Richard L. Newnham

Page 178-181 - Richard L. Newnham. The life of Richard L. Newnham, prominent Grand Rapids attorney, whose seventy-five years in colorful experiences and associations of the great and near-great, presents such milestones as newsboy and messenger in the streets of London, newspaper proofreader, at which time he worked in offices next door to that of the noted authors Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins; Michigan sawmill worker, student, speaker, lawyer and judge of the Superior Court of Grand Rapids. Judge Newnham was born in London, England, on September 20, 1850, within the sound of the famous Bow Bells and at the south end of Bow Lane. The Judge recounts that his first experience was at the age of four when he saw the soldiers march down Cannon street to take a ship at London docks for the Crimea, an incident that was indelibly fixed in even his youthful mind by the bright equipment and scalloped uniforms of the troops. He recounts that at the age of eight he made his first public "speech" on the morning of November 5, 1858, on the anniversary of the discovery of the plot of Guy Fawkes and his confederates to blow up the houses of Parliament. That was upon an occasion when it was the custom of the London boys to rig an effigy of Fawkes and carry it around in a chair, when one of the lads would make a speech and the others would hurrah and pass the hat. The Judge further recounts that his receipts from that demonstration of thirteen cents made him feel as rich as Rockefeller. At the age of twelve Judge Newnham was a newsboy on the streets of London, working fifteen and one half hours a day and a half day on Sundays for the princely remuneration of $1.25 a week and board himself. Though he was a tired lad when those days were finished he claims to have secured valuable insight into life, from a boy's standpoint, that undoubtedly was of great benefit to him in later years. After nine months of such work as newsboy he secured a job working for the Reuter Telegraph Company, in which he remained for nearly a year. He used to deliver messages to all the daily papers, the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House, Lord Palmerston the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, Charles Adams, the U.S. Ambassador, and to Colonel Dudley Mann, one of the Confederate Commissioners to Europe. Upon one occasion when he delivered a telegram at the home of Lord Palmerston he was informed that his Lordship had not yet arrived, and when the sheet was signed "B. Disraeli," he knew from his familiarity with the picture of that notable in "London Punch," that it was the future Prime Minister himself that had appeared before him. He recounts the interest taken in him by Julius Reuter, founder of Reuter's Telegraph Company, along with other messenger boys that indicates that Mr. Reuter's praise of him as being one of the best he ever had employed differed from the designation made by the head clerk, who called him one of the biggest scamps of the bunch because of his pugnaciousness. While thus delivering messages there came his way an opportunity to take a job in the proofreading department of the Morning Post. As that offered higher pay he readily accepted it and worked in that department for two and a half years, or until he came to the United States with his parents. The Judge says that he believes he received more education as a proofreader than perhaps he absorbed altogether later at school and college. In those days there were no typewriters and everything was written out in longhand. Inasmuch as the office of the Morning Post, the first English language newspaper published in London, having been established in 1772, and at one time edited by the poet Coleridge, was next door to the office of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Judge Newnham had many opportunities to observe these notable authors. Soon after the Judge was eight years old his family had moved from London to Greenock, Scotland, then four years later returned to London. In 1862 his father came to the United States and entered the United States Navy during the early part of the Civil War. His mother and four of the younger children followed shortly after, while the four older ones remained in England. Judge Newnham lived in Saugatuck, working in the sawmills in the summer and studying to become a teacher and later pursuing the study of law in the winters until 1880, when he move to Allegan, where he remained until 1884. Since that year he has lived continuously in Grand Rapids. After working in Saugatuck sawmills for several years Judge Newnham obtained a certificate to teach school in 1871 and in the spring of 1874 entered the State Normal College at Ypsilanti, from which he was graduated in 1875. Following his graduation there he began the study of law in earnest, reading Blackstone and Walker's American Law and other subjects during his spare hours from teaching in country schools, and far into the night. In the Spring of 1876 he entered the law office of the late Phillip Padgham, then prosecuting attorney of Allegan County. After his admission to the bar in October, 1876, he opened a law office of his own in Saugatuck and remained there until 1880, when he moved to Allegan and engaged in the practice of law there until 1884. He was appointed Assistant United States Attorney for the western district of Michigan, with headquarters in Grand Rapids. In 1899 Mr Newnham was elected first judge of the Superior Court in Grand Rapids and served in that capacity for six years. There was one case on the side of his civil docket which, Judge Newnham relates, occupied court and jury for seven weeks and three days. This was the celebrated case of Mendelsohn against the Atlas Glass Works of Amsterdam, N.Y. The plaintiff sued for $30,000 damages and the jury finally returned a verdict of nearly $10,000 for the defendant. Judge Newnham has a vivid recollection of the forest fires of 1871, the year of the great Chicago fire. "For many days before October 9 that year the woods all over western Michigan were smouldering and sending up dense volumes of black smoke," he says. "On the morning of October 9, every man in Saugatuck and vicinity was called out to fight fire. The woods were blazing in all directions except toward Lake Michigan. We fought the blaze south of Douglas until four o'clock in the afternoon, when a large number of us were sent to the north of Saugatuck where the Wallin Tannery was threatened. When we arrived the fire had almost reached the tannery bark piles, but we managed to save everything. That night it rained and never was rain more welcomed.

"That same day not only did Chicago burn, but Holland, Manistee and Fennville were destroyed by the flames. Most everybody in Saugatuck had there household goods packed and ready to move over to Lake Michigan on the eventful day."

The Judge further recounts that on the following Saturday he walked seven miles to obtain a school teaching position. He had to go through woods most of the way and it was a rough journey, as the fires were still burning. There were thousands of dead birds, chickens and hogs lying in all directions. Judge Newnham was married on September 20, 1878, to Miss Annie M Higinbotham, a cousin of H.M. Higinbotham, a president of the World's Fair at Chicago in 1893. They have a son, Stephen L. Newnham, who resides in Philadelphia, where he is chief bank examiner for the third federal district; and three daughters, two of whom are twins. The oldest daughter now resides in Virginia and the twins are located far apart, one residing in New York City and the other in San Bernardino, Calif. Judge Newnham resides at 831 Wealthy street, S.E., where he has lived for the past quarter century. In politics he is a Democrat, and has served as a member of the Democratic State Central Committee in 1892 the year of Grover Cleveland's second election as President. In fraternal circles Judge Newnham is a member of Grand Rapids Lodge Number 11, I.O.O.F., having joined the order at Saugatuck fifty-three years ago. He is also a member of Grace Episcopal church of this city. In his younger days he learned to plan the violin and used to play for various dances. Even nowadays, for the pleasure of it, he plays at private parties in the homes of friends. This man of wide experience, whose life has graced this community for the past four decades, has many other interesting experiences which would be of value to recount if space permitted.

Transcriber: Terry Start
Created: 6 January 2003