Martin Jerome Keogh was born in New Ross, Co. Wexford in Ireland on Sept. 11, 1853. His parents, Margaret (Phelan) and John Keogh, both died when he was young; he was raised by an uncle in Waterford and educated by the Christian Brothers, where he read enough American history to learn that it was a place where the “industrious and ambitious” could succeed. A frequent visitor to the waterfront, he met the captain of a sailing vessel who was a Quaker; Martin persuaded the captain to take him aboard his vessel heading to America. Arriving in New York in 1869, he came with no letters of introduction and very little money, but it is said he had “a quick mind and a jovial and happy disposition.” He went to work at once, taking any available job – as a clerk in shops, as a reporter for the NY Herald, saving whatever he could. He eventually enrolled in NYU Law School, paying the tuition out of his savings and continuing to work to support himself, graduating with honors in 1875 as the valedictorian of his class, and was admitted to the bar in that same year.
He immediately set up an office in the city and, after a time, moved to New Rochelle, NY, and opened a second office there. Historians say that Martin was tall and thin, “with a piercing eye,” exuding an attitude of confidence and intelligence, with strong “oratorical abilities” and legal acumen. When he first came to New Rochelle, Keogh didn’t have enough money for a complete outfit of clothing to wear to court. As he told the story on himself, he “canvassed several stores for credit unsuccessfully until finally finding one whose owner gave him credit, saying ‘pay me when you can.’ " The debt was paid and the two men formed a lifelong friendship.
In 1880, once his law practice was firmly established, he married a New York girl named Mary Church Whiting, one of three daughters born to Matilda Ann (Church) and Dr. Alexander Backus Whiting. Martin and his wife had a son, Alexander, ten months later and a second son, Martin Jr on Feb. 22, 1885; Mary died when Martin Jr was born and Martin was left with two tiny children. He moved to New Rochelle and raised the boys there, while keeping his law practice going. In 1892, he was elected on the Democratic ticket as a Presidential Elector from New Rochelle and cast a ballot for Grover Cleveland for President.
He is said to have taken on any case, whether civil of criminal, with clients both rich and poor. He represented a defendant in fourteen capital cases and not one of his clients was convicted, which earned him a state-wide reputation as an “exceedingly effective” practitioner at the bar. His response to this fact was always that “all the men were innocent and were acquitted accordingly.” He served as Corporation Counsel in New Rochelle for a time, but found it difficult to also maintain his law practice, so he turned down every other offer for public office that later came his way – for Governor of New York and for the US Senate among others.
An article in the Westchester County Historical Bulletin (v. 24, #4, Oct. 1948, p. 128-132) gives a picture of Keogh as the defense lawyer in the Cash murder trial: “Not so much as the scraping of a boot heel was heard in the courtroom as Keogh spoke… After every possible point had been considered, he concluded with an appeal so stirring, so ringing, so thrilling that every person present, except for the District Attorney, sat forward and held his breath. No such burst of passion had ever been heard in that room before… A great criminal lawyer standing before the jury box with a life in his hands has the unique opportunity to bestow all the best gifts ever bestowed upon man: Genius, Brains, Passion, Heart, Soul, Eloquence, a figure instinct with grace and virility, a face blazing with determination to snatch a man from the most awful of dooms…. There never has been a summing up like that in my time before, not even by Keogh… My God, that was a great speech. He is the smartest man in Westchester County. He will be in the US Senate yet.” The defendant was acquitted by the jury.
Martin married Kitty Emmet in May of 1894, having “accumulated a fortune” and bought a place in New Rochelle; a few months later he was nominated by the Democrats as a candidate for judge in the second judicial district in Westchester County. Keogh, who had been President of the Westchester Bar Association, was the only Democrat elected – the Republicans won all the other seats on the ballot that year. He joined the bench on Jan. 1, 1895 for a fourteen-year term, giving up his lucrative practice for a much smaller salary.
At the time his first term as a judge was ending, the Democrats were threatening not to re-nominate him because he had refused to appoint unqualified persons to various commissions and to hand out political patronage. When the Republicans heard about this, they decided to nominate him themselves, forcing the Democrats to change their position, thus leading to Keogh’s nomination in 1908 by both parties and re-election to a second term. All the newspapers in the area supported this nomination, saying “the Bar has been deprived of a gifted son so that the Bench might be enriched.” Martin made a speech of acceptance at the joint nominating convention, saying, “You have sounded a note in favor of a non-partisan judiciary which will re-echo throughout the district for all time.” As described by a contemporary historian, he is said to have paused several times “as if the grandeur and sentiment of the occasion was overcoming him, and he had difficulty controlling his emotions.”
The New Rochelle School and Kindergarten (now the Thornton-Donovan School) was begun by Judge Keogh in 1901. In 1903, Martin started the New Rochelle Peoples Forum, bringing “numerous distinguished speakers” to the town, and it continued for some 25 years. In 1905, he was a founder of the Westchester County Legal Aid Society, persuading the leading lawyers in the area to provide free legal advice to those too poor to pay and to help immigrants applying for citizenship. At the same time, he made sure that the court’s legal forms and instructions were translated into Italian, the dominant group then needing assistance. Members of the Westchester County Bar Association presented Keogh with a portrait of himself. The New York University Law School gave him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1906. He invited a group of Christian Brothers in 1916 to start a school in New Rochelle called the Iona School on an 18-acre campus that eventually became Iona College.
A year later, the NY Times noted that the Judge had three sons overseas during WW I, and quoted their father as saying “My sons are all afire with patriotism.” A little court house was built at the back of the Keogh property around 1908 and it was used when necessary for Special Term cases on Saturdays or when the courts were closed; it proved especially convenient in 1919 while the Judge was recovering from a broken hip. The building was still standing the last time we visited New Rochelle and said to be the only private courthouse in America!
Although he made it a point to “keep out of politics,” Martin always remained involved with the cause of Irish independence. For example, in May of 1897, he spoke at a gathering in New York commemorating the memory of Robert Emmet, sponsored by the Irish Volunteer Regiment and Clan na Gael, a militant nationalist society which pledged to liberate Ireland by force if necessary. Keogh’s speech paid “a glowing tribute to the brave men who died in the rising of 1798.” Although anti-Irish prejudices were strong in mainstream America at the time, he supported John Redmond in 1910, who came over to raise funds for English parliamentary candidates who supported home rule and self-government in Ireland.
Friends and adversaries testified to the fact that Martin treated everyone appearing before him equally regardless of their wealth, religion or political affiliation. The Westchester Bar Association honored him at a dinner in September of 1922 just prior to his retirement; a few weeks later, the NY Times wrote an editorial (18 Sept. 1922) praising him, remarking on the “pervasive affectionate feeling towards him” as a judge, as a man and as a former member of the Westchester Bar. He formally retired in January of 1923 when he reached the age limit of 70, ending a career of 27 years.
Unfortunately he had a stroke not long afterwards, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to walk. In the subsequent years, he returned every year to the court house in a car to see his old friends, each trip described in detail by the NY Times. The court would be shut down and all the lawyers, judges, jurors, clerks and county officials came outside to greet the Judge. His death on Oct. 24, 1928, surrounded by his large family, was noted in the NY Times in a long obituary, He was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in New Rochelle.