From 1869 to 1902, William Howe and Abraham Hummel were New York’s most famous lawyers, displaying a panache and a legal flair that made them the favored advocates for villains of all kinds. Of the pair, Howe had the more self-consciously outrageous personality. Violent death was his specialty; he represented an estimated 650 defendants charged with murder or manslaughter, and often relied on raw emotion to sway juries. By the 1880s, no account of a trial featuring Howe failed to mention his girth (which kept expanding) and flamboyant dress, including technicolored waistcoats and dollops of precious stones. Hummel, by contrast, was a tiny man who dressed only in black. But as a bon vivant, a Broadway first-nighter and an accomplished blackmailer, he was scarcely less colorful.
At the height of their fame, Howe & Hummel got almost all the best murders and most outrageous cases. They defended everyone from Carlyle Harris, the handsome medical student who killed his child bride, to Irish gangsters to a cat-killing philanthropist to a whole generation of bank robbers. And many of the most famous characters of the Gilded Age, including Theodore Roosevelt, comic actress Lillian Russell and Stanford White, played roles in the Howe & Hummel epic.
William Howe and Abraham Hummel were not, by any reckoning, particularly good men. But they were fascinating, and through the windows of their grimy offices in downtown Manhattan, readers get a glimpse of the Gilded Age in both its glory and its grime. With Scoundrels in Law, Cait Murphy restores this once famous duo to their rightful place in the pantheon of great American characters .
Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe and Hummel, Lawyers to the Gangsters, Cops, Starlets, and Rakes Who Made the Gilded Age was the August 2011 Amherst Reads Featured Book of the Month.