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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Purnell, Thomas Richard

by Rosamond Putzel, 1994

10 Aug. 1846–19 Dec. 1908

See also: Thomas Purnell.

Thomas Richard Purnell, jurist, was born in Wilmington, the son of Thomas Richard and Eliza Ann Dudley Purnell. His grandparents were John and Sarah Purnell and Governor and Mrs. Edward B. Dudley. He was a great-grandson of the John Purnell who settled in North Carolina in 1780 and a descendant of John Haywood, one of the first settlers of Edgecombe County.

Purnell attended the Hillsborough Military Academy and at age sixteen enlisted in the Confederate army, serving as an orderly to General W. H. C. Whiting at Wilmington and later with a corps of topographical engineers in the Army of Northern Virginia. At the end of the war, he was paroled at Greensboro.

He was graduated from Trinity College with an A.B. degree in 1869 and an M.A. degree in 1872. After studying law under Robert Strange in Wilmington, he was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1870. He practiced in Baltimore, Md., for a year and then in Salem, N.C., from 1871 to 1873.

Purnell had a long career in legal and public service in North Carolina. He was state librarian from 1873 to 1876, a state legislator in 1876–77, and a state senator in 1883–84. He ran for attorney general in 1892 and for solicitor of the Fourth Judicial District in 1894. From 1877 to 1897 he was commissioner of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and an attorney in Raleigh. On 5 May 1897 he was appointed judge for the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District, where he served until his death.

On 11 Nov. 1870 he married Adelia E. Zevely, of Salem, the daughter of Dr. Alexander T. and Lucinda Blum Zevely. They were the parents of three daughters and a son. His funeral was held at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Raleigh.


Harold Chase and others, comp. Biographical Dictionary of the Federal Judiciary (1976).

Clement A. Evans, Confederate Military History, vol. 4 (1899).

Raleigh News and Observer, 20 Dec. 1908.

Harry Skinner, "Memorial to Thomas R. Purnell," North Carolina Bar Association Proceedings (1909).

Who Was Who in America (1943).

Additional Resources:

North Carolina. Laws and resolutions of the State of North Carolina, passed by the General Sssembly at its session 1873/1874. Raleigh: J. Turner, Jr. 1874. (accessed September 26, 2014).

Hill Directory Company. Raleigh, N.C. directory 1907/1908. Richmond, Va.: Hill Directory Co. 1907. (accessed September 26, 2014).

Trinity College  Annual catalogue of Trinity College. Durham, NC: Trinity College. 1882/3. (accessed September 26, 2014).

Trinity College  Annual catalogue of Trinity College. Durham, NC: Trinity College. 1867/78. (accessed September 26, 2014).

United States Dept. of Justice. List of United States Judges, Attorneys, and Marshals. G.P.O. 1908. (accessed September 26, 2014).

West Publishing. The Federal Reporter (F1), Volume 165. 1909. (accessed September 26, 2014).