Samuel Lee Selden

Samuel Lee Selden


Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals, 1855-1862
Chief Judge, January-July 1862

by Frances Murray
There exists a manuscript, written in 1851 on pale blue foolscap, entitled “Hon. Samuel Lee Selden: Narrative of His Life.”1 In it, Judge Selden recounts:

“I was born in the town of Lyme, New London County, Connecticut on October 12, 1800. My father, Calvin Selden was a respectable farmer who occupied at the time of my birth the same farm upon which he had himself been born (now the Tiffany Farm in North Lyme). He was remarkable for his benevolence, integrity and sound judgment and possessed the entire confidence of his fellow townsmen, whom he repeatedly represented in the State Legislature as well as served in many other public stations.

“I am the second son of a family consisting of three sons and three daughters, all of whom are living except the eldest son. My education was obtained in the district school in my native town except what was acquired during a period of about two years spent at Bacon Academy in the town of Colchester, Connecticut. At the age of eighteen, I commenced the study of law at Black Hall, in my native town,…under the direction of Hon Matthew Griswold … the second Governor and for many years a member of the Council of Twelve under the ancient Charter of the State…

“In the Spring of 1820, my father’s health began to fail and in the Autumn of that year he died. I remained in Connecticut until November 1821, when I came to Rochester where I entered as a law student and clerk in the office of my brother-in-law Joseph Spencer, a fine classical scholar as well as a profound lawyer. At the first election under the Constitution of 1821, Mr Spencer was elected to the State Senate from the Eighth Senatorial District and in the Spring of 1823 died in the City of Albany while in attendance upon the Legislature of the State. After the death of Mr. Spencer, my studies were continued in the offices successively of Charles M. Lee, Esq. and the Hon. Ashley Sampson of Rochester.

“Before the expiration of my clerkship I was appointed to the office of Justice of the Peace; and although I was entitled to my examination for admission as an attorney of the Supreme Court early in 1825, yet as my office occupied my time and afforded sufficient emolument, I devoted myself to its duties and did not procure my license to practice until the early term of the Court in 1826. Shortly after my admission to the Bar, I formed a copartnership with Hon. Addison Gardiner now Judge of the Court of Appeals, with whom I continued in practice about three years, and until he was appointed Circuit Judge of the Eighth Judicial District.

“In the Fall of 1827, I was put in nomination by the Democratic party of Monroe County for election as one of its representatives in the legislative Assembly but this being the year in which the excitement against freemasonry first swept over this section of the State, I was defeated by an overwhelming majority . . . When the new judicial system went into effect in 1830, I received from Chancellor Walworth the appointment to the office of Clerk in Chancery for the Eighth District, and shortly after from the Governor and Senate one to that of First Judge of Monroe County.

“Soon after this my health became greatly impaired and in 1833, I resigned the office of Judge. From this time to 1842, when I also resigned the office of Clerk in Chancery, my health did not admit of my practicing or paying any attention to my professional studies. During this period, I spent one winter in St. Croix and one in Florida. Between 1842 and the judicial election of 1847, when I was elected to my present office, I made some attempt to practice law, but my time was mostly devoted to other pursuits. 2

“Both my nomination and election as Justice of the Supreme Court occurred during my absence from the State. So unexpected to me was the result, that I had not taken the trouble to examine the returns prior to the receipt of a telegraphic dispatch from my brother announcing my success in the canvass.”

The Selden family’s connection with the common law can be traced back to Elizabethan England, to John Selden3 (1584-1654), noted English scholar, lawyer, and member of the Long Parliament. An article in the New York Times dated August 23, 1877 described in detail the family reunion of the descendants of Thomas Selden, a relative of John Selden, who arrived in the American colonies in 1636 and settled in New England. Some five hundred people attended the reunion. It appears that, in addition to Chief Judge Samuel Lee Selden and his brother, Judge Henry Rogers Selden, distinguished family members included Congressman Dudley Selden (Connecticut), Dr. Samuel Nott of Union College, Senator Lyman Trumbull, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, and Elizabeth Selden’s son, Prof. Daniel Cady Eaton of Yale College.

Samuel Selden’s career in public service – Clerk to the Court of Chancery (1830), Eighth County Court Judge, Monroe County, (1831), Supreme Court Justice (1847) – culminated in his election to the New York Court of Appeals on November 7, 1855, in place of his former partner Judge Addison Gardiner, who had declined reelection. Five years later, on January 1, 1862, he became Chief Judge. His erudite opinions4 were noted for their clarity and were frequently discussed in contemporary legal treatises. In Robert Luce’s Legislative Assemblies, the author quotes Judge Selden’s opinion in Sedgwick v. Stanton (14 N.Y. 289):

“Persons may no doubt be employed to conduct an application to the Legislature as well as to conduct a suit at law; and may contract for and receive pay in preparing documents, collecting evidence, making statements of facts, or preparing and making oral or written arguments, provided all these are used or designed to be used before the Legislature or some committee thereof as a body; but they cannot with propriety be employed to exert their personal influence with individual members, or to labor in any form privately with such members out of the legislative halls. Whatever is laid before the Legislature in writing, or spoken openly or publicly in its presence or that of a committee, if false in fact, may be disproved, or if wrong in argument, may be refuted, but that which is whispered in the private ear of individual members is frequently beyond the reach of correction.”

Other leading treatises discussing his opinions are Throckmorton’s Illustrative Cases of Equity Jurisprudence; Sunderland’s Code Pleading; Scott’s Cases on Equity Jurisdiction; Hutchins’ Cases on Equity Jurisprudence; Abbott’s Select Cases on Examining Witnesses and Thompson’s The Law of Negligence: Leading Cases and Notes.

Western Union

Although recognized as an outstanding jurist, Samuel Selden is perhaps more famous for the pivotal role he played in the development of the new technology of his day – the telegraph. In 1832, Samuel Morse invented the single-wire electric telegraph and received a patent for the device in 1838. Five years later, he obtained a $30,000 grant from Congress to build an experimental line between Baltimore and Washington. The first public message over Morse’s line was “What hath God wrought?”. Vermonter, Royal House, patented a rival device in 1846. The House apparatus was a more precise instrument but required higher quality wire and more insulation. It had a keyboard at one end and printed out letters at the other.5 Selden was one of the initial House patent-holders and, in 1849, took the lead in organizing the New York State Printing Telegraph Company. Competition with the Morse lines was stiff, and Selden convinced his fellow investors (including Congressman Freeman Clarke, publisher Isaac Butts, and Monroe County sheriff, Hiram Sibley) to concentrate on expanding the system to the west of Buffalo. In April 1851, Articles of Association for the “New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company” were filed in Albany and, at Selden’s suggestion,6 the new corporation set out to acquire all the companies west of Buffalo, and unite them into a single unified system. In 1854, Hiram Sibley re-capitalized the company under the same name and began a program of construction and acquisition. Many of the acquisitions operated under the Morse patent and the company then switched to the Morse system. The most important take-over occurred when Sibley negotiated the purchase of the Morse patent rights for the Midwest. On April 4, 1856, the company was renamed to reflect this new purpose – ever since, it has been known as the Western Union Telegraph Company. In December 1857, the Company paid stockholders their first dividend and in 1861, Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line, providing fast, coast-to-coast communications during the U.S. Civil War. In 1866,Western Union introduced the first stock ticker, providing brokerage firms with New York Stock Exchange quotations. Selden remained involved in the company until July of 1874 when ill health forced his resignation from the Board of Directors.7

By 1830, Selden was a baseball enthusiast8 and was a member of Rochester’s first acknowledged baseball club. Other members of the team included newspaper editor Thurlow Weed, and Selden’s law partner, Addison Gardner. Teams often met for practice twice a week. Sunday baseball was strictly forbidden and punishable by a jail sentence. At that time, the bases were not tied down, the players did not have cleated shoes, and they played without gloves or other protective equipment.

In 1831, he married Susan Matilda Ward, the daughter of Dr. Levi and Mehitable Ward of Genesee County, New York. The couple lived in Rochester, New York, and in 1835 moved from Fitzhugh Street to a stone house on St. Paul Street. In 1840, Samuel Selden bought the house and land known as The Grove9 from its second owner, Dr. Gibbs. Judge Selden checked the title and found that it was clear of encumbrances. The closing was delayed by a few weeks and in the interim, Dr. Gibbs mortgaged the property but did not give notice to Judge Selden. The fraud was not discovered until the transaction was complete and Dr. Gibbs had gone West. Unable to absorb the additional expense, Judge Selden asked his father-in-law to share the estate. The Judge and his wife moved to their new home on April 8th 1840 and, on June 9th of that year, the ground was broken for a brick house for Dr. & Mrs. Levi Ward.

Samuel Selden and Susan Ward Selden had two sons, Henry Lee Selden, born in 1846, and Samuel Ward Selden, born in 1847. Lee Selden, nephew of the Judge described the sorrows of Judge Selden’s later years:

“His honored judicial career was brought to a close by failing health and domestic affliction. In 1848, he lost an infant son. His only surviving child, a bright lad in his thirteenth year, was drowned before his eyes in Irondequoit Bay in 1858. From this shock he never recovered. Mrs. Selden, a noble woman, whose qualities of heart and mind shed a radiance over his home life, died in April 1862 and within three months after this last calamity, he resigned [from the New York Court of Appeals] and retired forever from the bench… His remaining years were marked by the benevolence which had always been a distinguishing characteristic. No appeal of suffering was unheeded: his extraordinary generosity forbade his hastily repelling an applicant of doubtful character, lest the really worthy should pass unrelieved. His gentleness and suavity of manner continued to the last, and he was free from the petulance of age. Though living in retirement, the local judges often consulted him on difficult questions and were glad to follow his advice. Sincerity and simplicity were features allied to his greatness. Among the institutions which enjoyed the benefit of his counsels was the Rochester Savings bank, the principal depository of Western New York, of which he was a trustee.”10

Judge Henry Rogers Selden, too, consulted his older brother on legal matters. Henry was counsel to Susan B. Anthony when she sought to exercise her right to vote. In a letter dated Nov 5th 1872,11 Susan B. Anthony wrote to fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

“Hon. Henry R. Selden will be our Counsel – he has read up the law & all of our arguments & is satisfied that we our right & ditto the Old Judge Selden – his elder brother.”

However, the brothers did not agree on all issues. Samuel Selden was a lifelong Democrat while Henry was one of the founders of the Republican party. In contrast to his brother, Samuel Selden approached the Dred Scott decision from the perspective of constitutional law, believing that any State had the right to secede from the Union. Two years later, when the issue came before the New York Court of Appeals in People v. Lemmon (20 N.Y. 562), Judge Selden dissented from the Court’s decision that sustained the slaves’ release. He reiterated his support for principles of comity “which should at all times pervade our inter-state legislation.” Clara Selden states:

“Many lengthy debates were held by them on the subject and it speaks volumes for the characters of the men that their talks were always conducted on a friendly basis.”

Judge Samuel Lee Selden died on September 20, 1876. He is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery,Rochester, New York. In one of several memorials marking his passing, his contribution to the law was acknowledged:

“With a sufficiency of learning he possessed the judicial faculty the highest degree. The quickness of his perceptions was remarkable and his mind was eminently analytical. This combination saved him from being misled by false analogies and from being disturbed by apparently conflicting authorities. Some of the noblest contributions that he has made to judicial literature are opinions in which he has been obliged to bring discordant decisions under discussion and deduce from conflicting authorities a rule consonant with truth and founded in principle. It is unnecessary to say that he was as upright and independent as he was learned and wise. The ermine suffered no stain while he wore it.”


Samuel Lee Selden had two sons, Henry Lee Selden and Samuel Ward Selden, both of whom died in childhood and are buried beside the Judge in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York. There are no direct descendants.


This biography appears in The Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, ed. Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). It has not been updated since publication.


Sources Consulted

Archives of the Smithsonian Institute.

Epitaph: The Friends of Mount Hope Newsletter Volume 20, Number 2 (Rochester, New York).

McAdam, David. History of the Bench and Bar of New York. (New York), 1897, Vol. 1, p. 472.

Peck, William F. Semi-Centennial History of the City of Rochester (1884), p. 729-731.

National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, (1897), Vol. 4, p. 154.

Selden, Clara Sayre. Family Sketches (1939). Manuscript available at the Smithsonian Institute and the Rochester Public Library, Local History Section.

The Green Bag: An Entertaining Magazine of the Law (1889-1914), Vol. II, p. 283 (1890).

The Western Union Office, Museum Services, Vol. 9, No. 3, March 1936.


Published Writings Include:

To the public: we feel called upon, by respect for public opinion and just regard for our own reputations, to reply to the attack made upon us through the Pennsylvanian, on the 12th inst. by the proprietors of Morse’s Magnetic telegraph. [1856]



  1. Selden, Clara Sayre. Family Sketches (1939). Manuscript available at the Smithsonian Institute ( and the Rochester Public Library, Local History Section.
  2. Samuel Selden was instrumental in bringing telegraphy technology to western New York and beyond. The companies he formed eventually became Western Union.
  3. In 1877, in his honor, the Selden Society was founded to encourage the study and advance the knowledge of the history of English law. It still flourishes, and a Selden Society has been formed in America.
  4. In addition to his “Family Library”, Judge Selden is also know to have had a law library consisting of 385 volumes. His wife’s diary discloses that their home was frequently the venue for a book club that attracted a large gathering.
  7. Minutes of the Board, Western Union. Available at the Smithsonian Institute (
  8. Rochester History, 52(3):5 (Sum 1990).
  9. Today, The Grove is a fashionable neighborhood in the City of Rochester and the Ward-Selden house (18 Grove Place) is now the office of Civil Rights attorney Van Henri White and home to the Center for the Study of Civil and Human Rights Law (see: Hutchurson, Lisa. Slavery’s cruel chains broken, not forgotten. Democrat and Chronicle; 6/21/05).
  10. Selden, Clara Sayre. Family Sketches (1939). See note 1.
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