Sunday, October 14, 2012

29. The Bejeweled Elephant and the Balding Runt, part 1

File:New York Halls of Justice.jpg
The Tombs, circa 1870
Imagine a courtroom in the Halls of Justice, known otherwise as the Tombs, in 
New York City in the 1870s.  You are a member of the jury in a criminal trial – 
say, a grisly murder trial involving dismemberment of the body.  You sit with the other jurors – a carpenter, a sexton, a retired steamboat captain, an elastic suspenders manufacturer, and others – as the defense attorney makes his final plea.  Mounting from a massive frame, his voice ranges from bass to falsetto, from pianissimo to forte, conveying doubt, shock, indignation, and rage, then the gentlest, most infinite compassion, while his hands flutter birdlike or stab and spiral in the air.  He paces, then at intervals stops abruptly and eyes the jurors one by one.  Shakespeare and Milton adorn his cadences along with psalms and proverbs, and the most hallowed words of the Gospel. 

         Then, suddenly, he gestures toward his client, reminding you that a palpitant and noble human life is at stake.  Think twice, thrice, a thousand times before you doom the defendant to the noose.  He, William Howe, has witnessed hangings but a few short steps from here, in the courtyard of the Tombs.  He gestures grandly, as if to sketch up a towering scaffold.  “I know the awful suspense beforehand, the crash of the trap, the hurtling body” (his arm shoots downward), “the quick, neat snap of the spine” (his hand cuts sideways), “the twitching, dangling corpse” (his hand jerks, goes limp).  “It is terrible.  Only felons steeped in violence and gore should suffer it, certainly not my client.”

         For two weeks you and the other jurors have witnessed the bravura performance – or should one say antics? -- of this amazing man, his massive frame sporting a wardrobe of infinite variety, changed daily or even twice a day: check trousers, velvet and doeskin waistcoats, blue-violet and crimson shirts, a coat of royal purple, and at first, clusters of diamonds.  Garish, perhaps, and in the very worst possible taste, but somehow he brings it all off, as if to say, “I’m outrageous, grandiose, compelling, the most vivid thing you’ll ever experience – superbly and marvelously me!”  Unlike the prosecutor in sedate drab gray.

         But his diamonds – what happened to his diamonds?  The lawyer’s fingers, cuffs, and vast expanse of shirtfront are lusterless, yet two weeks before, when he picked the jurors and pronounced his opening address, he twinkled with diamonded buttons and studs, sparkling fobs on his watch chain, gleaming rings, and instead of a cravat, a cloverleaf of pearls framing a dewdrop that positively glittered.  He had blazed success, but as the trial progressed, one by one the diamonds vanished.  Now, as he addresses you for the very last time, he stands before you in a dark gray suit absolutely barren of dazzle.  Yet as always, his words have force.  Is this a charlatan, an artist, or what?

         The lawyer pauses a moment, strokes the waxed tips of his handlebar mustache, then directs your attention to the defendant, a burly young man, black-haired, tense, fisted, whose eyes, unblinking, glare from an inner intensity.

         “Look at this young man, this sensitive, suffering soul, detained even now 
in durance vile – how unjustly! – for a murder he knows nothing about.  Is this a murderer?  A man who, with his alleged paramour, could shoot, stab, strangle her husband, then dismember the body and send the body parts by express in various directions?  No, I tell you, no!

         The sonorous voice has trumpeted truth to the rafters.  Then, portentously, having mopped his brow with a violet handkerchief that he flourishes like a banner, he hunches his great girth forward; you and the other jurors do the same, eager to capture whatever revelation is about to be delivered.  The lawyer’s voice is restrained and confidential.

         “This young man has friends; they have testified to his worth and honesty.  Scores of them sit now in this very courtroom, following these proceedings with care.”

         Another sweeping gesture guides your eyes toward the benches jammed with onlookers, where here and there stalwart specimens of manhood daub their teary eyes.  The judge looks on stone-faced; the prosecutor glares his scorn.

         “And his family … ”  The lawyer’s voice turns poignantly soft.  “What shall I say of his family?  An aged mother, fearful of losing her only son, her joy and sole support, who even now chokes back the scream of grief … ”

         On the front bench, tears well slowly and course the withered cheeks of a snowy-haired old lady, head bowed in stoic silence.

         “And his wife – his loving wife and child … Would you widow her and orphan their infant … ?”

         Beside the old woman you sits a young blond woman, hauntingly beautiful, who casts tender looks at the prisoner, a baby in her arms.  At intervals, a soft squeal is hushed with cooing.  Every eye in the courtroom is on her, often as not glistening with tears.  Throughout the courtroom not a whisper, not a cough can be heard.

         As the lawyer expands movingly on the motif of the family, your eyes stray to that pale young exquisite face, cradling a babe in her arms.  And then, great heaven! are your eyes deceiving you?  Right here in the courtroom, while gazing at the accused with tenderness, she is baring her bosom to perform the most maternal of functions!  You are shocked … touched …

         A gavel bangs, the judge’s voice booms:  “Mr. Howe, you have violated this court’s decorum and imposed upon the jury.  That young woman and her infant will be escorted out!”

         Murmurs from the spectators.  As bluecoats loom around her, the young woman rises with dignity, shoots a last poignant glance at the prisoner, and then, still clutching her child, is led away.  The defendant glares, the old woman sobs, several jurors gasp or weep openly, your own sight goes blurry, the lawyer blubbers till his handlebars are soggy, the exiting young mother tears nobly, and the baby wails.

         Such were the courtroom antics of William Howe, rendered fictionally here,
but with close attention to historical fact.  After such a performance, no matter what the evidence, and even with the prosecutor’s summation yet to come, could there be any doubt as to the jury’s verdict?  When Howe defended, nine times in ten it was innocent.

         In the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s Howe and Hummel were the most celebrated – not to say notorious – defense attorneys of New York and probably the nation.  With their names blazed in huge block letters, their offices occupied the ground floor at 89 Centre Street in convenient proximity to the Tombs, that squat, massive prison in whose somber cells so many of their clients resided before, if not after, the verdict.  The two partners presiding there could not have been more different:  William Howe the flamboyant courtroom orator, lion-headed with wavy gray hair, deep-chested, massive, his colorful attire adorned with multiple diamonds, and Abraham Hummel the crafty back-office master of chicanery, with a large pear-shaped head, bald, atop a meager body characteristically clothed in black.  Howe was expansive, flamboyant, outward-going; Hummel was shrunken, contained, secretive: the bejeweled elephant and the balding runt. 

         In their flourishing practice Howe and Hummel drew on a vast array of resources; courted publicity; never took checks (having defended numerous forgers), insisting always on cash in advance; kept their office open twenty-four hours a day, with a skeleton crew on duty at night; and kept no account books so as to have no revealing records that might be subpoenaed.  Their office was a magnet for accused brothel owners, fences, pickpockets, bookmakers, counterfeiters, safecrackers, arsonists, and suspected murderers.  During a purity crusade in 1884 (yes, they did happen – rarely – even in New York), all 74 madams rounded up named Howe & Hummel as their counsel.  Also visiting the premises were prisoners who, having just escaped from the Tombs, stopped off there to shed their prison togs for less suspect attire, of which an ample supply was always on hand.

         Greatly helping the firm in its endeavors was an army of hired agents: informants collecting backstage gossip as material for breach-of-promise suits; process servers disguised as Western Union messengers, scrubwomen, and milkmen; and a host of professional witnesses always on call, ready to appear as sweet-faced ancient mothers, adoring wives, and doting children to be planted in the first row of spectators, or loyal friends to be sprinkled throughout the courtroom, ever ready with smiles or tears as needed.  Howe himself had the gift of copious tears and used it generously, though some suspected that he got an assist from an onion-scented handkerchief.  But not all his performances succeeded; on occasion he attended hangings in the Tombs courtyard garbed in funereal black. 

         But Howe’s courtroom performances were remarkable, winning a large number of the 600 murder trials he participated in over a long career.  On one occasion he dropped ponderously to his knees before the jury box and thus delivered a two-hour summation, after which he must have needed considerable help to get his 250 pounds back on his feet. 

         Howe’s most celebrated case involved a young woman who had shot and killed her sweetheart; in the course of a heated argument her trigger finger, he insisted, had accidentally slipped not once but four times.  Sensing that the jury 
was  less than convinced, he stretched his summation far into the night (yes, there were evening sessions in those days), until the courtroom atmosphere turned 
dark and eerie, and everyone was tired and restless.  Suddenly, at the end of his summation, he approached the defendant from behind, encircled her with his arms, seized her wrists and ground his fingernails deep into them, eliciting from her a scream such as no courtroom had ever heard.  That done, he instantly ended his summation.  The prosecutor was so shaken that he could barely marshal his thoughts, and the unnerved jury shuffled from the courtroom to return minutes later with an acquittal.  Why the defendant’s agonized scream should prove her innocence remains a mystery, but Howe’s perception of a jury’s moods, and his ability to manipulate them, have perhaps never been equaled. 

         So much for William Howe.  Next time we will have a closer look at his partner Abe Hummel, who put his deft, bony hand to such matters as divorce (then scandalous) and the profitable form of blackmail known as breach-of-promise suits.  A picturesque twosome, to say the least.

Thought for the day:  Poverty hardens and embitters.  Material wealth makes the nation sweeter, more Christlike.  (Bishop William Lawrence of the Episcopal Church.)

Note to the preceding:  The previous thoughts have been mine, often plucked from my poesy, though sometimes with a vague source unnamed because unremembered.  For this one, so richly significant, I am happily able to name a specific source. (Bishop Lawrence, incidentally, was a personal friend of J.P. Morgan.)  Should these thoughts be taken seriously?  I myself don't know.  We are all of us, at times, holy fools, and at other times just fools.  I am no exception.

                                             © 2012  Clifford Browder

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