Friday, December 6, 2013

Hooper Cumming Van Vorst (1817-1889)

  
From the Yearbook of the Holland Society of New York, 1887.

   The theme of interestingly named judicial figures continues as we take a peek at the life of a judge named Hooper.....Hooper Cumming Van Vorst to be precise. While most people (after hearing the name "Hooper", mind you) will probably remember "Mr. Hooper" and his store on "Sesame Street", one would probably never guess that there was a New York State Supreme Court justice with it as first name!! An attorney and first President of the Holland Society of New York, Van Vorst was viewed as one of New York's leading legal lights during his sixteen years of service on the bench. Despite his prominence in 19th century New York, Van Vorst is all but forgotten today, and although a few pieces of period literature can be found online that mention him at great length, the following piece aims to shed more light on the life of this oddly named New York jurist, more than a century after his death.
  Born of Dutch ancestry on December 3, 1817 in Schenectady, New York, Hooper Cumming Van Vorst was the son of John (1784-1844) and Elizabeth Baker Van Vorst. A descendant of a Dutch family that had resided in New York since the 1670s, John Van Vorst bestowed upon his son the unusual names "Hooper Cumming", in honor of  an "eloquent preacher" (1787-1825) with that name who was then residing in Schenectady. 
   Van Vorst began his schooling in his native city and in 1839 was a graduate of the Union College. During this time he studied law in the offices of Paige and Potter and in 1841 completed his studies and removed to Albany to begin a law practice. During his Albany he was named as "attorney and counsel to the city" by the local municipal board, subsequently serving in this capacity for several years. In September 1848 Van Vorst married Albany native Maria L. Boyd (1821-1855), who died a few months after birth of the couple's only child, Frederick L. Van Vorst (1855-1919.) Five years following her death Van Vorst remarried to Josephine Treat (1835-1917) and had two more children, John (1872-1899) and Marie Louise (1867-1936).
  In addition to practicing law in the New York state capital Van Vorst also gained prominence as president of the Albany Young Men's Association, serving a one year term from 1848-49. In 1853 Van Vorst left Albany and resettled in New York City, where it is noted by the New Amsterdam Gazette "that he was extensively engaged in the practice of law" until 1868, when he was selected by then Governor Reuben E. Fenton to serve as an Associate Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of New York City. His term on the bench lasted but one year, and in 1873 was elected to serve a fourteen year term as a judge of the Superior Court of New York.
   Shortly following his election to the Superior Court Hooper C. Van Vorst received special designation by the Governor of New York John A. Dix, who named him to "hold special and circuit terms in the Supreme Court of the state" in addition to "occasional service" on the Superior Court bench. The Magazine of Western History Vol. 22 denotes Van Vorst's service on the bench as one of "arduous duties", further noting that he "became famous a learned, careful, impartial equity judge, earning from his fellow judges the sobriquet ''the Chancellor.""  Among the various cases tried before Van Vorst was one in which he "rendered the decision setting aside the lease to the Brooklyn Ferry Company of the valuable East Ferry privileges made for only one dollar rental in the Tweed times."

From the August-September 1886 New Amsterdam Gazette.

    While his time on the bench earned Van Vorst both notoriety and a wide circle of acquaintances, it was his activities in non-judicial areas that are also worth mention. Before his service on the Superior Court he served for a time on the New York State Board of Education and later was a member of the Presbyterian Church's Board of Missions. A religious man, Van Vorst also took on a position as Sunday School teacher for the Children's Aid Society in New York City, where he "did all in his power to lead the children who thronged the school into the paths of a pure moral life."
   As a scion of an old, established Dutch family in New York, Hooper Van Vorst was intricately involved in the establishment of the Holland Society of New York, an organization devoted to the memory of the families of New Netherland and their living descendants. Prior to the society's incorporation in May 1885 Judge Van Vorst served as its provisional president and was one of the original group of 46 signers of the society's certificate of incorporation. Van Vorst served the society as it's first "official" president and held this post until his death.
   Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age for judges in New York in 1887, the seventy year old Hooper Van Vorst left the Superior Court bench and devoted the remainder of his life to charitable work and the practice of law, forming a firm with his son Frederick that was located on Wall Street. The retired judge is recorded as keeping an active schedule until a few days before his death, which occurred at his home on October 26, 1889. The New Amsterdam Gazette noted in its memorial to him that he "died quite unexpectedly of a congestive chill" and after a well attended funeral at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church was interred at the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York. 
  In the weeks following his death Van Vorst received lavish praise in literature of the time, including a substantial five page memorial in the New Amsterdam Gazette of December 6, 1889. In this obituary the Gazette recollected that:
"In the death of Hooper C. Van Vorst a notable judicial career has reached its noble and final consummation. For the best years of his life he has been a conspicuous and honored member of our bar and bench. Endowed with choice scholastic abilities, he was able to embellish the trite principles of the law with popular interest, and full recommendations to sober thought and action."

Van Vorst obituary from the Albany Evening Times Oct. 28, 1889.

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