Among them was Captain Daniel Shay, known as the leader of “Shays’ Rebellion” in Massachusetts, who purchased a farm from David Williams and settled in the vicinity of Preston’s Hollow in 1795. David Williams had been one of the captors of British spy, Major John André.
Just south of the village, Peckham Griggs ran a tannery and store in an area known as Peckham’s Hollow. It was here in Peckham’s Hollow that Rufus Wheeler Peckham was born on December 30, 1809, and where he and his brother George spent their early years. Their parents were Peleg Peckham and Desire Watson Peckham. Rufus taught school in Peckham’s Hollow when he was a teenager.
At about eleven or twelve, Peckham moved with his family to an area near Cooperstown in Otsego County, NY, and attended the common school there. At the age of 12, he was accepted at Hartwick Seminary to prepare for college. In 1825, when he was 16, he attended Union College and graduated in 1827.
In 1827, he decided to enter the legal profession and went to Utica to join the firm of Greene C. Bronson and Samuel Beardsley. Both Bronson and Beardsley later alternately served as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court.
Peckham stayed with them until 1830 when he was admitted to the bar and joined his brother George as an Albany attorney. Their first offices were in the Blunt Building that later became the Globe Hotel at the corner of State and Pearl Streets.
In about 1820, William Learned Marcy (1786-1857), Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) and others were establishing a Democratic organization that became known as the “Albany Regency” by its opponents; Peckham became a supporter and member.
In 1839, Governor Marcy appointed Peckham as Albany County District Attorney, where he served until 1841. Peckham married Isabella Lacey, daughter of Rev. William Lacey, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. They had three sons: Wheeler Hazard Peckham, Joseph Henry Peckham and Rufus Wheeler Peckham, Jr.
In 1841, Judge Rufus Wheeler Peckham was present at the first organizational meeting and participated in the formation of Albany Rural Cemetery.
In 1844, the Albany Waterworks Company expanded. The Albany Waterworks Company, founded in 1802 by Philip Van Rensselaer, had the primary responsibility of furnishing adequate drinking water to homes and businesses in Albany.
In 1844, a separate company was founded to explore constructing a separate hydrant system. The thought was that the hydrant system, primarily used for fire-fighting, could use unpurified water that would be cheaper and more plentiful. Rufus Peckham was one of the directors of Albany Hydrant Company. Although Albany Hydrant conducted extensive surveys, it was decided that it would be more economical to retain one system of supply for both the drinking water and the hydrant supply.
In the mid to late 1840s, the Albany Regency started to split under the pressure of the slavery issue. Van Buren took a more active role in the “Barnburner” faction of the Democratic Party, which strongly opposed to the extension of slavery.
Peckham continued to support Marcy who headed the “Hunker” faction, segment so named because of their tendency to be conservative and to “hunker down” and oppose change in the slavery laws.
In 1845, Peckham ran for New York State Attorney General losing by 1 vote to John Van Buren, the son of Martin Van Buren.
In 1852, the Peckham’s middle son, Joseph Henry, died at the age of 17. That same year, Peckham was elected to Congress and served during the administration of President Franklin Pierce.
While in Congress, the treaty ending the Mexican War was signed. Also, Commodore Matthew Perry, under the supervision of Secretary of State William Marcy, negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa opening Japan to trade with the West. Townsend Harris was appointed the first U.S. Minister to Japan.
As Albany’s congressman in 1854, Peckham defied his party’s wishes and voted against adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing each state to make its own determination on slavery, however the act passed by a vote of 113 to 100.
After leaving Congress, he formed a partnership with one of Albany’s foremost attorneys of the time Lyman Tremain, a future New York State Attorney General. They opened offices in Albany Savings Bank, Room 7.
In 1856, Peckham, together with his partner Tremain and J. M. Kimball, undertook the defense of Francis McCann in one of Albany’s most notorious trials, pitting them up against one of Albany’s finest trial attorneys, Hamilton Harris, Albany County’s district attorney.
On July 8, 1856, the body of Mrs. McCann was found on the floor of one of the rooms of the house she occupied with her husband. She had what was described as “a ghastly wound over her right eye, which fractured the skull and opened the brains. There were eight wounds on her head, disfiguring her to such an extent that those who knew her
best could hardly recognize her.”
McCann was indicted and brought to trial in the Court of Oyer and Terminator in November of the same year. Peckham brought the defense as insanity. Peckham argued that McCann had killed his wife while suffering from “delirium tremens,” under the delusion that he was resisting the attack of persons determined to kill him.
They argued that the proof of insanity was that McCann had attacked his wife with two axes, which they argued was an illogical way to attack a single woman. They pointed out that he had chopped her to pieces but made no attempt to hide the body or escape. He had remained near the body all night.
The defense of “delerium tremens” had never been accepted by a trial court previously and Peckham argued it strongly to Chief Judge Storey. After research, Storey ruled that the law did permit this defense and if the jury accepted it, McCann would not be responsible for the crime.
Peckham and Tremain called the ablest physicians of Albany to testify in the defense including Doctors Alden March, Thomas Hun, S. O. Vanderpoel, John Swinburne and B.P. Staats. Tremain conducted more of the examination and Peckham argued the summation to the jury.
Hamilton Harris was said to have presented a strong case and to have conducted an admirable cross-examination of the physicians.
Unable to let an obvious murderer go free, the jury found him guilty. McCann was sentenced to be hanged on January 23, 1857. Peckham however contested the conviction to the New York State Court of Appeals and that court ordered a new trial.
The new trial opened in November, 1857, to extensive publicity in Albany. Every newspaper headlined the trial. Peckham again presented the closing arguments for the defense and Harris for the prosecution. After 63 hours of deliberation, a hung jury was declared. It was later learned that from the first hour eleven jurors were for conviction but one lone juror refused to go along.
Following the hung jury, a compromise was reached so that McCann plead guilty to manslaughter in the first degree that carried a penalty of life in prison. Thus Peckham and his associates were responsible for saving McCann’s life.
Important precedents were set during the case and appeal, establishing the defense of insanity. In 1859, Peckham visited Europe with former Chief Judge Beardsley and upon his return in 1861 Peckham was elected a justice of the New York Supreme Court. About this time, his wife died and he remarried Mary Elizabeth Foote who was described as “an accomplished lady who made his house an attractive social center.”
A period article published by a law journal said that Judge Peckham too often “acted the advocate upon the bench. He honestly believed and openly declared that it was a judge’s duty to influence the verdict of the jury as he thought right.”
In the trial of George Gordon for the murder of Owen Thompson with a rough stick used in baling hay, Peckham made such a strong charge to the jury urging them to convict Gordon that he was accused of “killing Gordon as Gordon killed Thompson and with just about as rough a weapon.”
Gordon was sentenced to be hanged but his trial was overturned and a new trial ordered by the Court of Appeals.
In 1864, during the Civil War, Albany’s Colonel Lewis Benedict was a member of the Albany bar and a New York State assemblyman. He was appointed commander of the 163rd NY Volunteers. The 163rd was sent to New Orleans to guard the port and make an offensive up the Mississippi River. He was killed at the attack on Pleasant Hill, Louisiana.
On May 7th, the members of the Albany bar met to pay homage to Benedict at the State Capitol. Judge Rufus Peckham presided. Chairman Peckham called Lyman Tremain to present the eulogy. The chairman appointed two secretaries who recorded a series of eloquent resolutions. Five senior members of the bar made remarks. Approximately 250 members of Albany’s bar attended.
On May 17, 1870, Peckham was appointed a justice of the New York Court of Appeals. He served on the Court of Appeals with Samuel Hand (father of Judge Learned Hand), Ira Harris (brother of Hamilton Harris), Amasa Parker and William Law Learned (uncle of Learned Hand).
In the early 1870s Judge Peckham began to show signs of skin cancer, a tumor had appeared on his lip. Advised that no known cure was available in the United States, he decided to undertake a trip with his wife to Europe to seek out medical help there.
On the 15th day of November 1873, Judge Peckham sailed for Europe on the French Line’s Ville du Havre bound for Havre, France near Paris. He would not return.
You can read about that here.
Illustrations, from above: Rufus Wheeler Peckham (1809-1873); Governor William L. Marcy; and the The 1842 courthouse of the New York Court of Appeals in Albany.