Goff, John W. (1848–1924), Fenian, lawyer, and judge, was born 1 January 1848 in Gorey, Co. Wexford. His parents died when he was a child and he was raised by an uncle in the north of England, where he received some schooling. He emigrated to New York at the age of sixteen and worked as a cashier for the Irish-born retailer A. T. Stewart (qv); he also attended the Cooper Institute (a centre for workers’ education) in the evenings and was a noted amateur boxer. On finishing his education, he worked in the office of Samuel G. Courtney, a former US attorney, and was admitted to the New York bar in 1879. Specialising in criminal law, he established himself in a law practice with Francis W. Pollock. A committed Irish nationalist, Goff was Clan na Gael district officer for New York in the early 1870s. As a member of a committee set up in 1874 to help rescue Fenian prisoners from Australia, he raised more funds that any other individual. Goff expected to be given charge of the rescue mission, and when he was not he quarrelled bitterly with John Devoy (qv) and attempted to withhold funds. In mid-March 1875 Devoy purchased the Catalpa, a New Bedford whaler, to carry out a rescue attempt and when the ship left port on 29 April 1875 both men were on board for the first forty miles of the journey. However, relations between them remained strained, and Goff lost his position as the Clan's New York district officer the following year. Afterwards he had little involvement in Irish revolutionary politics, but did assist Devoy in countering the corrupt ‘Triangle’ of the Clan executive in the mid 1880s.
Goff's legal career prospered: he served as assistant district attorney (1888–90) and ran unsuccessfully for the office of district attorney in 1890. In 1894 he was appointed chief counsel for the Lexow committee to investigate corruption in the police department and the city administration. Goff's reputation as the formidable state cross-examiner who exposed corruption led to his election as recorder for the city of New York. He was the last person to hold the office and, during his tenure, reformed legal practices in the city courts. In 1906 Goff was elected judge of the New York state supreme court. His most notorious case was the trial of Lieutenant Charles Becker of the New York City police department for the murder in 1912 of the casino-owner, Hertman ‘Beansie’ Rosenthal, who was killed after he complained of Becker's corruption to the district attorney. A ‘bad cop’, a series of notorious underworld defendants, an ambitious prosecutor, and, sitting on the bench, Goff, the hero of the Lexow committee, all made for a sensational trial. Becker was found guilty, and after an unsuccessful appeal was executed on 30 July 1915.
A strong Parnellite and supporter of the Land League, Goff continued to pursue an active role in nationalist causes. In March 1916 he chaired the Irish Race Convention in New York, and spoke in favour of rebellion in Ireland. Fiercely anti-British, he expressed the hope that Germany would defeat Britain in the war. At the 1918 Irish Race Convention, Goff proposed a petition supporting Irish independence, and later acted as spokesman for Irish-Americans trying to convince President Wilson to give Sinn Féin representatives a seat at the Paris peace conference. He retired from the supreme court in January 1919, having reached the retirement age, and that year was grand marshal of the St Patrick's Day parade in New York. Conservative on social issues, Goff had issued an injunction against workers prohibiting their picketing during the 1910 garment strike in New York, but in 1919 he spoke in support of the Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America's War Aims, a political group working for Irish independence which had closed down the West Side docks in August 1920. During the visit of Éamon de Valera (qv) to the US in 1920, Goff supported him in his quarrels with Devoy. He backed the anti-treaty side in the civil war, chairing the Irish republican soldiers’ and prisoners’ dependants’ fund financed by the speaking tours of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) and Muriel MacSwiney (qv).
Goff died 9 November 1924 in his home in New York from pneumonia he had contracted by insisting on going out to vote five days earlier. His old adversary Devoy wrote of him that he was driven too much by personal ambition but ‘was always loyal to the principles of Irish nationality . . . [and his] services to Ireland outweighed his faults’ (Gaelic American, 22 Nov. 1924). Goff married Catherine O'Keefe on 26 May 1881; they had two children.