June 28 – Happy Birthday Florence J. Sullivan

3florencesullivanI’m getting old. I can remember when the Ed Sullivan Show was the hottest show on national television. Sullivan got his start as a newspaper columnist in the Big Apple in the early 1930’s. He wrote a gossip column about Broadway and show business celebrities called Toast of the Town and he used that same title for his first weekly televised variety show in 1948. Sullivan descended from the Sullivan family of Saratoga. Today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant did as well and in fact was Ed Sullivan’s uncle.

Florence Sullivan was born in the Spa City on July 28, 1869. He came to Amsterdam as a young boy with his family. He graduated from St. Mary’s Institute in 1886 as a member of the second class to ever graduate from that school. He then graduated from Union College and Albany Law School. After passing the bar exam, he returned to Amsterdam to open a practice and very quickly established himself as one of the best lawyers in this City.

In 1895, Montgomery County District Attorney Leonard Fish appointed Sullivan Assistant DA. When Frank Kesly succeeded Fish as DA, he reappointed Sullivan as his assistant. It was while serving in this post that Sullivan became a Toast of the Town himself when he successfully prosecuted a murder case in which a woman was charged with killing an Amsterdam man. The jury found her guilty, she was sentenced to life in prison and everybody figured Sullivan would be the next DA but instead he accepted Amsterdam Mayor Sam Wallin’s offer to become City Attorney on the very first day of the twentieth century.

This guy had it all. He was apparently as skilled a defense attorney as he was a prosecutor and was a gifted public speaker with a great sense of humor. He was also an outstanding teacher. He mentored a young attorney named C. J. Heffernan, who himself would go on to become a highly respected State Supreme Court Justice. Heffernan often credited Sullivan for much of his success.

There’s absolutely no doubt that if Sullivan had remained in Amsterdam, he could easily have become one of the most influential people and leaders in this City’s history. But he had bigger fish to fry.

Sullivan had a younger brother named Dan, also a lawyer, who had served as Assistant Attorney General of New York State. Dan convinced his sibling to move to New York City and set up a law practice and they made the move in May of 1904. With Dan’s connections, the firm was immediately successful and over the next 37 years Florence Sullivan became a prosperous Manhattan lawyer. He and his wife, who was the sister of Amsterdam industrialist John Barnes, had four daughters. They lived in a beautiful home on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

He also owned property in Ossining, NY, the site of Sing Sing Prison. At one time he lobbied very hard to get the infamous penal institution relocated, arguing that it depressed property values in Ossining. As part of his effort, he conducted meetings with the prison’s Warden, Lewis E. Lawes and it was during his conversations with the Warden that Sullivan became deeply interested in penology. He abandoned his quest to get the prison moved and instead wrote a book entitled “Capital Punishment,” in which he argued for the abolition of the death penalty.

Sullivan died in July of 1941 at the age of 72. His body lies at rest in Amsterdam’s St. Mary’s Cemetery.



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