Edward G. Ryan (1810-1880)
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice
Chief Justice (1874-1880)
"There's yet a hope beyond deceiving, and yet a home beyond the tomb; where rests the soul, -oh never grieving; It is, it is the spirit's home..." - Justice Edward G. Ryan's poem, "The exile; a duet."
Edward George Ryan was born in County Meath, Ireland, on November 13, 1810. He attended a Jesuit college outside of Dublin before coming to the United States at age 20. He settled in New York City and studied law. In 1836, he moved to Chicago where he practiced law, edited a newspaper and was a city attorney.
In 1842, Ryan moved to Racine, Wisconsin. He was elected to the 1846 state Constitutional Convention and played a key role in drafting Wisconsin's first constitution which the territory's voters rejected. In 1848, he moved his law practice to Milwaukee and was active in the political battles of the day.
As a lawyer, Ryan was involved in many important cases in Wisconsin history. In 1853, he was the special prosecutor in the impeachment proceedings against Milwaukee Circuit Judge and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Levi Hubbell. In 1854, Ryan prosecuted abolitionist Sherman M. Booth for violating the Fugitive Slave Law. Booth was represented by Byron Paine, who also became a Supreme Court justice. A year later, Ryan represented Coles Bashford in the famous Bashford v. Barstow case in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court removed an incumbent governor from office after it was discovered that his victory resulted from fraud.
Ryan had a quick and violent temper which alienated colleagues and clients alike. As a result, by the spring of 1870 he was nearly penniless. Later that year, he was elected city attorney of Milwaukee and held the post for three years.
In June 1874, Ryan was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His personality and outspoken convictions made his appointment controversial. His intelligence and legal insight made him suitable for the job.
Perhaps his best known opinion was written in response to Rhoda Lavinia Goodell's application to be admitted to practice law before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Supreme Court denied her motion and Ryan wrote that the profession of law was "unfit for female character."
Justice Orsamus Cole said that despite Ryan's well-known temper he treated his colleagues with kindness, respect and courtesy in the conference room.
Ryan's disposition affected his personal life. His second wife Caroline left him in 1872, taking their seven children with her.
On October 13, 1880, Ryan withdrew from a case because he had represented one of the parties. The next day, he sent word to his colleagues that he felt ill. He died October 19, 1880.