Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What distinguished the Rollins family, according to Daniel Webster

 I've been poking around a bit genealogically today, and in looking up members of the Rollins family (some of my ancestors), found that the Google Books project has scanned, and made available as a freely downloadable PDF, John Rodman Rollins' 1874 book, Records of Families of the name Rawlins or Rollins, in the United States, courtesy of Oxford University, England.

In the introduction to his book, Rollins excerpts an article by Charles Lanman in the September, 1856 
Harper's Monthly, entitled Social Hours of Daniel Webster, in which Webster - a noted New Hampshire attorney, congressman, and U.S. Secretary of State - recounts an experience with some members of the Rollins family.  I don't know whether anyone in my particular branch of the family has read this already, but in case they haven't, here it is.



"At the time I was practicing law in New Hampshire," said Mr. Webster, "it once happened that I was counsel for the defendant in some capital case, while Mr. Attorney-General Atkinson -- a particular friend of mine, afterward Judge of the Supreme Court of the State, -- conducted the prosecution.  The court was holden at Dover, the Shire town of Stafford County.  A family by the name of Rollins lived somewhere in the vicinity, not otherwise remarkable, so far as I now recollect, than for the large and somewhat peculiar shape of their noses.  It was not merely that they were long, or rose high from the face, but they described from where they joined the forehead to their termination over the mouth, a parabola. Other men have had eminent noses, but this family had them peculiar to themselves, and were as easily recognizable by them, as Jews by theirs. There were some five or six brothers, with noses describing almost the same curve, and rejoicing in the same altitude.

Mr Atkinson was addressing the jury, and insisting with great earnestness of manner and eloquent periods, upon the guilt of the accused, when one of the R's entered the Court, and stood by the railing which separated the profession from the outsiders.

"Gentlemen of the Jury," said Atkinson, "I repeat, it has never before been my disagreeable duty to appear against so desperate a criminal; I know the danger of confounding physical and moral deformity, and I will not ask you to condemn this man because of his countenance; still you cannot look at him gentlemen, without an impression of his guilt. His whole aspect bears the consciousness of crime."

Here another Rollins entered the Court and laid his nose alongside of his brother's, with the profiles toward us.

"Gentlemen of the Jury," continued the Attorney General, "I believe this man is not only an offender, but a hardened offender. I believe he is steeped in guilt. Nor can one well suppose that a person so callous to all feelings of pity, as he has been proved to be, -- so utterly insensible to every feeling of humanity, -- so wholly lost even to the recollection of virtue, ever could have been an innocent man. He is a leprous spot upon society, Gentlemen of the Jury, which your sentence must forever remove, or society itself will become tainted and sicken."

A third Rollins now came in and made another layer or stratum of noses. This was too much for my self-command, or M----n's, who sat next to me, and whose attention, indeed, I had attracted to this nasal exhibition, and we indulged in audible laughter, or we should have died from spontaneous suffocation.  Atkinson turned to us in angry surprise : "The counsel for the defendant may laugh at my language. I am no orator, as Brutus is; but he can't controvert my facts!" After one or two desperate efforts we finally gained control over our countenances, and looked as solemn as the occasion demanded. For a time everything went well; we resolutely turned our backs upon the noses, and Atkinson was getting finely on with his peroration, when, hearing Mr. M----n exclaim, in a mock-tragic tone, 
"What! will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?"

I looked around, and behold a fourth nose had laid itself alongside the others! And to cap the climax of our misery, a sternutation took place, as if concerted among these probosces, which you could see, under the effects of the motion, bobbing up and down like the corks of the angler's line. This was past human endurance. In vain M----n and myself stuffed our handkerchiefs in our mouths; in vain bit our lips till the blood flowed freely; the very efforts we made to repress our desire to laugh, excited it, and, carried away in spite of ourselves, we fairly gave way to an unseasonable mirth. This was too much for the Attorney-General. He stopped short in the very torrent and tempest of his eloquence, and sat down; but immediately rose to his feet, and in a tone of undisguised anger addressed the Court: "May it please your Honors," said he, "It is impossible for me to proceed further. Too long have I borne the premeditated and continued insults of the counsel for the defense; insults as gross as they are unprovoked. I claim the protection of the Court." Atkinson's serious manner and address acted upon us like a counter irritant, and immediately restored our self-control. I got on my feet and begged pardon of the court for my unintentional violation of decorum -- assuring the Attorney-General that nothing was farther from my mind, than any purpose of wounding his feelings; that so far from wishing to turn into ridicule any thing he had said, I had listened with the greatest gratification to his remarks, till an unfortunate incident had occurred, which I could not explain, but which, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, had made me seemingly forgetful of the place, and the grave occasion.  The Attorney-General took my apologetic explanation in good part, and finished his speech without further interruption.

But I laugh to this day, when I recall that scene; those four noses, overlapping each other like horses on a stretch, one just advanced ahead of another, and so different from the noses we meet in our usual experience; the perplexed countenance of Atkinson, the grave surprise of the Court, and the wondering stare of the crowd. On the gravest occasions, an incident most trivial, if unexpected, will sometimes give rise to irrepressible laughter. One such nose might have been tolerated, but when they come in battalions, they carry every living thing before them.

My client was fortunately acquitted, -- partly, perhaps, owing to the sympathetic inclination of juries toward the predominant feeling of the crowd, who, on this occasion, suspected something ludicrous had occurred, and though ignorant what it was, laughed on trust."

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