Jan. 12, 1858: Nathan Clifford (1803-1881), a New Hampshire native who began his career as a lawyer in Newfield, is sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice. His prior experience includes serving as both a Maine and a U.S. attorney general, a member of both the Maine House of Representatives and the U.S. House, and U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Justice Nathan Clifford

Clifford’s nomination by President James Buchanan is hotly disputed because, although he comes from the North, he is a Democrat and favors the continuation of slavery. The Senate barely confirms his nomination, 26-23. He serves on the court for more than 23 years. During the Civil War, he generally supports the Union, but afterward he seeks to limit the federal government’s power.

By 1877, Clifford’s mental abilities decline to the point that, according to Samuel Miller, a fellow associate justice, it is “obvious to all of the court,” prompting Miller to assert that no judge on the court should serve past the age of 70. Clifford’s stroke in 1880 renders him “a babbling idiot,” Miller writes. Clifford dies in 1881. Miller remains on the court until his own death in 1890 at the age of 74.

Helen Augusta Blanchard, an inventor from Maine.

Jan. 12, 1922: Inventor Helen Augusta Blanchard, a Portland native, dies in Providence, Rhode Island, after a lifetime of work that results in the issuance of 28 patents to her, mostly related to sewing machines and needles.

Blanchard’s skill as a tinkerer became evident when she was a child, but after the Panic of 1866 wiped out her family’s wealth and caused the loss of the Blanchard home, her inventive tendencies saved her family. She patented the zigzag sewing machine, which was especially useful for knitted fabrics.

Blanchard founded the Blanchard Overseam Machine Co. in Philadelphia, as well as the Blanchard Hosiery Machine Co. She continued to invent popular devices, earning for herself the nickname “Lady Edison.” The royalties from her patents earned her enough money to enable her to buy back the family homestead in Portland.

She received her last patent at age 74, then suffered a stroke in 1916 that rendered her unable to work. Her zigzag sewing machine is on display at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society.

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