William Augustus Beach
William Augustus Beach

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

WILLIAM AUGUSTUS BEACH was born at Ballston Spa, to which place his father, Miles Beach, had removed from Connecticut, in the year 1786. On the maternal side, his father was related to Judge Smith Thompson, of the Supreme Court of the Untied States. In 1807 his father married Cynthia, a sister of Judge William L. F. Warren, and a relative of Dr. Warren, of Bunker Hill memory. His father served during the Revolution in a Massachusetts militia company, holding a commission bearing the bold signature of John Hancock. Zerah Beach, his grandfather, was one of the commissioners of the treaty of Wyoming, and was also in the Continental army, having passed the winter at Valley Forge. Miles Beach removed with his family to Saratoga Springs in the year 1809.

Wiliam A., during his boyhood, attended school at the Saratoga Springs Academy, and later Captain Partridge's military school, at Middletown, Vt. He first studies law in Saratoga, with his uncle, Judge Warren. He was admitted to the bar in August 1833. His first legal partnership was with Nicholas Hill, Jr. Subsequently he formed partnerships successively with Sidney J. Cowen, Daniel Shepherd, and Augustus Bockes, his connection with the latter continuing until his removal to Troy. He received the appointment of district attorney in 1843, holding the same until 1847.

In April 1851, he removed to the city of Troy, where he formed a copartnership with Job Pierson and Levi Smith, under the firm-name of Pierson, Beach & Smith. Mr. Pierson withdrew from the firm in 1853, and it was continued under the firm-name of Beach & Smith until December 1870. During all this long interval, Mr. Beach was actively engaged in his profession. In addition to the large office business of his firm he had an extensive criminal business, and was engaged in most of the important litigations of the day, and was constantly brough in contact with the most able New York lawyers, and always proved himself the equal of any of them, whenever an important controversy arose. The first thing said by the friends of either side, by was of advice, was, "Employ Beach." He was employed in the noted Albany bridge case, where the question involved was the right to bridge navigable streams emptying into the sea, where the tide ebbed and flowed, under State authority. Mr. Beach had opposed to him in this controversy William H. Seward, then a senator from the State of New York, Nicholas Hill, and John H. Reynolds, of the city of New York, all since dead, and he proved himself equal in argument and learning with these great men. The history of this case is worthy of a remark here. It was heard in the United States circuit court for the northern district of New York, before Hon. Samuel Nelson, then a justice of the United States Supreme Court, and Hon. Nathan K. Hull, district judge of New York, of the northern district of New York. These eminent judges were unable to agree, and made a certificate of disagreement to the United States Supreme Court, where the case was argued, - that court then consisted of but six members, - and the court there was also equally divided. The practice of the court in such case being that the case would be sent back to the circuit court, with directions that it be dismissed. This was done, leaving as the result, after years of earnest and expensive litigation, no actual decision either of fact or of law.

Mr. Beach was employed by Horatio Seymour, then Governor of New York, to defend Colonel North and his officials, who were appointed commissioners to superintend the taking of the votes of soldiers in the field. The United States authorities claimed that their commissioners had been guilty of malfeasance in office, and ordered a military court to try them. This court sat in the city of Washington, D. C., and it was here that Mr. Beach made one of his most able and brilliant efforts. At the close of his argument a rule of the court was taken, and it was unanimous for acquittal, and the prisoners were discharged. The president of the court, a perfect stranger to Mr. Beach, after the acquittal came to Mr. Beach, gave him his hand and congratulated him upon his masterly effort, and thanked him for the powerful aid he had rendered the court in arriving at its conclusion.

Ransom H. Gillett, then a resident of Washington, and himself a lawyer of distinguished ability, who was present at this argument, writing to the Albany Argus shortly afterwards, said in substance that he had been for many years a resident in Washington; that he had known all these great men, - Webster, Clay, Calhoun, etc., - heard them both at the bar and in the halls of Congress, and that none of them had excelled Mr. Beach in brilliancy or power.

The defense of General Cole, charged with the murder of Senator Hiscock, at Albany, is another noted professional triumph of Mr. Beach. General Cole met Senator Hiscock at the Stanwix Hall, in Albany, and at sight shot him dead. It was claimed on the part of the defense, and some evidence was given in the trial tending in that direction, that Senator Hiscock had tribled with the affections of the general's wife while he, the general, was at the front fighting for the cause of his country, and that the general on his return, hearing the facts, meeting the senator by accident, shot him on the spot. Mr. Beach in his argument characterized the case as one of "emotional insanity," that although sane a moment before and sane a moment after the shot was fired, yet that when the fatal shot was fired, Cole was insane and wholly irresponsible for the act. The court and jury took his view of the case, and the jury promptly rendered a verdict of acquittal.

These are but a few of the important cases in which he was engaged while living in Troy. In all of his cases he brought a careful preparation, and was always great in his presentation both to court and jury.

The county of Rensselaer looked with pride upon him as one so long its resident and humble advocate. His success in the great metropolis has been equally marked. His time is wholly taken up with the most important cases known to our courts of justice in the State and nation.

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