Sunday, October 21, 2012

30. The Bejeweled Elephant and the Balding Runt, part 2

         In the previous post I invited readers to imagine being on a jury addressed by defense attorney William Howe, the bejeweled elephant.  Now I invite readers to imagine being a respectable New York attorney of the 1870s who, through no fault of his own, is obliged to deal with Howe’s junior partner, Abraham Hummel, the balding runt. 

         So it is that you find yourself sitting in the outer office of Howe & Hummel at 89 Centre Street, just across from that gloomy Egyptian pile, the Tombs, surrounded by as raffish a set of characters as you have ever seen.  With quick, furtive glances you register shifty-eyed men in gaudy plaids and stripes – pickpockets and forgers, perhaps, plus one or two outright thugs.   Eyed by them with suspicion, for the first time in your life you feel conspicuous in sedate gray broadcloth adorned only by a small jeweled stickpin.  To your sensitive nostrils comes an aroma of unwashed bodies, liquor and tobacco, cheap cologne.  That older woman in a frilly bonnet just across from you, given her tawdry attempts at elegance (the parasol, the brooch), is probably the owner of a brothel, and that luscious little thing next to her, all curves and spangles, is no doubt a chorus girl or alleged aspiring actress – just the kind that is now suing your young client for breach of promise.  At any moment you half expect to see the waiting room invaded by some bloodstained ox of a rowdy, or a hulking fugitive in a wool skirt, bonnet, and veil with telltale man-sized shoes.  Even now the place seems menacing and dingy, clammy with vice and disorder.

         “Mr. Hummel will see you now, sir.”

Sequence 153 of 284
                   Harvard College Library
     Following the clerk down a corridor to an office in back, you at last encounter little Abe Hummel, his large egg-shaped head flashing a wry smile under 
a closely cropped dark mustache.  As always, Hummel’s puny body is neatly encased in black: a mortician.  You do not consider him a gentleman and are determined subtly to convey as much, but cannot avoid the usual proper greetings, after which he waves you into his office and suggests, in a soft, ingratiating voice, that you and he settle the matter promptly.  You agree and, as prearranged, hand him a thick envelope stuffed with greenbacks that he examines carefully bill by bill and counts briskly twice.  As he does so you notice on the wall dozens of portraits of attractive young women inscribed “Sincerely,” “In gratitude,” and even “Affectionately yours” – divorce cases, you assume, and shakedowns – what other word is there for it? -- like the one in progress.  The thought of all that feminine attention lavished on this balding little gnome annoys you.

        Pocketing the money, Hummel produces from his files the young woman’s sworn statement alleging seduction under promise of marriage, with a wealth of detail well calculated to titillate a scandal-loving public, and one or several letters from the alleged seducer written in a slipshod but rather vivid style – documents that you force yourself, with distaste, to scan carefully, before insisting that they be burned at once.  Initiating the familiar ritual, Hummel beckons you to an iron brazier in the corner of the office and blows on the warm gray coals until small pink flames lick upward.  Sheet by sheet, you immolate first the affidavit, then the letters.  When they are reduced to ash, you feel cleansed, relieved.

         Hummel now assures you that your client won’t be bothered again by the young lady in question, while adding that the settlement will lift her out of the mire of poverty so she can scale the lower heights of success.  What you think of this you keep to yourself, but Hummel may then offer a warning that your young client has accumulated gambling debts unknown to his august and affluent father and has been in scrapes before, perhaps arrested for cavorting in the buff on the Fifth Avenue, that most fashionable and exclusive of thoroughfares, or for urinating (he asks you to excuse his candor) under a grand piano or into a blue delft Chinese bowl, depending on the witness, in a house of scandalous repute – intelligence that, being new to you, falls heavy on your ears.  So they are true, you realize, those rumors that Howe & Hummel employ a network of spies, know everything. 

         Unsettled by this thought, you stand up quickly to leave.  But Hummel suggests that, to celebrate this happy dénouement, you join him in a nip and a puff.  Before you can decline, he produces two tumblers and a flask of your favorite whiskey, then a humidor with your preferred brand of first-rate Havanas.  (Is there anything this rascal doesn’t know?)  So you find yourself seated again, warmed with whiskey, a blue fragrance of tobacco in your nostrils, while your affable host chats casually about horses, theaters, and restaurants, revealing a veteran racetrack enthusiast, first nighter, and all-round bon vivant.  When he toasts you and wishes you success, it takes a fierce effort on your part not to wish him the same in return.

         Determined finally to escape, you rise quickly.  Hummel follows you to the office door and thrusts a bony hand, clasps yours.

         “Until next time, sir.  It has been a pleasure.”

         This suggestion of another such occasion grates on you.  You stare for a moment into his cold green gaze, then look down and notice a single charm dangling from his watch chain: a death’s head with bright mocking eyes.  Breaking away, you stride toward the entrance in front and leave quickly.  Unless, of course, word suddenly comes that Hummel's partner William Howe has worked his magic again and won an acquittal for some notorious murderer or crook, in which case the waiting room will explode in a tumult of joy, with thugs huzzaing, women capering, and dapper derbies tossed in the air: a raucous celebration of the overthrow of justice that you will fight your way savagely out of until at last, shaken and dismayed, you escape.  As for your small jeweled stickpin, it may or may not still adorn your shirtfront.

         So it went in the back office of Howe & Hummel, where Abe Hummel presided.  This account has been adapted from my fiction but adheres closely to historical fact.

         Twenty years younger than Howe and a confirmed bachelor, Abraham Hummel began as Howe’s clerk and in 1869 became his junior partner.  For decades to come, while Howe held forth grandiosely in courtrooms, Hummel sat quietly in his back office splitting legal hairs and sniffing out loopholes in the law to great effect.  On one occasion he is said to have discovered a procedural error that led to the release in a single day of 240 out of 300 prisoners confined on Blackwell’s Island.  When not bringing off such coups, he explored the complexities of fraud and gambling cases, handled divorce cases (considered scandalous at the time), and pursued to a successful conclusion (usually out of court) breach-of-promise suits that came perilously close to outright blackmail and transferred substantial sums from 
the bank accounts of prominent families with scapegrace sons to aspiring young actresses’ pockets and his own.

         Howe & Hummel attained a new level of notoriety in 1888 with their book 
In Danger, or Life in New York.  A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations.  Like a host of “sunshine and shadow books” published by journalists before it,  In Danger so exposed the city’s vices and sins as to render them irresistible.  It has even been suggested that the book’s description of criminal techniques made it an invaluable how-to guide for ambitious thieves flocking to the city.

         Prosecutors and judges longed to put an end to this scandalous but flourishing firm, but it even survived Howe’s death in 1902.  Then in 1907 Hummel was finally convicted of suborning perjury.  Disbarred, he served a year in jail, where he had ample opportunity to hobnob with some of his former clients.  Upon release he decamped, like so many disgraced New Yorkers, for the fleshpots of sophisticated Paris.  He died in London in 1926 at the age of seventy-five.

         Howe and Hummel were a rascally pair, but their skills were undeniable.  
They were early entries in a long roster of prominent and provocative U.S. defense attorneys that includes, on a higher level, such stellar names as Clarence Darrow, William Kunstler, and most recently Lynne Stewart, all of whom took the part of controversial and underprivileged defendants, and not without risk to themselves.  Darrow himself was once indicted for allegedly bribing a juror, but was subsequently acquitted, and Stewart is now serving a ten-year sentence for perjury.  I wouldn't put  William Howe in her class, but had he defended her, she might be free. 

Thought for the day:  Where there is no vision the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).  Vision is what I find totally lacking in the current campaign.   

                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder


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