Biography of Nathaniel Cleveland Moak


ONE of the brightest luminaries of the legal profession in Albany is Nathaniel C. Moak, whose career furnishes a striking example of what may be accomplished by hard study and unyielding perseverance under many surrounding difficulties. He was born on the 3d of October, 1833, at Sharon, N. Y. When old enough to labor he worked on his father’s farm till he had reached his sixteenth year. In the meantime he attended the district schools in the neighborhood during the winter terms. His thirst for knowledge when a mere boy was great, and while laying the foundation of a strong physical constitution by regular manual labor in the open field he was preparing himself for bearing up under the mental strain of the hard-working student. In 1849 he attended two or three terms at the Cherry Valley academy, where he pursued his studies with great diligence and success. Having now fully determined to gratify his tastes by pursuing, as far as possible, a thorough literary course, he entered the Cooperstown academy, having previously earned sufficient, by laboring upon a farm, to pay his expenses for about a year at this institution, then under the care of John Leach. While here, Mr. Moak resided in the family of Dr. Fox, where he obtained knowledge of anatomy and physiology. This knowledge has been of great advantage to him in his profession, being the basis of his great practical knowledge of medical jurisprudence. In the winters of 1851 and 1852, he taught district schools. In 1853 he entered the law office of James E. Dewey, at Cherry Valley, as a student, and soon gained sufficient knowledge of the law to practice in justices’ courts, where he obtained the confidence, experience and skill which have been the foundation of his great success in his profession. Mr. Moak has never forgotten his early struggles and the hardships young members of the bar are compelled to undergo. No man in the profession is more ready and willing to aid and advise young men and to furnish them with authorities for use in their cases. The number of letters, asking for such information, he patiently answers during a year, is said to be simply incredible.

In January, 1856, Mr. Moak was admitted to the bar at Cortlandville. He remained in the office of Mr. Dewey until November, 1859, when he formed a co-partnership with Edwin Countryman. This partnership continued till January 1, 1862, when Mr. Countryman removed to Cooperstown. Mr. Moak then formed a co-partnership with Edwin Clark, which continued till September, 1865. In the fall of the same year Mr. Moak removed to Oneonta, where he practiced till the fall of 1867, when he removed to Albany and became a member of the firm of Smith, Bancroft & Moak, of which firm he continued a member until the deaths of Messrs. Smith and Bancroft. At Albany Mr. Moak found an appropriate field for the exercise of his great industry and ability, and was soon retained in most of the cases of importance. Though possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of law, with remarkable quickness in applying its principles to the case in hand, he has equal ability as a trial lawyer. He was one of Mr. Ramsey’s trusted advisers in the famous “Susquehanna War” between Ramsey and Fisk and Gould for the possession of the Susquehanna railroad. In November, 1871, Mr. Moak was elected district attorney of Albany county, entering upon the discharge of his duties January 1, 1872, his term ending December 31, 1874. The manner in which he discharged the duties of this office added largely to his reputation. He tried and convicted Emil Lowenstein for the midnight murder of John Weston, on the sand plains west of Albany. His closing address on that memorable occasion, was replete with great research, learning and ability, and has since been quoted from in almost every important criminal case. He twice tried, on the second trial convicting, several persons (called the Modocs) for swindling an old man from Chenango County by card playing. He also tried and convicted Charles H. Phelps, a defaulting clerk in the state treasurer’s office, on two charges of larceny in stealing checks delivered to, but appropriated by, him, and on a charge of forgery in making false entries in the books of the state treasury. These convictions were all affirmed in the highest court.

On retiring from office, Mr. Moak confined himself almost exclusively to civil practice, though he has occasionally accepted retainers in criminal cases. He defended Henry A. Mann, the defaulting treasurer of Saratoga county, and secured his acquittal on the technical point that the defendant could not be convicted of forgery in signing his own name officially as “treasurer” to a note accepted as the obligation of the county. He also assisted the district attorney of Montgomery County in the prosecution and conviction of Sam Steenburg, a Negro, for the murder, at Amsterdam, of a man for his money. In 1878, and again in 1880, he assisted the district attorney of Saratoga County in the trials of Jesse Billings, Jr., for the murder of his wife at Northumberland June 5, 1878. Each trial occupied about six weeks. The first resulted in a disagreement of the jury, and the second in an acquittal. Though the accused was acquitted, Mr. Moak probably won greater reputation in that case than in any single case he ever tried. His closing addresses particularly that on the second trial were probably the strongest and ablest he ever made. Upon the conclusion of the second trial, his great and generous antagonist, Hon. William A. Beach, remarked that it was the strongest and most impressive he had ever heard in a court of justice. Never shall we forget the scene in the courtroom on the occasion of the second trial of Billings, when Mr. Moak arose, and in the most earnest and impassioned manner delivered an address replete with legal lore, wit, pathos, denunciation of the crime of murder – – all interwoven with the most forcible illustrations, and apt, classical allusions. The effect was electric. All eyes were turned upon the speaker, with undivided attention, while the deepest stillness reigned throughout the crowded courtroom.

Mr. Moak’s practice is one of the most varied and extensive of any lawyer’s in the state. He never enters upon a trial or an argument without the most thorough preparation it is possible for him to make. He throws his entire energy and strength upon one or two of the strongest points of the case, ignoring all others. His arguments in banc are oral, and rarely does he refer to his brief except for a citation to, or the briefest extract from, an authority. After a concise but clear statement of the salient facts, his argument upon the law is compact and pointed, seeking only to possess the court of the points in his briefs, which are always full and ample; his theory being, as he expresses it, “The court can read the brief, and that is what it is for.”

Mr. Moak has probably the most extensive private law library in the Union, numbering about sixteen thousand volumes, having all the English, Irish, Scotch, Canadian, Australian, and even the Sandwich Island Reports, together with all the reports of every state in the Union, the federal and all the irregular reports published in the country, with a full and valuable collection of text-books.

As an examiner of expert witnesses, Mr. Moak has few equals. He has an instinctive love of justice and honesty, and is ever ready to do what he can to aid the right in public affairs. Residing at the capital of the state, he has drawn and aided in the passage of many needed reforms in its laws. As was said in one of the Albany papers of November 10, 1884:

“The force and efficiency of our laws to prevent and to punish frauds in elections depend largely upon the ‘ honest election’ law of 1880, drawn and industriously advocated by Hon. N. C. Moak of this city. This law, which remedied so many existing defects, came near being defeated in the assembly, and would have failed there but for the untiring energies and parliamentary tactics of ‘ Old Salt’ (Hon. Thomas G. Alvord, of Syracuse) who earnestly supported Mr. Moak in his endeavors to procure its passage. No man in the state more zealously labored for the election of President Cleveland than Mr. Moak, and he may well feel a pride in the efficiency of the ‘ honest election ‘ law on the first great strain to which it has been subjected. Mr. Moak’s recent article in the Encyclopaedia Americana upon ‘ bribery ‘ is one of the best, if not the best, epitomes of the provisions, defects and needs of election laws throughout the United States we know of, and comprises germs for much useful and much needed legislation.”

Mr. Moak has, in his province, performed as much literary labor as almost any gentleman of his age in the United States. In 1869, he edited Clarke’s Chancery Reports, contributing elaborate notes. Speaking of this edition of the reports, the Messrs. Abbott say, in the preface to their Digest, “Much additional value has been given to the collection in a new edition by N. C. Moak of Albany, who has enriched nearly all the cases with instructive notes, which bring together concisely the results of much research and experience. ” Mr. Wait, in the preface to his Digest, says, “A new edition edited by Nathaniel C. Moak, Esq., appeared in 1869. Mr. Moak’s notes are very clear, accurate, and valuable and give evidence of great learning and experience.” In 1872, he began the republication of the current English cases under the title of” English Reports,” with elaborate notes. Thirty-five volumes have been published and circulated extensively in all the states of the Union, giving him a national reputation as an excellent and learned lawyer. His criticisms of some of the cases in the courts of his own state have been approvingly referred to and followed by the courts of other states in preference to the cases themselves.

In 1873 Mr. Moak edited Van Santvoord’s Pleadings, bringing the work down to that time, more than doubling its matter and adding largely to its value. It has remained the standard in New York and other states which have adopted its Code of Procedure. As an instance of its authority in the courts, we quote from the case of Wilson v. Lawrence, 8 Hun, 593. ” As the code prescribes no method of proceeding under this section * * * the practice under it, I think, should be that * * * the plaintiff should have obtained an order of the court, as suggested in Moak’s Van Santvoord’s Pleadings (p. 358).” The court of appeals has since approved of the practice laid down by Mr. Moak (107 New York Reports, 118).

In 1881 Mr. Moak published an edition of Underhill on Torts, greatly enlarged and extended. He seems to revel in work, having gratuitously prepared an extensive set of legal forms, largely used throughout the state. In his lectures to the students of the Albany Law school he prepared a mass of information for students and the profession which he voluntarily gave to the profession, and it was, by his consent, published by Messrs. William Gould, Jr., & Co., under the title of” Gould’s Law Catalogue.”” It contains a mine of otherwise inaccessible information, and is one of the most elaborate and accurate bibliographies ever published. He has contributed numerous articles to legal and other publications, among which are the articles “bribery” and “capital punishment” in the Encyclopaedia Americana, published as a supplement to the Britannica. The article upon ”bribery” is one of the best and most thoughtful which has ever been published, and has been extensively read and frequently cited from.

In his early professional life Mr. Moak for several years edited a country newspaper. He knew the injustice of the old “state paper” law which required such a large number of local advertisements to be published in the state paper instead of the local press. Accordingly when in 1884, almost the entire press, outside of Albany County, made a determined onset to repeal the unjust “state paper law,” Mr. Moak became, by selection of the managers of the bill, its champion. He made two of his ablest and most learned reports before the committees of the senate and assembly in favor of the bill and largely contributed to its passage. The opponents of the bill paid, as they could afford to, counsel liberally for opposing it. When the friends of the bill proposed to pay Mr. Moak and asked him for the amount of his claim he replied: –

“Dear Sir. – Your note at hand. As a citizen of the state and one of its lawyers I am as much interested as any one in the passage of just laws and the abolition of unjust ones.

What I did to aid in the repeal of the state paper act was done with this view, I have been, for years, too generously treated by the press of our state to consent to turn what I did from the motive I have stated, into a mere mercenary act for which I should receive payment. Please say to those who so effectually aided in bringing about the desired result, that under no circumstances would I consent to receive payment for what I did. With assurances of my highest regards to yourself and your associates, I am,

” Truly Yours,

“Nathaniel C. Moak.” ‘

Born and reared a farmer’s son, Mr. Moak has retained his knowledge of the people, and kept close to their hearts. He is not a politician, if to be one consists in seeking temporary popularity by pandering to the baser passions of mankind. He is, however, a politician in the higher and better sense, a statesman. He believes in the right. Repeatedly have we heard him say, ” It pays, in the long run, for politicians to do right, and no party or leader can afford, in the end, to wink at wrong.” On questions of right and wrong he never temporises. His voice is always for war for the right, and for no truce with wrong.

Mr. Moak is a pronounced democrat, though not aggressive in advocating his principles. In 1879 he was chairman of the state committee of the anti-Tilden wing of the democracy. In 1884 he was a warm supporter of Governor Cleveland for the presidency, taking the stump and making speeches in all parts of the state. He was one of the most interesting, cogent and effective speakers of that hard-fought campaign, doing yeoman service in the cause which he so ardently espoused. His faculty of “rubbing in a point” by the narration and application of a telling and appropriate story is remarkable, and adds much to his power as an orator. He has a high-keyed, rather unpleasant voice, and talks rapidly and loudly; his thoughts are quick, and at times seem to be in advance of his expression, making his sentences sometimes seem jerky and unfinished. His great power lies in the labor expended on his cases; in his untiring energy and zeal; in his capacity to put himself in the place of his client; in the quickness with which he sees and strikes for the salient points of the case; and in the remarkable force and conciseness with which he wields language to express the most condensed and pithy expressions.

He is a great lover of literature, having, at his residence, a very choice and valuable miscellaneous library, of from five to six thousand volumes, containing the most valuable and useful works upon every science and subject, from which he seems to draw, at sight, the learning necessary for any case in which it is required. This library has been selected not on account of antiquity or rarity, but solely with reference to its practical working value and intrinsic literary merit. It includes most of the standard works of history, biography, general literature, fiction, poetry, the drama, art, architecture, the classics, commerce and manufactures, cyclopedias, eloquence, engineering, mechanics, medicine and surgery, music and song, natural history, physics, navigation, philosophy, politics, political economy, railways and railway management, religion, science, travels, and the usual variety of a well-selected and useful general library.

Mr. Moak has much, almost a technical, knowledge of bibliography, and his collection is especially rich in volumes relating to this subject. Here may be found fine copies of the works of Dibdin, Watt, Bridges, Brunet, Ebert, Home, Lowndes, Allibone, etc. In the department of history, biography and general literature there is scarcely an author of any special merit whose works are not seen on these shelves. The original or best editions of illustrated volumes of standard authors, with fine impressions of the plates, are largely represented; among which are superb copies of Shakespeare, Milton, Sir Walter Scott, Burns, Byron, Hogarth, Walpole, etc. In the best fiction the collection maybe said to be complete, containing not only complete editions of Scott, De Foe, Bulwer, Fielding, Hawthorne, De Quincy, Lewes, Victor Hugo, Lever, Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, Goethe, Schiller, Richter, Lover, Balzac, Dumas (father and son), Halevy, Prevost, etc., but also works like the Arabian Nights, Villon Society’s (nine volumes), and Lane’s (three volumes) original editions, with the Villon Tales from the Arabic (three volumes). Burton’s Supplemental Tales (six volumes), Don Quixote, Villon Society’s Decameron (three volumes), Gil Bias, etc.

Mr. Moak is a great admirer of dramatic literature and the stage. His library is rich in the works of the masters of the stage and its history. We can notice only a few of these favorite writers and the condition of Mr. Moak’s copies: Shakespeare’s Works; Knight’s pictorial edition, with biography, numerous illustrations, 8 vols., royal 8vo, half-crushed levant morocco, gilt tops, London, 1830. Mr. Moak’s copy is the original edition, which is now quite rare and commands a high price; Hudson’s Harvard Shakespeare, 20 vols., Verplanck’s edition, profusely illustrated, 3 vols., 8vo, New York, 1847; Rolfe’s, each play bound in full morocco; the facsimile reprints of the quarto plays, 38 vols., each bound in half morocco; Furness’ new variorum edition, 8 vols., all yet published, bound in full morocco; Staunton’s illustrated edition, 15 vols., royal octavo, London, 1881, half levant verbatim reprint of the first edition, 9 vols., large paper, Edinburgh, 18S3, with the plates in three conditions, full morocco; White’s 12 vols., original heavy paper edition in fine tree-calf; Dyce’s edition, 9 vols., London, 1875; Halliwell’s 4 vols., 4V0; Boydell’s original edition with magnificent plates, 9 vols., elephant folio 1802; Collier’s Shakespeare, privately printed (only 58 copies), each play paged separately, bound in 8 vols., half crushed levant; Halliwell-Phillips’ outlines of the life of Shakespeare; Dowden’s Shakespeare scenes and characters, a series of illustrations, designed by Adamo, Hofman, Makart, etc., royal 8vo, New York, 1876; Donnelly’s Great Cryptogram, ed. de luxe, limited, full morocco; Doran s Annals of the English Stage (3d ed., 1888) profusely illustrated, 3 vols., crushed levant; Lowe’s Theatrical Literature, i vol., 1888, crushed levant; Genest’s History of the English Stage, 9 vols., 1832, half morocco; Play Bills of the Leland Opera House since 1872; Collier’s History of English Dramatic Poetry to the times of Shakespeare, and Annals of the Stage to the Restoration, 3 vols., 8vo, London, 1879, 3 beautiful copy; Ireland’s Record of the New York Stage from 1750 to 1860, 2 vols., 4to, large paper, from Bradstreet press, only sixty copies printed in this style, half crushed levant; Phelps’ Players of a Century; a review ol the Albany stage, including notices of prominent actors who have appeared in America, Albany, 1880. This is a unique copy, containing over 150 photographs and many autograph letters of the most distinguished actors, and is elegantly bound in full Turkey morocco, gilt edges.

Among the works in other departments of literature in Mr. Moak’s library is a magnificent set of Ruskin’s works, 60 vols., 8vo, elegantly bound in dark blue calf, London, 1872-1888; Walpole’s Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, Scotland, and Ireland, with lists of their works, 5 vols., 4to, with original impressions of the plates, a large paper copy, London, 1806; Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England, with some account of the principal artists, 3 vols., 8vo, London, 1876. This fine copy contains a double set of the valuable plates throughout, one set of which are proofs of the original edition. Another stately volume worthy of special notice in this collection, is Sir William Dugdale’s Origines Juridiciales, or historical memorials of the English law, courts of justice, forms of tryal, punishment in cases criminal, law-writers, law books, grants and settlements of estates, degree of serjeant, inns of court and chancery, third edition, folio, London, 1680; elegantly bound in full morocco, gilt, with 100 extra plates (portraits) added.

The collection of dictionaries and encyclopedias is the largest and most perfect we know of, and embraces the best editions of every work on the subject, now or formerly of value. More than seventy different authors are represented in this department alone. A. fine copy of the original edition of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, bound in 3 vols., folio, at once strikes the eye; while among many others in rich binding are Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines, 3 vols., and supplement, London, 1878; Knight’s Mechanical Dictionary, illustrated with over 700 engravings, 3 vols., royal 8vo, and supplement. New York, 1877! Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 2 vols., royal 8vo, New York, 1880; Gwilt’s Encyclopaedia of Architecture, thick 8vo, London, 1871; the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ninth edition, 25 vols., 4to, London, 1875-88; Appleton’s American Cyclopaedia, revised edition; Appleton’s Annuals; Americana; English Encyclopaedia; Schaff and Herzog’s Religious Encyclopaedia; Kiddle and Schem’s Cyclopaedia of Education; Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and United States History, etc. The collection of works upon the politics of the country and works for reference are very complete and valuable. Mr. Moak’s editions are of the best, those of British authors usually English. The bindings are all in calf or half calf, and morocco or half morocco, by the best binders – Matthews, Tout, Mansell, Reviere, etc. The arrangement of volumes is by subjects, alphabetically. This, with an excellent and thorough catalog, both by authors and subjects, enables the possessor at once to select the best works upon any subject under consideration. Take it all in all, it is the most useful private library we ever saw.



Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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