America is a country of laws -- and that means it is a country of lawyers. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes -- well, not so much. Scoundrels in Law is about the country's first celebrity lawyers -- William Howe and Abraham Hummel -- a partnership that thrived in late 19th century New York City.
Howe & Hummel had several specialities -- murder, Broadway, divorce and blackmail. The last was necessarily a discreet operation, and little is known of it, except that it existed, and on a grand scale. The rakes of the Gilded Age would hustle to Howe & Hummel's dingy offices on receipt of a envelope featuring the famous names. Like death and taxes, dealing with Howe & Hummel became something of a rite of passage.
But murder and Broadway were always good for headlines -- lots of them, since New York had dozens of newspapers. Bill Howe defended more than 650 people in murder and manslaughter cases, more than anyone else by a big margin. And he got more of the big, juicy ones than anyone else, such as the locked-room mystery surrounding the death of financier Benjamin Nathan; the blonde in the truck; Carlyle Harris and his child bride; and the gruesome dismemberment of poor Willie Guldensuppe, who was the short end of the a love triangle. For his part, Abe Hummel dealt with John Barrymore, Mark Twain and everyone who was anyone on the Great White Way. He also played a supporting role in what might be the first murder of the century of the 20th century, the killing of architect Stanford White by the demented playboy heir, Harry Thaw.
For more than 30 years (1869-1902), the two had a fabulous run, interrupted only by the occasional disbarment. Howe died in 1902, and Hummel soldiered on until he made a mis-step during what should have been a routinely squalid divorce case. William Travers Jerome, a Churchill cousin, took him down in 1907.
Howe & Hummel, both individually and as a partnership, were not the kind of lawyers the Bar Association brags of; they lied and cheated with cheerful abandon. Indeed the Bar Association of the City of New York was founded in 1870 in large part to deal with judges whom they were bribing. But they were very much of a type that it still familiar to us. William Howe, with his flashy wardrobe and rotund oratory was made for Court TV; Abe Hummel would have been the quiet lawyer digging out celebs from the consequences of their fecklessness.
For an author, Howe & Hummel are tons of fun. The stories are irresistible -- the cat-killing philanthropists, the criminal salon run by Marm Mandelbaum; the bachelor party that made Little Egypt a star... But the story of the partnership is also a window into 19th century New York, in all its awkward glory.