Remembering the Emmet Family Legacy in Pelham in Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day
By Arthur Scinta,
Pelham Town Historian
He was one of the most able barristers in Ireland, the son of the Chief Medical Officer for Ireland and part of a prominent Protestant family of Dublin and he was defending in court one of the many who would be charged with treason for taking an oath to join the Society of United Irishmen in the late 1790s. Thomas Addis Emmet argued that his client was not guilty of treason because the purpose of the organization was to restrain the people from violence by uniting Irishmen across all religions to seek legitimate redress from parliamentary abuses. In the midst of his argument, he suddenly took up a Holy Bible situated in the court room for administering oaths, put his hand on it and swore to the very oath that had been outlawed by King George III:
“I pledge to my country and my fellow Irishmen, that I will steadily support and endeavour by all due means to carry into effect the following resolutions: that the weight of English influence in the government is so great, as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties, and extension of our commerce; that the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in parliament; and that no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.”
He then kissed the bible. His act was so astonishing that the court room was struck dumb and the judge was so rattled that he dismissed the case and discharged the prisoner. Six years later in 1798, Tom Emmet was arrested on suspicion of seeking to conspire with Napoleon Bonaparte to land French troops in Ireland and join the native population in seeking the overthrow of English rule. Although he was never charged with a crime (and history would show that he opposed starting a rebellion at that time), Emmet was disbarred, arrested and interrogated at the infamous Newgate prison in Dublin before being imprisoned at Fort George, Scotland. He was held there until 1802, finally released only on the condition that he never return to Ireland.
The next year, his brother Robert helped plan an uprising aimed at storming Dublin Castle and taking the government hostage. After a trial where he was effectively denied representation, he was sentenced to death by hanging followed by decapitation. Today, Robert Emmet is widely remembered throughout Ireland and the world as a republican martyr in the successful fight for the eventual independence by the present Republic of Ireland.
Tom Emmet immigrated to the United States and the Emmet Family would have a long and enduring presence in Pelham for several generations.
Emmet was admitted to the bar and quickly became one of the new nation’s leading attorneys arguing the seminal case of Gibbons v. Ogden before the Supreme Court and later serving as New York State Attorney General. He founded the law firm that continues to this day under the name Emmet, Marvin & Martin and was headed by several succeeding generations of the Emmet Family. It was his oldest son, Robert Temple Emmet and his wife Julia Colt Emmet, who built an estate at the edge of Pelham on Weyman Avenue in New Rochelle, as a weekend retreat. (The street named “Emmet Terrace” likely marks the northern edge of their property.) When Robert was appointed a state judge in 1852, his oldest son, Richard Stockton Emmet, took over his father’s practice and moved with his wife Katherine Temple Emmet to the family home in New Rochelle. Another of Robert’s sons, William Jenkins Emmet, moved to Pelham, renting first a house on what is now Travers Island before moving to the historic “Pell House” on Shore Road where he and his wife Julia lived for the rest of their lives into the 20th century, along with their son, Robert and his wife Kellie and children.
All of the extended Emmet Family were long-time, multi-generation parishioners of Christ Church, Pelham where the family name is memorialized in a large stained glass window (facing Pelhamdale Avenue) dedicated in 1910 to Richard Stockton Emmet and Katherine Temple Emmet. The Emmets turned to their family’s native Dublin for the design and fabrication of this window, retaining the stained glass artist Sarah Purser, one of the co-founders of the Au Tur Gloine studio (Irish for “Tower of Glass”), which was established to provide artistic resources, independent of England, for the new Republic of Ireland. It was a fitting choice for the Emmets.
While Purser’s work was rejected by some Catholic churches in Ireland as depicting those in religious scenes as “impious,” her approach in the Emmet Window conveys a strong sense of humanity among those huddled around the depiction of Jesus in blessing children according to the verse inscribed in the bottom of the center panel: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Toward the top of the window, a pelican is shown in its legendary act of piercing itself to feed its young.
Tom Emmet’s law firm would be headed by two of his great grandsons until 1921. Several Pelham residents were partners at the firm, including Thomas Fenlon (who authored a book on the history of the firm) and more recently David Daley. When Christ Church undertook a restoration of the Emmet Window in 2012, the law firm (through the efforts of Dave Daley) provided a grant to cover part of the cost.
Many of the Emmet Family are buried at Beechwoods Cemetery at the Pelham border where a brass plaque enumerates the many accomplishments of the Emmet Family in America, including the service of several family members in the country’s wartime defense. Among those buried in this plot are two of Thomas Addis Emmet’s grandchildren, Richard Stockton Emmet (1821-1902) and William Jenkins Emmet (1826 – 1905) and their spouses and children.
For more information about the Emmet Family, visit the new Town Historian website at: www.PelhamTownHistoran.com.
Notes: Thanks to Mark Gaffney for contributing information for this article and Resi Donovan for many years ago gifting me an autographed copy of Tom Fenlon’s book, “The Emmet Firm.”