George Tyler Bigelow

Associate Justice memorial

124 Mass. 598 (1878)

The Honorable George Tyler Bigelow, a justice of this court from the twenty-first day of November, 1850, to the seventh day of September, 1860, and from that time until the thirty-first day of December, 1867, the Chief Justice thereof, died at his residence in Boston, on the twelfth day of April, 1878. A meeting, of the members of the bar of Suffolk County was held in Boston on the eighteenth day of April, at which resolutions were passed, which were presented by the Attorney General to the full court on the third day of May. Before presenting them the Attorney General addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors, -- We have assembled this morning by your kind permission to present to your honors and place upon the records of the court, our tribute of respect and regard for the memory of the Honorable George Tyler Bigelow, late Chief Justice of this court, with our appreciation of his character and the usefulness of his life. This has been done in resolutions which I am about to offer to the court, and so well done that I deem it superfluous to preface the resolutions with any remarks of my own, lest I should injure the effect and mar the beauty of the portraiture.

The Attorney General then presented the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the members of the bar, met together in a common grief at the death of George Tyler Bigelow, lately Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, would place upon record some formal expression of our appreciation of his judicial services and personal character. We are admonished by this event, and the fresh remembrance of his presence in this room as presiding justice, now ten years since, how rapidly those have passed away, who in former years have been accustomed to sit in these seats of judgment. The faces of Chief Justice Chapman, Justice Metcalf, Merrick, Dewey and Wells, have all been familiarly known, and their memories mourned, by those who have been at the bar less than fifteen years. Of those on the bench when Judge Bigelow became Chief Justice, in 1860, not one now remains in office, and but one survives.

Appointed to the Supreme Court to succeed Mr. Justice Wilde, who, by his voluntary retirement in 1850, closed the longest period of judicial service known in our history; advanced to the position of Chief Justice in 1860, upon the resignation of Chief Justice Shaw, that eminent magistrate, who in this Commonwealth can never cease to be honored with a peculiar veneration, -- Chief Justice Bigelow entered upon the different stages of his judicial career, with the necessity resting upon him to vindicate before the bar and public his title to fill such high positions. How well he succeeded in satisfying the expectations of those who expected the most from him is shown by the general regret which was felt at his resignation, and the formal appeal made by three hundred members of the bar that he would postpone his contemplated withdrawal from the bench.1

In the discharge of his judicial duties he showed quickness of apprehension, combined, nevertheless, with a good degree of patience in listening to evidence and arguments; rare judgment in the weighing of testimony; excellent capacity in arranging the facts of a case in order, giving to each a just proportion and significance; a great clearness of statement in charging the jury. Adding to these qualities promptness, a thoroughness in the dispatch of the business of the court, he early gained a high reputation for all that pertains to the practical administration of justice, as a nisi prius judge.

His more enduring monument, however, is to be found in his published opinions, covering all branches of the law that come up for determination in our state courts. Rarely exploring exhaustively the black-letter volumes, or the remote sources of our system of jurisprudence, he presented the law of our own time with such accuracy and precision, such amplitude and felicity of illustration, such cogency of reasoning, and such wise foresight and careful precaution against dangerous generalities, as to make many of his opinions fairly entitled to rank among the best contemporary expositions of legal principles.

Somewhat jealous of the dignity of the courtroom and of the bench, somewhat jealous also at times of his own personal dignity, he seldom gave way to hasty words, and never lost the abiding confidence, esteem and affection of the bar. To say that in his official and private life he was a man of the strictest integrity, is but the ordinary commendation of a Massachusetts judge. He was social, genial, quite inclined to anecdote, not averse to spending a part of his time either in telling or hearing some new thing, an omnivorous reader of newspapers, novels and general literature, as well as of all modern law, and familiar alike with the opinion of State Street and the judgments of jurists on questions involving the application of legal rules to important commercial or public interests.

When he felt compelled, by the apprehension of physical infirmities, to retire from the bench in mid-life, as it were, before any failure in the discharge of his duties could be observed, it was felt that he had well maintained the character of our judiciary. No stain had come upon it through him. He himself remarked, with touching emotion, on the occasion of the death of one of his associates, Mr. Justice Dewey: "Happy will it be for us, if, when our successors shall contemplate the scenes of duty through which our steps shall have trodden, no spot or shade shall be found to dim the lustre which those who have gone before us have shed on the jurisprudence of Massachusetts."

"That consolation, that joy, that triumph was afforded him." He lived long enough to enjoy the universal recognition of his judicial merits. He died leaving behind him a memory which a grateful profession will not willingly suffer to be obscured.

Resolved, That the Attorney General be requested to present these resolutions to the Supreme Judicial Court, with the request that they may be entered upon its records; and that the secretary transmit a copy thereof to the family of the deceased.

Chief Justice Gray responded as follows:

Brethren of the Bar: The death of George Tyler Bigelow forcibly recalls the feelings of disappointment and of loss with which, ten years ago, we received the news of his determination to resign the office of Chief Justice. The gradual decline of his health and strength since then may lead us to believe that he knew better than we how much they had been undermined by his long and constant devotion to his public duties. Now that he rests from his labors, it is fit that the court and the bar should join in recording some brief outlines of the traits that won for him the entire respect and warm regard of the profession and the trust and support of the people of the Commonwealth.

Of a peculiarly genial, social and pleasure-loving temperament, and urged by no spur of necessity, he yet spared no labor, and omitted no opportunity, to fit himself for the work that he had chosen. As a counsellor, as an advocate, as a legislator, and as a judge, be put his whole strength into everything he had to do. By a natural consequence, he was constantly growing in mental stature, and, impressing all men with his capacity to fill one post, he was found equally capable when advanced to a higher one.

He had that clearness of statement which was the result of clearness of apprehension, and which made the matter under discussion plain to every hearer -- so plain, indeed, that one did not always appreciate the extent of one's obligation to him. This quality, with his readiness, his tact, his insight into motives, his practical sense, and his mastery of the law of evidence, made him a most efficient nisi prius judge. His administrative ability was even more apparent in the arrangement and despatch of the business of the full court, greater after his accession to the chief-justiceship than at any former period.

In private intercourse with members of the bar he was cordial and friendly. He understood and sympathized and familiarly conversed with his fellow citizens in every walk of life. Few men could more justly have said, Humani nihil a me alienum puto.

With all his quickness of perception, he did not allow his first impressions to lead him to hasty decisions, but kept his mind open until he had thoroughly tested and carefully weighed every consideration presented by counsel in argument, or by his associates in the consultation room; and he embodied the final results in opinions which reproduced all that was best worth preserving in a most felicitous and convincing form.

Before his appointment to the bench he would hardly have been called an accomplished scholar or a very learned lawyer. But the opinions prepared by him in important causes show such a fulness of reasoning and illustration and so clear an elucidation of the authorities, expressed in so admirable a judicial style, that, like the best judgments of Redesdale and of Story, they almost supersede the necessity of referring to the earlier cases on the subjects of which they treat, and they have established his reputation as a worthy successor of the eminent judges who have made the jurisprudence of Massachusetts honored wherever the common law is administered.

In accordance with the request of the bar, it is ordered that their resolutions, together with a memorandum of these proceedings, be entered upon the records of the court.

The court then adjourned.


1 See 98 Mass. 600.

98 Mass. 600 (1869)

In December 1867, the intention of Chief Justice BIGELOW to resign the office of Chief Justice at the close of the year having been informally announced, a letter signed by three hundred members of the bar of the Commonwealth was addressed to him in these words:

"Sir: We, the undersigned, have heard with regret that you contemplate resigning the Chief Justiceship of the Commonwealth. Knowing how ably and acceptably you have filled that high position, and feeling that your retirement at this time would be a loss to the bench which the profession and the public could ill bear, we hope that this expression of our earnest wish that you should continue in office may have some influence on your determination."

To which the Chief Justice returned the following reply:

Boston, December 30, 1867.

To the Honorable Benjamin F. Thomas:

My Dear Sir: In retiring from the office of Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, I feel that some reply is due to the request of the members of the bar, communicated to me several weeks ago, that I would reconsider my determination of relinquishing the duties of the office. I can think of no more appropriate mode of making such reply than by addressing it to you, whose name stands at the head of the list of signatures.

For the expressions of confidence and regard which are implied by the terms of the request from my professional brethren, I beg to express my most grateful acknowledgments. If the step which I propose to take were prompted by considerations of ease and personal comfort, I should certainly have felt it to be my duty to surrender any wish of my own for retirement and repose to the opinions of the members of the bar that my continuance on the bench would be advantageous to the public interest. But after twenty years of judicial life, seventeen of which have been passed on the bench of the Supreme Judicial Court, I find that a radical change, by which I can obtain permanent relaxation from constant and arduous labor, has become necessary. I am admonished by my physicians that I cannot look forward with any degree of certainty to a condition of health adequate to the discharge of my official duties, if I continue to undergo the confinement and incessant mental effort which are essential to their due performance. Impelled by considerations of this nature, which seem to me to be paramount over all others, I have been reluctantly forced to the conclusion that I ought to relinquish the duties of the bench for those of a less constant and exacting character.

I cannot forbear to add, that I am fully sensible how much I am indebted, for any measure of success which may have attended my judicial services, to the learning, ability and conscientious fidelity to duty, which distinguish the members of the bar of Massachusetts; and that I shall carry with me through life an abiding sense of gratitude for the kindness and considerate forbearance which has uniformly characterized their intercourse with me.

I am, with sincere respect and regard,
Faithfully your friend,

George T. Bigelow

Office of the Reporter of Decisions  

The Reporter of Decisions makes true reports of decisions upon all questions of law argued by counsel before the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court, and prepares them for publication, in print and electronic form, with suitable headnotes, tables of cases, and indexes.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court  

The Supreme Judicial Court is the Commonwealth's highest appellate court.

Massachusetts Court System  

The Massachusetts court system consists of the Supreme Judicial Court, the Appeals Court, the Executive Office of the Trial Court, the 7 Trial Court departments, the Massachusetts Probation Service, and the Office of Jury Commissioner.