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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: William Clarke was a first for Manchester

November 25. 2013 4:30PM

A little south of the Bell family plot in the Valley Cemetery in Manchester are the simple granite monuments of two brothers who made a big impact on Manchester in the 19th Century, William Cogswell Clarke and John Badger Clarke.

Their father was Greenleaf Clarke, a prosperous farmer of Atkinson, New Hampshire. He was also a master mason who worked on the construction of several business buildings in nearby Haverhill, Massachusetts.

The family names of Cogswell, Greenleaf and Badger were interwoven in the Clarke family genealogy. These families traced their origins back to the time of the Puritans in Massachusetts in the early 1600s. Greenleaf and his wife Julia Cogswell Clarke had five sons and one daughter, and all would find notable success in life.

Born in 1810, William Cogswell Clarke was the eldest son of the family. As a boy he received a solid education at Atkinson Academy. This school had been co-founded in 1767 by William's maternal grandfather Doctor William Cogswell. Originally a boy's school, it began admitting girls in 1791. Julia Cogswell Clarke served for a time as the school's preceptress. It was written of her that, "She was a woman of great intellectual powers, (and) a fine scholar…" Atkinson Academy still exists as the town's public elementary school. Its 1803 building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

William graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1832. He served as principal of Gilmanton Academy for a year and then studied at the Dane Law School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He apprenticed with attorneys in Gilmanton and Meredith Bridge (now Laconia), New Hampshire, and was admitted to the bar in 1836. He practiced law in Meredith Bridge and in 1840, when Belknap County was founded he was named the first county solicitor.

William moved to Manchester in 1844, where he set up a law practice. Samuel Newell Bell was his apprentice and also his partner for a short time. William served on the committee that petitioned the state Legislature for a city charter for Manchester. This was granted, and Manchester officially became a city in 1846. William served as chief of the fire department from 1846-1848, was city solicitor from 1849-1850, and Judge of Probate for Hillsborough County from 1852-1856. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1854 and was elected alderman in 1858.

A believer in the original principals of the Democratic Party, William Clarke was prominent in the state organization for several years. However, when the Civil War began, he wholeheartedly supported the Union cause. He spoke at many public meetings around New Hampshire, urging Democrats to put party differences aside and to unite in defense of the Union. A leader of what was called the "War Democrats," William was one of the founders of the short-lived Union Party, which presented its own slate of candidates in state elections in 1862 and 1863. On June 17, 1863, a massive pro-Union gathering took place in Concord, New Hampshire, attended by around 30,000 people. William was given the honor of calling the assembly to order.

Later in 1863 William was named New Hampshire's attorney general, and would serve in this position for the remainder of his life. After this appointment, he permanently withdrew from active involvement in politics and also gave up his law practice to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. As the chief prosecutor William Clarke was known for his conscientious and balanced approach to the law.

According to a biographical sketch published in 1882, "Recognizing the semi-judicial character of his office, he did not allow the zeal of the advocate to outweigh more important considerations, and, in cases where a minor offense had been committed for the first time, he frequently caused the indictments to be suspended, so as to give the culprit both a chance and a stimulus to reform. Hardened or flagrant criminals he pursued with a rigor demanded by the interests of justice, leaving no stone unturned in his efforts to secure their conviction."

William handled several high profile murder trials and with these and other cases he was extremely thorough in preparing evidence and in presenting the state's arguments.

Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — The formidable Clarke brothers, part 2..

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

History Manchester

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