Return to Ohio Biographies
Return to Index
Hon. Stevenson Burke
(Stevenson Burke Portrait)
(Ella M. Burke Portrait)
WHAT of the man and what of his work? This is the dual query which represents the interrogation, at least nominally entertained whenever that discriminating factor, the public, would pronounce on the true worth of the individual. The career of the late Judge Stevenson Burke indicates the clear-cut, sane, and distinct character, and in reviewing the same from an unprejudiced standpoint interpretation follows fact in a straight line of derivation. In no field of endeavor is there demanded a more careful preparation, a more thorough appreciation of the absolute ethics of life, or of the underlying principles which form the basis of all human rights and privileges than in that of the law, and in all these things Judge Burke wa well grounded, and in all his career as a lawyer, both on the bench and as a trial lawyer, he stood as the stern conservator of justice. His character was the positive expression of a strong nature. His career on the bench and at the bar offered a noble example and an inspiration; faultless in honor, fearless in conduct and stainless in reputation, his career reflected credit upon the judiciary and he was an honor and an ornament to his profession. With a comprehensive grasp upon the philosophy of jurisprudence and bringing honor and dignity to the public positions which he filled with such distinguished success, he was easily the peer of his professional brethren of the Ohio Bar, and as such his life record is entitled to a conspicuous place in the annals of the State.
Stevenson Burke was born on November 26, 1826, in St. Lawrence County, New York, where he lived until 1834, when the family removed to North Ridgeville, Lorain County, Ohio, where he was reared and received his elementary education. As a child he was precocious, and from the early age of six years he gave evidence of that insatiable hunger for knowledge which characterized his entire life. At the age of six years he had mastered the old English reader, and before he was eight years of age he had read Pope's "Essay on Man." And not only did he comprehend things quickly and easily, but he retained in his mind those things which he read; indeed, his memory was wonderful, as was said of him in after years by a brother lawyer, for he remembered not only the substance of things, but also the details. The curriculum of the schools which he attended offered no obstacles to him and the only drawback to his early studies was that, owing to the straitened circumstances of the family, he wa denied educational advantages for which he was ambitious. However, by dint of his own industry, he was enabled to attend a select school, and at the age of seventeen years was considered qualified to teach a district school. He then became a student in the Ohio Wesleyan University, at Delaware, this State, where he pursued such studies as were calculated to best fit him for his chosen life work, for thus early he had determined to follow the legal profession. After leaving college Mr. Burke studied law at Elyria, Lorain County, under the direction of Mr. Clark, an able lawyer, and he was admitted to the bar in 1848, immediately after which he became a partner in the firm of Burke, Clark & Burke. Thus he came to the active work of his profession with an excellent equipment, having spared no effort to thoroughly familiarize himself with the minutiae of the law and with the basic principles of the science of jurisprudence. He soon proved his powers as an advocate and counsellor so that popular appreciation was manifested in the representative clientage which he soon secured and which he retained during all the period of his career at the bar. Possessing the valuable faculties of concentration and close application, he never presented a case without thorough preparation, while by his strict observance of the professional code of ethics he commended himself to the esteem and confidence of his confreres at the bar. Mr. Burke never came to regard his education as a thing that had been completed by his college life. Neither his professional duties, nor the multitudinous business affairs which crowded upon him, were allowed to stand in the way of that broad culture which kept him abreast of the best thought of his times. His familiarity with the incidents and results of modern research, and with general literature, gave him and equipment and an authority which is rarely conceded to any one. And this, to a definite degree, contributed to his professional success, for he was resourceful in his use of anything which would legitimately and honestly help him to gain a desired result.
After a few years, Mr. Clark retired from the partnership and Mr. Burke associated himself with a brother-in-law, Houston Poppleton. Mr. Burke remained in the active practice of his profession at Elyria until the fall of 1861, when he was elected to the common pleas bench of the second subdivision of the fourth judicial district of the State, taking his seat on February 9, 1862, and serving until February 9, 1869. During his practice at Elyria, Mr. Burke had gained a wide reputation as a successful lawyer and hardly an important case was tried in that section of the State with which he was not connected in some way, so that at the age of twenty-six years his practice exceeded that of any other attorney in Lorain County, while he acted as counsel in practically every case taken from his count to the Supreme Court of the State. On the bench he abundantly justified the judgment of the electorate which placed him there, and when he left the bench, by voluntary resignation, it was generally felt that the judiciary of the State had lost one of its most able and valuable members.
In 1869, Judge Burke removed to Cleveland, where he resumed the active practice of his profession, being in partnership, first, with F. T. Bachus and E. J. Eastep, and later with William B. Sanders and J. E. Ingersoll. Judge Burke had by this time acquired a fame as a lawyer which was more than State-wide, and he was now connected with many cases of national importance. He represented corporations in cases growing out of the Atlantic and Great Western Railway manipulation; a case involving the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis Railroad, with the Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton road as opponent; a case involving the constitutionality of the Scott liquor law; the great Hocking Valley arbitration case; and a long list of others of equal importance involving large financial interests and important legal questions, in all of which he displayed that wonderful and exact knowledge of the law, thorough preparedness in every phase of a case, resourcefulness in action, a a determination that could be thwarted by no obstacle--elements that made him a most powerful antagonist and one worthy of the steel of the ablest lawyers of the nation.
Through his association with railroad litigation, Judge Burke was eventually led into railroad ownership, and he was recognized as one of the most prominent railroad capitalists of the Middle West. He was general counsel for the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, an Indianapolis Railroad, member of the board of directors, and chairman of the financial and executive committees, later severing as vice-president and president of the company. He also acted as second officer and chief executive of the Indianapolis and St. Louis Railway Company, and for years was a member of the directorates of the Cincinnati and Springfield, the Dayton and Michigan, the Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Indianapolis, the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, and the Central Ontario Railway Companies. It was he who formulated and carried into effect the plan for the consolidation of certain weak roads with the Columbus, Hocking Valley, and Toledo Road, and he took an active part in the management of the company as vice-president and president. He conducted for William H. Vanderbilt the negotiations which resulted in the purchase of the New York, Chicago, and St Louis railroad, known as the Nickel Plate. For many years he was president of the Toledo and Ohio Central, the Cleveland and Mahoning Valley, the Kanawha and Michigan, and the Central Ontario Railways. He also became deeply interested in other fields of enterprise, becoming president of the Canadian Copper Company, which owned the largest nickel mines in the world, furnishing that metal for use in the construction of battleship armor for the United States Government. It was said of Judge Burke that "his opinions were formed with remarkable rapidity, and yet were the outcome of clear and earnest previous thought on various questions, so that he was enable to reach a right conclusion on almost any question of importance that arose among the directorates of the companies with which he was connected." This preparedness, the result of the wonderful mental equipment which was his by nature and training, was the greatest secret of his success, and he was never found wanting in any emergency. He always seemed to know just what ought to be done under any circumstances, and his opinions were invariably accepted as the proper course to pursue. "He was one of few men endowed with a capacity to mold surrounding circumstances to suit his purposes. His career was almost meteoric in its dazzling qualities, and yet possessed a continuity which made him, throughout many years, one of the most distinguished representatives of the Ohio bar, and one whose activity in railroad circles left deep imprint upon the history of the nation."
Judge Stevenson Burke passed away on April 24, 1904, and on April 26, a meeting of the Cleveland Bar Association was held in his memory. A number of the most eminent members of the profession spoke in eulogy of the deceased, from which the following words are quoted:
Judge W. W. Boynton: "He was notably a good judge in the trial of jury cases, and made the questions involved in the issue between the parties very clear to a jury in the instructions that he gave. . . . He was especially kind to the younger members of the profession while he was on the bench. . . . Personally, we have lost not only a great lawyer, but we have lost a man of great kindliness of heart."
Henry Ranney: "His career was one of great success, for the reason that he was industrious, well read, thoroughly educated, and with a strenuous mind, and in all his trials and contests he was combatively strong and mainly successful. . . . He was a most charming character; his social character was most charmingly developed, and little known to people who did not know him intimately and outside the court-room."
Judge Charles E. Pennewell: "While Judge Burke was agressive and combative and determined, and had strong opinions of his own as an individual and a lawyer, we nevertheless all know that he was always read to listen to any suggestion that might be made by the lawyers concerned in the case, willing and anxious, if he was satisfied that he was wrong, cheerfully to change his opinion. . . . All who knew him, knew him as a generous, kind-hearted, charitable man, a man who was touched as quickly as any man I ever knew by a pitiful tale or a case of hardship or of need."
L. A. Russell: "He was a man of good habits, as his vigor in his old days would satisfy anybody who did not know the facts that he was a man of good habits. He was a man of tireless industry, a hard worker, a fast worker, because his mind was so geared up that his faculties were in his possession for systematic use. He wa not only sound and of good habits, of an industrious turn of mind, but he was a man of the most terrific persistence, the most everlasting stick-to-it-iveness that I have ever known. . . . He stood as an American citizen, absolutely kingly in the deportment of his own life. Absolutely he made up his own mind. . . . He was no coward; he was a brave, bold, honest, kindly, honorable, successful man. . . . The glorious old fighter is gone, and I am sorry he is gone, and I am glad I had the chance to know him while he lived."
James H. Hoyt: "There was no man in this community better read in history, in biography, more interested in questions not of abstract, but of concrete science, than Judge Burke. There was no man who had broader or clearer or stronger perceptions on public matters than Judge Burke. Nothing escaped him. He was a careful student of current affairs. . . . I don't know anybody who had a keener, more delightfully fresh sense of humor than Judge Burke. No one ever enjoyed a good story more, no one was a more delightful host, a more delightful conversationalist."
Albert Straus: "He knew the law from the ground up. He had the greatest memory of any man that I ever came in contact with. For instance, he could quote a decision from the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Ohio, in any important case; he could tell you the book it was in, the page of the book, the judge who delivered the opinion, and he could cite very nearly verbatim section upon section of the decision. . . .Another thing, . . . there was no public man or any man that the public was interested in that they ever came in contact with, that was so easy of access and so pleasant to newspaper men; they could always get an audience, and always gave him his proper due because of his kindness to them.
From the resolutions adopted by the bar association, the following lines are quoted:
"While his first years of maturity were spent in a less active profession, for more than fifty years he has been a conspicuous and commanding figure in the law. While his early training and later studies and labors made of him a broadly-cultured gentleman with an active interest in literature and the arts, the characteristic which the though of him brings at once and always to mind is the enormous energy of the man and the vigorous, rugged strength of his intellect.
"By nature he was aggressively in earnest in everything he undertook. He was a hard-working and successful lawyer and indomitable in conflict.
"Almost immediately upon his admission to the bar, he took a leading position at the bar of the county of his early practice and participated in most of the important litigation there until his elevation to the bench in the year 11862. For about seven years he occupied the bench as judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and in that capacity gave further evidence of his mental grasp of legal propositions and his ability to assimilate the facts involved in any litigation brought before him.
"His active and aggressive spirit, however, found that the bench presented too narrow and limited a scope for his great powers and in 1869 he resigned and resumed the practice of his profession. At that time, removing to Cleveland, he almost at once entered upon a legal career that has had few parallels in the history of the bar of the State of Ohio. He participated in many cases involving vast interests and conducted all with such striking ability that his reputation soon passed the bounds of his own city and State and gave him almost national fame; and during his entire career he continued a close and unremittent student of the principles of his profession. . . .
"As a result of his connection as a lawyer with different great railroad and industrial enterprises, his great abilities were eventually called upon in leading and directing some of the most important. So that he gradually acquired large and important financial interests in many great enterprises, whose success was due in a great degree to his own financial genius and executive ability.
"While the weighty interests which he had in hand continuously during his long career prevented his participation to a great extent in the lighter social affairs that most indulge in, he was nevertheless a man whom those who knew him well found most cordial, friendly, and entertaining, and one in whose society one's own mental faculties were always quickened. He entertained his most intimate friends in a charming manner, and an evening spent with him at his own home in friendly intercourse, left impressions of his social character that always drew one nearer to him.
"He took great interest in the development and growth of the city of his adoption, and was a generous contributor to all enterprises having such an end in view. His charities were liberal and frequent, but unostentatiously bestowed.
"In his death the bar has lost one of its greatest and foremost figures, and the city one of its most conspicuous and distinguished citizens."
Judge Burke took the keenest delight in existence, because he was in touch with the springs of life. He did not permit material things to supplant his better nature nor dwarf his interest in the esthetic side of life. He was a lover of art in all its phases and had a more accurate knowledge of such things that the average layman, having in his beautiful home many examples of the best art in painting and sculpture. Nor wa he selfish in his enjoyment of these things, for he had given substantial aid and assistance to the promotion of art in his home city, being a patron of the Cleveland School of Art.Judge Burke attached a due importance to the spiritual verities, and his life wa that of a Christian gentleman, his allegiance to the higher power being manifest in his life and in his regard at all times for the right. He often remarked, "One of the greatest achievements of man is to do right," and this was one of the guiding principles of his life.
Judge Burke was twice married, first on April 28, 1849, to Parthenia Poppleton, the daughter of Rev. Samuel poppleton, of Richland County, Ohio. Her death occurred on April 7, 1878, and on June 22, 1882, Judge Burke married Mrs. Ella M. Southworth, of Clinton, New York, the eldest daughter of Henry C. Beebe, formerly of Westfield, Massachusetts. Between her and the judge there existed the utmost harmony in tastes and sympathy in their relation to outside affairs, and their domestic life was ideal. Mrs. Burke is active in many phases of the city's best life, being identified with various movements for the uplifting and advancement of the best interests of the people. A patroness of the arts and sciences, she has done much to arouse an interest in art in Cleveland, one of her munificent acts being the gift of one hundred thousand dollars to the Cleveland School of Art, of which her late husband had been a controlling spirit, while she has also given substantial assistance to a number of other benevolent and charitable objects which the judge had befriended during his lifetime. She is broad-minded and generous, no movement of a worthy nature appealing to her in vain. Cultured and refined, she is the center of the social circles in which she moves, and enjoys marked popularity among her large circle of acquaintances. Though she spends much of her time at her old home in Clinton, New York, she has not in the least abated her interest in Cleveland and literature, and is interested in historical research and kindred subjects. She is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and is a member of the Second Presbyterian Church, to the support of which she contributes generously. Conscientious obligation and Christian privilege are the motives which have actuated her in her efforts to ameliorate the condition of those less fortunate, and she has won and retains the sincere regard and respect of all who know her.
Barbara's Bordered Backgrounds