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Samuel Blake Prentiss
JUST as "no history can present the whole truth--but must strive by its partial rendering to present the effects of the whole truth," so must a biographical sketch, even so brief as this, endeavor to convey in part at least some suggestion of the true significance of the life of the late Samuel Blake Prentiss of Cleveland. It is not too much to say that Judge Prentiss was one of the most distinguished member of his distinguished profession, and from 1840 to 1882 he devoted his ripe legal talents and learning to the people of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
A just comprehension of the man cannot be gained except by observing his link in the chain of descent, for seldom has the mantle of distinction enfolded so many of one family, over so many generations as in the case of the Prentisses of New England.
Samuel Blake Prentiss, jurist of Cleveland and for fifteen years justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County, sprang from a race of jurists, statesmen, and professional men. He was the eighth in line from that Captain Thomas Prentiss who founded the family in America in the seventeenth century. Captain Thomas Prentiss and his troop were valiant fighters in the early Indian wars, especially that with king Philip in 1676. When the tribe of the Pequots was cut to pieces and scattered, three hundred of their vacated acres around the Themes River, in Connecticut, were awarded to the brave defender, and here the descendants of Captain Thomas Prentiss have continued to flourish through the intervening centuries. Midway between this redoubtable ancestor and the gentle-mannered man of law of our own times, we find Samuel Prentiss (great-great-grandfather of Samuel Blake Prentiss) who was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, and who had a son Samuel Prentiss, born in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1759, who was a distinguished surgeon and famous for his services in the Revolution, in his profession. This Samuel Prentiss, surgeon, died in Northfield, Massachusetts, then the place of his residence, in 1818, much honored. The son of this Dr. Samuel Prentiss was another Samuel--the third in direct succession--the name seeming to perpetuated the qualities as well as the memory of each forebear, as it has been worn with distinction always. This Samuel, third, was born in Stonington, Connecticut, March 31, 1782, but at the age of two years was moved to northfield, which became Dr. Prentiss' permanent home. Here the boy was educated and first betrayed that good scholarship which usually marked a Prentiss--not brilliant at his books but a close reasoner, a thoughtful student, with ambition set on solid attainment, not superficial accomplishment. In 1801 he was destined for the law and was put to read in the office of Solomon Vorse, Esq., and later under John W. Blake, of Brattleboro, Vermont. By 1803 he was ready for practice and located in Northfield, Massachusetts, where he married Miss Lucretia Houghton the following year. After his marriage he returned to Vermont, which State claimed him from that time on. From the union of Samuel Prentiss, third, and Lucretia (Houghton) Prentiss, sprang twelve children of whom ten sons grew up. All but one of these entered the legal profession, and each arrived at more than usual prominence in their respective communities. The first public recognition of the father, Hon. Samuel Prentiss came as early as 1824 when he was sent to the Vermont Legislature. In 1829, so rapid was his rise, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont, and this honor was followed in 1831 by his election to the U. S. Senate, where he continued for ten years as a leading Whig. In 1842 he resigned his Senatorship to become United States Judge of the District Court of Vermont. This position he held with the greatest honor and credit until his death January 15, 1857, at Montpelier, Vermont. It was this Samuel Prentiss whom Chancellor Kent described as the "the ablest jurist in new England." In 1882, the centennial of his birth, this eminent man was eulogized in a memorial printed by the Legislature of the State of Vermont, and the graciousness of his presence, his gentleness, courtesy and dignity described as a "benediction to those who came into his presence." The same phrase was later applied to his son, the Hon. Samuel Blake Prentiss of Cleveland. It is remarkable to observe how similar were the mental and personal qualities of the two Samuels, father and son.
Samuel Blake Prentiss, the fourth Samuel, was born on January 23, 1807, in Montpelier, Vermont. He was educated in keeping with the family standards and in 1822 was entered at Vermont University, where he showed himself a faithful student given to careful reasoning. He did not finish his college course here, because the institution was burned in 1824, so that the lad was transferred to his father's law office to begin the reading of law with his own father as his preceptor. He here acquired that knowledge of the elements of legal procedure as well as the professional principles of law which shaped his future course so worthily. Gifted with a retentive memory and a logical mind, and assisted by the extraordinary opportunities of his father's busy office both for comment as well as for reading, it is little wonder that he made rapid progress and by 1828, though barely of age, was ready for practice. There is much in example, much in the standard required of a young man, and these were high in the office of Hon. Samuel Prentiss. He read law, he heard law, almost it may be said he breathed law, and thus early gained that habit of calm deliberation, of unhurried comparison, of mental patience, so necessary to the judicial mind. He was gaining a local reputation when in 1839 his younger brother, F. J. Prentiss, also a lawyer, was attracted to Cleveland, Ohio, by the amazing progress the lake city was making, and his reports of the opportunities offered by the growing city brought Samuel Blake Prentiss the following year. The two brothers established the law office of S. B. and F. J. Prentiss in 1840, and the firm name continued practically without interruption until 1861 when F. J. Prentiss became Clerk of the Courts. The senior member then cast abut for a suitable partner and found him in a young lawyer in his own office, Charles Candee Baldwin, who had been taken in as an assistant in 1857 just before he was admitted to the bar. Like many another young man Mr. Baldwin had reason to look with reverent feeling on Samuel Blake Prentiss, loving him for his personal kindnesses and help to young men just entering the profession, as well as honoring him for his erudition and profound interpretation of the law. The advantages of this professional training in the office of S. B. and F. J. Prentiss were considered very great both for the prestige and training. It was said that no one connected with the legal profession in Cuyahoga County had a reputation surpassing that of S. B. Prentiss "for accuracy and logic and legal mind, and for learning."
The firm name Prentiss and Baldwin continued for six years, but was necessarily dissolved in 1867 when S. B. Prentiss was elected Justice of the Court of Common Pleas for Cuyahoga County. Thus again a Samuel Prentiss came to the judge's seat, which they have ever occupied with honor, tempering justice with mercy.
Judge Prentiss filled his five years with credit and was reelected for a second term just before the Court of Common Pleas was reduced to two judges, with corresponding increase in salary but enormous increase in business. No man would have been blamed for resigning the post which was loaded with responsibilities yet carried with it--in the case of a man of such reputation as S. B. Prentiss--the sacrifice of private ambitions and practice. But such was the sincerity of Judge Prentiss, and his sense of duty in his profession, that he would not listen to temptations to desert his office, but continued for two additional terms, making a total of fifteen years of service as Judge of Common Pleas. In 1882 the end of his third term, he sought retirement, being then seventy-five years of age--a venerable and rarely beloved figure in the courts. Toward the last he was a sufferer from cataract, but was by no means handicapped professionally by this disability; his mind was too thoroughly fitted for his profession to be dependent on reference to his law books. Rather it was a veritable encyclopedia of case and comment and practice and precedent, from which he could draw with unfailing accuracy of reference.
The retirement of Judge Samuel Blake Prentiss after forty-two vigorous years in the profession in Ohio was a notable event in the history of Cleveland. His associates praised his eminent legal ability, his industry, fairness, patience, impartiality, and uniform kindness toward all connected with him in the administration of justice. With the profoundest regret they saw him withdraw his presence from among them. His gray locks and above all his hoary wisdom made him the venerable Nestor of the bench and bar of Cuyahoga County.
The few remaining years of Judge Prentiss' life were devoted to his home circle. His family consisted of his wife and two children. Mr. Prentiss married in 1851, April 14, after he had established himself in Cleveland, but his bride was a lady of New England birth, Miss Jane Atwood Russell, daughter of Warren and Janet A. Russell, of East Haddam, Conn. Two daughters were born th Judge Prentiss: Ellen, who became Mrs. Jacob Dolson Cox, her children being Samuel Houghton, Jacob Dolson, and Jeanette Prentiss (now the wife of Dr. Gorden N. Morrill), and Miss Lucretia J. Prentiss.
Judge Prentiss died in Cleveland at a ripe old age and with befitting honors his remains were interred in beautiful Lake View Cemetery. His rest was nobly earned, for he was a faithful, indefatigable worker. On all sides was heard praise for him professionally and personally. Gentle in manner, modest in nature, he appealed to the hearts of his associates as a man, as well as challenged them intellectually or commanded their admiration. He was universally adjudged to be one of the most distinguished men to serve on the bench--to which "he seemed destined even from the cradle."
With a faultless, logical style, a wealth of elucidation--tireless, persistent, infinitely patient to get at truth and administer justice--he was the ideal man of law. He was accustomed to "think of others"--but none could successfully do his thinking. Each premise was incontrovertible, each conclusion inevitable. Summed up--in the words of one of his sincerest admirers--"No one ever occupied the bench of Cuyahoga County who had a more accurate and legal mind, or more learning than Judge Prentiss."
"I hold it truth," admonishes Bacon, "that every man should be a debtor to his profession--by the which, as he hopes to obtain honor and profit--he should endeavor to be an ornament there unto." An ornament to the legal profession, an illustrious precedent for the bench and bar of Ohio was the late Judge Samuel Blake Prentiss.
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