LEE, GEORGE HERBERT, lawyer and historian; b. 8 April 1854 in Portland (Saint John), N.B., son of the Reverend Charles Lee and Sarah Elizabeth Smith; m. there 8 Sept. 1885 Frances Elizabeth DeVeber, and they had two children; d. 25 Aug. 1905 in Boston.
G. Herbert Lee passed most of his early life in Fredericton, where his father became rector about 1860. He studied at the collegiate school and the University of New Brunswick, receiving a ba in 1872. The year following his father drowned and Lee was articled to Saint John lawyer George Sidney Smith, an uncle. After admission as attorney (1876) and call to the bar (1877) he was given much minor employment by Smith until 1880, though the two were never in partnership.
As a young lawyer, a son of the rectory, and a relation of Odells, Chipmans, and Hazens, Lee presented a fair character to the world. He did not drink or smoke. He was vestry clerk at St Paul’s (Valley) Church and treasurer of the Wiggins Orphan Asylum. He had compiled, mostly from published reports of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an unassuming but useful Historical sketch of the first fifty years of the Church of England in the province of New Brunswick (Saint John, 1880). Understandably, then, Lee was known as “a man of good parts.”
He was not in easy circumstances, however, and after his marriage in 1885 the expense of “a very good house and . . . three servants” complicated his financial needs greatly. Yet Lee’s law practice was not lucrative. He was never much engaged in the courts nor was he a solicitor to corporations or banks. He himself professed to specialize in “collections,” and he also acted as moneylender and mortgage broker.
In his desperation Lee began, in 1889, to speculate in grain and pork futures on the Chicago commodity exchange. Each day he watched nervously for the arrival of the Boston Herald to scan its financial pages and telegraph instructions to his broker in Boston. Disadvantaged by his remove from the market, Lee compounded his vulnerability by selling short. It took him only two years to add nearly $10,000 to his already substantial debt.
His losses pushed Lee into misappropriation of security documents that he held as administrator of a number of estates. The richest of these included the legacy that former chief justice Ward Chipman* had bequeathed to Ward Chipman Drury (both were cousins of Lee’s maternal grandmother). In effect, Lee was robbing his own family; in the Drury matter he was also preying on the trust of his fellow administrator, Chief Justice Sir John Campbell Allen* (whose wife was another cousin of Lee’s grandmother). But when Lee finally abandoned his family and fled to Boston, in August 1892, it was discovered that he had defrauded rich and poor alike – widows, the orphan asylum, retired clergymen, gravestone cutters, aged family retainers, the Natural History Society of New Brunswick. Curiously, however, his principal victims (his own connections) discouraged talk of extraditing him. In Boston he remained, working for a time as a law-book seller and, at his death, as an insurance broker.
The Lee affair was pronounced the “worst case of defalcation that we have ever had in this province,” though whether the total involved was the $30,000 claimed by Lee or the $100,000 mentioned in the press cannot be determined. Lee’s great advantage in perpetrating frauds was his “respectability” in a society that still accorded deference to good connections. When contemporaries asked themselves how such a man could go wrong, as they did obsessively, they mentioned the desperation caused by the overcrowding of “a profession containing nearly four hundred men when there is not standing room in it for one hundred.” “Lee is not alone,” the Saint John Progress warned. Moreover, in a profession where it was routine to engage in financial brokerage and where the notion of legal “ethics” had still to emerge from the requirements of legal “etiquette,” the spectacle of a lawyer apparently dealing with clients’ property as his own was not the clear flag of misbehaviour that it would be 30 years later. Fittingly, however, only three days after the Barristers’ Society commenced proceedings to strike Lee from its rolls, the New Brunswick legal profession took a bold and ultimately revolutionary step towards quality control and, eventually, numbers reduction by opening the Saint John Law School (now the University of New Brunswick faculty of law).
PANB, MC 288, MS1/B2, MS7/H; RS32, C, 13. Daily Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), 7 July 1873, 23–25 Aug. 1892. New Brunswick Courier (Saint John), 9 July 1853. Progress (Saint John), 27 Aug., 10 Sept. 1892. Saint John Globe, 14 Feb. 1884, 26 Aug. 1905. St. John Daily Sun, 29 Aug. 1892. In the Supreme Court, in Equity, between Sir John C. Allen . . . , plaintiff, and James Coll and Michael Coll and G. Herbert Lee . . . , defendants . . . (n.p., ; copy in N.B. Museum, J. D. Hazen coll., box 4a, folder 2). University Monthly (Fredericton), 10 (1890–91): 56.