Dictionary of Virginia Biography


Orloff Mather Dorman (7 January 1809–16 June 1879), judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, was born in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, and was the son of Stephen Dorman and Charity Mather Dorman. He changed his first name from Orlow to Orloff by 1845. Dorman attended Wilbraham Academy and matriculated in 1827 at Amherst College, where he joined the Alexandrian Society and graduated with a B.A. in 1831. He prepared a commencement oration entitled "The prospects of Africa" but was excused from attending the ceremony. Amherst also awarded him an M.A. in 1847 without further study. Beginning in 1828 he listed his hometown in college catalogs as Lenox, in Madison County, New York. From 1831 to 1833 Dorman read law in Albany, New York, and taught at the Albany Female Academy. His health having failed, he moved to Saint Augustine, Florida, where he completed his studies and was admitted to the bar in February 1835.

Dorman practiced law in Jacksonville from 1835 to 1840 and in Saint Augustine from then until 1847. During his time in Jacksonville he served for three months as a lieutenant and one year as a cavalry captain and regimental adjutant in the Second Seminole War. On 4 September 1845 in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Dorman married Margarette E. Gould, of Hampshire County, Massachusetts, and daughter of a clergyman. They had no children, although they may have adopted her nephew, who in 1860 was living with them and had taken the Dorman surname.

In December 1847 Dorman moved his legal practice to Chicago, Illinois. Two years later he invested $12,000 in a short-lived but mutually satisfactory partnership with Cyrus Hall McCormick in the early stages of the latter's marketing of reaper machinery. Dorman's legal practice in Chicago prospered, but declining health had obliged him to return to Florida by 1853. He purchased a house in Saint Augustine and devoted himself to studying natural history, especially shells and insects. He was also a founding member of the Florida Historical Society in 1856. Dorman expected to end his days in Florida, where in 1860 he owned an estimated $75,000 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property, including one slave. With the outbreak of the Civil War, however, he remained loyal to the Union and left the state. He sacrificed his zoological collections and much of his property and at a public meeting faced down people who considered detaining him.

Dorman spent the next year in Washington, D.C. Reportedly he interested himself in efforts to restore Florida to the Union and unsuccessfully sought appointment as provisional governor. Dorman then joined the United States Army. He served as a paymaster in the United States Volunteers, a post that carried the rank of major, from 17 July 1862 until he was mustered out on 15 February 1866. Dorman's military duties took him into the line of fire, subjected him to bilious dysentery and typhoid fever, and required him to travel to posts in Baltimore, Norfolk, and North and South Carolina. At his request, he returned to Florida, where in 1864 he clashed with more-radical Unionists. After the war Dorman submitted a petition to the Southern Claims Commission for $2,220, seeking compensation for Union officers' occupation of his Saint Augustine home from 1862 to 1865. His claim was rejected, however, contributing to his bitter disappointment that Floridians who had remained loyal to the Union were not better rewarded after the war.

Dorman settled in Norfolk shortly after leaving the army. Despite his background as a native of New England and a Union veteran, he enjoyed remarkable success in gaining acceptance from the local elite. Two years after Dorman moved to Norfolk, the commander of Military District Number One appointed him judge of the Norfolk City Corporation Court. He served from 22 July 1868 until 12 May 1869. As the sole magistrate, Dorman decided civil cases, empaneled grand juries, and dispensed justice in criminal proceedings beyond the scope of the mayor and aldermen's summary rulings on petty crimes.

On 6 May 1869 the commanding general appointed Dorman to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and he took the qualifying oaths six days later. He was one of three replacements named when all incumbent members of the state's highest court were removed in compliance with a federal statute requiring dismissal of all Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia officials with recorded Confederate activity. Thus reconstituted, the court met three times, from 22 to 28 June 1869, on 12 October 1869, and from 11 January to 25 February 1870. Dorman attended regularly. Of the eight cases decided while he was a member and recorded in the official volumes of the Virginia Reports, he wrote three opinions, two for a unanimous court and one as a concurring opinion. He was in the minority once. In perhaps the most significant case that the court decided, Dorman joined a 2–1 majority in ruling that Alexandria railroad officers who had moved inside Confederate lines during the Civil War did not thereby lose the ability to contest the fraudulent sale of the railroad's assets. With the adoption of a new state constitution and the end of military Reconstruction in 1870, the General Assembly elected new judges, and Dorman's tenure ended. The assembly permitted him to serve until the end of the February session, unlike the president of the court, Horace Blois Burnham, who was removed by a joint legislative resolution on 22 February 1870. As the senior member of the court, Dorman then spent several days as Virginia's highest judge and signed the court's minutes accordingly.

Dorman identified himself in the 1870 census as a retired lawyer and estimated the value of his property at $34,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal property. He was at various times a founder or lay officer of Presbyterian churches in Jacksonville, Chicago, and Norfolk. The governor appointed him one of the curators responsible for overseeing the recently established land-grant educational fund for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), and he began his four-and-a-half-year tenure on the racially mixed board in June 1872. Orloff Mather Dorman died of pulmonary phthisis, a tubercular complaint, at his Norfolk home early in the morning on 16 June 1879 and was buried the next day at Cedar Grove Cemetery. His will included a provisional bequest to the Biddle Memorial Institute (later Johnson C. Smith University) in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ministerial training of young African American men.


Sources Consulted:
Franklin Abbott Dorman, Thomas Dorman of Topsfield, Massachusetts (1600–1670): Twelve Generations of Descendants (1994), 89–90, 152–154; Dorman Alumnus Biographical File, Amherst College Library, Amherst, Mass., including Dorman's letter, 22 Sept. 1869, on his Civil War service and a printed questionnaire, completed 29 Dec. 1875, with self-reported birth date; other information supplied by Dorman in Amherst College: A Record of the Class of 1831 (1866), 39–45; Dorman documents from Florida years in Orloff M. Dorman Papers and Abraham Lincoln Papers, both Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; New York Evening Post, 15 Sept. 1845; Norfolk City Corporation Court Order Book, 2:119; Supreme Court of Appeals Order Book (Richmond Session), 22:53–107, Accession 31211, Record Group 100, Library of Virginia; Barred and Disallowed Case Files of the Southern Claims Commission, 1871–1880, Records of the U. S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Dorman's published opinions in Devaughn v. Devaughn (1870), Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown Railroad Company v. Alexandria and Washington Railroad Company et al. (1870), and Jackson v. Commonwealth (1870), all (19 Grattan), Virginia Reports, 60:560–570, 624–625, 663–669; Norfolk City Corporation Court Will Book, 9:232–236; Death Register, Norfolk City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; obituary and funeral description in Norfolk Virginian, 17, 18 June 1879.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by J. Jefferson Looney.

How to cite this page:
J. Jefferson Looney,"Orloff Mather Dorman (1809–1879)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Dorman_Orloff_Mather, accessed [today's date]).


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