Nearly a century ago, a North Country man played a role in one the most remarkable murder cases in New York State history. Attorney James J. Barry was a Keeseville native, born there in late 1876 and a graduated of Keeseville’s McAuley Academy in 1898. In 1901 he moved to Schenectady where he worked for General Electric. He later attended Albany Law School, graduating in 1908 and setting up shop in Schenectady, his adopted home.
The Adirondacks were his real home however, and he maintained strong ties here. To share with others the joys of spending time in the mountains, he helped form the Northmen’s Club, of which he was president in 1907. Many times in the ensuing decades, he took club members, friends, and public officials on visits up north. Jim Barry was never away for very long.
Barry established a successful law practice, earning a reputation among his peers as a sort of patron saint of lost causes. Time after time he accepted cases that to other attorneys seemed hopeless, and in the end won most of them. Barry recognized nuances and possibilities that others didn’t, allowing him to make many first-of-a-kind claims over the years.
Jim Barry was a man of character who acted on his beliefs. During the 1912 Little Falls Textile Strike he was arrested for defending the right of others to speak in a public park and shared a jail cell with George Lunn, then the Socialist Mayor of Schenectady.
As a defender of unions and the working man, he found himself representing Big Jim Larkin, a founder (with James Connolly) of the Irish Labour Party and the leader of the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out, a precursor to the Irish Revolution in 1916.
During the First Red Scare, while organizing in the United States as a member of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Larkin was convicted of “criminal anarchism” and imprisoned at Comstock in Washington County, from which Barry helped earn his release. (Larkin was then deported to Ireland, but remains a heroic labor figure and a statue of him stands today in Dublin.)
Further evidence of his belief in justice is evident in the case of Myron Skeels, who died in a logging accident at Paul Smiths. Myron left a widow seven months pregnant with their eighth child when he died. Through her attorney, Mrs. Skeels applied successfully for Workmen’s Compensation, but the courts eventually reversed that decision on the grounds that her husband hadn’t been directly hired by Paul Smith’s company. Skeels, they ruled, was an independent contractor under Smith’s foreman, and wasn’t covered. Elizabeth Skeels and her children were left with basically no means to survive.
Jim Barry joined the case, submitting an appeal that was unprecedented in US courts – that the work arrangement was “constructive legal fraud,” an effort by Smith’s company to avoid liability for men who performed work for them but had no direct contract.
When New York’s highest court rejected Barry’s argument, the case was over, but his role wasn’t. Through a lifetime love of sports, particularly baseball and boxing, he had developed a close friendship with several famous athletes, including Mike McTigue, who visited him often at Schenectady. McTigue held the world heavyweight boxing championship for two years (1923–1925).
Having failed in court, Barry still felt a need to help his client. The solution he chose was a fundraiser – a boxing event on Mrs. Skeels’ behalf. Jim organized the event, soliciting a bit of help from more than 20 regional luminaries: politicians, town and county officials, and prominent citizens. Heading the committee was none other than Christy Mathewson, one of baseball’s all-time greats (and a tuberculosis patient in Saranac Lake). Harry Greb, world light-heavyweight champion, was also involved, along with nearly a dozen other boxers who helped make the event a great success.
Knowing who James Barry was makes the story much less surprising. Yes, he was an attorney, and his ongoing duty was to win the best settlement possible for clients, which benefited him as well. But he also had a wide-ranging reputation as being socially conscious, a fighter for the underdog, and a battler against inequality. As such, he was cut in the mold of Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous lawyers in American history, and a man who fought similar battles during his career. It was no accident that the two became good friends. Darrow even stayed in Barry’s home when he visited Schenectady.
Jim was also a fervent, sincere supporter of the annual pilgrimage to John Brown’s grave at Lake Placid (an event which carries on today as John Brown Day). He helped organize those events by prevailing upon friends like Darrow and Schenectady’s mayor to serve as guest speakers. Barry himself spoke as well, even giving the memorial graveside address in 1928, noting that as one of his own personal heroes, “John Brown was more like the savior of Nazareth than any man who has lived in the past 20 centuries.”
Following that event, he invited all attendees to lunch at his home. In the racist culture that prevailed (the KKK held many very successful recruiting events in the North Country in the 1920s), it was clear that Barry stood on the side of equality for all. He and Darrow were two of only three white members of the John Brown Memorial Association.
As a fundraiser in Schenectady for the Association in 1930, Jim arranged a debate on Prohibition between Clarence Darrow and Fred Victor, a vociferous leader of the Anti-Saloon League. That same year, both he and Darrow were scheduled to speak at the eighth annual John Brown pilgrimage, a bigger-than-ever, two-day event that raised funds towards a permanent monument in Brown’s honor.
Throughout the 1920s, Jim continued winning cases that appeared hopeless. On behalf of two Saranac Lake widows and ten orphaned children he won a four-year battle, proving negligence had caused the deaths of two fathers in a road cave-in accident. The total settlement of $37,000 equals about a half-million dollars today.
In April 1927, he represented a friend, 84-year-old Walter Morehouse of Jay, on a Volstead violation (alcohol possession during Prohibition). Morehouse was best known as guide and personal friend of President Grover Cleveland. Barry’s arguments resulted in a fine of just $1 from Judge Frank Cooper, who regularly levied large fines in federal court and sent hundreds to jail or prison. The minimal penalty was even more impressive considering that Jim had obtained an identical outcome for Morehouse a year earlier for another Volstead offense.
He represented a Schroon Lake woman who lost her husband in a train accident. Against a high-powered team of four attorneys defending the rail company, he won the biggest settlement for a death lawsuit in Schenectady County history.
For another widow whose husband died in a car accident near Lake George, Jim sued the state and won a large settlement, somehow proving in court that the road surface itself was defective, which contributed to the tires sliding on the pavement, causing the fatal crash.
He handled a similar case for Anita Brown, the editor of Good Housekeeping magazine, and her husband Lesley, who were badly injured in a car accident four miles north of Westport while on a honeymoon drive to Canada. The trial began five months after the crash, with Mrs. Brown still recovering in the hospital from a number of severe injuries that included a broken back.
As thorough as always, Barry even analyzed the content of the road pavement, verifying that the mixture used had bubbled to the surface in the August heat. It then hardened into a large, flat pool with a glass-like surface, affording virtually no traction to the tires and causing the car to skid off the highway. The court agreed and awarded a total of $60,000 to the couple (about $1 million in 2015). Within weeks the check arrived, said to have been the largest settlement ever won upstate. No matter how upstate was defined at the time, it was a big win for Barry and his clients.
Around 1931, Jim returned to Keeseville for good, but still maintained a law office in Schenectady. His Keeseville digs consisted of a 200-acre tract on Auger Lake. In 1933, partnering with friend and three-time welterweight boxing champion Jack Britton, he leased part of the property for use as a boys’ camp – “Jack Britton’s Health Farm.” Set to open in late May, it would accommodate boys in early summer, and then cater to businessmen looking to get into shape. For all clients, hiking and walking were heavily emphasized, but swimming, boxing, track, baseball, and other sports were incorporated as well.
In the ensuing months, Jim took on three important cases: a $125,000 claim for the survivors of a three-fatality accident; seeking compensation for an innocent observer in Boonville, beaten by police who mistook him for one of the farmers on strike; and a car-accident case in North Creek. The North Creek case ended in early February 1934 – no surprise, another win for Barry.
Just two weeks after his latest victory, Jim fell ill with pneumonia. Two days after being stricken, he passed away on the Keeseville homestead. It was so sudden, so shocking, so hard to accept by the Keeseville community. Close friends in Schenectady had no inkling he had even been ill.
There is plenty of dark humor about lawyers and death, but none of it was intended for the likes of Jim Barry. Like Darrow, much of his career was spent defending underdogs and taking on difficult cases. Where others saw nothing, he saw hope, and then made things happen through remarkably sharp and insightful skills. Seldom was he on the losing side.
Next week: Attorney James J. Barry: King of Death Reprieves
Photos: James J. Barry’s photo from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 28, 1916; the statue of Big Jim Larkin in Dublin; and headlines from 1922, 1933, and 1933