Judge, Governor, Gardener


William Marvin was a hanging judge. So learned Alejandro Carcer and Guillot Eloy of the American schooner Enterprise when they snapped and swung for the murder of Captain B.A. Morantes in 1859. Known as a legal lion and the only moral force in southern Florida, Federal Judge William Marvin played by the book. And when there was no book, he wrote it, authoring Law of Wreck and Salvage as he imposed order on those who lived off shipwrecks in the Florida Keys.

William Marvin also dished it out to the slave trade, condemning the slave ships Wildfire, William and Bogota after their capture by the U.S. Navy in 1860. When Florida seceded from the Union, Judge Marvin held his ground, saying the move was illegal. Because Key West never fell into Confederate hands, and was a port for Union blockaders, Marvin remained the only Federal judge south of Washington. After the war, President Andrew Johnson appointed him provisional Governor of Florida. He was Florida’s seventh governor, serving from July 13 to December 20, 1865.

Not bad for a farm boy from upstate New York.

:: Walking to Washington ::

Born in Fairfield, Herkimer County, and raised in Dryden, Tompkins County, William Marvin began teaching in Phelps, New York, at the age of 15, giving his wages to his father and working on the family farm in the summer. At 18, he went out on his own, heading south. “I walked the greater part of the way through the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland to Bladensburg near Washington city,” he wrote. When down to his last 25 cents, he stopped and started a school, speaking to parents that evening and beginning to rebuild his bankroll the next morning. On Saturdays and holidays, he walked the five miles into Washington, and at the White House reception on the 4th of July, 1827, shook hands with President John Quincy Adams. He was more impressed, however, by Colonel Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812, a tall and handsome man with a plumed hat.

Marvin would live to be 95, but he almost died three times while young. His first brush came when he called on a young lady from Phelps who was visiting in Alexandria, Virginia. In a borrowed sailboat, he and a friend set out on the Potomac River, ran into high winds and waves, and were cast into the water. The boat was lost, but the men swam to the shore, fully dressed. Dripping wet, Marvin called upon the young lady, whose aunt and uncle, “nice Quaker people,” allowed him to dry his clothes in the kitchen and suggested that he learn how to sail before setting sail again.

After school hours, Marvin studied law and was admitted to the Maryland bar. But he chose to return to New York, traveling by stage coach, steamboat and railroad, with $350 in “good bank bills” in his pocket. Back in Phelps, he found a position clerking for another attorney and prospered. But in 1832, his father, step-mother and eldest brother all died “of the fever.” Marvin found himself responsible for his father’s second family. “What to do with seven little orphan children… was a very perplexing question,” he wrote. In the end, he loaded them all in a wagon, parceled them out to seven different families, and life went on. In 1834, he was admitted to the New York State Bar, and began practicing as a lawyer in Phelps. But his life took another turn.

Marvin notes, “In December 1834, professional business took me to St. Augustine in Florida.” Surely the tale of how a lawyer from Phelps found himself in Florida is worth two sentences. But not from William Marvin.

The young lawyer went south, but his luck as a sailor was unchanged. The five-day ocean voyage to Florida from New York City, aboard a Hudson River sloop, turned into 25 days of head winds, bad navigation and sea sickness. “When I landed in St. Augustine I was so weak that I could scarcely walk,” he wrote. Not yet a state, Florida had been in U.S. hands since 1819 when Spain ceded it to the young nation, an event perhaps not unrelated to the 1818 invasion led by Andrew Jackson. Marvin concluded his business, made some new friends, and returned to New York. But in the summer of 1835, as a result of a contact Marvin had made on his first visit, President Andrew Jackson called upon him to serve as U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

:: Key West ::

Marvin wrote, “The acceptance of this office and removal to Key West changed the whole course and current of my life. I resided no longer in a northern climate, where the winds, ice and snow compelled me to live within doors nine months of the year, but had become the inhabitant of an island located half way between the Peninsula of Florida and Cuba, where the bright sun and delightful sea breezes invited one to live in the open air as much as possible, all the year round.”

Key West was home to about 350 people whose main occupation was salvaging shipwrecks and cargos strewn across 200 miles of reefs in the Florida Keys. In such cases, who owned what, and who owed how much money to who, led to much litigation. A hurricane had preceded William Marvin, and in his first week in Key West he found himself trying several cases. In less than a month, moonlighting at the going rate, he earned $1,500, more than he would have earned in a year of lawyering in Phelps, New York. And so it went: His work as District Attorney was light, but William Marvin made $14,000 in just four years, all of which he invested. (These are 1835 dollars by the way; today, they would be the equivalent of $268,000.)

Four months after his arrival, William Marvin had his second glimpse of mortality. Upon returning from a visit to Havana, he came down with yellow fever. “Indeed, it is a wonder I did not die,” he said. The mortality rate for yellow fever was 50%. Marvin won the coin toss.

With some other young men, he started a church. His social life revolved around four or five families he came to know. He sought to hire domestic servants to cook and clean, but was told there was no one to hire; he would have to buy his domestics, so he did. The local food consisted of fish and green turtle; other staples came from New York or Charleston, South Carolina. Mail came once a month on a schooner from Charleston. The only drawback was the mosquitoes, “always hungry and venomous.”

And there were other pests. In 1837, during a legislative council in Tallahassee, Marvin opposed a bill presented by one Ned Wood, whose response was, “Damn him, I’ll cut his damned ears off.” Marvin wrote, “If it should be understood throughout the country that I could be insulted without properly resenting the insult, my public life would be at once ended.”

He stood up to Wood and the etiquette of the era called for a duel with pistols. Marvin asked another gentleman to be his second and, providentially, that man was a friend of Wood who knew him to be adept with a pistol, able to hit a silver dollar at ten paces. Marvin, on the other hand, had as much knowledge of pistols as he had of sailing. Marvin’s second said, “Please stay in your room until I come back.” Within an hour, he returned with a written apology from Wood, and thus saved Marvin’s life.

:: Married, Blessed, Widowed ::

In the summers, when court was not in session and the Keys were at their most tropical, Marvin would return to New York to vacation. During an 1846 summer stay in Cooperstown, Marvin was pleased to meet Harriette Foote, a young woman who he described as being of medium size, with fair skin, gray eyes, dark hair. Their courtship must have been of an extremely rational nature. Marvin noted, “She had not a great difficulty in learning all she desired to know about me, as I was well known to her friend Judge Nelson of the Supreme Court of the United States.” They married and sailed south to Key West, where she gave birth to a daughter, Hattie. But Harriette had taken ill during her pregnancy and was unable to nurse her child. Nor was there a goat or cow on Key West to provide milk. But Marvin found a slave, Nancy Wall, who was able to nurse both Hattie and her own daughter. Before Harriette Marvin died, as she soon did, she was able to see “a rosy-cheeked, laughing, happy, and joyous baby.”

Marvin now felt compelled to send his daughter back to Cooperstown. He found a Mrs. Williams who would nurse the baby on the voyage north. In Boston, the infant was passed on to Mary Flood, “a young, strong, healthy Irish woman.” Thus, in the age before Similac, Hattie Marvin was passed from breast to breast, and thrived. And when she grew older, she was able to return to Florida to be with her father, eventually a United States District Judge.

:: Dinner with Emerson and Longfellow ::

In the summer of 1858, Marvin went to Boston to supervise the printing of Law of Wreck and Salvage. On the street, he encountered Louis Agassiz, famed zoologist and geologist, then teaching at Harvard. The previous winter, they had met while Agassiz was in Key West, studying the coral reefs. The chance meeting resulted in an invitation, and Marvin found himself dining with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and “several other literary persons.” Marvin was underwhelmed: “I conversed mostly with Emerson who had been in Florida… He did not specially interest me in his conversation. Holmes was not handsome; he looked too much like Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, lean and angular… Longfellow talked but little…”

“Holmes was not handsome” is one of several similar comments in Marvin’s autobiography. Stephens was to be the Vice President of the Confederacy and later the Governor of Georgia. Apparently, Marvin found him to be a benchmark of ugliness, and to Marvin, that mattered. He thought himself bashful and awkward, and apparently this perceived shortcoming and his admiration of other’s good looks colored his relationships all his life.

In 1860, after a trip to Europe, Marvin returned to Florida in time for the debate over secession. Although he owned his domestic servants, and made no apology for it, he was opposed to secession on Constitutional grounds. A State convention was called to consider the matter, and Marvin put himself forward as a candidate to represent his county on the Union side; he was defeated. His colleagues were mostly secessionists, and Marvin spoke of “great mental anxiety and suffering” at this time, relieved only by the presence of his sister, his niece and his daughter.

The beginning of the Civil War was, paradoxically, a relief for Marvin. The future became clear; Martial Law was declared in Key West and the secessionists left, returning to mainland Florida and the Confederacy. “The Unionists were now in the ascendancy and quiet and good order prevailed,” Marvin wrote. His work now concerned prize cases, the disposition of vessels caught trying to run the Union blockade. But in 1863, Marvin felt that his health could no longer bear the anxiety, the overwork, and the hot climate. He removed his family from Key West and sailed to New York City.

:: Judge to Governor ::

There he rested and then began practicing law again. But when the war ended, he was asked by President Andrew Johnson to return to Florida as its Governor, and he accepted, helping to reestablish state government and lead the effort to draft a new state constitution, which would abolish slavery and assure “the rights of person and property without distinction of color.”

As part of his duties, Marvin spoke to many groups of former slaves, and was discouraged by their failure to grasp the concept of “freedom.” (One might observe that he shouldn’t have been surprised. Civics classes were not a regular part of the slave experience in Florida, and it may be that those who “got it” had already left with it.)

Marvin’s duties as provisional governor soon ended, but he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and it appeared that his career in public life would be crowned with another achievement. But instead, his career was about to end. The Senate refused to seat him because he had been sent to Washington by a state which had not yet extended the vote to people of color. A new state election was held, this time with recently freed slaves voting. Guided by the benevolent powers, the new electorate selected two new senators, Colonel Thomas Ward Osborn of Jefferson County, N.Y., and Mr. Abijah Gilbert from Otsego County, N.Y. Each had lived in Florida for less than two years, and would now represent the citizens of Florida while living in Washington, D.C.

Marvin noted, “I took no part in these proceedings.” In fact, he bailed out. He left Florida. He left politics. He left the practice of law. He married a woman he had met in Saratoga Springs a few summers earlier — he was “much pleased with her personal appearance” — and moved to her home in Skaneateles, New York.

:: Skaneateles ::


Marvin’s bride, Eliza Riddle Jewett, was the widowed daughter-in-law of Freeborn Jewett. And so Governor William Marvin found himself in possession of the Jewett mansion just a few steps from the lake. (It is today the home of the Masonic Temple, and, fittingly, law offices.) Here, William Marvin settled into a long retirement that stretched from 1867 to 1902.

Given his past, the Village was impressed by his presence. Judge Marvin served as president of the Skaneateles Library Association from its founding until his death. He was president of the Village Board of Trustees in 1876. He served as Senior Warden of St. James Episcopal Church and as chairman of the Lake View Cemetery Association. He stood in opposition to a railroad that would have run down the east shore of the lake, which should endear him to everyone who either lives or looks at the east shore.


But what endears him to me is his garden. “I have employed my time in working in my garden,” he wrote in 1893. And what a garden he had to work in. His backyard filled the center of the block bounded by Genesee and Academy, Jordon and State, pretty much where the municipal parking lot is today. Imagine that paved lot as well-tended green space, and you have William Marvin’s garden.

When William Marvin’s wife died in 1901, he wrote, “Our married life was peaceful and happy. I shall soon rejoin her.” And so he did, in 1902. He is buried in Lake View Cemetery. His home still stands on Genesee Street.

On occasion, his photograph and an 1861 silk flag, given by friends in Florida who admired his stand for the Union, adorn a mantel in the Skaneateles Library. And at St. James’ Episcopal Church, a brass plaque marks the pew where he sat every Sunday, and a larger bronze marker on the east wall commemorates his service to the church.


* * *

Much of my information came from the Web, particularly histories of Florida, and from Marvin’s own autobiography courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society. In 1893, Marvin had his memories set down on paper, noting, “At the request of my daughter I have thus dictated to an amanuensis an account of the principal events of my life. There has been nothing extraordinary in it.” He added a few more notes before his death in 1902. Frances Milford copied the autobiography from Marvin’s notes and Reba Pierce did the typing. My thanks to them and to Village Historian Pat Blackler.


This painting of William Marvin is oil over a photograph, done circa 1955 by Tallahassee artist Claribel Jett; it hangs in Florida.

Freeborn Jewett (1791-1858), whose house Marvin moved into in Skaneateles, served as first Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and was remembered for “the clearness of his intellect, the justness of his judgment, the purity and benevolence of his heart.” Born in Connecticut, he came to Skaneateles in 1815 to practice law with James Porter. He was appointed to many state and local offices, and elected to the New York State Assembly, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the New York State Court of Appeals. He retired from the court in 1853 to return to Skaneateles.


4 thoughts on “Judge, Governor, Gardener

  1. Pingback: A General in the Governor’s Mansion | Skaneateles

  2. Pingback: The Jewett Mansion | Skaneateles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s