A Story About Henry Alexander Wise, Lawyer, Soldier, Statesman,
A Story About Henry Alexander Wise, Lawyer, Soldier, Statesman,
War Governor and Nestor of the Virginia Bar, and
a native of Accomack County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia
From: Priscilla C. Beachboard
The following excerpts are from an article by Lorie C. Quinn, Sr., "Former Citizen Reminisces on a Will Case," which appeared in several installments in the Pocomoke City, MD, Worcester Democrat during December 1942.
"Henry Alexander Wise, Lawyer, Soldier, Statesman, War Governor and Nestor of the Virginia Bar, was a native of Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. In addition to being one of the country's most famous orators, he was said to have been one of the ablest Attorneys-at-Law in the country. His influence over a jury was such that he lost few cases. His magnetic personality and eloquence often had the effect of bringing tears or laughter to both the court and the spectators. His colonial home, beautifully situated on Onancock Creek, Va., is visited to this day by hundreds of tourists.
"His last appearance in any court was in the famous Will Case tried in Snow Hill, Worcester County, Md. At that time he showed the infirmities of age and as he had a most distressing cough, he was thought to be slowly dying of consumption.
"The case in question was of great local interest because of the prominence and affluence of the family involved. Mr. William Schoolfield, who lived a few miles south of Pocomoke and near the Virginia line, had amassed a considerable estate consisting of farms, timberland and bonds. When his only son, known as Lish, was graduated with a degree in civil engineering, his father expected him to "go to work." Lish had other plans.
"Mr. Schoolfield's brother lived on an adjoining farm with two sons and a daughter with whom Lish had grown up, and they knew how to have a good time. 'Those were the good old days after the Civil War..... The young folks usually amused themselves during the day by gunning, following the hounds on a fox chase and dancing and frollicking from one house to another at night.'
"When Lish and his cousin Grace were married, 'Mr. Schoolfield thought that this would change Lish and bring him to a sense of the responsibilities of a married man. To his disgust, he soon found that girls liked a good time as well as boys.'
"About this time Mr. Schoolfield had an accident and, realizing that he could not recover, summoned a lawyer and wrote a will. His brother and housekeeper were witnesses. "He stated to them that Lish did not seem to know what a dollar was made for except to spend and that he did not intend to let him throw away a fortune which it had taken him a lifetime to accumulate."
"The estate was left to Lish in trust. ... The will was given to (Mr. Schoolfield's) brother for safekeeping. He, upon his return home, placed it in a bureau drawer in his bed chamber, among other private papers. Every member of his household had ready access to his bedroom and also the bureau drawer, as it was never locked.
"In less than four months after making his will, Mr. Schoolfield died. After the funeral, the family and Executors gathered in the parlor of (the brother's) home to hear the will read. When the envelope was opened, instead of the will, it contained only a blank sheet of paper. The next hour was a painful one for all present. Lish was accused of stealing the will or getting one of his friends to make away with it.
"At a meeting of the executors next day, it was decided to employ council and to institute proceedings to establish the existence and validity of the will by witnesses.
"On the advice of friends, Lish went to the Drummondtown, now known as Accomack, Court House, and employed the service of the great lawyer, Henry A. Wise.
"When court convened a few weeks later, the case had been docketed and trial set for Tuesday of the second week, the first week being taken up with minor cases.
"My father, William W. Quinn, was proprietor of the only hotel in Pocomoke at this time. It was a large rambling structure, the largest on the Shore, and was named after its owner, 'The Clarke House.' The lobby and bar, separated by a twenty-foot stairway, occupied the entire lower floor. The hall on the second floor was seventy-five feet in length and twenty-four feet in width, with guest chambers on each side. The parlor, as large as a small theatre, was on the corner of the building and adjoining two large guest chambers which were used only on special occasions.
"On Sunday, two days before the date set for the trial at Snow Hill, a large closed carriage drove up and stopped at the side entrance of the hotel. The hour was about three o'clock in the afternoon. The colored driver, a big man with the tallest beaver hat I had ever seen, jumped down and opened the door. My father, who had been notified in advance that Governor Wise would require accommodations on that date, hurried out to welcome and escort his distinguished guest to his room."
"The writer at the time was a lad of ten years. He had often heard of Governor Wise and had pictured him as a man of colossal size. This is what he saw: A tall gaunt figure bent with age, with thin straggly hair falling to his shoulders. His face was long, thin and the color of coffee. He resembled more a corpse than a living man. His eyes only were alive. They were black as midnight and looked like coals of fire in a ____. When he spoke, they lighted up and glowed with live flame. He was assisted to his room, number seven adjoining the parlor. He seemed exhausted by his trip and went to bed for a couple of hours rest before supper. His cough was still very troublesome. My father led me to the bed and said, 'Governor, this is my son. I have appointed him your attendant for the afternoon. He will get you anything you desire.'
"Governor Wise put his hand on my head and called me a fine lad. It made me very proud to attend and assist such a famous man, even for a short time. After my father left the room, Mr. Wise called me to the bed and requested that I go down to the bar and get him two lemons. Upon my return, I found him propped up in bed. Next he sent me to the dining-room for a saucer of salt. Getting out a penknife, he sliced the lemons and said, 'Son, I am now going to tell you something which has cost me over ten thousand dollars to learn, and I hope that you will never forget it.You will notice that I have a severe cough. I have tried every known specialist in the East but got no relief. I have found that lemon and salt is the only remedy known so far that will stop a cough for a short time. It cuts the phlegm, I spit it out and sometimes rest undisturbed for two or three hours. Don't forget it!' The writer never has.
"The only paper published in Pocomoke City was the old 'Record and Gazette', which suspended publication many years ago. Littleton Dennis was the editor. Dennis was a live man for his day and when he learned that Governor Wise would break his trip to Snow Hill by a stay over at Pocomoke, he organized a committee, which finally prevailed upon the Governor to make a short address during his stay at Pocomoke Sunday evening. The paper made this fact known to the public with the result that at eight o'clock on Sunday evening the hotel lobby, stairs, and even the sidewalk in front of the main doorway was crowded with people, from all parts of the country, anxious to hear what he had to say. The coming trial was the general topic of conversation at every place where a crowd gathered and many came to hear him discuss the Will case. They were disappointed in this particular. He never mentioned it.
"Standing in the hall at the head of the stairway, he began his address. In some way his appearance had changed. With his wide white collar and flowered stock, Prince Albert coat, with shoulders erect, he was an imposing figure. It was the Henry A. Wise of old who addressed the audience.
"I can remember only a few of the outstanding sentences of his speech. It was a masterly one replete with both pathos and humor. Even his voice had lost its gruffness. Although bothered by his cough occasionally he spoke for nearly two hours.
"His opening sentence was 'My friends.' Looking over the crowd and after an impressive pause of nearly a full minute, he continued: 'As my near neighbors, I have many friends in this old Commonwealth of Maryland whom I love and who I think love me--what can man desire more?' Then he paid a tribute to the women of the Eastern Shore, their beauty, loyalty, faithfulness to church and home, and then last but not least, to the culinary art which was unequaled in any section of the country.
"'As for the men of the Shore,' he said, 'you will find them in all parts of this broad land and wherever found, they are leaders in thought and action for the development of resources and betterment of people of that locality.'
"He next touched upon his pleasant memories of a number of prominent Marylanders and laid particular stress upon his association with Col. Wm. J. Aydelotte, at that time State Senator from Worcester County and whose home was at Pocomoke City. Raising his voice, he said, 'I love a man who has the courage of his convictions. They are the salt of the earth. Such a man is Col. Aydelotte.'
"In explanation he told of the efforts of himself as the Virginia member and Col. Aydelotte as the Maryland representative of a commission appointed to settle a boundary dispute by relocation of the Black and Jenkins line between the two states. The line was supposed to stand at the Allegheny Mountains, follow the Potomac River to its mouth, cross the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Sound to Watkins Point, thence in an east course to Saxis Island and across the Peninsula to the Ocean. The old compact made in 1700 clearly showed that the Maryland line went to the South bank of the Potomac river with South Point a monument. Gov. Wise tried to make the middle of the channel of the river the line. He next contended that Watkins Point was the north side of the Manokin river and that Saxis Island was a bunch of marshy hummocks above the Pocomoke muds. Col. Aydelotte knew better. As a Civil Engineer he had studied carefully the tracing and data left by Black and Jenkins and was convincd that the South Side of the Potomac was the line, that Watts Island on the Eastern Shore and Saxis Island were the points mentioned in the survey. The line outlined by Govenor Wise would have given Smith's Island, Crisfield and the lower part of of Somerset County to Virginia.
"Weeks were passed by both men in going over the route. Governor Wise brought to bear every argument at his command upon his colleague, but without avail. He was up against a stone wall. Realizing this, with mutual respect, they agreed to disagree and so notified their governments.
"The line was later located by a different commission. Mr. Guy Steele, a lawyer from Baltimore County, was the Maryland member. Not recognizing the value of the fisheries in the lower bay and Sounds, he allowed the Virginia member to follow some of the suggestions of Governor Wise with the result that Maryland and Somerset County lost a part of Smith's Island, all of Fox Island, the great oyster rock known as Muddy Marsh in Tangier Sound, and the valuable crabbing flats from Green Harbor Island to Robin Hood Bar in Pocomoke Sound, by the new line. (Did this agreement cause the Oyster Wars? -- pb)
"Leaving this subject, he spoke with emotion of the Civil War, its horrors, the causes which led up to it and the misery and hatred engendered in the South by the actions of carpetbaggers during Reconstruction days.
"In closing he reviewed some of his official acts while Governor of Virginia, including the trial and hanging of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. In a ringing voice he exclaimed: 'Yes, I hung him, and though it made me many enemies in different parts of the country, I would hang him again.'
"Governor Wise failed to mention an episode in his career which caused quite a sensation at the time all over the country. As a member of Congress, one day angered by some act or decision of Vice President Johnson, whom he detested, he rushed across the Senate Chamber, grabbed him by the ear and jerked him from his chair to the floor. Wise hoped that Johnson would resent the insult by a challenge and in the duel get an opportunity to kill him. Johnson challenged but some of his friends, knowing that Wise had fought several duels and was a dead shot, appealed to the President, who in some manner managed to smooth matters over. Although Mr. Wise never apologized, the duel never took place."
"On Monday morning Governor Wise, well wrapped up in coat, muffler, and short shoulder shawl, which elderly men sometimes wore, entered his carriage and with his stove pipe hatted colored driver, left for the county seat (Snow Hill).
"After a fair night's rest with his client, he entered court, presented his credentials and announced they were ready for trial. It was noticed that Gov. Wise, when he came in, carried a large book under his arm which he placed carefully upon the table before him as he sat down. To the astonishment of everybody, it turned out to be a Bible. As this was something unusual, they began to wonder when and how he was going to make use of it.
"The trial began with the panelling of the jury which did not take much time, as Governor Wise challenged only a few, contenting himself with looking the man over carefully before accepting him.
"The lawyers representing the Executors stated their case and what they expected to prove. Mr. Wise replied briefy, he did not attempt to deny that Mr. Schhoolfield had made a will and that its provsions were such as claimed by the plaintiffs, but said that he would prove by competent witnesses that the son, Ulysses, did not know the content of his father's will or where it was kept in his uncle's house. And it was the opinion of everyone exxcpt the plaintiffs that Mr. Schoolfield, after due reflection realized that he was doing his son a grave injustice and on one of his visits to the home of his brother and knowing where all of his brother's private papers were kept, had himself recovered the will.
"That afternoon and the next morning were taken up by the examination of witnesses. Mr. Wise seemed to have recovered some of the old time fire and was a master in tying up a witness and getting the answer he desired. One old fellow on leaving the witness stand remarked: 'He can turn you inside out. When he asks you a question, them eyes of his will make you answer his way, whether you want to or not.'
"That afternoon Mr. Purnell for the plaintiffs made his plea to the jury. He spoke for about one hour.
"When Mr. Wise arose to reply, he picked up his Bible, opened it, turned a page or two, then facing the court and jury, he began: 'Your honors and gentlemen of the jury, with your permission I will read you a verse from this good book--a book where all men can find comfort and consolation in times of stress.' It is said that before starting any important case, he always opened his argument or plea by reading a passage or verse from the Bible, and by alocation endeavored to make the passage fit the case.
"On this occasion the text was from the 26th chapter of St Matthew, 3rd and 4th verses, as follows: 'And Calaphas the high Priest and the Scribes and Elders jealous of His influence with the people and fearing that he would bccom a ruler with both power and riches they sought to slay Him.'
"During his address of more than two hours, you could have heard a pin drop. The old lion had
regained his strength and his roars at times shook the rafters of the Court House. Dramatically in
closing, he likened Lish to a poor little orphan boy with the wolves snapping at his heels, trying
to rob him of his rightful heritage. When he sat down some of the jurors, as well as many of the
spectators, were wiping their eyes. Gone was all ______, gone was all precedent. Such was the
magnetic eloquence of the ___ the whole room seemed charged with emotional electricity. The
charge of the judge was short, the jury retired and in five minutes returned with a verdict for
"A few weeks after the trial, Mr. Wise died while on a trip to Richmond, Va. Thus passed a great man, a man of turbulent nature, with the heart of a lion and the soul of a child. Peace to his ashes.
"Without his father's restraining hand and with a large fortune at his command, Lish really went to ____ , using a trite expression. He built a costly house and stables on the old home farm. He then laid out a race track and going to Kentucky, returned with a string of thoroughbreds headed by a famous stallion called 'Bonny Scotland.' Although it was a costly experience for Lish, the community benefitted as the great stallion did much to improve the standard of the trotting stock on the Shore.
"His next move was the purchase of a steamboat for trips on Chincoteage Bay, along whose shores many gay parties were thrown. Seafood in all styles was usually served. A large man with an appetite to match, Lish was said to often eat a half bushel of clams just to whet his appetite before sitting down to a full meal.
"When Lish would ride into Pocomoke with his fine span of horses and his fancy rig, he would be immediately surrounded by a gay crowd. Lish had many friends who knew that his heart was as big as his body and that he was good for a touch, by a friend in distress day or night.
"In four years Lish was broke, his fortune gone. It did not worry either him or his wife. They were just as happy broke as they were while rolling in wealth.To his friends, Lish said: 'We don't regret it. If we had the money back, we would do it over again.'
"Down and out the man showed his mettle. He buckled down to work and shortly developed into the kind of man his father hoped he would be. His accuracy and ability as an engineer brought him clients from all parts of the Peninsula. Ripe with years, he passed away a few years ago, leaving behind the fragrance of a life which only the flood tides of time can erase from the sands of memory."
--Lorie Quinn, Sr. ("Former Citizen Reminisces on a Will Case," Pocomoke, MD. Worcester Democrat, December, 1942.)
Eastern Shoremen are, or used to be, great storytellers, so you may not be surprised to learn that Mr. Quinn's story reminds me of another. Although Rev. Kirk Mariner has documented this incident, it has been repeated in the Pocomoke area for 100+ years, so perhaps I may give a shortened version to illustrate a point.
In the spring of 1892 Mr. and Mrs. John Brittingham had a nice farm on the Pocomoke River, down at the end of Cedar Hall Road. Their friendliness and hospitality was well-known, as was Mrs. Brittingham's reputation as a fine cook.
On this particular day, Mr. Brittingham was pruning his fruit trees and Mrs. Brittingham had gone shopping in Pocomoke. Pretty soon, their little boy came running and yelling, "Papa! Papa! The President has come for dinner!" (Not so long ago dinner was in the middle of the day and supper was at night.)
"The president of what?" Mr. Brittingham asked, to which his son replied that he was President of the United States of America and that he was with Mr. Lish Schoolfield. When he heard Lish''s name, Mr. Brittingham knew that this was not imagination and that he was in trouble.--th cook had gone shopping!
Sure enough, when Mr. Brittingham and his son arrived out of breath up at the house, Lish and the President were sitting on the front steps, swapping stories. Exactly how the two had found one another is not clear, but apparently President Benjamin Harrison had decided to take an impromptu trip down to the Shore for a little gunning. Nobody expected him, and when he stepped down from the train the welcoming committee consisted of one startled gentleman who recognized him and managed a short but hospitable speech.
Lish Schoolfied would have been certainly qualified to represent the region and guide presidents. As a surveyor he had explored much of four counties and met most of their citizens. As a hunter himself he knew where to go for ducks or deer, sqirrels or rabbits. He knew funny stories by the dozens, and like another, later comedian, he never met a man he didn't like. Apparently President Harrison was no exception.
Once introductions had been made, Lish explained that when the President had expressed a wish for a country dinner Mrs. Brittingham had immediately come to mind. Since the guests wanted to wait for her, Mr. Brittingham took them to the parlor where he pulled up the shades and opened the windows, suggesting that enjoy the river view while he assembled a few things for lunch.
Fervently praying that his wife would come home, he rushed to the smokehouse for ham which he deposited in the kitchen--without a clue as to what to do next. Every few minutes he left his guests to check the Cedar Hall Road for sight of Mrs. Brittingham's mare, and pretty soon here she came!
After a moment of disbelief, Mrs. Mary Anne Brittingham is said to have risen magnificently to the occasion. The exact menu is unknown except that the President was served fried ham and the cook's legendary baking powder biscuits. There must have been good, hot coffee and heavy cream as well as churned butter. Mrs. Brittingham undoubtedly served pickles with the ham: chow-chow, or mustard pickles, or pickled peaches. The biscuits would have demanded grape jelly as well as strawberry and fig preserves. Of one thing we may be sure, nobody came away from her table hungry.
As President Harrison was leaving, he belatedly noticed the Brittinghams' little boy and asked him his name.
"Grover Cleveland Brittingham, sir," answered Grover, unaware that Grover Cleveland and
Benjamin Harrison were bitter political enemies. Grover's parents hardly knew what to say, but
the President only laughed, and thanked them all.
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