A law unto themselves

In our first look at the figures who shaped the legal millennium Alan Hyman reveals the story of 19th Century New York legal team Abraham Hummel and Londoner William Howe, known as Eagle Abe and the Weeper, who became heroes of the criminal set and the bane of the establishment.

As we approach the end of the millennium, lawyers are finding innovative ways of generating new business. In the last century, in very different circumstances, two US lawyers also found novel ways of making their fortune.

William Howe was 40 and Abraham Hummel half his age when they formed their notorious partnership in 1869. In those days, a year or two in a lawyer's office was sufficient for a man to call himself a lawyer.

Author George Algar wrote of US law in those days: “There were practically no ethics at all in criminal law and none too much in other branches of the profession.” But Howe, dubbed the Weeper, and “Legal Eagle” Hummel, were in a class of their own.

It was said the firm earned half a million dollars in a bad year before the 20th Century had dawned. Yet the partners kept no records.

When the duo's great opponent, New York district attorney William Travers Jerome, had his men raid their offices searching for evidence to destroy the notorious firm, all they found was a torn piece of paper which bore the words: “Fifty-fifty split. Whack up the real estate.”

By 1873, all but one of the prisoners held in the Tombs Prison on charges of murder or manslaughter were represented by them. Their monopoly of the New York criminal bar saw them defend more than 1,000 such defendants over 35 years.

District attorney Jerome dubbed them the “Devil's Lawyers”, a title they relished. A sign, variously described as between 40 and 60ft long, flanked the roof of their offices, lighting up the New York night with the legend: “Howe and Hummel's Law Offices – It's No Crime To Have The Best Defense – Open 24 hours a day – Cable address: Lenient”. And their offices were unique. A defiant disgrace to the profession, each grimy window and boardwalk pillar was emblazoned in murky gold with the names of the two partners.

On the crowded benches lining the begrimed walls an array of clients would be seated, ranging from impoverished immigrants to the “Hackensack Mad Monster”; from Alice Jennings, the woman boxer, to John Barrymore, the actor. Other notable clients included Lilly Langtree, PT Barnum, Sir Henry Irving and Charlie Brockway, the counterfeiter who caused the US Treasury to withdraw an entire season's issue of $100 bills.

So successful were the two, that burlesque theatres would stage reconstructions of their cases with the pair even, on occasion, appearing themselves to roars of applause, following it up with a rendition of their song In times of toil and trouble, Call on Howe and Hummel.

The Eagle and the Weeper were followed by admirers who filled whichever court they appeared in. Bets were laid, not on whether Howe or Hummel would win, but when and what stroke they would pull. “We're a perfect partnership” said Howe. “Abe deals with the head, I deal with the heart.”

Not for nothing was Bill known as “the Weeper”. Born a London cockney, he wept for his juries. His immense charisma and natural flair as an actor won him his verdicts.

He liked to gravely inform each juror that “the highest form of awareness is compassion”, while employing any means to evoke it. He spared nothing to achieve his ends: stables of false witnesses – doctors, families, orphans, even babies – were recruited, and each paid according to the verdict delivered by the jury.

Asked by his peers to justify his disregard for ordinary notions of truth, Howe would remark: “Truth has its place, but its wardrobe is too expensive for the poor.”

Among other observations on the human condition, Howe noted: “Dealt good cards in life, people generally show no mercy for a weaker hand; law is the fortress of vested interest; people rarely act, mostly they react.”

Howe was there to even up the odds, generally for a good price.

Yet Howe's optimism was infectious. Maintaining that “people love a good show” and that his cases were “the best poker game in America”, he dressed for the mood of the day's proceedings. One contemporary described his normal dress as “a cross between a Coney Island showman and ringmaster at Barnum's circus”. Murder trials generally commenced with him appearing in bright colours, usually favouring outfits made up of purple jacket, peacock blue or yellow waistcoat and large-checked trousers. As the trial progressed, the colours darkened until the final day saw him appear clad in a worn black suit.

But whatever his dress, Howe always sported diamonds and a ship captain's cap. Every button glinted with diamonds. “Tears wept by angels for my clients,” he called them. “And paid for by them,” Hummel would add.

It had not always been that way; in the early years, diamonds were substituted with glass.

Hummel preferred law to people, whom he described as “unreliable”. Old Man Scheuster, a disreputable lawyer of the time credited with the probable origin of the term “shyster”, was said to have observed that Hummel flew through the law like an eagle, at which Howe promptly dubbed him “the Legal Eagle”. Whether the story is true or not, Hummel was the first to gain the title.

Even those who knew nothing of law would fill the court, patiently waiting for Hummel to abruptly turn a dead loser case into a winner.

As Howe was large and effusive, so Hummel was small and particular. Always dressed in a jet-black suit and white shirt, the only colour to his dress was the garnet-eyed gold Death's head that hung from his watch chain. “Call me a lawyer or call me a crook, I'm a neat son of a bitch,” he would say.

Born in the US of German stock, his philosophy was simple: “If they could shoot the gun, they wouldn't hire me and Bill.”

District attorney Jerome was Winston Churchill's first cousin, a member of New York aristocracy with ambitions to become governor of New York and then president of the US.

Howe and Hummel stood defiantly in his way, constantly beating him in court.

All Jerome's efforts against them, in and out of court, went unrewarded. When the press enquired how Howe and Hummel achieved their success, they would respond: “We always look ahead boys, much further ahead than the DA.” It became clear Jerome would never achieve his political ambitions unless he publicly destroyed the “Devil's Lawyers”.

Jerome watched and waited until, at last, he saw his chance. In 1903, he found evidence that a witness of Howe and Hummel had lied in court. If he could get hold of the witness, make a deal with him to swear that the pair had put him up to it, that would bring them down. But as usual, the two were one step ahead.

Utilising the services of Mother Mandelbaum's funeral parlour, they had smuggled the witness out of New York. So began a year-long chase by Jerome to find the witness. It ranged across the US, from New York to Atlanta to Texas.

Jerome and his men plotted much of the battle in Delmonico's Restaurant just 10ft from where the Howe and Hummel sat huddled at their table plotting their moves.

Press and public interest grew apace. At one point Hummel even had the witness smuggled over a state line disguised as a tattooed woman knife-thrower in Barnum's Circus.

To secure full co-operation, the witness was continuously indulged in his every vice.

By the end of 1904, the witness, whose predilection for wine, women and drugs had flourished in rough proportion to his need for less and less sleep, had lost all his hair and teeth.

When Jerome's persistence finally paid off and he finally got hold of the witness, he found he had captured a toothless wreck decayed by a year of indulgence to the point of being unable to speak coherently or even stand without assistance.

Jerome never won the governorship and Hummel, having cheated justice, retired abroad for an extended holiday, never again to practice law in the US.

He remarked to an enquiring New York lawyer, who spotted him at the Ascot races in 1909, that he preferred the music halls of Europe to those of New York, adding that he had also been very taken with the entertainments afforded by the geishas in Japan.

Howe and Hummel Cases

The Weeper

Sean O'Brien had been caught in the vaults of a bank almost immediately after the safe had been detonated. Howe's final summation is indicative of his ability to seduce a court.

O'Brien shuffled into court, his head swathed in bandages. Save for intermittent convulsions and a continuous twitching of the lip, O'Brien stared straight ahead in silence. Howe pleaded that his client was the victim of a dreadful accident: O'Brien had merely been passing by when an explosion from within the bank had led him to do what any American would have done – he had dashed to the rescue and for his trouble was hit by a falling beam that had rendered him unconscious and left him a deaf mute.

Howe then called for O'Brien's family to be brought into court. “Bring on the angels!” Howe boomed, and a fresh-faced young wife cradling a baby and trailed by a horde of pitiful children clad in tatters were ushered in.

Howe advanced on one juror and falling to his knees pulled the unfortunate man down beside him.

With his free hand waving towards the weeping family, now crowded around O'Brien, he announced: “These are my witnesses! Witnesses to the duty, love and loyalty of this poor, much maligned creature; the only shepherd of his flock whom the DA would deprive of a father – a father who sought to save another by Christian duty and show love by example!” At this point the wife began to breastfeed the wailing baby.

Howe rose to his feet and stood behind O'Brien. Obscured by the defence table, the jury was unable to see him grasp O'Brien's wrists. Slowly, Howe raised his head to stare at the jury. With tears now flowing down his great cheeks, he spoke quietly in deep, broken tones: “Who will feed his lambs? Will the DA? Will this judge? Will you? Who will return this poor shepherd to the bosom of his loving flock? Who will save him? Who can save him? Why 'tis you gentlemen, you are his only saviours now, the only guardians of justice in this court. For the sake of pity, of justice, of plain American decency, help me! Save this man who only tried to be a saviour! Would that you could do more. Could you do less?”

As he finished, Howe dug his nails into O'Brien's wrists. O'Brien screamed a long, blood-curdling “Aagh!”. As the not guilty verdict came in, O'Brien tore off his bandages and ran from the court yelling: “Silence is golden.” His newly-acquired family were paid off later.

Eagle Abe

In 1890, Owen Reilly, an arsonist, was caught in the act of setting a fire. Reilly retained Abe Hummel as his counsel and pleaded not guilty. On the day of the trial, Hummel took the court, and an extremely agitated Reilly, by surprise.

He proposed that instead of wasting time on a trial, the district attorney and judge should accept a lesser plea of guilty of attempted arson.

When the plea was accepted, Hummel rose to announce that there was no punishment at law for attempted arson. The incredulous judge, supported by an irate district attorney inquired why. Hummel explained that the law provided that the sentence for any attempted crime was half the maximum imposed for commission of the crime. The maximum penalty for arson, he pointed out, was imprisonment of the arsonist for the remainder of his life. How could the court determine what half the life of Reilly was? This was a matter beyond human wit to determine.The judge was bound to agree and Reilly went free.

In autumn 1888, Handsome Harry Carlton, having been found guilty on a charge of first-degree murder of a police officer, engaged Hummel to act for him. The law stipulated only one sentence for first-degree murder – death by hanging.

Carlton appeared for sentence on 1 December 1888 with Hummel as his counsel. The judge was about to pronounce sentence when Hummel bounded to his feet to announce that no sentence could be pronounced upon his client. He explained that it was a clearly established basic rule of law that where no penal or other sanction was prescribed for an action, that action could not constitute a crime. To the consternation of the court, he went on to point out that the Electrical Death Penalty Law of 1888 had abolished hanging as of 4 June 1888 and replaced it by electrocution, to come into force on 1 January 1889.

Further, electrocution was to apply to all convictions for crimes punishable by death on or after 1 January 1889. Carlton's conviction had occurred after hanging had been abolished and before execution by means of the “electrical chair” had come into force. There was no provision for the punishment of murderers convicted between 4 June 1888 and 1 January 1889, hence there were 7 months during which no punishment was prescribed for first-degree murder.

Before the hearing, Hummel collected fees up front from some 100 prisoners awaiting execution who would have been affected by the ruling. Asked why the fees were not made contingent on his success, he observed that if he lost the prisoners would not need the money, and if he won they would be too overjoyed to care.