Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Frederick Lawrence Pomeroy (1855-1906): scofflaw or scapegoat?

by Nancy Maliwesky

Note: APHGA has joined NewYorkHeritage.org, an online research site for New York history offering collections from New York libraries, historical societies, museums and archives. View our online collection here. Nancy wrote about the collection last year after completing its transcription. – Susan Hughes

Completing the scanning and transcription of the Frederick Lawrence Pomeroy correspondence in our collection for publication on the NewYorkHeritage.org site, I have been trying to identify a theme that would best illustrate this archive. Initially hoping these letters would provide answers to the many questions surrounding the legacy of Frederick (“Fred”) Pomeroy, it seems they pose more questions than answers.  

Frederick Lawrence Pomeroy, born 15 Jan 1855 in Cortland, Cortland County, New York, to James Clark Pomeroy and Olive M. Mills, made a career working in the railroad industry. Early on, he worked as a general passenger agent for the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad, then as general freight and ticket agent with the Ithaca and Cortland Railroad, and eventually become an Assistant General Traffic Manager for the New York Central Railroad.  On 25 Oct 1906, Pomeroy, along with the New York Central Railroad, was convicted of granting freight rebates to the American Sugar Refining trust in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.  New York Central Railroad was fined $102,000. Pomeroy was personally fined $6,000, the equivalent of about $158,000 today. (For comparison, in 1906 the average worker made between $200 and $400 per year. While a manager like Pomeroy probably commanded a higher salary, even an engineer could only expect about $5,000.[1]) The verdict was widely reported in the news and various trade publications. Tragically, Pomeroy died of a heart attack one month later on 26 Nov 1906 at age 51 while fighting the conviction.

President Theodore Roosevelt earned the nickname “Trust Buster” for his crusade against the exploitive practices of certain captains of industry. But, he also sought to enact laws that would protect workers forced to carry out employer’s policies that were in direct violation of the law, especially when doing so resulted in no personal benefit to those employees. Roosevelt felt that this case in particular was an example of the type of miscarriage of justice he sought to eradicate. In Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union Address, he voiced his disapproval of the fine imposed on Pomeroy: 

“…I am forced to the conclusion, in a case in which the proof is so clear and the facts are so flagrant, it is the duty of the court to fix a penalty which shall in some degree be commensurate with the gravity of the offense. As between the two defendants, in my opinion, the principal penalty should be imposed on the corporation. The traffic manager in this case, presumably, acted without any advantage to himself and without any interest in the transaction, either by the direct authority or in accordance with what he understood to be the policy or the wishes of his employer.
'The sentence of this court in this case is, that the defendant Pomeroy, for each of the six offenses upon which he has been convicted, be fined the sum of $1,000, making six fines, amounting in all to the sum of $6,000; and the defendant, The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, for each of the six crimes of which it has been convicted, be fined the sum of $18,000, making six fines amounting in the aggregate to the sum of $108,000, and judgment to that effect will be entered in this case.[2]'" 
Roosevelt pardoned Pomeroy posthumously, assuring that his estate was not liable for the fines.

Our blog readers may be interested to learn that Pomeroy was the nephew of Lemuel Strong Pomeroy[3] (1812-1879) and Dr. Theodore Clapp Pomeroy (1817-1897) and thus a cousin of Harry Dwight Pomeroy (1866-1937).  Captain Stephen Pomeroy, Frederick’s grandfather, was born 6 Aug 1775 in Southampton, Hampshire Co., MA and settled with his wife Hannah “Polly” Clapp in Otisco, Onondaga County, NY by 1806, where he died 23 Dec 1863.  This family has strong roots in the Onondaga, Cortland and Oswego County, New York areas.

In an interesting footnote to previous research published in our blog[4], the pulpit desk made by A.R. & E. L. Shaw of Boston, MA, which resides at the First Presbyterian Church in Cortland, NY with the inscription
was given to the church by Frederick and his sister Louisa Maria Pomeroy Hill in memory of their parents who were members of that church.
Next week: A closer look at the contents of the Frederick Lawrence Pomeroy collection.


Word spread quickly about Pomeroy’s untimely death. The collection contains a number of letters expressing shock and disbelief both from within the company and from outside business contacts. Frederick Lawrence Pomeroy Collection. Image 2010.0307.1.20