, Judge Hamersley was given the degree of L.L.D. in 1893.
In private life and to those who were admitted to his limited circle he was a charming, cultured gentleman; kindly in heart and mind, fond of humor, an excellent listener as well as a story-teller, loyal, gentle, and true; it was no wonder that his friends soon came to have an abiding affection for him which death alone could sever.
William Hamersley was twice married: first to Cynthia Williams of Painesville, Ohio, October 19th, 1870; and second, to Jane Allen of Old Saybrook, October 25th, 1882. Two children were born of the latter marriage, a daughter, Janet, who died December 16th, 1910, and a son William James Hamersley, who died October 25th, 1918, from influenza contracted while doing Red Cross work at Camp Devens. He was a fine type of young man whose demise was deeply deplored.
The son (William James) married December 5th, 1916, Emily Brace Collins (now Mrs. J. Hamilton Scranton) and their daughter, Jane Hamersley, is the only direct living descendant of Judge William Hamersley.