John Upshur Dennis Papers 1851-1888, MS. 2677

Maryland Historical Society
Library of Maryland History


John Upshur Dennis Papers, 1851-1888
Maryland Historical Society

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Services, March 1999.)


John Upshur Dennis Papers, 1851-1888
Maryland Historical Society

Contact Information:
Manuscripts Department
Maryland Historical Society Library
201 West Monument Street
Baltimore MD 21201-4674
Fax: 410.385.2105

Descriptive Summary


MS. 2677

Maryland Historical Society

Baltimore MD 21201-4674


Scope and Content

John Upshur Dennis (1846-1916) was born on the family estate at Kingston, Somerset Co., Md., the son of lawyer and U.S. Senator George Robertson Dennis (1822-1882). He was educated at the Washington Academy in Somerset Co., from 1858 to 1862; Princeton University, 1863-1865; and studied law at the University of Virginia, 1865-1868. After being admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1868 he settled to practice in Baltimore, Md., forming a partnership with John Scott.

For nine years JUD (known as “Upshur”) served as a director of the Maryland Penitentiary (ca. 1880s). In 1887 he was appointed judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore, a position he was later elected to as a Democratic candidate and held until his retirement in 1908.

JUD married Frances Murdoch of Mississippi in 1881. They had three children, two of which lived past infancy.

The collection spans the years 1865 to 1888, and can be divided into three parts: 1) the law school notes (1865-1868) of JUD, 2) accounts and incoming correspondence (1866-1882) of George Robertson Dennis, and 3) incoming correspondence (1881-1888) of J. Upshur Dennis. Part three forms the bulk of MS. 2677, and covers JUD's years as a lawyer in Baltimore.

The law school notes (9 vols.) from the University of Virginia span the years 1865 to 1868, and include topics such as Blackstone's Common Law, the practice of law, pleading, international law, and the German language.

The papers of George Robertson Dennis date from 1866 to 1882, and include guardianship account books (1866-1868; 1872-1876); an account book, receipts, cancelled checks, and a check register of Johnston Bros. & Co. (1867-1877) a Baltimore stock brokerage; miscellaneous bills and receipts (1868-1882); GRD's life insurance policy (1872); and incoming correspondence (1860-1882). Letters concern family news, legal cases, the Eastern Shore Railroad, and GRD's election to the Senate (1873).

The incoming correspondence (1881-1888) of John Upshur Dennis forms the bulk of this collection. Correspondents include colleagues and clients, friends and relatives, and merchants. Letters are arranged alphabetically by correspondent within one-to-four-year time periods. Most letters are from 1881 to 1886, before JUD was named to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore.

Letters from colleagues and clients throughout Maryland and Virginia commonly discuss matters of family law such as estate settlements and divorce. Considerable, albeit scattered, letters also mention cases against railroads, damages to and by schooners, patent disputes, murder, and insanity. Other professional letters concern his position as a director of the Maryland State Penitentiary. (Nov. 1882-Jan. 1887) These mention job requests and express concern over the conditions of inmates. JUD's political interests are also reflected in letters from his uncle James Upshur Dennis and colleagues Samuel King Dennis, James Pearch, and George Upshur, usually discussing judicial elections on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Business-related papers include two types: assorted bills and receipts for the shipment of goods and the purchase of everyday items such as oysters, fruit, and wine, and letters on the long-distance management of the family's Somerset Co. estate, Cedar Grove. Farm employee William Bailey and others regularly write about the sale and purchase of hay, seed potatoes, corn, quano, geese, mules, etc., as well as the rental of houses owned by JUD, and attempts at selling the estate.

Leisure activities are identified through invitations to hunt and fish and through detailed descriptions of hunting conditions in the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. This interest is also expressed in letters on JUD's invention of a gun-safety trigger. He enjoyed raising terrapins, too as shown in letters from strangers throughout the East seeking advice and trading terrapin tales.

The most choesive part of MS. 2677 is JUD's family correspondence. Stepmother Ellen Rebecca Dennis, sister Charlotte Joynes Dennis, sister Belle [Dennis] Moore

and her husband, William Moore, brother William and his wife, Kate [Wakeman] Dennis, and cousin George Pitts are the most frequent writers. Ellen writes of health and financial problems, and of raising children. Charlotte, a single woman living in Norfolk, writes of other family members and of finding acceptable work. Belle describes marriage, motherhood, and travels to Virginia and South Carolina where William Moore worked as a canal surveyor. After a mysterious incident involving a murder in South Carolina, Mr. Moore escaped to sea. For two years he sought permanent employment, forced to stay apart from the Southeast and from Belle. Their letters tell of frustration over unemployment, lack of money, and loneliness.

Letters from William and Kate Dennis in San Francisco, Norfolk, and Princess Anne, Md. are also intriguing. An alcoholic, William writes JUD regularly requesting money to cover his many debts and to treat various health problems. During most of this time he holds a precarious position as a clerk with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Kate also struggles with finances, even living apart from William “to live more cheaply”. After his death in 1884 (at 27 years of age), Kate moves in with Ellen Dennis in Princess Anne. From here she writes of her hatred of dependency and a search for employment despite limited skills. Cousin George Pitts, also a C&O Railway employee in Norfolk, is more explicit in his details of William's alcoholism. He also writes of an unidentified relative (“Jim”) who murdered a man in Accomac Co., Va., apparently while addicted to opium, and discusses Jim's legal options with JUD.

Letters from family members not mentioned here serve well to fill in the scene of a prominent Eastern Shore family facing financial and personal difficulties in the 1880s.


Susan Weinandy

May 1987


Container List

Box 1


Will 1851


Law School Notes, Vol. I 1865-1866

Law School Notes, Vol. II 1866

Law School Notes, Vol. III 1865-1866, 1868

Law School Notes, Vol. IV 1866

Law School Notes, Vol. V 1865-1866

Law School Notes, Vol. VI 1865-1866

Law School Notes, Vol. VII 1865-1866

Box 2

Law School Notes, Vol. VIII 1866

Law School Notes, International Law 1865-1866

Book of Claims n.d.

Briefs - 1st Nat'l Bank of Charlotte vs. Nat'L Exchange Bank of Baltimore 1873-1875


Guardianship Account 1866-1868

Cancelled Checks, Miscellaneous 1873-1876

Life Insurance Policy 1872

Bills 1868-1882

Receipt Books 1881-1882

Dividend of Estate of Mary A. Long 1866

Legal Statement-Mary Haynes v. Priscilla Haynes, et al., 1867

Printed Article on Northern Pacific Railroad, 1873

Timetable for Northern Pacific Railroad 1873

Miscellaneous Notes, n.d.

Account Book and Receipts, Lawrence and Elizabeth Vickers, 1872-1876

Box 3

Cancelled Checks - Johnston Bros. & Co. 1867

Cancelled Checks - Johnston Bros. & Co. 1868-1872

Correspondence and Accounts - Johnston Bros. & Co., 1871-1872

Correspondence and Accounts - Johnston Bros. & Co., 1873-1877

Incoming Correspondence 1860-1873

Incoming Correspondence 1874-1878

Incoming Correspondence 1881-1882


Incoming Correspondence 1881-1882

A through Dennis, A-G

Box 4

Incoming Correspondence, 1881-1882

Dennis, H-W through P

Box 5

Incoming Correspondence, 1881-1882

R through W

Incoming Correspondence, 1883-1884

A through C

Box 6

Incoming Correspondence, 1883-1884

D through N

Box 7

Incoming Correspondence, 1883-1884

P through W

Incoming Correspondence, 1884-1886

A through D

Box 8

Incoming Correspondence, 1884-1886

E through W

Incoming Correspondence, 1883-1884 “Aunt Mary”

Incoming Correspondence, 1851; 1888; n.d.


Commission, 1880, Designates J. Upshur Dennis as Aid-de-Camp to the Governor of Maryland, with the rank of Colonel.


The Honorable John Upshur Dennis, who died shortly after six o'clock in the evening of Tuesday, September 12th, 1916, at the home of his son in Guilford, Baltimore County, was from 1887 to 1908, a period of more than twenty-one years, a Judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, respected, honored and beloved. He was first appointed to the Bench by Gov. Henry Lloyd when Judge William A. Fisher resigned in January, 1887, to serve, in accordance with constitutional provisions, until a successor should be chosen at the election in the fall of that year for members of the next General Assembly. Having been unanimously nominated by the Democratic party to succeed himself, and endorsed by both the Republican party and the Independents, he was elected on November 8th, 1887, for the term of 15 years. The record which he made was such that at the expiration of this term upon a petition signed by every member of the bar of Baltimore with the exception of two, he was on November 8th, 1902, appointed by Governor John Walter Smith to fill the vacancy created by the expiration of his own term of service, until the next election for members of the General Assembly, and being again unanimously nominated by the Democratic party and again unopposed by the Republican party, he was on November 3rd, 1903, re-elected for another term of 15 years. Few judges have enjoyed so fully the confidence and regard of his fellow citizens without regard of party. Judge Dennis did not complete the second term for which he was chosen. He was retired along with the late Judge Charles E.

Phelps, by Act of Assembly in 1908 on account of physical disabilities; but such was the public esteem in which both of these jurists were held that the Legislature retiring them, provided for the payment of their full salaries until the expiration of the several terms for which they were chosen.

Judge John Upshur Dennis came of a family that has since colonial times been prominent in the politics and public life of this state. His earliest ancestor in this country was John Dennis, who sailed from Gravesend, England, in July 1638, and settled in Accomack County, Virginia. Donnoch Dennis, the son of John Dennis, located in Somerset County in 1664, and was high sheriff (an office at the time, of high rank and dignity) of Somerset County, which then embraced the district at present comprising Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico Counties. In the direct line of descent from Donnoch Dennis to Judge Dennis we find, John Dennis, for many years one of the Judges of the Provincial Court, Littleton Dennis, the younger, a Presidential elector at five elections and a Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals from 1801 to 1806; John Upshur Dennis, the grandfather of Judge Dennis, and for whom he was named, also a large landowner and a man of remarkable personality, who was the father of 21 children, many of whom were distinguished in public life, and one of whom Dr. George R. Dennis, the father of Judge Dennis, was not only a prominent physician in Somerset County for many years, but was influential in State and National politics, being a member of the House of Delegates in 1867, a member of the State Senate in 1854 and 1870, and a United States Senator from 1873 to 1879. Judge Dennis' collateral relatives, as well as his relatives on his mother's side, were equally prominent, and it is possibly due to the extent to which his forbears had touched the life of the State and Nation that Judge Dennis always took such a deep interest in public matters and maintained such an accurate knowledge of the men who were conspicuous as judges, statesment or lawmakers. Certainly his recollection of such men and his acquaintance with incidents in their careers was extraordinary.

Judge Dennis was born on his father's plantation, Kingston, Somerset County, Maryland, on June 14th, 1846. He was a student at Washington Academy in Somerset County from 1858 to 1862 and entered the sophomore class or Princeton in 1863, being graduated from that institution two years later. In 1866-1867 he studied law in the University of Virginia and continued the study for one year at Norfolk, Virginia, under the preceptorship of Judge George P. Scarburgh, formerly professor of law at William and Mary College and Judge of the United States Court of Claims. He spent the following year in the office of his uncle, James Upshur Dennis, in Princess Anne, Somerset County, Maryland, and he was admitted to the bar in January, 1868, at the first court ever held in Wicomico County. He practiced law for four months at Frederick, Maryland, after which he moved to Baltimore City and formed a partnership with John Scott, who had been his classmate at the University of Virginia, and this association continued

for ten years. He engaged in the active practice of his profession until January 4th, 1887, when he was commissioned as Associate Judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. At the bar he was known as a sound lawyer and safe counselor, and his course upon the Bench was marked by conspicuous ability, unflinching integrity and unswerving impartiality. His quickness of apprehension and his capacity to seize upon the controlling points of a case were remarkable. His mind traveled rapidly and accurately to conclusion, and his judgments were rarely disturbed in the Appellate Court. The humblest suitor and the most powerful defendant, the most distinguished member of the bar and the youngest graduate of the law school, stood in his presence equal before the law. It has been well said of him that “he was a favorite of everybody off the bench, but on it he knew no favorites and permitted none in his jurisdiction.” It was his promptness in disposing of business, his approachability, his quick apprehension, his sense of humor, his strict impartiality that made him one of the most popular judges of his time.

Judge Dennis presided in all the Courts of Baltimore, Criminal, Common Law and Equity, but the larger part of his time was spent in the Equity Courts and his ability as a chancelor was pre-eminent. He had strong common sense, a wide knowledge of human nature, an innate sense of justice and was thoroughly versed in the principles of Equity Jurisprudence and Procedure, and applied his wide knowledge and rich experience to the cases before him, with apt skill and great success.

Few men have had more warm personal friends than Judge Dennis, or a more varied or extensive acquaintance. He was a delightful companion and charming conversationalist. He had a keen appreciation of wit and humor. His mind was stored with interesting information of a wide and diversified character and with entertaining stories about well-known men and events. He read the best literature in poetry and prose, and when the occasion suited, he could reproduce by the power of an unusual memory, the thoughts and often the very language of classic authors. He himself wrote with grace and singular purity of diction and with a notable discrimination in the use of words. He was fond of nature and the open air and was an ardent follower of the sports of hunting and fishing, and he had a familiar as well as a scientific knowledge of the haunts and habits of game and fish. He loved, and was loved of, children, friends and relatives, and he was always a welcome and honored guest in the homes that he visited. He spent much of his leisure time at the old Athenaum Club, where he was accustomed to meet many of the most prominent and interesting men of the day, and here on the evening of February 9th, 1906, while he was in the plentitude of his powers, at the height of his fame and usefulness as a judge and one of the best known and most beloved citizens of the State, he suffered a serious stroke of paralysis which removed him from all the active pursuits of life and rendered him an invalid for the remainder of his days. He recovered from this stroke after a time sufficiently to regain the use of his mental faculties

and to be able to receive his friends and to find some solace for his unhappy situation in reading the books of which he was fond, but a second stroke of paralysis in December, 1912, deprived him almost entirely of even these few pleasures, and the following years were years of pathetic existence, from which the stroke which lately caused his death brought release. To many who have become members of the bar in the past ten years, Judge Dennis was known only by tradition, some who practiced before him had almost forgotten that he was still alive, but there are numbers who recall him with admiration and affection and who feel that the memory of this versatile and gifted man, this able, just and impartial judge should be preserved and that the records of this Court of which he was so long a distinguished member, should contain some perpetual testimonial of the love and respect entertained for him by his professional brethren and in behalf of these, we respectfully ask that this minute may be received and given a place among the proceedings of the Court.










May it please your Honors: Appointed twice by the Governor of Maryland a member of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City; elected twice to the same office by the people of Baltimore without opposition from either of the two great political parties; and, after illness prevented his further usefulness on the Bench, awarded by special act of the legislature the full judicial salary so long as he lived, Judge John Upshur Dennis was during his life the subject of marked, peculiar and perhaps unique honor from the State of his birth and from the city where he lived.

The reasons for his hold upon the confidence and affectionate pride of this community are apparent to all who knew him.

Few men have had the intellectual brilliancy, the legal insight, the personal charm in friendly intercourse and the absolute impartiality and fearlessness which distinguished Judge Dennis.

The minute just read, truly pictures the man and shows the reason why we are here to-day to add our tribute, after his death, to the memory of one who was so exceptionally honored in his life.

I esteem it a privilege to second the suggestion that the minute be received and recorded among the records of this Court.


Subject Tracings

Account Books, 1866-1876

Agriculture, 1881-1886

Ake, Frank, fl. 1881-1886

Ake, Rosina [Dennis], (1858-)

Alcoholism, 1872-1884

[UNK] Club, 1884-1886

Baltimore and Ohio RR - Lawsuits, 1881-1882

Baltimore and Ohio RR - Stocks, 1881

Bills and Receipts, 1868-1886

Bratton, Robert Franklin, 1846-1894

Brittingham, Wm. J., 1881-1886

Canals - Florida, 1880s

Canals - South Carolina, 1883-1884

“Cedar Grove,” Somerset Co., 1882-1886

Chesapeake and Ohio R.R., 1882-1884

Childrearing, 1881-1886

Death, 1882-1886

Debt Collection, 1882-1886

Dennis, Charlotte Joyne (1852-)

Dennis, Ellen Rebecca, fl. 1856-1888

Dennis, Frances [Murdoch], fl. 1880s

Dennis, Francis Hutchins (1831-)

Dennis, George Robertson, 1822-1882

Dennis, George Robertson, (1859-)

Dennis, James Upshur (1823-)

Dennis, James Upshur (1870-)

Dennis, John Upshur (1846-1916)

Dennis, Maria Louise (1850-)

Dennis, Mary Pettit, fl. 1881-1886

Dennis, Samuel King (1839-)

Dennis, William Johnston, 1857-1884

Drug Addiction, 1883-1884

East Asia - Travel Descriptions, 1883-1884

Eastern Shore, Md., 1881-1886

Eastern Shore R.R., 1872-1883

Education, 1865-1868

Elections and Election Campaigns - U.S. Senate, 1872

Florida - Canals, 1880s

Ford's Grand Opera House, 1881-1882

Ford, John T., 1829-1894

Garrett, Robert, 1847-1896

German Language - Study of, 1868

Guardianship Accounts, 1866-1876

Insurance - Life, 1872

Inventions, 1885-1886

Johnston Bros. & Co., 1871-1877

Joynes, Walker, fl. 1881-1886

Judicial System, 1882-1886

“Kingston,” Somerset Co., 1882-1886

Law - Equity, 1881-1888

Law - Practice, 1881-1888

Law - Study of, 1865-1868

Lawyers, 1881-1888

Loans, 1880s

Maryland Penitentiary, 1881-1886

Middle East - Travel Descriptions, 1883-1884

Monticello Wine Co., 1881-1886

Moore, Anne Belle [Dennis], 1848-1882

Moore, William, fl. 1881-1886

Neely, John, fl. 1881-1886

Norfolk, Va., 1882-1886

Northern Central R.R., 1873

Northern Pacific R.R., 1873

Oysters, 1882-1886

Patapsco Institute, 1882

Patents, 1880s

Pennsylvania and Baltimore R.R., 1869-1872

Pitts, George, fl. 1881-1886

Politics, Maryland, 1882-1886

Purnell, George, fl. 1880s

Railroads - Baltimore and Ohio R.R., 1881-1882

Railroads - Chesapeake and Ohio R.R., 1882-1884

Railroads - Eastern Shore R.R., 1872-1873

Railroads - Employment, 1880-1886

Railroads - Northern Central R.R., 1873

Railroads - Northern Pacific R.R., 1873

Railroads - Penn. and Balt. R.R., 1869-1872

Railroads - Stocks, 1872-1873; 1881

Real Estate - Somerset Co., 1882-1886

Receipts, 1881-1882

Rent - Somerset Co., 1880s

Richmond, Va., 1882-1886

Schooners - lawsuits, 1881-1886

Scientific American - patents, 1884-1886

Shipping - lawsuits, 1881-1886

Somerset Co., Md., 1871-1888

South Carolina - Canals, 1883-1884

Sports - Hunting, 1881-1886

Stocks, 1871-1888

Suez Canal, 1883-1884

Terrapins, 1880s

Travel - East Asia, 1883-1884

Travel - Middle East, 1883-1884

Unemployment, 1884-1886

United States Senate - Elections, 1872

University of Virginia, 1865-1868

Upshur, George, fl. 1880s

Widowhood, 1882-1886

Wills, 1851

Wine - Prices, 1881-1886

Women - Employment, 1883- 1886