Robeson Remembers: Judge Harris
William S. McLean
‘MIDNIGHT JUDGE’ DIED, BURIED
IN LUMBERTON IN 1813
The death and burial of Superior Court Judge Edward Harris in Lumberton in 1813 was the only reference to Robeson County and Lumberton cited in Wheeler’s “ History of North Carolina” published in the year 1851. Thus, it might be said that the death of Judge Harris had more significance than any other event occurring since 1787, the date of the founding of both Robeson County and Lumberton, at least in the eyes of one of North Carolina’s foremost historians of that era.
According to R.C. Lawrence in “The State of Robeson,” on the day of the death of Judge Harris, the then Clerk of Superior Court of Robeson County, wrote an eight line poem in code about Judge Harris. “The writer (R.C. Lawrence) deciphered it, after some difficulty, then had the code poem published and offered a reward to any schoolchild who would decipher it. It cost him (Lawrence) $30, as six of them did – promptly!”
What the Honorable Edward Harris found when he arrived in Lumberton from his home in New Bern, N.C. to hold court in that fateful year of 1813 was that Lumberton had been surveyed and lots had been sold by lottery in 1787. Lumberton was the center of a naval stores industry with lumber and other items being floated down Drowning Creek to Georgetown, S.C. The name Drowning Creek was changed to Lumber River by state statute to describe its use more accurately and attractively. Wharves were constructed where Water Street is today.
The courthouse was located where it is presently, the “Public Square” on the original survey. The original courthouse was a dwelling house moved to the site, then replaced by a brick courthouse in 1848.
According to North Carolina maps of the era, Lumberton was a crossroads of travel, the veritable I-95 and 74 of its day, belying the fact that there were only a few hundred inhabitants of the town.
The community afforded some degree of repose. Theodosia Burr, an early traveler from New York City to Georgetown, wrote Aaron Burr, vice president of the U.S., under date of Oct. 29, 1803, “Thank Heaven, my dear father, I am at Lumberton and within a few days of rest.” The only known structure remaining of the Lumberton of 1813 is the brick building known as the Proctor Building located at 6th and Elm Streets, built by Jacob Rhodes, surveyor of the town in 1787.
Judge Harris died on March 29, 1813, while holding Superior Court in Lumberton and was buried in “this village.” He was interred in the town cemetery, located between 1st and 2nd Streets and between Elm and Chestnut Street, just three blocks distant from where he held his last court. His remains, together with all others buried there, were later removed to Meadowbrook Cemetery in Lumberton, and the Robeson County Public Library was constructed at the site.
Beneath this Tablet
deposited the mortal Remains of
one of the Judges of the Supreme
Courts of this State
Who while engaged at this Village
in the discharge of the duties of his
station was unexpectedly summoned
to appear before the Throne of
The Almighty Judge of the Living & the
dead, a grateful country will cherish
The memory of a firm & able
Long will friends and relatives
Remember his ardour of attachment &
fidelity of service and never can his
bereaved wife cease to dwell on the
mournful yet soothing recollection
Of his tendernefs (sic) & worth.
He died March 29th 1813
In the 50th year of his age.
In these early times, it was not unusual to be buried where one died, as was the case with Edward Harris. There were no railroads or navigable waterways between Lumberton and New Bern, and the roads were not the best. As an example, the author’s family cemetery located in what was once Robeson County, now Hoke County, contains the graves of two ladies who came to visit in the 1840s and died within months of each other, finding a final resting place far from their reputed Pennsylvania home.
Born in Iredell County, Harris was first a surveyor and served on a boundary commission that ran the line between Rowan and Iredell Counties. His surveying skills took him as far away as Tennessee and Kentucky. He read law and established himself in New Bern as an attorney by 1791. He represented New Bern in the legislature of 1802 and Craven County in the legislature of 1807. He was a trustee of the University of North Carolina from 1807 until his death.
Died without will
At the time of his death at age 50, Harris had been married to Sarah Kollock of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, for three years. There were no children by either Sarah or a previous wife. Not leaving a will, his estate beneficiaries were his wife, three brothers, one sister, four children of a deceased brother, one half brother, and one half sister. None of the beneficiaries, except his widow, lived in New Bern where the estate was administered, heirs living in Iredell County and as far away as Louisiana and Kentucky.
This state of affairs created a nightmare for the administration of the estate. Any important action required acceptance of or service on heirs and appointments of guardians ad litem for minor children heirs. His wife Sarah was allocated a year’s allowance from the estate for her use in the first year after death. This consisted of 1 barrell of pork, 60 pieces of bacon, 2 tubs of lard, 40 weight of sugar, 40 weight of coffee, 15 weight of cotton, 65 barrells of corn, 1 horse, 1 milk cow, and the wheat crop from a farm in Hyde County. The widow continued to receive income from the estate until 1847, 34 years after the death of Edward Harris.
The procedure for the administration of estates and guardians of minor children in the Harris estate was similar to the Chancery Court proceedings in 19th century England. Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House satirized these proceedings in the court case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which lasted for generations of heirs where all the questions became moot because the entire estate was consumed in court costs.
This case seems to have had a happier ending than Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Correspondence in the John Gray Blount papers from 1814 refers to an offer of $10,000 for only the North Carolina real estate in the estate of Edward Harris, this at a time when land could be purchased for $1 to $3 per acre.
Prior to his service as a judge in the North Carolina court system during 1811 - 1813, Harris, at age 39, was one of the “Midnight Judges” named to the U.S. Circuit Court. He served only two months from May 3, 1802, until July 1, 1802, when his position together with all the other “Midnight Judges” was abolished as a part of the “revolution” of the election of 1800.
John Adams was the sitting president and ran for re-election in 1800. Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson by an electoral vote of 73 to 65. Aaron Burr, who was to serve as vice president under Jefferson, was credited for New York giving its electoral votes to Jefferson. South Carolina was also in the Republican column despite a heavy Federalist majority in Charleston.
It was Federalist Alexander Hamilton who gave the coup de grace to Adams with his widely published critique of Adams. Jefferson and Burr both had 73 electoral votes and it took 36 U.S. House ballots to break the tie. The Federalist Party, the party of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, was appalled at the election results, which not only meant Thomas Jefferson was elected president but also that the Federalists were no longer in control of Congress. Parenthetically, the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson evolved into the Democratic party of today, while strains of the Federalist party became first the Whig party and then the Republican party of today.
The election of 1800 left only the judicial branch as a bulwark against the “revolutionaries.” The Federalists were determined to make the most of this branch of the government and plotted for its control. The election results in favor of Jefferson were known by December 1800, but Adams would continue to serve as president until the inauguration of Jefferson in April, 1801. Hence the Judiciary Act of 1801 was passed by the lame-duck Federalist Congress and signed by President Adams after the election results were known in December and before Jefferson took office in April, 1801.
The Judiciary Act of 1801 doubled the number of federal circuit courts and created dozens of new federal judges. President Adams proceeded with the appointments with all due speed. The U.S. Senate stayed in session until 9 on the last day of the Adams administration to confirm the Adams appointments, while Adams was up late at night signing dozens of commissions. President Adams was accused of staying up until midnight the night before the inauguration of Jefferson to ensure Federalist control of the judicial branch of the government. Thus the new appointees were forever known as “Midnight Judges.” Shortly thereafter, at 4 on the day of the inauguration, President Adams started on his way back home to Quincy, Mass., by stagecoach, not attending the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson.
Three of the original “Midnight Judges” resigned or otherwise left the court after Jefferson became president. Jefferson appointed Edward Harris as a replacement before the abolishment of the Judiciary Act put an end to the “Midnight Judges,” whether original or replacement. Even though Edward Harris was the recipient of the largess of the Federalists for his two month tenure on the U.S. Circuit Court, it seems clear that Harris supported the Republicans during the election of 1800. This was evidenced not only by his appointment but his association with John Gray Blount of Washington, N.C., a Jefferson supporter, for whom Harris acted as attorney and partner in land speculations.
In addition, one of John Gray Blount’s sons boarded in New Bern and read law under Harris.
To give the scale of the operations of John Gray Blount, the State of North Carolina during the year 1795 made ten grants to him, totaling 125,580 acres of land in Robeson County at a price of 30 shillings per 100 acres, all grants being signed by then Governor Richard Dobbs Speight. Blount also had mercantile and shipping interests, in addition to other lands located as far away as Ohio.
John Gray Blount, his brother William Blount, and, to a lesser extent, Edward Harris were all engaged in purchasing land warrants granted to Revolutionary War veterans for lands in the west. The warrants gave holders the right to purchase lands cheaply from governments. Locally, John Willis, Jacob Rhodes, and Robeson County Surveyor Angus Gilchrist were all involved in such purchase and sales. Not all such speculations worked out well. The Robeson County Sheriff conducted a sale of 76,500 acres belonging to John Gray Blount for 1797 taxes at a price of 65 pounds, 6 shillings, and 6 pence, about $384, Blount probably being caught temporarily short of cash in the 1797 recession. Angus Gilchrist bid in the property, perhaps as a stand-in for Blount.
In 1797, William Blount, a former U.S. Senator from Tennessee, wrote in the strongest terms to his brother that Edward Harris should be encouraged to move his residence to Tennessee and to establish himself as an attorney in that state. “*** I repeat to you that I am clear that it is both your interest and his (Harris) that he should determine without Hesitation to become a resident of Miso District (Tennessee) as early as possible for besides his value, as respects lands he will find himself in the Practice of the law at or nearly at the Head of his profession *** a Woodsman a Surveyor *** good Bargain Maker all which Harris is and a Lawyer besides ***.” Despite the importuning, and perhaps due to the year’s residence requirement for the practice of law in that state, Harris did not move to Tennessee.
Nevertheless, Harris was engaged in widespread land dealings in Tennessee and it can be only assumed that he traveled widely there. John Gray Blount Jr. was stationed in Nashville, Tennessee, by his father. Blount Jr. reported approvingly to his father that Harris, during the year 1810, acquired 4,800 acres and later that year acquired four warrants totaling 1050 acres in that state. Perhaps a partnership between Harris and his father was understood.
Superior, Supreme Court
Harris was appointed to the Superior Court by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1811, making a total of only eight Superior Court Judges in the entire state. During this period the Supreme Court consisted of the Superior Court Judges, sitting in joint session, any two of which made a quorum. Superior Court judges were authorized to elect a Chief Justice from their number. “This village” was justly honored by the presence of a judge holding Superior Court who by reason of his appointment was also a Supreme Court judge.
Surveyor, lawyer, “Woodsman,” “good Bargain Maker,” member of the North Carolina legislature, University of North Carolina trustee, “Midnight Judge “of the U.S. Circuit Court for two months and Judge of the Superior Court and Supreme Court of North Carolina for two years, he had removed himself from the hurly-burly of land dealing in North Carolina and Tennessee and the demands of his clients such as John Gray Blount when he accepted the judicial appointment. Unfortunately, he had neglected his personal affairs and, like the shoemaker whose children had no shoes, he, a lawyer, died without a will.
Vol. 111 and 1V of the John Gray Blount papers
State of Robeson by R.C. Lawrence, 1939
Historical Sketches of Robeson County by Henry A. McKinnon, Jr., 2001
John Adams by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, 2001
Theodosia Burr Alston by Richard Cote, 2003
Jefferson’s Second Revolution, by Susan Dunn, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004
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