Samuel Fox Mordecai
Senior Professor of Law, 1904-1905, Dean of the Law School, 1905-1927

Samuel Fox Mordecai was the first dean of the Trinity College School of Law, later Duke University School of Law, a post he held from 1905 to 1927.  Mordecai oversaw the introduction of the case system, set higher standards for admission, and made Trinity Law comparable to the more venerable law schools in the north.

Mordecai was a respected Raleigh lawyer who was admired for his extensive knowledge of North Carolina law.  After studying at the University of Virginia he was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1875.  With his partner Richard H. Battle he formed the firm of Battle and Mordecai.  He published two legal treatises before beginning his teaching career at Wake Forest College in 1900.

Trinity College’s Department of Law had closed in 1894 because of financial pressure, but ten years later James and Benjamin Duke donated an endowment for its re-establishment.  College president John C. Kilgo had heard of Mordecai’s reputation as practitioner and teacher and offered him the position of Senior Professor of Law in 1904.  In 1905 the Department was organized into a formal graduate school and Mordecai became Dean.

Before taking the position as dean Mordecai visited a few months at the Harvard Law School and other northeastern schools spending time with the faculty and in the classrooms.  He became convinced of the superiority of the case system which he introduced to Trinity.  He also set the standard that students must complete two years of college work before being admitted to the law school, and that the course of study for a law degree take three years.  According to Trinity alumnus and law faculty member W. Bryan Bolich, Mordecai’s inclusion of a second-year course on Political Institutions and a third-year course on Legal and Constitutional History was “novel and ahead of the times.”

Mordecai was a vivacious, humorous, and energetic teacher who encouraged his students to live the law.   He would compose rhymes to help students remember tricky points.  His definition of a fee simple estate is

           Tenant in fee

             Simple is he

           Who need not shake or shiver

           For he has his lands

           Free of demands

           To him and his heirs forever

No discussion of Mordecai would be complete without his beloved dachshund Pompey Ducklegs.  The dog accompanied Mordecai almost everywhere, including to class.  Pompey was even included in a group photograph of the students and faculty from the 1925-26 academic year.

Mordecai is well known to have had an eccentric streak which became more pronounced as he aged.  In 1921 he had a spat with the General Librarian, J. P. Breedlove, and he never entered the library or spoke to Breedlove again.  Instead if there was library business to discuss Mordecai would speak to the Assistant Librarian through a ground-floor window.  Mordecai would tap on the glass with his cane to summon the man.

Mordecai was born on December 12, 1852, in Richmond, Virginia.  On November 10, 1875, he married Bertie Grimes and they had nine children.  Mordecai was a prolific author and published ten books between 1897 and 1926 including a Case Book on Remedies (1910) which he co-authored with fellow Trinity law professor A.C. McIntosh.  In June 1911 Trinity College conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.  Illness forced him to stop teaching in the spring of 1927 and he died on December 29 of that year.


Samuel Fox Mordecai : Presentation of a portrait by the alumni of the Duke University School of Law (1932) : addresses delivered at memorial service (1928) : two editorial tributes (1927) [1932] 

W. Bryan Bolich, Duke Law School, 1868-1968 : A Sketch [], Duke Law School Alumni Directory (1968-1972)

Historical Note, Guide to the Samuel Fox Mordecai papers, 1868-1985 (2006) []

Samuel Fox Mordecai
Historic Faculty