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Letters of a country lawyer
I have in my hands for collection a note against you in favor of G.W. Cardell amounting to day to $6.50. An early settlement will save you costs.
In April 1879, John Henry Senter, age 30, of Warren, Vermont, penned these words in a letter to A.F. Martin, Esq. Before posting the letter, however, Senter carefully copied it into his new “Japanese Letter Copying Book.” It was among the first of some 326 letters he copied during the following five years, filling 280 pages of the book. With a terse practicality and an acerbic wit, the letters document the events and concerns of Senter’s life—as a businessman, educator, rural politician, and lawyer.
Senter’s copying book today resides in the Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room of the Boston College Law Library—a gift, in 2001, from Richard G. Huber, professor emeritus and former dean of the Boston College Law School. Ever since it arrived in the law library, where I work, it has intrigued me—as a primary source, the record of one small-town 19th-century New England lawyer’s activities and thoughts, set down at the time they occurred instead of being selectively reconstructed decades after the fact; and as a physical object, for unlike most rare books, of which multiple copies exist, this volume is unique.
Senter’s copying book is modest in appearance, measuring approximately nine inches wide by eleven inches tall by one inch thick and bound in dull brownish cloth. The word “LETTERS” is stamped in gold on the spine. On the front flyleaf, someone has written in ballpoint pen:
Most of the letters in this book are signed by John H. Senter who was an attorney and also a superintendent of schools in Warren, Vermont. He was also an insurance agent for Union Mutual Insurance Co. He also was an influential person in an advisory capacity in picking out certain people to represent the democrats at the Chicago convention in 1884.
Senter was born on November 11, 1848, in Cabot, Vermont, and spent most of his life—he died in 1916, at age 67—within 40 miles of his hometown. He attended elementary school in Cabot, then traveled to Concord, New Hampshire, for high school. In the late 1870s he studied law in the offices of Clarence Pitkin, in Montpelier (at that time many aspiring lawyers clerked, or “read law,” for their education instead of going to law school). While studying with Pitkin, Senter supported himself and his dependent mother by teaching elementary school. In March 1879, he was admitted to the Vermont bar and began practicing law in Warren.
Although he gave up teaching to launch his law practice, Senter did not entirely divorce himself from the education system. From 1879 to 1882 he was Warren’s superintendent of schools, administering exams to prospective teachers, writing letters of recommendation, and attempting, not always successfully, to fill vacant teaching positions.
April 28th 79
Miss Katie Prentice
With reluctance I have to inform you of your failure to pass the required per ct on your examination, but I must do my duty although it is disagreeable. Your average is only 44-1⁄2 and I have marked it very high, you have not reached fifty on any one subject so you can readily see that it is not possible for me to grant a certificate on those answers.
I think you capable of passing a much better examination, think you were frightened, hurried, and cold, and I am willing to give you another chance, will give you a private examination, free any day this week, give you all the time you want and if you can pass an average of 65 without going below fifty on any one subject, I shall be happy to grant you a certificate.
Having spent 43 terms as a teacher, Senter was anxious to raise standards, as his letter to state superintendent of education Edward Conant in 1879 suggests:
Your favor of the 10th is at hand and contents noted. I am glad you are to adress the people of my town [and] I will try and have a good audience present. I am trying to get my teachers interested in education more than are at present, and shall endeavor to have them all present.
Also in 1879, Senter was appointed to a county committee charged with selecting and purchasing the schools’ textbooks. In a letter to Hiram Huse, a fellow lawyer and state librarian of Vermont, his efforts (and frustrations) as a textbook evaluator are summed up:
To day I have had a lawsuit to attend to, but have found time to look over the picture book a little and will now give you the result. First on page 5 first column, 6¶, the definition of Archipelago, strikes me as “original,” it goes back on Webster somewhat. . . . Third compare the west coast line of the U.S. as given on 25 & 28, 30 & 58 pages. I have compared them by sketching on tissue paper, and think the result would convince any one, that whoever drafted those maps, had no idea of the “Eternal fitness of things.” In the same book one would, naturally suppose, they would have some similarity. . . . Notice the Sierra Nevada Mtn’s on page 30 (in California) at the south end near Mt. Whitney, they make an almost square turn to the left, then on page 58 the same mountains have gone on a “tour” and now turn to the right. . . .
Well I have spent just one hour on this book to day and the foregoing is the result. What would be the result if a man well [footed] in geography should spend a week on the book, don’t you think such a man could make some “splendid illustrations.” . . . If you are not bored, I shall be glad.
The topics of education and law constitute the bulk of Senter’s letters, but throughout the copying book, one finds evidence of a wide-ranging involvement in civic life—in his service as a justice of the peace and mayor of Montpelier, as a delegate to the Democratic national convention that gave Grover Cleveland his first nomination, and as an informal town agent and scribe:
August 21st 79
B. Joy Jeffries, M.D.
I write you for information as regards the expense at your Infirmary of opperating on eyes. A young lady of this town has a cataract over each of her eyes, her parents are poor, and as she is [an] estimable young lady several of the people here are willing to help pay the expenses of the opperation and her traveling expenses.
Starting in 1880, the subject of law dominates Senter’s correspondence, exhibiting the range of his work—from commonplace real estate and tax matters to battles with town managers, banks, and in this instance, an insurance company:
June 4th 3
M.J. Francisco, Esq.
Hiram Wood of E. Warren, Vermont, on the 15th day of August, a.d. 1883 took out an insurance certificate, No. 2640, in the Vermont Accident Association of Rutland Vermont. About the middle of November 1882, while engaged at his work as a wood chopper, he was thrown backwards over a [log], and was injured in his spine just below his shoulder blade on his right side. The place injured became very much discolored and swollen. . . . On the 22nd of Nov. [a] medical examiner here, Dr. O.D. Greene [was] called, as Mr. Wood continued to grow worse. Soon after this Dr. Halett of Moretown was called, both of these M.Ds. examined Mr. Wood and both were satisfied that his disability was occasioned by the fall and injury above mentioned . . . .
He has written to you or had others several times about the matter, but for some, to him, unknown reason, you seem to entirely ignore him. What he wants is that you should thoroughly examine this matter . . . and if you find it an honest claim to settle honestly with him, if not an honest claim, or if you are not satisfied that it is, he wants nothing, but you will either fairly hear and investigate this claim [or] the courts will. I don’t intend this as a threat, as I have always found you square [and] upright, I expect to now . . . .
I request you to lay this matter before the directors, and to at least treat [him] with consideration enough to answer [this] letter, and not remain as you [have] with Mr. Wood entirely dumb.
We have Senter’s copied letters—in his own hand—thanks to a device that predated carbon paper and is virtu-ally unknown today: the copying press. An ingenious contraption, it was patented in England in 1780 by James Watt, the Scottish inventor better known for his improvements to the steam engine, for coining the term horsepower, and for giving his name to a unit of power. Copy presses reached America by 1782, and soon they were widely used in government and private enterprises, from banks to hospitals to steamship lines.
The typical press was a simple structure featuring a base plate, on which the copy book sat, with an upright frame in the shape of an inverted U. An upper plate was screwed down by means of a shaft threaded through the top of the frame. (The conservation lab at the Burns Library contains a late 19th-century model whose rugged cast-iron construction and lack of ornamentation bespeak its utilitarian purpose.) The copying books themselves were distinctive for their paper, which was thin to the point of delicate.
To copy a letter, Senter or his assistant, if he had one, would have followed these steps: (1) Place a piece of oiled, moisture-resistant paper under a single page of the book (to protect the leaves beneath). (2) Dampen the sheet of copying paper with a moist cloth or a brush dipped in water. This was the trickiest part of the operation. Too little water and the copy would come up faint; too much and the copy would blur. (3) Remove excess moisture from the copying paper with a sheet of blotting paper. Again, something of an art. (4) Place the letter to be copied so the written side is face down on the dampened leaf of copying paper. (5) Place another sheet of oiled paper or blotting paper on top of the original letter (again, to protect adjacent leaves). (6) Close the book, place it into the copying press, screw down the top plate, and make the impression. The ink from the original will leach through the copy paper and be readable from the reverse side.
If all went well, the resulting copy was an exact duplicate of the original, so precise that reproductions from copy presses were accepted by British and American courts as authentic copies of the originals, and thus could be used as legal evidence.
Senter’s copying book opens up a brief period in a small corner of New England to today’s reader, but the copying press, which remained viable until the middle of the 20th century when it was gradually supplanted by technologies such as the mimeograph machine, was almost universally used throughout the country for more than a century. George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson owned presses. So did numerous other presidents, the last (from 1923–29) being another Vermonter, Calvin Coolidge.
The final letter in Senter’s copying book is dated December 22, 1884. His career continued for another 32 years. He married (at age 28) and raised five children. To the end he practiced law, representing cases from abortion (a single instance) to breach of the peace, winning about as many as he lost. On January 20, 1916, he died of heart failure at the age of 67. He was buried in Montpelier, 20 miles from his birthplace.
Karen S. Beck is curator of rare books and collection development librarian at the Boston College law library. Her essay is drawn from A Working Lawyer’s Life: The Letter Book of John Henry Senter 1879–1884 (© 2008, Karen S. Beck) by arrangement with The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.