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Who is Judge John Erskine?

(The following article was written by Charles Lyon, a professional photographer and resident of the Grant Park neighborhood.  The article is not complete due to continuing research so please check back to get updated information about Judge Erskine.)

Hidden near the southwestern edge of Grant Park is a historical and artistic treasure that has, unfortunately, suffered years of neglect and is now in critical need of revitalization. The Erskine Fountain is on the verge of ruin, and the Grant Park Conservancy is working to restore its Victorian beauty and functionality - and recall the memory of Judge John Erskine.

Judge Erskine served as the judge of the Federal District Court of Georgia during the crucial and devastating Reconstruction period following the Civil War. He is remembered today as a defender of individual property rights and a moderating voice at a time of still-deadly acrimony between North and South. But none of his judicial legacy is reflected on the monument dedicated to him.

Curiously, the designer and sculptor of the fountain - J. Massey Rhind - chose to feature two motifs - astrology and the sea. All twelve signs of the zodiac are carved into the semi-circular stone bench that curves along the back side of the bronze fountain. And those elements are combined with whales and fish - some carved into the stone and others cast from bronze.

The connection between the zodiac and Judge Erskine isn’t clear, but his relationship to water is. Before he became a schoolteacher, lawyer and judge in America, John Erskine was a British sailor who traveled around the globe in the 1820s and 30s. Biographies of Erskine suggest his exposure to other cultures and other peoples around the world taught him to be tolerant and understanding - and that is apparently the spirit that governs his tenure as a judge.

He was admitted to the bar in Florida in 1846, and unlike lawyers today, he did not study formally at a university or law school. His legal career in Georgia began in Newnan in the 1850s and by the outbreak of the Civil War, he, his wife and daughter settled in Atlanta.

Erskine did not believe in the cause of the Confederacy and was against secession. Nevertheless, he stayed in Atlanta throughout the war and continued his legal work. With the war over in 1865, Erskine moved briefly to New York where President Andrew Johnson appointed him to preside over the Federal Court for the District of Georgia and sent him back South.

Universally, Erskine’s biographers portray him as a man of integrity and fairness, especially in disputes over property rights. During the Civil War, he spoke out against Confederate seizures of property and while on the bench, he ruled consistently against attempts to seize the property of the defeated Southerners.

One biographer put it this way: “He was a true civil magistrate, a true ambassador of peace at a time when war, though it had relinquished arms, was still raging in the emotions of many, and in the greedy craving of some who, eager for the spoils of conquest, hoped that much of what sword and fire had left might be taken by a sort of judicial pillage though summary sentences of condemnation under the confiscation laws.” (Memoirs of Georgia/Fulton County Sketches, p. 774)

His judicial temperment was enough to impress President Ulysses S. Grant who considered Judge Erskine for one of two vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, Erskine did not receive the appointment and continued to serve the Federal District Court (split into the Northern and Southern Districts, as it is today) until his retirement in 1883. That same year, coincidentally, Colonel Lemuel P. Grant gave to the City of Atlanta the 100 acre tract that is now Grant Park.

Erskine died in January of 1895 and is buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. The judge’s sole survivor, his daughter, commissioned J. Massey Rhynd to design and build the fountain, dedicated that same year. Initally located in downtown Atlanta at the intersection of Peachtree and West Peachtree (near the Summit Building), the fountain was moved to its present location in 1912.

Rhind’s tribute to Judge Erskine has both historical and artistic significance on its own, and stands as a monument as well to the sculptor. Rhind was well known in his day and his works include the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant in New York, a statue of Crawford Long now displayed in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., a memorial to Grover Cleveland in Ohio, plus many others.

The Grant Park Conservancy would like to restore the Erskine Fountain and the Milledge Fountain, seven blocks farther north on Cherokee Avenue. A completed feasibility study estimates that the restoration project would cost more than 70-thousand dollars to rebuild the Erskine Fountain alone and restore its waterworks. The Conservancy’s Phil Cuthbertson says the Smithsonian recognizes the fountain’s historical value and says we should rescue Rhind’s masterpiece before it falls further into disrepair.

The Conservancy would like to find any living relatives of Judge John Erskine or his daughter, Rebecca (Mrs. Willard P.) Ward. Neither the Erskine Fountain nor the Milledge Fountain was included in the massive restoration project in Grant Park.  (to be continued)
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