May 5 – Happy Birthday Christopher J. Heffernan

heffernan-christopher-3The first time I remember hearing the name “Judge Heffernan” was when my good friend Dan DeRossi first invited me to his home at 194 Market Street for some sort of meeting and told me the house had belonged to the man who was long  recognized as one of Amsterdam’s most respected members of the legal profession. Christopher J. Heffernan was born in Ireland on May 5, 1882 and came to this country with his parents as a boy, settling in Amsterdam. He was a very good student at St Mary’s Institute and when he graduated from there in 1900, he studied law in the office of Florence Sullivan, successfully passing the New York State Bar exam in 1903.

By 1906 he had already been named city attorney by the Common Council and though the title and scope of that position would undergo a few changes during his tenure, he remained City Hall’s primary legal counsel for the next two decades. In 1925, Heffernan was elected to his first fourteen-year term as Supreme Court Justice of the Fourth Judicial District, which covered 11 upstate counties. He was reelected to that post in 1939.

In 1933, then Governor Herb Lehman appointed the Judge as an associate justice of the same district. What kind of adjudicator was Heffernan? Well he once was ticketed by a local policeman for parking his automobile too far away from the curb and after being brought to the station where his identity became known, insisted on being treated like any other offender. In 1929, he presided over a Hamilton County murder case up in Lake Pleasant, NY. A well known Adirondack guide and woodsman named Ernest Duane had gotten into a fight with his good friend and fellow woodsman Eula Davis, killing him in the process. A newspaper account of the trial described the small courtroom as being packed with scores of lumberjacks and woodsmen who knew both men. The jury found Davis guilty and as Heffernan was about to pass sentence, tears welled in his eyes. “I have but one duty to perform. I have wished it would never come to me, but Mr. Duane, you stand convicted of murder in the first degree, for which the punishment is death.” The reporter writing the article went on to describe Heffernan’s voice shaking, an emotionless Duane and Mrs. Heffernan, the judge’s wife, who must have been on hand to support her husband, trying to smother her own weeping and sobbing.

Heffernan was forced to retire as an active judge in 1953 upon reaching the age of 70, but he was immediately named by the Appellate Division as an official referee, which required him to preside over trials without juries.

The Judge and his wife Anne, raised a family of four girls and a boy. One of Heffernan’s daughters, Christine, married Leonard Bolognino and became a practicing physician in Amsterdam for many years. Their son Christopher Jr, graduated from West Point in 1939 and volunteered to serve in the Philippines, where he was stationed when Japan bombed Manila, just hours after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Chris and his under-supplied and outnumbered 31st Infantry fought valiantly defending the Islands against the Japanese invasion force for three months before surrendering. Young Heffernan died on that day of surrender, a victim of malaria. His death was perhaps merciful because it prevented him from having to take part in the infamous Bataan Death March. You can read  a letter about Christopher Jr. from an officer who served with the gallant young man in the Philippines.

Judge Heffernan lived until January 12, 1959, passing away at the age of 76. In his Recorder obituary it was written that, “his opinions received wide recognition because of their analytical context and… clarity” The Heffernan’s were devout members and supporters of St. Mary’s Parrish.

2 thoughts on “May 5 – Happy Birthday Christopher J. Heffernan

  1. The evidence is not all that certain as to whether the younger Heffernan died in the Bataan Death March. The family got at least three, maybe more, versions as to how and when he died. I’ve concluded that it is probable he did die on the first day of the march, and likely as not as a victim of the cruelty of his captors.

    Regarding the judge, here’s an excerpt from my book “Where Do We Find Such Men”, which includes one of his speeches. The judge and his wife did not know until after war’s end whether their son was alive or dead.

    The excerpt:

    Throughout the year 1943, each of the Eight Wards dedicates an Honor Roll for their men in service. Prayers are said, bands play, patriotic songs are sung, flags wave, veterans march, Gold Star Mothers are introduced and admired. It is a continuous outpouring of affection, support, defiance and determination.
    The last of them, the Second Ward monument on the grounds of the Academy Street School, is unveiled on Sunday, November 21, 1943, with the principal speaker being New York Supreme Court Justice Christopher Heffernan, Jr., whose son had been reported missing in the Philippines. His words carry that burden, and responsibility:

    Today the world is gripped by war. We are in the midst of the greatest war of all history. It has been brought on by the personal ambition of wicked and corrupt men. It is not a struggle for national supremacy. Its roots go far deeper. It is in very truth a world revolution that challenges all those principles of personal freedom, equality of right, impartial justice and popular sovereignty that are so dear to the hearts of all free men everywhere. In all the sorry pages of human history never has despotism stood forward more defiantly,never has it more brazenly announced its foul purposes, never have the rights of men and nations been more brutally assailed.
    The present war is not merely for markets and territories; it is a struggle for the possession of the human soul. The civilized world is threatened by a sinister power which strikes directly at its moral foundations. Two philosophies of life are involved in deadly combat— the one based upon law, justice and human dignity; the other upon arbitrary will, violence and human slavery.
    When a ship is battling through a storm of hurricane violence and has sprung leaks that the pumps cannot keep up with, there is sometimes one chance of keeping it afloat — throwing overboard its heavy cargo. Plainly we are now in the midst of such a storm and plainly, too, our ship is a leaky one. We would like to save everything that we value in our civilization, the small dear toys of our children no less than the canister of food, the deck chairs we relaxed in no less than our life belts.
    But the inexorable conditions we face win not permit it. We must save what is most worth saving, that which will ultimately serve our humanity, that which will guarantee that our children will have toys again and the aged a place where they may quietly stretch their feet. In short, we must save the vessel itself,—our civilization and the institutions and habits of free men.
    Some day our children, perhaps only our great-grandchildren, will find a safe anchorage in quiet waters within sight of a green coast and white buildings. This saying is harder than the figure of the storm-tossed vessel indicates unless one remembers that those who stick to their posts in a storm to work the vessel may be caught in an avalanche of water and swept overboard, for we cannot do our job if we seek first to save our lives or even to protect our children’s lives, once they are old enough to take their turn at the watch. We cannot save bodies. We can only save the spirit that makes those bodies significant. In the long run, it will not matter for humanity if London is ruined as completely as the heart of Rotterdam, provided that those who die in the ruins pass on to the survivors the spirit that is capable of building a greater London. Nothing whatever is saved if only the bodies and the buildings are saved, to crumble stone by stone; to die drop by drop.
    Similarly, nothing is lost if the spirit lives, for a little leaven will leaven the whole loaf. It is not those who sought safety first or who surrendered quickest who will carry on the work of our civilization. It is those who barely escaped with their lives, the Czechs who continued the struggle, the Poles, the Norwegians, the French, the British, our own brave men who continued to fight. As for the rest, most of them were, pitiably, the appointed victims of Fascism because they thought that their material goods mattered and their bodies were worth keeping alive. That is the conviction of corpses; to that degree, the most brutal Fascist who risked his life was still a better man.
    What we need, to get to port finally, is the ship itself, a few hands to navigate it and above all the compass, the chronometer to give us our bearings, and if the violence and carnage spread, nothing else can be saved. We cannot preserve ourselves against this barbarism and worry about the cost of our effort; we must give beyond the ordinary power of giving. Nor can we insure seven per cent profits or the eventual redemption of all our bonds and mortgages at par value; nor can we hold fast to the particular patent monopoly or a particular hourly wage scale. Only one need counts—the need to save the institutions of a free civilization, the institutions of democracy founded on a profound respect for the personality of all men, and for a Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.
    We in America shall not work swiftly enough, ruthlessly enough nor shall we have the means of striking back against Fascism hard enough, if we think we can baby ourselves through this crisis. We are working against a barbarian power that has demanded, and exacted, years of bitter sacrifice from every man, woman and child in Germany. Fascism’s power is great just in proportion to the unwillingness, on the side of the nations they threaten, to depart from their comfortable bourgeois routine. Mr. Walter Lippmann has well called those who think that they must give up no vested interest or privilege whatever, “the sleepwalkers,” and that is the most charitable name one could apply. Some of these Rip Van Winkles fell asleep before 1933.
    The mistakes of Europe, above all, the mistakes of France and England, are a warning to us who survive: if we cling to the cargo, we may lose the ship. We must strip for action. Nothing is sacred except our ship— our democracy itself— the civilization we share with all men of good will, the ideals that have shaped us, the heritage of immaterial things we hope to hand on to our children. We Americans must struggle for democracy; that is progress, experiment, adventure, innovation—a ceaseless war that brings no promise of security, a war of the spirit against all that obstructs the spirit. Fascism promises peace, Fascist peace which is death. While democracy lives, that is the one kind of peace we will scorn to accept.
    I speak now to those Americans who love life but are willing to face death so that life may go on. I appeal to those who have experienced love but who know that no smaller love than that of humanity will enable the love of mates and friends to be secure. I appeal to those who still carry on the tradition of immigrants and pioneers; those who dared much to create a new world. The task our ancestors started is not finished. The struggle is not over. We have a job to do, the hardest that ever faced a generation. Our job is to restore our own faith for living and to lay the foundation of a world in which life, love, freedom, justice, truth, will once more be sacred. If we rise to the task, we will have our good moments; the sacrifice will not be unrelieved. Though much will be snatched from us that is still precious, the moments that remain will be keener because of the very threat that they may be near our last.
    Nothing is sure; not death, not victory. To those who would abandon the very hope of struggle, I would repeat the counsel that Krishna offered Arjuna on the eve of battle, as told in the Bhagavad-Gita. Like the slack liberals, Arjuna hesitated, debated, had specious moral scruples, clung to the hope of safety in a situation that did not permit him to enjoy it. Victory, Krishna pointed out, is never guaranteed beforehand. What is important for man is to attend to the overwhelming duty of the moment in a spirit of emancipated understanding. “Counting gain or loss as one, prepare for battle.”
    Counting gain or loss as one, knowing that gains are losses and losses are often gains: there lies a truth to take us through these hard days. In that spirit, only in that spirit, can our civilization be saved.
    Man’s destiny is a great one because the essence of it is tragic. All that he builds crumbles; all that he embodies turns to dust; all that he loves most he must one day leave behind him. That which alone endures on earth is the spirit in which he understands and meets his fate. This he passes on to his children and his comrades—only a breath indeed, but the breath of life. Death comes to all but death comes best to those who are ready to die so that Man may live. The words of Jesus are ultimate in the wisdom: “He that loseth his life shall find it.”
    That applies to individual men; it applies to nations and peoples. No smaller faith will console us for temporary defeats, sustain us in the hours of despair or give us the strength to push through to victory. Today we must have the will to resist and the courage to give battle in order that liberty and justice shall not perish from the earth.


  2. Hello Mr. Cinquanti,

    I am one of Christopher Heffernan’s great grandsons. I am grateful for your thoughtful commentary on who he was as a person and the indelible mark he left on both our judicial system and the people of New York.

    I do have additional information on his life, as well as his son Christopher who died in WWII (he did not die that first day of the March). If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me at the email address I’ve provided in this webform.

    Geoff Bailey


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