Michigan Lawyers in History

Michigan Lawyers in History--George A. O’Keeffe:1 Pioneer Irish-American Lawyer©

by David G. Chardavoyne

George Alexander O’Keeffe was one of Michigan’s first Irish-American attorneys and a mainstay of the Detroit Bar in the first half of the nineteenth century. O’Keeffe arrived in Detroit in 1820 to join the dozen attorneys already practicing law in the territory of Michigan. In 1824, O’Keeffe became Michigan’s first Irish-American judge when he was appointed by Governor Cass to serve as the first judge of St. Clair County Probate Court. Later, O’Keeffe became the first elected judge of Wayne County Probate Court (1837-40). O’Keeffe also served as St. Clair County prosecutor (1821-23), as an Alderman of the City of Detroit (1831), as a Justice of the Peace (1842), and as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives (1843).

Born in 1792 in Cork, Ireland, O’Keeffe graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. He left Dublin "in disgust but not in disgrace,"2 after engaging fellow students in a duel. O’Keeffe also recounted that "I was educated at two of the best seminaries in England, and I was bred at the Irish bar."3 O’Keeffe left Ireland in 1816 for New York City where he clerked and studied American law for three years.

Upon completing his studies in 1820, O’Keeffe decided to exchange the urban pleasures of New York City for the frontier rigors of the Michigan Territory. O’Keeffe’s reason for choosing Michigan must have been compelling: the trip from New York to Detroit was long and miserable, even by contemporary standards, and Detroit was an unpromising destination to say the least.

In those days before the completion of the Erie Canal, a trip to Detroit from New York could take more than a month. The traveler began by ship up the Hudson River, endured three weeks by stagecoach and on foot over primitive, muddy roads to Buffalo, and, finally, suffered a week or two in a small, shallow-draft ship sailing along the southern shore of Lake Erie and up to Detroit.

In 1820, Detroit was 119 years old but it had only 1200 inhabitants, mostly farmers and fur traders. Clinging to the edge of a great forest, plagued by malaria and other diseases, the community depended on the military garrison and on fur trading for its economic survival. O’Keeffe decided to improve his chances of success by splitting his practice between Detroit and the burgeoning community in St. Clair County. It was in St. Clair County that he began his public career as county prosecutor (for a fee of $5 per year) and where he first served as a judge. However, when, in the late 1820s, it became apparent that Detroit was becoming Michigan’s center for commerce and legal affairs, O’Keeffe concentrated his practice there.

O’Keeffe never married. However, in 1834 his sister Ellen came from Ireland to preside over his home on Woodward Avenue. "Her coming was a great advantage to the domestic life of her brother and her influence was soon apparent in the changed appearance of the bachelor establishment,"4 C. M. Burton wrote. Ellen O’Keeffe, well known in Detroit in her own right, was active in the Catholic educational and charitable organizations of the day, including St. Vincent’s Catholic Female Orphan Asylum. After her brother’s death in 1853, she married Judge Elisha Strong of Detroit.

O’Keeffe was an impressive man both mentally and physically. He was "a finished lawyer and profound jurist, learned, cultured, brilliant, and witty. In stature, he was tall and massive, with large blue eyes, large head, and curly hair."5 A contemporary remembered O’Keeffe as

brim full of wit and repartee...of commanding presence, over six feet tall and straight as a poplar, and with his ample cloak thrown around one shoulder, his right arm free, he would stride up and down, gesticulating and rolling out his adjectives, to the intense wonder and amusement of his audience, myself included.6

He was also memorable for his proficiency "in the vulgar tongue" and for his ability to "pour out a volley of epithets not found in ordinary vocabularies."7

O’Keeffe found himself at the center of many of the legal and political issues that engaged the attention and passion of the people in those years, including statehood, capital punishment, temperance, and Ireland.

In 1835, the Michigan Territory was eager to become a state, but the national government would not add another northern, free state until a southern, slave state could be added as well. The Democratic majority in Michigan, led by Territorial Secretary (and later Governor) Stevens T. Mason, initially argued that, having met the criteria for statehood set out in the Northwest Ordinance, Michigan should just declare itself to be a state and be done with it.8 However, when it became clear that President Jackson, a Democrat, and Democratic nominee Martin Van Buren would not support Michigan’s position for fear of losing votes in neighboring states, Michigan Democrats, including O’Keeffe, submitted to, and supported on the election stump, the position of the national Democratic Party that only Congress had the authority to confer statehood. The national Democrats prevailed, and, by act of Congress, Michigan entered the Union in June 1836, paired with Arkansas.

O’Keeffe was also drawn into the struggle to abolish capital punishment in Michigan. The original statutes of the territory punished murder by hanging, and O’Keeffe represented two of the only three people to be executed under that law. Later, as a member of the Legislature, he worked tirelessly and argued forcefully to replace capital punishment in Michigan with life imprisonment.

In September 1821, O’Keeffe was one of four attorneys assigned by the Supreme Court to represent Ke-wa-bish-kim, a member of the Menominee Nation who was charged with the murder of a trapper, Charles Ulrick, at Green Bay9 in a dispute over a stolen fur hat. After a one-day trial in the Detroit Council House, which stood at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Randolph Street, a jury convicted Ke-was-bish-kim of murder.

O’Keeffe wrote and argued a lengthy motion to set aside the verdict, but without success. Judge James Witherell sentenced Ke-wa-bish-kim and his co-defendant, Ka-taw-kah, to death.10 Despite the efforts of O’Keeffe and his co-counsel to obtain executive clemency for their clients, Ke-wa-bish-kim and Ka-taw-kah were hanged on December 27, 1821, before a large crowd that was impressed with the prisoners’ firm and collected manner.

The next, and last, execution under Michigan law took place nine years later. In June 1830, O’Keeffe was retained by Stephen G. Simmons, a 50-year-old, educated New Yorker reduced by drinking to running a seedy tavern about 15 miles from Detroit on the Chicago Road.11 Simmons was accused of murdering his wife, Livana Simmons, with his fists in a drunken outburst of anger.

At trial in the new Detroit Courthouse (later the first state capitol), Simmons, a literate and charming man when sober, strikingly tall, robust, and handsome, presented a compelling picture of remorse. Drawing on that impression, O’Keeffe pleaded fervently for a verdict of manslaughter, arguing that a drunken man could not form an intent to kill and that Simmons should not be hanged for a killing he did not intend. However, Simmons’s fate was sealed by his own children, who testified that when he was drunk, which was often, he beat their mother (as well as tavern guests and his neighbors) mercilessly. The jury found Simmons guilty of murder, and Chief Judge William Woodbridge sentenced him to be hanged.

Simmons’s execution was a remarkable and troubling spectacle. The sheriff, George Knapp, resigned rather than carry out the sentence, and Simmons was led to his death by the coroner, fellow tavern owner "Uncle Ben" Woodworth. A crowd of 2,000 men, women, and children filled grandstands erected by Uncle Ben for the occasion on Gratiot Avenue. The festive crowd, serenaded by a military band, ate and drank merrily waiting for the show. However, by all accounts, the crowd had an unexpected reaction to the event. Simmons died with a dignity that shamed the merry-makers, and the crowd dispersed with a feeling of disgust for the proceeding instead of for the murderer, Simmons.

The public reaction to Simmons’s hanging gave the capital punishment abolition movement in Michigan a strong kick-start, but the first attempts to abolish capital punishment in the state were unsuccessful. An attempt to abolish the death penalty failed at the Constitutional Convention of 1835. The first legislative attempt, in 1843, was also ultimately unsuccessful, but its initial success in the State House of Representatives demonstrated that abolition was not a hopeless cause.

In that year, the opponents of capital punishment in the House of Representatives were well organized and eager to join battle over this issue. With the support of O’Keeffe’s "powerful and eloquent appeals in favor of the bill,"12 the House did vote to abolish capital punishment (35 to 15). However, the Senate refused to concur, and the bill died. The proponents did not give up, however, and three years later, in 1846, Michigan became the first state, and the first English-speaking government, to abolish capital punishment as the penalty for first-degree murder.

Although he emigrated in 1816, O’Keeffe retained his emotional ties to Ireland throughout his life. In the early 1840s, O’Keeffe joined with other Detroiters sympathetic to the cause of Ireland to form the Detroit Repeal Association. That organization was inspired by the Loyal National Repeal Association founded in Ireland in 1841 by Daniel O’Connell, "the Liberator." The goals of both the National and Detroit Repeal Associations were to bring about the repeal of the Act of Union of 1800, which ended the limited autonomy that Ireland had enjoyed since 1782. Although O’Connell’s efforts failed, repeal associations continued to be popular in America for many years, raising money for the Irish poor and agitating for "Irish freedom by means strictly moral and legal."13

An invalid for the last years of his life, O’Keeffe died in the early hours of June 16, 1853, at his home in Detroit. At a special meeting of the Detroit Bar later that morning, Judge James Van Dyke remembered O’Keeffe’s "prevailing sense of truth and honor" and emphasized that "even the strongest personal enmities never knowingly wrung from him a thought tinctured by injustice or lacking in the elements of high-toned truth and probity."

Van Dyke predicted that

when the recollection of his more brilliant and showy qualities had faded, these higher attributes would still live fresh in the minds of his associates, and preserve the memory of him who was through life a warm friend, a courteous lawyer, and an honorable and kind-hearted gentleman.14


1. I have adopted the spelling of O’Keeffe used in the records of the Michigan Supreme Court. However, other spellings, such as "O’Keefe" and "O’Kief" are common. I also caution the reader that no account of Michigan in O’Keeffe’s time can claim to be totally accurate. Few official records survive, the newspapers of the day were wildly partisan and untrustworthy, and the personal accounts of O’Keeffe’s contemporaries were written 40 or 50 years after the events described.

2. Palmer, Friend, Early Days in Detroit, p 482 (Detroit 1906).

3. Stewart, Aura P., "Recollections of Aura P. Stewart, of St. Clair County, of Things Relating to the Early Settlement of Michigan," Michigan Historical and Pioneer Collection ("M.H.P.C."), Vol 13, p 353 (1888).

4. Burton, C. M., The City of Detroit, Vol 2, p 1479 (Detroit 1922).

5. Michigan Historical Commission, Michigan Biographies, Vol 2, p 157 (Lansing 1924).

6. Palmer, supra, at p 482.

7. Taylor, Rev. George, "First Visit to Michigan," M.H.P.C., Vol 6, p 15 (1883).

8. Also delaying statehood was the question of boundaries, which resulted in the bloodless Toledo War with Ohio and the subsequent acquisition of the Upper Peninsula.

9. Until 1836, the Michigan Territory included what is now the state of Wisconsin.

10. For an account of the hanging, see The Detroit Gazette, December 28, 1821. Ka-taw-kah, convicted of the murder of an army doctor, William Madison, was represented by attorney James Doty who later, as the governor of Wisconsin, was influential in the abolition of capital punishment in that state in 1853.

11. The location of Simmons’s tavern, on what is now Michigan Avenue in the city of Wayne, is the subject of a plaque erected by the Michigan Historical Commission. The circus atmosphere of the proceeding was criticized in the North-Western Journal, September 29, 1830, p 2.

12. The Democratic (Detroit) Free Press, January 30, 1843, p 3.

13. Id., February 11, 1844, p 3.

14. The Detroit Daily Free Press, June 18, 1853, p 3.

© 2000 David G. Chardavoyne

David G. Chardavoyne is a sole practicing attorney in Farmington Hills concentrating on matters relating to business competition (antitrust, advertising, and trade regulation) and on complex civil litigation. He is a former chair of the State Bar Section on Antitrust, Franchising, and Trade Regulation and is currently co-chair of the State Bar Special Committee on the Quality of Life in the Profession.

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