‘Mystery Solved: Justice George W. Macrae’ receives Florida Historical Society’s 2022 Golden Quill Award
“Mystery Solved: Justice George W. Macrae,” published in the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s Historical Review Fall/Winter 2021 magazine, received the Florida Historical Society’s 2022 Golden Quill Award for an outstanding article on Florida history.
The story of Florida’s fourth Supreme Court justice, about whom little was known before the article, was researched and authored by Kenneth A. Cutler, a Coral Springs attorney at Cutler Rader and vice mayor of Parkland.
The Florida Historical Society honor recognizes a one-time in-depth article or special section focusing on Florida history, or the history of some part of our state, published in the preceding calendar year. Entries are judged on factual accuracy, clarity of expression and overall historical merit. The award was presented on May 19, 2022, in Gainesville, during the FHS Public History Forum.
A self-described history detective, Cutler was shocked when reviewing online biographies of Florida’s Supreme Court justices that there was little known about Macrae beyond his 1847 service on Florida’s highest court. Cutler also found out that the portrait in the court’s gallery, commissioned in 1984, is entirely imaginary.
Then, using tools honed as a family genealogist, Cutler uncovered clues in 19th century newspapers, surveys, census records, and letters to trace Macrae’s birth in Virginia in 1802 to his grave in Kentucky.
“I credit the dramatic growth in digitized historical materials with making it possible for me to establish a biography that eluded other researchers for years,” Cutler said. The resources were primarily U.S. based and in English; images of Cutler’s research documents for the article are online.
Erik T. Robinson, archivist for the Florida Supreme Court library since 2005, provided some initial assistance and confirmed Cutler’s sources. He said receiving such recognition from the Florida Historical Society is important, and he praised Cutler’s efforts.
“From the first email I received from Ken expressing his interest in this, I realized that he has a remarkable affinity for online research and is a genius genealogist,” Robinson said.
Historical Review editor Melanie Kalmanson, a Jacksonville attorney with the Tampa firm Quarles & Brady nominated the article for the award.
“The product of diligent and extensive research, Ken’s article fills this long-missing gap in Florida’s history and unveils who Justice Macrae was and where he went after he left the court. Cutler scoured 19th-century newspapers, surveys, and census records from several states to uncover the details of Justice Macrae’s colorful life that played out on both coasts of the United States. It was the society’s honor to publish Cutler’s ‘Mystery Solved: Justice George W. Macrae,’” Kalmanson said in the award nomination.
Cutler pictures the time he spends on this hobby as “the dash between the two dates on the gravestone” and said if he’d laid out the scope of the work in advance, it could have seemed daunting.
“Instead, my research was fortuitous in many instances. I hit upon the right people and ended up being led to the right places,” Cutler said. It was also fortuitous, he added, that the spelling of the justice’s name is unusual.
As to the imaginary image of Macrae in the Florida Supreme Court portrait gallery, Cutler didn’t find a photo or other contemporary likeness, but he is glad he could help prevent the early Florida justice from almost being lost to history.
And now that the award-winning historical article is itself “history,” a new brass thumbnail biography plaque describing the justice’s life has been added to the gallery. It says:
George Wallace Macrae
Served 1847 as Justice
b. Prince William County, Virginia — June 24, 1802 d. March 6, 1858 — Christian County, Kentucky
Early newspaper accounts show George Macrae already practicing as an attorney at the age of 21 in 1823 in Prince William County. He represented the county in the state legislature and was a delegate to the state Democratic party convention in 1839. By 1842, he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, working out of Key West. In 1845, Macrae was elected to the last Territorial legislature of Florida before statehood and served as Senate President. The 1846 State Legislature, meeting in December, elected a candidate to serve as the Circuit Judge/Supreme Court Justice of the Southern Circuit. That man later declined to serve, and Governor William Moseley appointed Macrae in his place. When the legislature met again in December 1847, they elected another candidate who did serve. Macrae went west in 1849 to California during the gold rush. While there, he ran unsuccessfully in 1850 for the new California Supreme Court. He practiced law in San Francisco until 1858, when he traveled back to visit family in Kentucky, where he died.