The life of Colonel Holland Sackett Duell and his onetime sailboat Rowdy inspired the writer's request to unseal the old divorce records.
The life of Colonel Holland Sackett Duell and his onetime sailboat Rowdy inspired the writer’s request to unseal the old divorce records. (Courtesy of Duell Family)

A judge has rejected an aspiring biographer’s request to unseal the 89-year-old divorce records of a deceased decorated veteran, attorney and state lawmaker, saying the writer’s work did not fit exceptions to statutory rules that barred general public access to matrimonial proceedings for 100 years.

Christopher Madsen of Santa Barbara, Calif. is writing on the life and times of Holland Sackett Duell, an avid yachtsman who fought with distinction in World War I and served in the New York State Assembly and Senate, before dying in 1942 at age 61.

As part of his research—sparked by his buying and rebuilding of Duell’s sailboat “Rowdy”—Madsen asked to inspect records of Duell’s 1925 divorce from Mabell Halliwell Duell in an effort to track down “everything and anything” he could on Duell.

The petition was unopposed, and the last of Duell’s five children apparently died more than 10 years ago.

Nevertheless, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Francesca Connolly (See Profile) on April 22 refused to let Madsen have access to the file.

“Although the petitioner has implicitly argued that no social embarrassment will be caused since the Duells and their issue are deceased, this reason alone is insufficient to warrant a foray into sealed records,” Connolly wrote in Madsen v. Westchester County Clerk, 4212/2013, adding, “By sparingly exercising their discretion to permit access to these records, courts promote an atmosphere of privacy for litigants that encourages open and honest disclosure in the context of matrimonial litigation.”

In 1998, Madsen, a self-employed California investor trading in stock futures, bought the 60-foot, then 82-year-old, sailboat and began a six-year process of rebuilding.

As he worked on the boat, Madsen learned Duell was its original owner and felt compelled to write about the man. He has been working on the book full time for the past three years.

Though never having written a biography, Madsen said in an interview that Duell’s life was “unique and historically significant,” being an “untold story” that he felt obligated to write about.

Madsen said he hopes to have his self-published book, entitled “Rowdy,” released later this year.

Duell’s ancestry traced back to the Pilgrims and included participants in the American Revolution and the abolition movement leading up to the Civil War, Madsen said.

Duell’s father and grandfather were both New York attorneys who became commissioner of patents for the federal government. Duell’s father was also a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Duell was born in 1881 and graduated with honors from New York Law School in 1904. Like his father and grandfather, Duell specialized in patent matters, according to a 1942 New York Times obituary.

He served as a state assemblyman from 1907 to 1909 and as a state senator from 1921 to 1922.

During World War I, Duell played an important role in the advance of allied forces from France into Germany through the Argonne Forest, said Madsen. Duell finished with the rank of colonel and received the Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Duell married Mabell Halliwell in 1904, but Madsen said that when Duell was fighting overseas, he began an affair with his wife’s cousin, Emilie Miller Brown, who was a Red Cross nurse. Though the pair’s romance was initially secret, it eventually surfaced and led to a contentious split between Duell and his wife.

Holland Sackett Duell and Mabel Halliwell Duell divorced in 1925, and he married Emilie Miller Brown the same year. Duell and Brown remained married for the rest of Duell’s life and Brown never re-married, said Madsen.

In his research, Madsen asked the Westchester County Clerk’s Office if he could inspect the records. The office refused and Madsen, a non-attorney representing himself, filed a petition asking to have the records unsealed. He told the judge the forthcoming book would be “an academic work of historical importance.”

In her April 22 ruling, Connolly pointed to Domestic Relations Law 235 (5), which bars public inspection of matrimonial records 100 years from the date of filing.

The judge said requests to unseal records are “generally denied” without a showing of “special circumstances, such as a nexus to pending civil or criminal matters.” Likewise, Connolly said “fishing expeditions” into sealed records had to be avoided and petitioners had to “articulate and particularize the relevance of the information sought to an important pending matter.”

Madsen failed to meet that burden here, ruled the judge, saying “the purposes of writing a biographical work” were not enough to warrant “an intrusion into the 100-year period of privacy” established in Domestic Relations Law .

Madsen said he knew of the 100-year rule when making his request.

But he said he presented “a justified argument that stood a shot.” Madsen said Connolly’s decision was “very justified” and he said he would not appeal. “I’m not convinced I would have found anything that would add a lot to what I know, and I don’t have a pressing need to pursue it beyond this,” he said.