Tuesday, August 13, 2013

George M. Stearns - The Parson's Devil


In this era of well-rehearsed sound bites and video imagery, it is rare to see the true and natural personalities of our public figures.  The picture we get is intentionally artificial, but there was a time when common folk rose in politics and society and became large in the public eye though the force of their own natural personalities.  One such man was George M. Stearns, a lawyer-orator of the nineteenth century.
In his white linen suit, Mr. Stearns dispensed his observations with Twain-like sarcasm. “If a man fell on the sidewalk, he brushed himself off, and went about his business.  If a man falls now he doesn’t get up until he thinks whether he can sue someone for damages.”
George Stearns lamented the overuse of our judicial system over one hundred years ago.  In Clifton Johnson’s The Parsons Devil (1927, Thomas Y. Crowell Company), Stearns is painted as a clever lawyer, a practical-joking character whose sense of humor was his calling card.  From this biography we also get a unique view of the western Massachusetts down of Chicopee in the nineteenth century.
It was in August 1848, only a few months after Chicopee became an incorporated town, that Stearns came here from his boyhood home farther north in the small town of Rowe, where his father was a Unitarian minister -- whereby Johnson titled his book The Parson's Devil.  He was seventeen and began his apprenticeship in the law office of John Wells, who had also been born in Rowe.  Wells later served in the state legislature, and was a future Massachusetts State Supreme Court Judge.
Young George Stearns swept his office, did chores, “read law” and mostly learned what it was like to be suddenly a part of a growing industrial community.  Stearns latched on to Chicopee, in the early years of its industrial might, and he savored it.
“The small brick dwellings along Exchange Street were occupied by the solid residents of the village,” Stearns recalled.  On the hill above the main village of Cabotville, there were woods, a few farmhouses, and dirt paths for roads where “an occasional board was laid down in the early spring to prevent your going knee deep in mud.”
Illustration, Chicopee 1856, original in Edward Bellamy Memorial Association
collection, Chicopee, Mass.
 
Chicopee was a staunch Whig town, where politics was discussed at Joe Bagg’s drugstore.  Abner Abbey read the newspapers aloud, and according to Stearns, much of the Civil War was fought right there over the cracker barrels.
 
Stearns married, had two daughters, and settled in the Springfield Street house which still stands across the street from the mansion that once belonged to his old colleague, George Robinson.  (George Robinson, former Chicopee High School principal and future Governor of Massachusetts, was also a noted attorney who successfully defended Lizzie Borden.  See this previous post.)
 
 
George Robinson
 
 
Though both Georges were cordial with each other, and both members of the Unitarian church, they did not always see eye to eye.  Much later in their careers when Stearns became a figure of the Democratic Party and Robinson in the Republican Party, Robinson supported James Blaine over Grover Cleveland for president.  Stearns remarked, “It reminded me of a pettifogger defending a chicken thief.”
In these days when political accusations are nastier and behavior vile, it seems amazing that “pettifogger” and “chicken thief” were once considered strong language.
Stearns was a master of language.  When he was arguing a case in court, the gallery would fill just to see him.  He was a rascal, and a joker, and a bit of an actor.  He could bring himself to tears in a defense argument, or squash his legal opponent with sarcasm.  At times his reputation for fun haunted him, as biographer Johnson noted, “He used to get angry clean through because the moment he got up to speak, the jurors would settle back expecting him to be funny, and one or more of the asses among them were likely to laugh in the middle of some of his most beautiful and eloquent passages.”
His reputation for silliness was not undeserved.  Stearns once bought the pants right off of Chicopee Savings Bank treasurer and future Chicopee mayor Henry H. Harris, who always kidded about him about his frugality.  Another time he won a bet with Harris, who had to pull Stearns home in a sleigh.
Stearns served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and in the State Senate.  His advice was sought by political leaders in Boston, but Stearns preferred to make his permanent home in Chicopee until 1894, when frail health compelled him to move closer to his Boston physician, and he died in December.  His obituary in The New York Times (January 1, 1895) noted, “He was considered one of the ablest and most eloquent advocates, and one of the readiest and wittiest debaters in the State.  He was widely known as a jury pleader, and had a very extensive criminal practice.”
At that time he left western Massachusetts he lamented, “I’d rather see a piece of Chicopee sky than anything else.”
Stearns Terrace and Henry Harris Street intersect in the area that was still wooded when Stearns came to Chicopee.  The city’s growth might amaze him.  As for our propensity to sue for damages, some things never change.

An earlier version of this article appeared in In Chicopee, a publication of the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, Holyoke, Massachusetts, May 1992.  Photos are in the public domain, from the Image Museum website.

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