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John Burr Skinner

Home Town:
Williamstown, MA
Later Residences:
Buffalo, NY
Sarah Walker Skinner (unknown)
Catherine Stoddard Skinner (1830)
Biographical Notes:
John Burr Skinner, the youngest child of Deacon Benjamin and Rachel Train-Skinner, became a deeply influential man and lawyer. After his graduation at Williams in 1818, Skinner drifted into democratic circles; he entered the law office of Hon. Daniel Buel, of Troy, New York, where he formed a life-long friendship with his fellow-student, the late William L. Marcy, governor of New York and secretary of state under President Pierce. He completed his preparatory studies at the then celebrated law school of Judges Gould and Reeves, at Litchfield, Connecticut; and soon after established himself as a lawyer in the hamlet of Wyoming, New York, in the present county of Wyoming, both of which names were given by himself to their respective localities. His cousin, James 0. Putnam, said of him: —

His ...

Ex-President Fillmore, who presided at a meeting of the Bar of Erie County, convened to give some expression of its sentiment on the occasion of his death, in 1871, said: —

My acquaintance with Mr. Skinner commenced in 1829, when he and I were both members of the Assembly. That was my first year, but I think it was his third year, and he had then an enviable reputation for so young a man in that distinguished body, as yet free from the suspicion of bribery, and adorned by the talents of such men as John C. Spencer, Erastus Root, Benj. F. Butler, Frank Granger, and of others. The revision of our statutes, the great work which did so much to methodize and relieve them from the cumbrous language and accumulated contradictions and inconsistencies of years, was then just completed, and in that great work Judge Skinner bore a conspicuous part. I know he was listened to with confidence and respect, and no member of the House seemed to exert a more salutary influence. My subsequent acquaintance with him was mainly at the Bar. Here he was distinguished for his legal arguments and forensic eloquence. I have often felt a tremor of anxiety when I have had to meet him. He was a man religiously devoted to the interest of his client without ever compromising his own conscience or dignity. He prepared his case with great labor and assiduity, and whatever could be said in favor of his client's interest he presented with great clearness and force, and when that was done he conceived that he had discharged his professional duty, and he patiently waited the result. The highest encominm that can ever be passed upon a man of his profession may with great propriety be passed upon him, and that is, he was a learned, conscientious lawyer.

Hon. James R. Doolittle, late United States senator from Wisconsin, had this to say, two years after Judge Skinner's death : —
The late John B. Skinner, as a lawyer and advocate, had few equals, and no superior, for many years, in western New York. To uniform courtesy, untiring industry, unflinching and incorruptible fidelity to his clients, you must add great tact and knowledge of human nature, as well as great legal learning, and oftentimes the highest order of eloquence, to make a just estimate of his character. It was before a jury that he was, in some respects, unequalled. His efforts there were entirely extemporaneous. Those who have had great opportunity to hear the most eloquent of American orators, say there were occasions when those extemporaneous efforts of Mr. Skinner, in true eloquence and power, surpassed all his contemporaries. When fully roused, his language was pure English, — chaste, elegant, and concise. He spoke without apparent effort, with a directness, earnestness, and naturalness that seemed almost inspired. His mind, like his person, was high-wrought and of the finest mould. All his appeals and all his conversations were addressed to the better part of our nature. With truth it may be said, no one ever heard him at the Bar, or held private conversation with him, who did not feel his nobler sentiments strengthened and elevated by his influence.

Judge Martin Grover, of the Court of Appeals of the state of New York, who knew him very thoroughly on the circuit, and otherwise, from 1836 onwards for twenty years, embodied his recollections, in 1873, in a paper prepared for the Buffalo Historical Society. We quote: —

Mr. Skinner attended all the circuits in Livingston, Allegheny, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, and Genesee counties, and his presence was regarded almost as essential as that of the Judge. There were then no railroads in any part of the district, and Mr. Skinner travelled from one country town to another, in company with the Judge, each with his own horse and sulky. Extensive study and large experience had made Mr. Skinner perfectly familiar with, and master of, nearly every legal question presented, and he was, therefore, able to take a leading part in nearly every case tried. His clear intellect and capacity for quick comprehension enabled him to try a cause with great ability, without any previous preparation, and with but little consultation with his client and the oiher counsel. He would grasp the entire case at once and adopt the correct mode of conducting the trial. He was very sagacious in the examination of .witnesses. An adverse witness rarely succeeded in baffling him, and, as a general rule, he would derive an advantage for his client from the reluctance of such a witness to disclose the whole truth. But his great power was in summing up to the jury. In this I have never seen one superior and scarcely ever his equal. His clear statements and close logical arguments usually convinced the understanding of his hearers, and when to these were added his powers of persuasion, the effect was overwhelming. He possessed in an eminent degree the highest powers of an orator. In listening to him no one could doubt his entire sincerity, and when he appealed to the highest and noblest principles of humanity it was the outpouring from the heart. His words went directly to the hearts of the audience. His control of their emotions was, for the time, complete. Nothing seemed to give him greater pleasure than the exertion of these high powers in the cause of justice. He was a gentleman of the old school, and exhibited these traits in all his conduct during a trial. Always courteous to the Bench, though firm and earnest in insisting upon the rights of his client, his uniform politeness to the adverse party — counsel and witnesses — had a strong tendency to restrain undue exhibitions of passion, too frequently witnessed upon exciting trials.

His early friend and fellow-student, Governor Marcy, appointed Skinner, in 1838, to the office of judge of the eighth circuit, who, at that time, had equity jurisdiction as vice-chancellor; but he declined the appointment. President Pierce nominated him for United States District Attorney for the northern district of New York; a position which he also declined. In the mean time, in 1846, the governor of New York appointed him Judge of the county court of Wyoming, under the new constitution of that state, a place which he held but for a few months, until the election which he lost.

No other native of Williamstown certainly, perhaps it may be said no other graduate of Williams College, ever gained the breadth and constancy and solidity of reputation, at once as a lawyer and as an orator, and as a genial friend and gentleman, and as a high officer and representative of a great national church, that was acquired by John B. Skinner (Williams College, 1818), 1799-1871, the most honored among the many honored descendants of Colonel Benjamin Simonds. Let us listen for a moment to what a clergyman, Rev. J. E. Nassau, who knew him thoroughly, said of him two years after his death: He was a person of the finest sensibilities, that manifested themselves continually in his domestic, Christian, and professional life and intercourse. I have often seen him profoundly affected and moved even to tears in religious meetings and public addresses, and even in common conversation upon topics that greatly interested him. And nothing took deeper hold of his emotion than the grand elemental truths of the Bible, the permanent interests of the Church, the sorrows and joys of friends, or the vital interests of the Country.

After his removal to Buffalo in 1800, — except an interval of eighteen months of foreign travel, in the course of which he lost, by death in Switzerland, his only child and his only grandchild, — Judge Skinner passed the last ten years of his life in the varied duties of a useful and honored citizenship. His last years, with the exception of the great sorrow just referred to, were serene and happy. He died in Buffalo,NY in 1871.

The above information was taken from Origins in Williamstown By Arthur Latham Perry, New York City: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1894.

Years at LLS:
Other Education:
Graduated from Williams College in 1818.

Profession / Service
Political Office; Lawyer
Local Posts:
Judge of the County Court (Wyoming County, NY) 1846-1847

help The Citation of Attendance provides primary source documentation of the student’s attendance at the Litchfield Female Academy and/or the Litchfield Law School. If a citation is absent, the student is thought to have attended but currently lacks primary source confirmation.

Records for the schools were sporadic, especially in the formative years of both institutions. If instructors kept comprehensive records for the Litchfield Female Academy or the Litchfield Law School, they do not survive. Researchers and staff have identified students through letters, diaries, family histories and genealogies, and town histories as well as catalogues of students printed in various years. Art and needlework have provided further identification of Female Academy Students, and Litchfield County Bar records document a number of Law School students. The history of both schools and the identification of the students who attended them owe credit to the early 20th century research and documentation efforts of Emily Noyes Vanderpoel and Samuel Fisher, and the late 20th century research and documentation efforts of Lynne Templeton Brickley and the Litchfield Historical Society staff.
Catalogue of the Litchfield Law School (Hartford, CT: Press of Case, Tiffany and Company, 1849), 17.

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