Julie B. Hewitt Attorney at Law

Subtitle

The Dishonorable Warren B. Hooker

A portrait of a distinguished looking jurist hangs in the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, New York.  He has a handsome face, graying hair, and a posture that projects strength and confidence.  The tag on the portrait simply gives his name, "Warren B. Hooker."  If you ask anyone who works in the building, they probably can't tell you any more than his name.  But there is a story that goes with that name, and in 1905, anyone in New York State, or possibly anywhere on the east coast could have told you the story of Judge Warren B. Hooker.

During the sweltering hot summer of 1905, the press and public of New York State were abuzz about the hearings before the New York State legislature on whether Judge Hooker should be removed from his position as Justice of the State Supreme Court.  As the combined Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees convened their hearing and called the roll, the handsome Judge sat in an Albany restaurant leisurely enjoying his lunch as if he had not a care in the world.  His confident attitude, though infuriating to the committee, would prove to be justified.

Early Years

Warren Brewster Hooker was born on a farm in Perrysburg, New York in 1856.  Although his parents were pioneer farmers who had moved to the rough forests of Western New York from Vermont and Massachusetts, they were successful enough to see that their son was educated.  He attended public schools in nearby Forestville, and then the Forestville Academy.  

After completing his education, young Hooker returned to work on the farm for a few years, then joined the law office of John G Record in Forestville where he read the law.  In 1879 at the age of 23, he was admitted to the bar and practiced in the firm of Record & Hooker.  

Hooker's political career began early.  In 1878, one year before he was admitted to the bar, Hooker was appointed Special Surrogate for Chautauqua County, a post he filled until 1881. 

Hooker's relationship with his law partner was close enough that Mr. Record pledged his 18 year old daughter Nellie in marriage.  The young woman had other ideas however,  She publicly stated that she would never marry Mr. Hooker, and over the two-year engagement, the wedding was postponed several times.  Finally in November 1881, the wedding plans were finalized and the invitations were sent out  The night before the ceremony, the headstrong young woman eloped with another man.  The first minister they approached refused to administer the vows, so they found a horse and buggy and traveled to another town where the minister was more cooperative.  The couple was married that night and returned to Forestville at Midnight where they checked into a hotel and Mr. and Mrs. Dye.  

How Hooker's misery became so public will never be known, but the Maysville Kentucky Daily Evening Bulletin reported the event in detail, noting that Hooker took the news, "in a manly way and has the sympathy of the community."  Shortly after this public humiliation, the 25 year old Hooker did what any similarly situated man of his day would to to heal a wounded heart.  He left town and headed west in search of adventure.  

 

Hooker Farm, Hooker Hill Road, Perrysburg,New York

Young Warren Hooker

Westward Ho!

After his humiliating rejection by his fiance, Hooker left Forestville and traveled to Denver Colorado.  There he met another young lawyer named James M. Ashton.  Ashton was also in search of adventure.  He was originally from Ontario, Canada and had run away from home at age 11 to work on a ranch in Nebraska.  Eventually, his older sister convinced him to return to Ontario and finish his education.  He not only finished his secondary education, but at age fourteen he enrolled in law school at the University College in Toronto.

While in Denver, the two young men became fast friends and after a few months they left for the promise of San Francisco, roughing it along the way. 

Once in San Francisco, they hear of opportunities in the Puget Sound area, and left for Seattle.  There they learned of Judge Roger Green in Tacoma, Washington who was examining applicants for admission to the bar.  They traveled to Tacoma, took the exam, and were promptly admitted to practice.  They began handling cases immediately and realizing the prospects were good, decided to stay.  

In 1882 Tacoma was a rough port town with few buildings of substance, except for Blackwell's Hotel and the old Tacoma Mill.  The two young men however found plenty of legal work in the growing town, and practiced together for two years.

In 1886 Hooker traveled home to Western New York for a visit.  The visit became permanent however when he met a young teacher named Etta Elizabeth Abbey.  She was the daughter of Chauncey Abbey, President of the Fredonia National Bank.  When Etta accepted Hooker's marriage proposal, Hooker decided to remain in Fredonia.  Although he never returned to Tacoma, he and Ashton remained life-long friends.  

Warren Hooker, early photo

Settling down in Fredonia

Hooker and Etta were married on September 11, 1884. He was 28 years of age and she was 30.  They settled in a home at 130 Central Avenue in Fredonia purchased for them by Etta's father. The couple had two children, a son Sherman , and a daughter, Florence.  Hooker began practicing law and his practice grew and he was well known in the community.  He was appointed Town Supervisor for the Town of Pomfret in 1889 and 1890.

Hooker's political fortunes were on the rise, and in 1890 he was nominated by the Republican party to fill the House of Representatives seat for the 34th Congressional district representing Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties.  At the age of 33, he had been nominated over far older and more experienced men of the party.  Hooker easily won the election and when he was sworn in on March 4, 1891, he was the youngest member ever to sit in the House of Representatives. 

Hooker's political star continued to rise.  He was reelected four times, winning handily  One early historian put it this way, "His frank and friendly manner and his keen insight into national and local needs soon won him to choicest friends and prominent standing" (O.W.Johnson).   

In the House, Hooker was appointed Chairman of the important Rivers and Harbors committee.  This powerful appointment allowed him to obtain federal funds for the Dunkirk Harbor in his home district.  The legislation was passed by both houses, and when it was vetoed by the president, the young congressman was successful in securing the votes needed for an override. 

The press was full of praise for Congressman Hooker.  "Mr. Hooker's success as a politician is not accidental, but is due to his able discharge of duty, and the benefits he has conferred upon his constituents.  Industrious, ambitious, self-reliant, pleasing in manner, commanding in presence, Mr. Hooker may confidently look forward to a continuance in public favor and of political honors." 

In 1898, Hooker's interests shifted away from Congress when New York Governor Frank Black appointed him to fill a vacancy as Justice of the State Supreme Court in his home county of Chautauqua.  Hooker left his powerful friends in Washington and returned home where the next year he was elected to a 14-year term.  His achievements did not end there. In December 1902, Governor Benjamin Odell appointed Hooker to serve on the Appellate Division, Second Department (New York's intermediate appellate court) in Brooklyn New York.  

 

130 Central Avenue, Fredonia, New York

Congressman Warren B. Hooker

 

The Post Office Scandal 

As a judge, Hooker was as well liked as he had been in Washington.  One historian relates the story of a young man Hooker sentenced to death on a murder conviction: 

"The magistrate showed more emotion than did the defendant.  The carefully restrained but distinctly evident sorrow of the Judge, his pallor, his manifest sense of the tremendous and melancholy responsibility he was wielding left an impression which has never been effaced.  It was a memorable example of human feeling in exercise the power of justice, and was constant with the breadth of vision Judge Hooker showed in afterward granting that unfortunate young man a new trial." 

Unfortunately, Judge Hooker forgot that being a judge requires a different set of rules than serving as a Congressman, and he continued his practice of using his Washington connections to help his former constituents.  When his sixteen year old nephew Maurice needed a job while attending the Fredonia Normal School, Hooker contacted a friend in Washington D.C. and secured a position for the young man at the Fredonia Post Office. When his wife's niece similarly needed a position, Hooker secured a postal job for her as well.  Then there were others like the man who owed a note to the Fredonia National Bank on which Mrs. Hooker had co-signed.  When the oil exploration company in West Virginia failed,  Hooker helped the man obtain a post office job so he could repay the note. Hooker helped so many obtain jobs at the Post Office that at one point the Fredonia Post Office, which employed four full time clerks had six full-time "no show" positions on the books.  The "jobs" however, were classic graft.  Not only did the appointees fail to provide any services, but their salaries were exorbitant.  Hooker's nephew Maurice, only 16 years old, was awarded a laborer job for $600 per year, which had previously been filled by a scrubwoman at $12 per year.

A young woman named Katherine Clark was hired as a clerk at $400 per year, and at Hooker's urging, was awarded successive raises over three years until she was earning the unheard of sum of $1,000 per year.  Another woman was awarded a position with the Fredonia, New York post office even though she lived in Washington D.C. and could not appear for work even if she wanted to.  Even Hooker's grounds keeper was awarded a lucrative job with the Post Office.  Not only were the wages exorbitant, but Hooker was able to secure jobs for people despite the civil service rules designed to prevent politically influenced hiring. 

When the scandal surrounding the no-show jobs broke, the United States government ordered the Fredonia Post Master to repay the fraudulently paid salaries.  When he asked Judge Hooker for advice on how to handle the matter, Hooker unhelpfully advised him, "Do as you think best." 

 

The Stearns Building Scandal

The scandals over the Post Office jobs weren't the only imbroglios involving Judge  Hooker.  It soon appeared that Judge Hooker might have bribed another Justice of the State Supreme Court on a case in which Hooker had a personal interest.  It all stemmed from a lawsuit regarding the Stearns Building in Dunkirk, New York.

Today, the Stearns Building is connected to the City of Dunkirk Municipal Building, but in 1902, it was a separate building.  Hooker and business partner and fellow attorney Lester F. Stearns built the new, state of the art office and  leased the majority of it to the United States Postal Service for above market rents. The modern building had large windows and plenty of light, but had been built so close to the City's property line that the cornice of the building extended over the boundary.  If the city were to build on its adjoining lot, it would certainly effect the Stearns Building, so Hooker and Stearns negotiated a light and air easement with the City.  No sooner had City Council approved the easement, when a disgruntled taxpayer and political rival of Stearns filed suit to restrain the City from granting the easement. 

Hooker knew he could not hear the suit, and he was the only sitting justice of the Supreme Court in Chautauqua County so he visited Hon. Truman C. White in Buffalo, and personally asked him to take the case.  No doubt Hooker felt comfortable approaching his colleague who, like Hooker, had been born in Perrysburg and was a fellow Republican.

To say the suit was handled in an extremely irregular manner is an understatement.  The City of Dunkirk, though a party to the action, was never served with the defendant's  answer or noticed of the trial date.  The city attorney happened to be B.E. Farnham a partner in the firm Stearns, Warner & Farnham and he represented Hooker and Stearns, rather than the city.  Judge White had his clerk hear the evidence in the case and on January 21, 1902,  the judge signed a judgment that had been prepared for him by the defendants.  He didn't bother to read the judgment before he signed it.  It was no surprise then that Hooker and Stearns won the suit.  What was a surprise was they didn't just secure approval of the easement they had negotiated, they actually gained ground when the court issued a complete prohibition against building any structure on city's adjoining lot. 

Stearns Building, Central Avenue, Dunkirk, New York

Hooker's Chickens Come Home to Roost

Political patronage had long been a fact of life in American politics, but that was beginning to change in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Teddy Roosevelt had famously dismantled the Tammany Hall patronage machine in New York City and the public was growing intolerant of "business as usual."  As talk circulated about Hooker's acts, the Grievance Committee of the Jamestown Bar Association began an investigation.  Jamestown Bar Association President Frank Stevens spearheaded the effort.  The association, which had only been in existence a few years,  was not anxious to investigate a powerful local judge, but it was concerned about the public perception of the judiciary when the accusations in the papers against Hooker were left "unchallenged and unanswered."

 The bar association held four days of fact-finding hearings, two in Fredonia and two in Dunkirk, then forwarded the matter to the New York State Bar Association for further action. The New York State Bar Association in turn forwarded the matter to the Judiciary Committee of the state legislature, and the official investigation of Judge Hooker's misdeeds was off and running.

 

State Capitol, Albany, New York

Hearings of the State Judiciary Committees 

Once the New York State Bar Association made its referral to the legislature, the Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees resolved to hold joint hearings.  They had never before been asked to rule on the removal of a sitting judge, despite the fact that the New York State Constitution provided for the removal of judges by concurrent resolution of both houses.

The first order of business was to draft a set of rules and procedures, a task that was difficult in the case of a politically powerful figure like Hooker.   It was agreed that at the conclusion of the hearings, the Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees would adjourn to vote in each house on the removal recommendation.  

The hearings were held in the summer of 1905.  Hooker was represented by William G. Laidlaw of Ellicottville, New York.  Laidlaw was a Scottish immigrant and former Congressman.  Co-counsel was Arthur C. Wade. Wade was a brilliant trial attorney who was well known for securing a new trial in a difficult spousal murder case.  In the retrial, his client was acquitted.  The prosecutor for the legislature was Henry B. Coman. 

The majority of the facts regarding the fraudulent postal appointments were already proven by the Bristow Report, an investigative report issued in 1903 by Assistant Postmaster General Bristow.  Despite conclusive proof of graft, Hooker's counsel argued that he was not responsible for no show employees as he would not have known whether the appointees reported to work or not.  As for the violations of the Civil Service laws, Hooker blamed the President of the United States for not reforming the laws. Perhaps unwisely, Hooker's counsel also pointed out that the City of Jamestown had been happy enough to use Hooker's influence when they needed a new federal building.

Justice White was was subpoenaed to testify about his role in the Stearns Building litigation.  White was a well regarded jurist who sat on the trial of Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley a mere four years before.  White testified that after he learned the New York State Bar Association was investigating Hooker, he vacated his judgment.  His explanation for the decision to vacate some two and one half years after the fact was,  "I thought the judgment as it stood might not only compromise my reputation as a Supreme Court Justice, but endanger my welfare as well."  This was classic understatement at its best, and his welfare to which he was referring would no doubt have been removal from the bench. Always willing to cut an ally loose, Hooker's attorneys argued any irregularities in the case were the fault of Justice White, not Hooker or Stearns.

 Hooker's co-owner in the Stearns Building, Lester Stearns, was called to testify.  He lamely testified that he knew nothing about the details of the proceeding, and in fact never saw the judgment.  Given that Stearns was himself an attorney, his testimony was less than convincing.  So too, was his behavior. The New York Times noted that Stearns became "very excited" when questioned about the litigation, and that "Mr. Stearns got along swimmingly until he was cross-examined by Henry B. Coman, the legislature's attorney.  Then he had a bad three quarters of an hour, during which he got angry several times and shouted excited answers at Mr. Coman."

The more troublesome issues before the legislature were legal in nature, rather than factual.  Could a Supreme Court Justice who had not been convicted of criminal charges be removed from the bench?  Was removal different than impeachment? Did removal of a judge, even for corruption, erode the independence of the judiciary?  Should a judge be removed for improper acts committed while serving as a Justice, but not in his capacity as a Justice?  As the legislature struggled with these legal and philosophical issues, the public howled for blood and newspaper across the country breathlessly reported on each step of the proceedings. 

The judiciary Committee of each house reported out a resolution recommending that the Hon. Warren B. Hooker be removed from the bench.  With everything seemingly aligned against Hooker, the future might have seemed grim to a man of lesser confidence, but to Hooker it did not.  One state legislator predicted "Hooker is safe" and that proved to be the case. When both houses voted on the resolution on July 20, 1905, neither mustered the two-thirds vote necessary to remove.  Hooker was indeed safe.

The public outcry was vociferous.  One observed noted "A few years ago Governor Theodore Roosevelt removed from office the County Treasurer of Chautauqua County for receiving a present of $100 from one who had been benefited by the exercise of his official discretion....a higher standard should not be applied to the acts of a county treasurer than those of a justice of the Supreme Court. " New York Times published a political cartoon illustrating the difficulty of removing a sitting judge, even with a crane.  

 

Political Cartoon

The Later Years

One might think that a scandal of this magnitude would mar a man's future, but that was not the case of Warren B. Hooker.  He served out the remained of his term on the bench and returned to private practice in 1913. 

Back in Fredonia, Hooker was again among friends  He was a successful trial attorney, and was well liked in the community.  He was socially active both at Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church in Fredonia, New York and in the Forest Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.  He had several business interests raging from a mortgage loan business to manufacturing sand glass in Pennsylvania.

 

Hooker's famous luck again protected him in 2909 when he escaped death in a serious train wreck near Utica, New York.  Although two people were killed when the train derailed, Hooker survived.  He was severely bruised and had cuts on the head and body after being wedged in a derailed train car for several hours, yet he escaped otherwise unscathed.

 

In 1919 Hooker retuned again to the bench when he was appointed Court Referee in Chautauqua County Supreme Court.  He served in this post until his death in March of 1920.  In fact, he had just presided over a trial in Allegany County the two weeks prior to his death.

 

Hooker died on March 5, 1920 at the relatively young age of 64.  He and Etta, who died in 1942, were buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Fredonia, New York.  

The Dishonorable Warren B. Hooker

Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredonia, New York

Hooker's Legacy

Hooker was a man of his times.  Rising from humble beginnings on an upstate farm, through education, hard work and personal magnetism he built a substantial presence on the state and national stage.  His methods of rising to success were the tools of the times as well.  Political favors and graft were, if not acceptable, at leasts overlooked, when Hooker started his upward asset.  Times would change in this regard, but as the outcome of his removal hearings demonstrated, cronyism was still tolerated in the early 1900s.

Despite his misdeeds which are so shocking to our modern sense of ethics, history has been kind to Warren Hooker:

It has been said of Judge Hooker that he served his friends too well, but it is the testimony of all the attorneys who practiced before him that he was one of the most impartial judges who ever sat in New York courts.   Loyalty to his friends was a striking characteristic of his whole life, but a friend was never recognized as such in his judicial hearing....while he was a politician of the most astute type, he was also the gracious gentleman, the just judge.  Those who knew him best, loved him most, and as friend and neighbor he will long live in the hearts of his townsmen...the will remember that his long public career was marked by countless favors to those who were less fortunately situated....his was a day of personal politics and it was necessary to success that a politician maintain a strong organization loyal to him as well as to the part.  This Judge Hooker early learned and he proved one of the strongest leaders of organized politics in his district.  He fought his political battles according to the rules laid down by former leaders and by contemporaries; he asked no quarter and gave and received hard blows with equal equanimity. "