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Benjamin Abney: Scenes from a Courtroom
Benjamin Abney may not be a name that jumps out of the South Carolina history books; however, he certainly played a significant role behind the scenes in much of Columbia's history from around 1880, when he was admitted to the South Carolina bar, until his death in 1921.
Abney represented numerous Columbia-area municipal enterprises including Columbia Water Power Company, the Columbia Canal, the early incarnations of South Carolina Electric and Gas, the Commission to Wind Up the Affairs of the State Dispensary, Southern Railway Company, and many textile mills throughout South Carolina. He worked with some of the city's most powerful and, at times, infamous businessmen including local mill magnates W. B. S. Whaley and Lewis Parker; northern industrialists and mill financiers William Sprague, Aretas Blood, and Charles K. Oliver; prominent Columbia banker and investor Edwin R. Robertson; Governor Cole Blease; and South Carolina Attorney General J. Fraser Lyon. In addition, Abney maintained a successful private practice through which he represented clients in cases pertaining to insurance claims, bankruptcy proceedings, divorce proceedings, estate settlement, and property law.
One of the few existing images of
Benjamin L. Abney (1858-1921).
(From Abney's copy of J. C. Hemphill's Men of Mark in South Carolina, Volume IV, 1909).
Abney practiced law during a particularly interesting time in Columbia's history. He played a significant role in the community's shift from a more agrarian way of life to industrialized urbanization through his involvement in the utility companies, mills, and railroad industry.
Born near the Saluda River in Edgefield County on February 25, 1859, Abney attended Newberry College (the school's catalog shows that he entered as a freshman in 1872 and was no longer in attendance by 1876) and the University of Virginia (circa 1877-79). After admission to the South Carolina bar in December 1880, Abney briefly practiced law in Edgefield County at his older brother John's firm, but after only one year, he followed his brother to Columbia. John Abney moved to New York in 1893, and Benjamin Abney continued to practice law in Columbia.
Early in his career, Abney was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives (Richland County) for three terms from 1886-1891. While he never sought political office beyond this position, he remained politically active during his professional life by the very nature of the cases he tried and his participation on special committees.
In the 1890s Abney was involved in some of the most significant cases to cross the South Carolina bench. He dealt with some of the most pressing issues of the day and made a name for himself as one of the more adept and facile lawyers in the state. Abney, not always on the "right" side of the law, addressed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, monopolies, interstate commerce, the South Carolina Dispensary System, insurance fraud, child labor in textile mills, and the development and expansion of electrical power utility companies.
Abney's first real challenge as an attorney came when he agreed to represent the state's newly formed utility companies. Central to the effective use of the Columbia Canal was the operation and management of the utility companies that endeavored to harness and sell its power. Numerous individuals and corporations tried, most unsuccessfully, to incorporate power and utility companies in Columbia; Abney was directly involved in several of the more successful ventures. He played a prominent role in shepherding the Congaree Gas and Electric Company, the Columbia Electric Street Railway, Light and Power Company, and the Columbia Water Power Company through their various mergers, assuring their growth and the use of the Columbia Canal.
In December 1887, William H. Gibbes, John P. Thomas Jr., John T. Sloan Jr., Dr. T. T. Moore, and Benjamin Abney incorporated the Congaree Gas and Electric Company, the first Columbia company whose charter authorized the generation and distribution of electricity. In 1891 the company built a steam plant on Gates Street powered by the canal to furnish power for the first electric lights on Columbia's streets.
That same year, Abney, as the company's attorney, helped the organization merge with the Columbia Electric Street and Suburban Railway and Electric Power Company to become the Columbia Electric Street Railway, Light and Power Company.
Although the Columbia Electric Street Railway, Light and Power Company utilized the power of the Columbia Canal, it did not have any controlling interest in it. Rather, in 1891 George Wallace of Boston, Massachusetts, and Aretas Blood of Manchester, New Hampshire, formed the Columbia Water Power Company for the purpose of purchasing the canal from the state. Wallace and Blood, through the Columbia Water Power Company, intended to utilize power from the canal to operate the textile mills along the river. Abney acted as counsel for the Columbia Water Power Company. The organization met with success; in 1901, the canal and the Water Power Company provided the water power to the country's first electrically operated mill, Olympia Mills.
Front-page headline from The State, Saturday, 3 Dec. 1910. The Merger Suit garnered first-page press nearly every day of the trial.
Meanwhile, the Columbia Electric Street Railway, Light and Power Company, with Abney as its counsel, began the gradual process of absorbing small, local companies formed to generate power or furnish gas or transportation services. And in 1905 it acquired the Columbia Water Power Company, thus giving the organization a controlling interest in the canal.
Abney also represented a number of the mills in the state, many of which were controlled by the same northern interests that controlled the canal, the Columbia Water Power Company, and other utility companies. Among the mills Abney represented were Columbia Mills and its holding company Mount Vernon Cotton Duck Company, Granby Mills, Olympia Mills, Palmetto Mills, Parker Mills, Richland Mills, Saxe Gotha Mills, Union Mills, Pelzer Manufacturing Company, and Saluda Manufacturing Company.
Abney represented the organizations at a time when child labor opponents started to become vocal, and mill management had to respond. The response was almost always to resist. Several mill presidents fought labor regulations such as the child labor law of 1903 and the 1907 law reducing the workweek hours to sixty. Abney represented the mills in their fight to continue to employ children.
In 1897 Abney was appointed Division Counsel for the Southern Railway in South Carolina. His duties included appointing local attorneys in other counties and handling litigation throughout the state. Of great significance was the role Abney played in the seminal 1910 "Merger Suit," that of the State of South Carolina v. The Southern Railway, Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad Company, South Carolina and Georgia Railway Extension Company, Carolina Midland Railway Company, and the Southern Railway (Carolina Division).
This was one of the most publicized cases of Abney's career, and its reach extended beyond South Carolina as it directly addressed issues such as monopolies, competition, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The State of South Carolina (its case argued by Attorney General J. Fraser Lyon) claimed that the 1902 acquisition by Southern Railway of the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad Company, the South Carolina and Georgia Railway Extension Company, and the Carolina Midland Railway Company was illegal and gave Southern Railway an unfair competitive advantage and a monopoly over the rail industry in the state. Lyon asserted that the company absorbed competing and parallel lines of rail, an act forbidden by the state's constitution. As a result, Southern Railway acquired a monopoly and controlled the freight rates across the state.
Abney argued that the result of the merger was positive: the fact that short rail lines had been tied or united into longer ones gave an advantage to shippers in that they no longer had to pay separate rates for each leg of a journey, that goods could be shipped more effectively and quickly, and that it was more cost effective. Additionally, the merger opened up trade throughout South Carolina and made the port of Charleston far more accessible from the inland areas than it ever had been before. The State newspaper covered the trial extensively and gave it front page coverage on almost every day of the month-long trial. In the end it was a victory for Southern Railway, Abney, and commerce.
Abney took on another significant client during the first decade of the twentieth century: the State of South Carolina. In 1907, following the repeal of the infamous Dispensary System, Abney was appointed to the State Dispensary Commission (or the Commission to Wind Up the Affairs of the State Dispensary). The group was charged with closing out the business and property of the State Dispensary by disposing of goods and property, collecting all debts, and by paying from said debts any money owed. Abney worked extensively with Attorney General J. Fraser Lyon between 1907 and 1913. He represented the state in cases against the Carolina Glass Company, the Richland Distilling Company, and the Wilson Distributing Company among others.
Abney compiled one of the finest private libraries in South Carolina. At the time of his death in 1921, Abney's library included circa 10,000 volumes. Detail of Abney's bookplate,
featuring his family crest.
Abney never married; although he tried some of the state's more sensational cases, he remained out of the limelight in his personal life. To many of his associates he seemed singularly focused on his career. Abney had his passions, though. Throughout his life, he compiled what was considered one of the finest private libraries in South Carolina, particularly on legal matters. The collection consisted of many volumes pertaining to South Carolina, business, and the legal system. At the time of his death, it may have contained around 10,000 volumes. After his brother's death, John Abney donated the remaining contents of the library to the University of South Carolina where it was divided between the law school and the South Caroliniana Library. Many of the books can still be found on the shelves, including a bound volume of pamphlets pertaining to transportation, railroad law, and other miscellaneous topics.
In a strange and seemingly inexplicable twist to his life, Abney lived for many years with Coleman L. Blease and his wife Lillie. Abney and Blease were cousins; however, the two seemed to share a contentious kinship. It appeared that Abney was closer to Lillie Blease than to his cousin. Despite the obvious tension, Abney moved in with the couple- into the governor's mansion - in 1911 at the start of Blease's first term as governor of South Carolina. Curiously, Lillie Blease charged Abney for rent and other expenses.
In 1912 Abney deeded a property in Columbia to Lillie, and the Bleases and Abney moved into it after the governor's term concluded. Abney continued to pay rent despite the fact that he owned an estate on the outskirts of Columbia as well as several properties downtown.
There is little in Abney's personal papers that reveals his reasoning behind living with the Bleases and entering into any sort of financial agreement with Lillie Blease. All of this information came to a strange culmination shortly after Abney's death in November of 1921 when Lillie Blease sued Abney's estate. She claimed that she had taken special care of Abney for many years, that she nursed him through illnesses and prepared elaborate meals to his specifications - acted as his nursemaid, servant, and sometimes almost as a wife.
Mrs. Blease claimed that Abney stated that he would provide for her in his will and compensate her for her efforts and care and that she would never have to worry (a peculiar statement given the fact that she was married and ostensibly "taken care of" by Cole Blease). She felt that she deserved, and claimed that Abney had promised her, $100,000 (despite the fact that Abney had included her in his will, and that, over the years, he had loaned her money and presented her with many gifts - especially expensive jewelry). She presented John Abney, the estate's executor, with a bill for that amount a few months after Abney's death. When John Abney refused to pay, Lillie Blease held up the probation of the will and brought forth a lawsuit.
Over the course of the trial, many Columbians testified to the fact that Abney was a difficult and curmudgeonly man, prone to much profanity and hostility, and that this was the least Lillie Blease deserved for the years of harassment she endured. Cole Blease testified and claimed that Abney had never even been invited to live with them; rather, "he came to my home one day to dine and never did leave." Ultimately, the court ruled in Lillie Blease's favor and, while it did not award her $100,000, on April 27, 1923, the judge ordered the Abney estate to compensate Lillie Blease $25,000.
Ironically, Lillie Blease v. the Estate of Benjamin Abney posthumously pulled the very private man into the limelight. As an attorney, Abney had won countless cases for his clients through the use of skill, force, and cunning. He was a man who had lived out his life in the courtroom. Yet probably even he could not have envisioned that his most controversial and sensational case would be one in which he assumed the role of hapless defendant.
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