Born on January 26, 1764 to a wealthy Anglican family in Londonderry, Ireland, William Sampson attended Trinity College Dublin and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, London. In 1790, Sampson was called to the bar in England, then returned to Belfast where he was called to the Irish bar and as was the custom, gained experience working with a senior counsel, a barrister named John Philpot Curran. Curran often represented members of the United Irishmen who had been charged by the British government with criminal libel, sedition, or treason and Sampson himself wrote several articles and satires for the United Irishmen newspapers the Northern Star and the Press.
Anticipating an insurrection, the British government preemptively arrested the leaders of the United Irishmen in March 1798 and William Sampson was intermittently imprisoned or exiled in Europe for several years before being allowed to emigrate to America. When he arrived in New York City on July 4, 1806, he set up a business publishing detailed accounts of the court proceedings in cases with popular appeal. The first of many pamphlets – Livingston v. Cheetham – was printed and sold in November 1807 and involved allegations of libel against a well-known historian and newspaper publisher made by a leading member of the New York bar. He also reported on the 1809 trial of Lieutenant Renshaw who was accused of challenging attorney Joseph Strong to a duel. In that case, People v. Renshaw, the defendant was represented by Cadwallader David Colden, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, and Thomas Addis Emmet.
William Sampson sometimes filled the role of both counsel and reporter contemporaneously – in the 1808 case of The Commissioners of the Almshouse v Alexander Whistelo, a case involving race and paternity; the 1809 case against Amos and Demis Broad, accused of brutally beating their slave, Betty, and her 3-year-old daughter where Sampson succeeded in having both slaves manumitted; the 1810 Trial of the Journeymen Cordwainers of the City of New-York for a Conspiracy to Raise Their Wages with Thomas Emmet for the prosecution and William Sampson for the defense; the 1813 case of People v. Phillips that recognized Catholic auricular confession was privileged; and the 1818 case of Maurice v. Judd where the issue was whether a whale was a fish.
One of the pioneers of the American Codification Movement, William Sampson influenced the thinking of David Dudley Field, drafter of the New York Code of Civil Procedure (1848). Sampson also had a life-long interest in literature and wrote many pamphlets, political satires, songs, and poems. One poem, Death before Dishonor, was written after he had witnessed the court martial and execution of four young United Irishmen.
William Sampson died in New York City on December 28, 1836.
Charles Currier Beale. William Sampson, Lawyer and Stenographer (1907).