Judge Amasa J. Parker and the Anti-rent Wars

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY
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The later incidents of Judge Parker's life are more familiar to our readers. He was appointed by Governor Bouck circuit judge and vice-chancellor of the Third Circuit, on the 6th of March, 1844, and immediately removed to the city of Albany, where he resided till his death. He held that office till the spring of 1847, when it was terminated by the adoption of the constitution of 1846. He was then elected in the Third Judicial district a justice of the Supreme Court of this State for a term of eight years.

At no time in the history of this State have the judicial labors devolving upon a judge been more difficult and responsible than those he was called on to discharge during his twelve years of judicial service. It was during this time that the anti- rent excitement, which prevailed throughout a large portion of his judicial district, was at its height. It crowded the civil calendars with litigations and the criminal courts with indictments for acts of violence in resisting the collection of rents.

The trial of " Big Thunder" before Judge Parker at Hudson, in the spring of 1845, lasted two weeks, and the jury failed to agree. When the next Court of Oyer and Terminer was held in that county. Judge Parker was engaged in holding the court in Delaware county, and Judge Edmonds was assigned to hold the Columbia Oyer and Terminer in his place. At that court " Big Thunder" was again tried and was convicted and sent to the State prison.

In the summer of 1845, Osman N. Steele, under sheriff of Delaware county, while


engaged with a judge in his official duties in the collection of rent due from Moses Earle at Andes, in that county, was violently resisted by about 200 men, armed and disguised as Indians, and was shot and killed by them. Intense excitement prevailed in the county. A great struggle followed between those who resisted and those who sought to enforce the laws. On the 25th of August, 1845, Governor Wright declared the county of Delaware in a state of insurrection, and a battalion of light infantry was detailed to aid the civil authorities in the preservation of order and the making of arrests. At the inquest held on the body of Sheriff Steele and at a county General Sessions, the whole subject was fully investigated. Some indictments were found for murder, but most of them were for manslaughter and lesser offenses. Over two hundred and forty persons were indicted, most of whom were arrested and in custody awaiting trial at the then approaching Oyer and Terminer. The regular jail and two log jails, temporarily constructed for the purpose, were filled with prisoners. Under these discouraging circumstances and with armed men stationed in the court room and throughout the village to preserve order, Judge Parker opened the Oyer and Terminer at Delhi on the 22d of September, 1845. We find a brief statement of these proceedings and an extract from the charge of Judge Parker to the grand jury in the history of Delaware county, by Jay Gould, published in 1856, and dedicated to Judge Parker.

We have heard Judge Parker .say that, as the time for that court was approaching, he hesitated as to whether he should hold the court himself in the county with the citizens of which he had so long lived and been so intimately associated, or whether he should not rather ask the governor to assign some other judge to the duty who was an entire stranger to all concerned ; and, in his doubt, he wrote for advice to his former student and life long friend, the Hon. Lucius Robinson. In answer, he was urged by all means to hold the court himself, and he was told that if some other judge held the court he might, perhaps, adjourn the court after two or three weeks of trials, leaving most of the cases untried and the jails still filled, which he was sure Judge Parker would not do. Judge Parker hesitated no longer, but proceeded at once to the discharge of the duty.

After charging the grand jury, he gave notice, that, whatever time it might take, he should continue to hold the court till every case was tried and the jails were cleared.

The indictments were prosecuted by the district attorney appointed by John Van Buren, then attorney-general, and by Samuel Sherwood, a distinguished member of the bar, then of New York, but who formerly resided at Delhi, and the prisoners were defended by able counsel, among whom were Samuel Gordon, Mitchell Sanford and Samuel S. Bowne.

John Van Steenbergh was first tried and convicted of murder. Edward O'Connor was next tried with a like result. Both men .sentenced to be executed on the 29th of November then next. Four others were convicted of felony and sent to the State prison for life, and thirteen men sent to the State prison for different terms of years. A large number who had been engaged in resisting the sheriff, but who had not been disguised, pleaded guilty of misdemeanors. Some of these were fined, but as to most of them, and as to some who pleaded guilty of manslaughter, sentence was suspended and they were told by the court they would be held responsible for the future preservation of the peace in their neighborhoods, and were warned that if any


other instance should occur of resisting an officer, or of a violation of the statute which made it a felony to appear for such purpose, armed and disguised, they would at once be suspected and might be called up for sentence. Under this assurance, they were set at liberty, and it is but justice to them to say that they became the best possible conservators of the peace, and that no resistance of process by violence has ever since occurred in that county.

At the close of the third week of the court all the cases had been disposed of. No prisoners were left in jail, except those awaiting execution or transportation to the State prisons. The military were soon after discharged and the log jails taken down, and peace and good order have since reigned in the county.

A report of the trial of Van Steenbergh, with a note referring to the business of that court, will be found in 1 Park. Cr. Rep., 39.

The sentences of Van Steenbergh and O'Connor were subsequently commuted by Governor Wright to imprisonment for life, and about a year later all those in the State prison were pardoned by the successor of Governor Wright.

Great credit was awarded to Judge Parker for his successful discharge of the delicate and difficult duties devolving upon him at the Delaware Oyer and Terminer, and the next commencement the degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on him by Geneva College.

As has been stated. Judge Parker's services as circuit judge and vice-chancellor terminated in 1847 by the adoption of the new State Constitution of 1846, under which an elective judiciary succeeded to the exercise of the judicial power of the State. In all the counties of the Third judicial district meetings of the bar were held and complimentary addresses to Judge Parker were signed, approving his judicial course.

Landmarks of Albany County, New York - (1897) - Parker, Amasa J. (Amasa Junius), 1843-1938, ed