A Frolic and Detour

Dear Students: This message does not relate to grades, commencement, or any current events whatsoever. Depending on your perspective the message is therefore either (1) an essential break or (2) frivolous. I choose the former. Let’s have story time. Read all the way to the end for a surprise happy twist.

Today is the 180th birthday of Professor Peter J. Foote, one of the very earliest members of the law faculty. He was born on April 1, 1840 in County Monaghan, Ireland. His mother died during the famine, and family lore has it that his father collapsed and died on her grave. Peter and his sister emigrated to the U.S. as very young children, arriving in Boston. Shortly thereafter he moved to New York City to live with his uncle, a parish priest.

Anti-immigrant feelings were quite high at the time, especially regarding the Irish. Peter’s extended family attempted to cope with this by changing their last name from “Cush” to “Foote.” (Cush is Gaelic for a style of riding boot or footwear; the family added an “e” to Anglicize it further).

Peter attended St. John’s College (now Fordham University) and later moved to Chicago to teach at St. Mary of the Lake College, near the site of the current Water Tower. No law school that was accessible to him would admit Catholic students, so he “read the law” and was admitted to the bar in Illinois in 1867.

Peter Foote was extremely quick-witted and gregarious. In addition to practicing law in Chicago, he edited and largely wrote the first subscription Catholic magazine in the Midwest, “The Month.” It seems likely that this is how he came to the attention of Father Sorin when he sought to establish a law program at Notre Dame in 1868-69.

Law studies began at Notre Dame in February 1869, and during the 1869-70 and 1870-71 academic years Peter Foote was “the” professor of law. The number of law students was in the single digits, and the University struggled to gain a foothold in those early years. Professor Foote helped lay the groundwork for legal education to continue during some very doubtful times.

Chicago Courthouse ca. 1860

He married and returned to Chicago, where he was appointed to the bench at a variety of municipal court levels. Things didn’t go very well. Foote insisted on treating the Irish defendants more leniently than the police preferred, and he received quite a bit of negative press as a result. Stories of his courtroom antics and quips were very widely published. He was not careful with his own finances, made some poor choices in friendships, and some bad decisions regarding his conduct on the bench. He was indicted for conspiracy and, while he was acquitted, the judge admonished his behavior.

Two months later, Foote was hospitalized. To give you a sense of newspaper reportage at the time, rumors were published that he had a drinking problem, and an article in the Chicago Tribune opened with these lines: “Peter Foote is dying. Justice Foote is already dead.” Newspaper reporters hounded the residence, asking his young children for any news. He died in December 1888 and was buried following a small private funeral. One obituary stated that he left “five or six children” (there were actually seven), and another article took pains to report that the family “was not well provided for.” 

If you have read this far, then you deserve your happy ending. Just this morning I heard from Peter James Foote, the great-great grandson of Professor Foote. The family has done well in a very wide variety of careers and locations over the years. I hope to invite him to campus when we resume our normal studies, so that he can see the legacy that his great-great grandfather helped create and the community of Notre Dame Lawyers and students that might not exist if he hadn’t been present at the founding.

Your work will influence people you will never know. Make it count.

Stay well, NDLS.


For sources and additional reading see p. 2

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