Alexander Hamilton Odell
by John Conway
February 21, 2014
HAMILTON ODELL WATCHES OVER COURTHOUSE LAW LIBRARY
On February 21, 1922, noted attorney Hamilton Odell died after having suffered a stroke. He was 88 years old.
Coincidentally, just a week before his portrait had been placed in the law library in the Sullivan County Courthouse in Monticello, ensuring that he would forever be remembered in the room that bore his name and which was started with a collection of law books he had donated.
The education laws of the state of New York were amended on April 29, 1917, to indicate that "(T)here is hereby established a law library in and for the third judicial district, at Monticello, New York, which shall be designated and known as the Hamilton Odell Law Library. Said library shall be under the care and management of a board of three trustees who shall be members of the Sullivan County bar and who shall be selected by the justice of the Supreme Court residing in Ulster County."
Alexander Hamilton Odell– somewhere along the line he apparently dropped the Alexander, which was a particularly popular given name among his extended family– was born in Mamakating on January 4, 1834, the second son of Lyman and Mary Scott Niven Odell. He had an older brother, born two years earlier, named Andrew Jackson Odell, who would go on to serve as the president of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Rail Road. His mother was a sister to the well-known Monticello attorney Archibald Campbell Niven, and his father was the first postmaster of Wurtsboro, who was, according to James Eldridge Quinlan in his “History of Sullivan County,” "noted as the village poet, as well as a profuse essayist."
The Republican Watchman newspaper reported that Lyman Odell was also once a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the state of New York.
Hamilton Odell studied law in the Monticello office of his uncle, A.C. Niven, and eventually moved to New York City to practice his profession there. During a long and distinguished career, he became one of the most prominent and successful attorneys in the city, but never forgot his Sullivan County roots, remaining a subscriber to the Republican Watchman newspaper until the time of his death. He married Elizabeth A. Hammond of Monticello on October 27, 1868. She died on May 7, 1911.
Odell was quite active in civic and religious affairs, as well as in professional organizations, and was elected Vice President of the anti-imperialist Continental League in 1899. He was a deacon in the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, and served two years as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the New York City Bar Association. He became known among his colleagues as a fair and wise man, and was often chosen as arbitrator or referee in civil matters.
"To name him (referee) was a pledge of one’s own sincerity, the last token of good faith, the final proof that one sought nothing save justice and the law," a group of his fellow attorneys, including Benjamin Cardozo and Henry Galbraith Ward, wrote to the New York Times upon his death. "His fine and generous nature was free in peculiar measure from those subconscious prejudices which may warp the judgment of the best and wisest."
At some point in his career, Odell decided that the Bar Association in Sullivan County needed a law library, and in 1917 he presented the group with about 800 volumes as the nucleus of such a collection. According to the Republican Watchman, "the bar association, in honor of the gift, called it the Hamilton Odell Library, and the State has since made appropriations to the amount of $2,000."
In 1922, County Court Judge George H. Smith proposed that a picture of its benefactor should hang in the law library, and he asked Odell to send one. Just a week before his death, Odell notified the judge that a portrait was on its way.
In his will, Odell bequeathed "half the securities left him in the will of his wife to the Brick Presbyterian Church, to be added to the bequest she gave to the church. The income is to be used for the Sick Children’s Aid Society."
He also left money to the Bowery Branch of the YMCA, and to his niece, May Campbell Barrow of New York City.
Odell’s colleagues took note of his passing with a lengthy letter to the New York Times, outlining his accomplishments, and lamenting the lack of recognition he had received in his lifetime.
"A busy world does not always heed the modest and patient worker who without display or vainglory endures the labors of the day," they wrote. "The passing from earth of this fine and beautiful spirit evoked only the briefest comment in the public journals of his home. Their silence has seemed to call for a few words from some of us who knew and loved him, that we might not incur the reproach of ignoring or forgetting the privilege that was ours and the rare achievement that was his."
A few days after his death, the Republican Watchman marked his passing with a brief article that included the observation that "eighty-eight is not a bad age, but it is pretty early for good men like Odell to die."
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. He can be contacted by e-mail email@example.com .