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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Hon. Michael Henry Sexton

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 228-232 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Hon. Michael Henry Sexton, lawyer, judge and author, passed away on the 27th of September, 1924, at the age of sixty-five. For thirty-seven years he was an active representative of the legal profession, during twelve of which he was surrogate of Oneida county. He enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of the distinguished members of the Oneida county bar and judiciary. He was born near Waterville, New York, on the 19th day of May, 1859, a son of Patrick and Margaret Conway Sexton, natives of Ireland. His father was a stonemason and spent most of his life in Madison and Oneida counties in this state. He died in 1906, having long survived his wife, who was called to her final rest in 1879. Eight children were born to them.

Michael Henry Sexton attended the district schools nearest his home until his sixteenth year. Then, realizing the necessity and worth of higher education, he arranged with Dr. George Cleveland of Waterville to care for his property in return for the privilege of receiving board and lodging and attending the village high school. He displayed unusual talent and made such rapid progress in his studies that a Mr. Lawrence, who became interested in him, advised him to enter Williston Seminary at Easthampton, Massachusetts. Without any financial aid other than that gained by his own efforts, he worked his way through the seminary by serving in the dining hall and later tutoring wealthier but less energetic fellow students. He was graduated with honors from the seminary in June, 1883, having attained a scholastic reputation for oratory, for which he received several prizes. While there he was a member of the Adelphi Society. He entered Hamilton College the same year, but remained there for a short time only, leaving to accept a position as teacher in the district school at Brothertown, near Deansboro, New York.

The following summer he worked for Mr. John Downey, and in the fall he came to Utica and took up the study of law with R. O . and J. G. Jones. He remained with them until 1886, when he entered the office of Hon. Watson T. Dunmore. He was admitted, on his first examination, to the bar, on June 14, 1887. He practiced law for one year with his former preceptor, under the firm name of Dunmore & Sexton, then, having dissolved partnership, he opened an office in the Stewart building, and in 1889 removed to the Arcade, where he successfully practiced until he was elected surrogate in 1906.

Mr. Sexton was a prominent republican and took a very active part in the affairs of the party. In his younger days he was a well known figure at county conventions, and owing to his oratorical gifts he was frequently chosen to nominate candidates. His speeches were always interesting and forceful. He was nominated in 1887 as a candidate for the assembly in the first district, but was unexpectedly defeated by the narrow margin of one hundred and sixty votes. Several times he was a candidate for the nomination for district attorney and also city judge. In 1906 his party honored him with the nomination for surrogate of Oneida county and he was elected by a handsome majority over his democratic opponent, W. S. Mackie.

At that time a Utica paper under date of August 26, 1906, had the following to say regarding Mr. Sexton:

"And now Mr. Sexton wants to be surrogate. This brilliant advocate, witty orator and original genius wants to immolate himself in the soberest, most routinal and driest of all judicial seats there are on the modern bench, and cut Gordian knots of legal intricacies with dead men's estates. At first blush this position seems far removed from such a personality as Mr. Sexton's and one wonders what attraction such an office has for this man of fiery impulses and vivid eloquence, full of racy humor and real Irish wit. It is a popular impression that this versatile lawyer wins all his successes by his influence over a jury, his 'quips and cranks', his eloquence and ready wit, and not by his law. The real Mr. Sexton seldom comes to the surface in the courtroom, but he is there. There is perhaps no harder, closer student of pure law, and no keener intellect for solving knotty problems, and none more capable of cool, merciless analysis of a case in all its aspects and evidence, than this same perfervid orator at the bar today. His presentment of a case is said by legal experts to be a perfect model of how to do it. He is one of the most versatile 'public' men in the Empire state today. He can take any subject and say something original about it and never leave the bounds of common sense. Mr. Sexton has the innate sense that guided Napoleon in his influence over men and his use of methods to win a battle. All things considered, perhaps there is no man in the profession better fitted for surrogate. He is thoroughly honest and will give a courteous and patient audience to all who have business with him. He is exceedingly popular with all classes, and should he be nominated, as now seems certain, he will greatly add to the strength of the republican ticket, and his election by a large majority now seems beyond doubt."

At the end of his first term of six years he was renominated and reelected, notwithstanding the fact that the republican party in the nation, state, and county had lost considerable of its strength by the formation of the progressive party and met with overwhelming defeat. Mr. Sexton was reelected by a majority of over four thousand, the only republican elected to office in Oneida county.

While surrogate he earned by his wise and learned administration of the office the respect and good will of the people and members of the bar who had business in his court. During the twelve years of his surrogateship he never referred a case, never had a decision reversed by a higher court, and never failed to give, in so far as the facts before him warranted, an honest and just decision. He introduced many improvements in the practice in his court and also brought about many needed reforms.

On his retirement from the office of surrogate Mr. Sexton returned to the practice of law, and with his son, Howard, opened law offices in Utica, under the firm title of Sexton & Sexton. Later his youngest son, Mason F., was admitted to the bar and became also a member of the firm.

Mr. Sexton was fearless in defense of the right, and his record as lawyer and judge was stainless. Many important interests were intrusted to his care. He was a skillful advocate with a jury and a logical and concise pleader before the courts. He knew human nature and he knew his jurors. Much of the success which attended him in his professional career was without question due to the fact that he never permitted himself to appear in court unless he had absolute confidence in the righteousness of his client's cause. Sustained by this intense conviction, he seldom lost a case.

Apart from his law practice Mr. Sexton interested himself in real estate. He was a very shrewd judge of values and with excellent business ability made very profitable bargains. He was owner of the Boston Store at No. 125 Genesee street, a large apartment house at the corner of Park avenue and South street, a business block and apartment house at the corner of Blandina and Charlotte streets, and several other apartment houses throughout the city.

Mr. Sexton was well read in history and general literature and he had a very comprehensive knowledge of the contents of the Bible. He himself was a prolific writer and wielded a trenchant pen. He hated sham and veneer. His judicial decisions while surrogate, because of their originality and keen analysis of the law, attracted nation-wide attention and often appeared in the legal reports of this state. Of the many books which he wrote, two have been published and have met with marked success — "Red Hair From a Cock of Hay" and "Matrimony Minus Maternity". These books, with striking and indicative titles, owe their popularity, the former to its wit and humor, the latter to the learned and sound arguments afforded against the pernicious, modern and destructive teachings and practices of the advocates of divorce and eugenics.

Mr. Sexton had a strong sense of humor and was always a welcomed story teller among his fellow lawyers and acquaintances. He was a member of the Republican Club, Utica Lodge No. 33, of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, and Utica Council No. 189, of the Knights of Columbus. He also for a time was a member of the Improved Order of Red Men. He was a loyal and firm Catholic and a member of the Church of St. Francis de Sales. The enviable place which Mr. Sexton won in his profession and the success which he met in his business transactions were due solely to his own sturdy will, studious habits and tireless industry, and not to any combination of inherited fortune, favor, or advantageous circumstances.

On the 20th of April, 1887, Mr. Sexton was united in marriage to Miss Mattie Frances Creagan of Utica. A daughter and three sons were born to them. Mrs. Sexton and the four children — Marguerite, wife of Dr. William V. Quinn; Warren H., Howard, and Mason F. — survive him.

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