HISTORIC NEW YORK STATE COURTHOUSES
Old Montgomery County Courthouse and the James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials
Location: 9 Park St., Fonda, N.Y.
Houses: The building now houses the Montgomery County Department of History and Archives, the Board of Elections and the County Economic Development Offices. The courts relocated in 1892 because nearby train traffic disrupted court proceedings.
Judicial District: Fourth
Built: 1835 - 1837
Mason: Henry Holmes
Carpenter: Lawrence Marcellus
Architecture: Three-story Greek revival courthouse with Ionic columns and a silver cupola. There are fluted columns on the gabled end of the front of the courthouse, where there is a relief or raised sculpture. The relief was added in 1910, when an extension was built.
Historic Status: On both the state and national historic registries.
Author James Fenimore Cooper was born in New Jersey in 1789, the son of Elisabeth Fenimore Cooper and Judge William cooper. His father founded Cooperstown, N.Y.
After spending seven years abroad, Cooper returned to New York in 1833 and repurchased the family estate, including land on Lake Otsego called Three Mile Point, which his father had allowed villagers to use as a picnic site. On July 22, 1837, Cooper placed a notice in the local paper forbidding further public use of the Point. That curtly worded notice became the source of eight years of controversy and litigation.
Residents held a town meeting protesting Cooper’s actions and drew up resolutions to remove Cooper’s book from the local library. Elius Pellet, editor of the “Chanango Telegraph” chronicled the conflict that August. The article was republished in the “Albany Evening Journal” by Thurlow Wee, and in the “Otsego Republican” by Andrew Barber.
Cooper demanded a retraction from Barber, and, in September he sued Pellet and Barber for libel. The suit against Barber, for replication of libelous materials, was the first to come to trial in the Fonda courthouse, in May 1839. The judge directed a verdict of $400 in favor of Cooper. That judgment was upheld on appeal. In March 1841, Cooper had authorities seize Barber’s press and types to settle the award, bankrupting the editor.
By the time that award was settled, the Pellet libel suit had brought Cooper another $400 verdict, and he had filed numerous libel suits, many that he litigated on his own behalf and won.
Between August 1937 and November 1838, Cooper published two books, “Homeward Bound” and “Home as Found.” IN the latter, the novelist devoted three chapters to a fictional character whose circumstances mirrored the Point controversy. The book contained a very unflattering portrait of the villagers, including a newspaper editor. Reviews were “extremely vitriolic and unrestrained” and criticized Cooper for including the real-life drama. Among the many comments and articles, the “New-Yorker” asked: “Does an author subject himself to personal criticism by submitting a work to the public? Not necessarily, we are inclined to believe. But if he makes his work the channel of disparaging remarks upon others – whether individuals or in masses – is not the case essentially altered?”
In an 1838 review of the books, James Watson Webb, editor of the “Morning Courier and New york Enquirer,” called Cooper “a base-minded caitiff, who has traduced his country for filthy lucre … a traitor to national pride and national character.” Based on the review, a grand jury indicted Webb for libel in February 1839. Webb’s comments on the indictment were the basis of a second indictment four months later.
"The liberty of the Press and the welfare of the community, require that the greatest possible latitude should be given to criticism not incompatible with the rights of Authors; but they too have rights which it is your duty to protect."
Webb obtained a change of venue from Otsego to Montgomery County. During the first trial in the Fonda courthouse on the first indictment, in November 1841, Judge John Willard ruled that the defense could submit into evidence parts of the novels that justified the review. Both books were read to the jury in their entirety and 11-hour undertaking. Park Benjamin, another editor whom Cooper successfully sued, commented: “Can the reader … imagine a more grievous torture than … the reading of Mr. Cooper’s stupid and slanderous trash? Oh, it was too much – five jurymen are supposed to have been carried out fainting.”
Judge Willard told the jury that the question was whether Webb had confined his criticism to the work and the author or if he had attacked the character of the man. “[T]his case is one of very general importance, because your decision will establish to a certain extent, the rights both of Editors and Reviewers and of Authors,” said Judge Willard. “The liberty of the Press and the welfare of the community, require that the greatest possible latitude should be given to criticism not incompatible with the rights of Authors; but they too have rights which it is your duty to protect.”
The jury could not reach a verdict, allegedly due to a single holdout – a juror who had a friend in common with Cooper. The rest were said to have reached a not guilty verdict in five minutes. A second trial also concluded with the jury unable to reach a verdict. A third trial, in 1843, resulted in a not guilty verdict in 10 minutes. Following the first jury’s deadlock, Webb retracted the article on which the second indictment was based.
In the interim, Cooper had multiple actions pending against Weed. The first came to trial while Weed’s daughter was seriously ill. When Weed failed to appear, Cooper demanded a default judgment. Cooper was awarded $400, which Weed promptly paid. After Weed was assessed damages of varying amounts in several other cases, he retracted his articles about Cooper.
From 1837 to 1845, Cooper brought libel suits against editors and others connected to newspapers in the Cooperstown area, Albany and New York City. Cooper prevailed in many of his suits; the press countered primarily by not reviewing his future work. The litigation so affected Cooper that he enjoined his family never to authorize a biography of him.
The primary sources used for this article were "The Effingham Libels on Cooper" by Ethel R. Outland, 1929, and "Historic Courthouse of New York State" by Herbert A. Johnson & Ralph K. Andrist, 1977.
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