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An Excerpt from Scoundrels in Law by Cait Murphy '83
Chapter 7: The Accidental Reformers
Given the breadth of Howe & Hummel’s practice in the 1880s and ‘90s, they were bound to run into people entirely unlike themselves—that is, altruists and reformers. The work paid, and the publicity was terrific.
Besides, New York was lousy with do-gooders and civic worthies and crusaders. There were women’s rights and labor activists and anti-vice campaigners galore, of course. But there were also movements afoot to build playgrounds and change the marriage laws and license dogs and feed newsboys and build public baths and send flowers to the poor[i] and loosen corsets.
Some of them even worked. Thanks to the patriotic nudging of Pulitzer’s World, the public eventually ponied up enough pennies to pay for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty; the massive lady emigrated to the U.S. in 1885. After almost a decade of effort, sparked in part by Jacob Riis’s haunting photos in How the Other Half Lives, Mulberry Bend was razed in 1895 and converted into a little park[ii] that is today a hub for the nearby Chinese community. And in a daring departure from tradition, George Waring, named Commissioner of Street Cleaning in 1895, actually cleaned Manhattan’s streets—most of them twice a day, and the busiest ones as many as four times.[iii]
Howe & Hummel had nothing to do with these matters. But in the decades that nursed the impulses that would bloom into what became known as the Progressive Era, they couldn’t help being drawn into a couple of causes.
One was the effort to ban prize fighting from New York. Boxing was legal; indeed, the manly art was practiced at all the best gentleman’s clubs and was even part of the Harvard curriculum. But such sparring was for amateurs, and thus guided by a set of rules no less profound for being unspoken. Prize fighting was different. It was professional; the aim was to knock the other man out; and it became associated with criminality and gangsters. Theodore Roosevelt, for one, loved boxing but disdained prize fighting as a “brutal and degrading” spectacle that fed all the worst impulses of the lower orders.[iv]
Though prize fighting was illegal almost everywhere in the U.S (and banned in New York in 1859), it thrived. Bouts would be held on barges to evade the law; or moved from place to place. Somehow the newspapers and the fans—and not just those of the loutish variety, either—always caught up. In 1877, the Times reported on what it called a “brutal prize fight” at Red Leary’s that the police failed to stop, either through “connivance or incompetence.” [v] Connivance and incompetence were widely available.
In the early 1880s, a boxer emerged who became the first modern superstar of the sport. He liked to introduce himself this way: “My name’s John L. Sullivan and I can lick any son-of-a-bitch alive.” He could, too. Sullivan became recognized as the heavyweight champ in February 1882, when he beat Patrick Ryan in Mississippi City in a $5,000 bare-knuckle bout. Sullivan embarked on a victory tour of sorts, stopping in New York to pick up his money from saloonkeeper Harry Hill before arriving in Boston to a hero’s welcome.[vi] He began to cash in.
What Sullivan didn’t do was expose himself to real competition. Instead, he favored exhibitions under the rules published by the Marquess of Queensberry in 1867: gloves; three-minute rounds; no wrestling; and a fighter counted out after 10 seconds down. These bouts were perfectly legal; they also introduced hordes of people to the sport, a large number of them rich, worldly and influential. Sullivan began to insist that any challenger withstand a Queensberry four-rounder before he would grant a shot at the title, which would still be an illegal bare-knuckle fight to the finish.
As a result, these “exhibitions” became thoroughly professionalized, with real money (through betting) and consequences (a shot at the title) at stake. In May 1883, for example, New York Police Captain Alexander Williams stopped a fight against Charlie Mitchell, a Briton who had come to the U.S. to knock out Sullivan.[vii] At the re-match 13 months later, a crowd of 6,000 people packed Madison Square Garden. Among them, according to the National Police Gazette: Reverends Henry Ward Beecher and DeWitt Talmadge; seven Aldermen; five judges; two police commissioners; four police inspectors; one Vanderbilt; plus various magnates of business, both legitimate and otherwise. The Gazette didn’t like Sullivan one bit; the big Irishman had snubbed its proprietor, Richard K. Fox, at Harry Hill’s a few years before and Fox had made it his mission to find someone to knock John L. off his perch. This quest was so well known that it became the stuff of music-hall derision:
The Fox may go to England
And the Fox may go to France,
But to beat John L., he can go to Hell,
And then he won’t have a chance.[viii]
Fox believed in boxing. He had built up the pink-tinted Gazette from near-failure to a tabloid institution with a national circulation of 150,000. “Be as truthful as possible, Fox advised his staff, “but a story’s a story.”[ix] The Gazette filled its pages with sex, murder, and boxing, and had no use at all for the pieties of the time. It once ran a full-page picture of a family with a sick child, with the caption: “The Fiends of Religion: How the Brooklyn hypocrites torture the sick and dying with the hellish clangor of their Sunday church bells.”[x] On the pages of the Gazette, Fox argued that if people like Beecher showed up for “sparring exhibitions,” how bad could actual prize fighting be?
Sullivan, however, showed up late, and impaired. He reeled through the ropes and announced to the crowd: “Gentleman, I am sick and not able to box. The doctor is here and this is the first time I disappointed yer.” He punctuated the sentence with strategic hiccups, then crawled back to his bottle, completing an impressive 48-hour bender.
With a reputation to restore, Sullivan accepted a challenge from Richard K. Fox’s latest hope, Alf Greenfield, the self-proclaimed champion of England. Sullivan got rid of some of his blubber and fought a tune-up exhibition on Nov. 10 to raise money for flood victims in Ohio. He won easily, but was huffing in the second round. As the date of the fight neared, the question swirled: Could he keep it up against a real fighter?
That question, however, was superseded by a more pressing concern: Would the fight even take place? [xi] New York Mayor Franklin Edson, who was not at the fight and knew nothing about boxing, did not like what he had heard. He ordered to police to prevent any recurrence of an activity he considered “disgraceful … and demoralizing to young men.” On November 15, two days before the big fight, Captain Williams arrested Sullivan, Greenfield and their backers on the charge of conspiracy to commit a prizefight.
The following day, Judge Barrett grilled the pugilists on their intentions. They were not going to hurt each other, really, just try to pile up points—sort of like fencing, but without the weapons; it was to be a scientific exhibition on boxing. Sullivan and Greenfield confirmed they had nothing against the other fellow, and didn’t expect any blood to be spilled. Then the two signed a deposition—Greenfield could only make a mark, and the act of writing did not come naturally to Sullivan either—and were allowed to go.
Barrett excused himself for an hour, then made his decision. The question, as he saw it, was whether the proposed contest was a “friendly sparring match not calculated to injure either party, or a serious physical contention.” It seemed to Barrett that if the contestants did as they proposed to do, there would be no problem. But, he concluded, “If severe blows are struck, which are likely to cause injury to the parties or to inflame their passions or the passions of the bystanders,” the police would have to stop it.[xii] The pugilistic scientists could take the ring.
They were back in business: four rounds, Queensberry rules, on November 18, at Madison Square Garden. Among the 2,000 spectators: William Howe, Abraham Hummel, Henry Flagler (Rockefeller’s right-hand man), Charles Tiffany, Isidor Straus, and a number of people who had gone to the Astor wedding that afternoon.[xiii] Plus, of course, the rough trade that had given the sport its reputation—and more than 100 cops, just in case. Captain Williams and Chief George Walling had ringside seats; the former armed with the much-used nightstick that gave him his nickname “Clubber. The Captain once summed up his philosophy of policing this way: “There is more justice at the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in any Supreme Court decision.” Walling brought only his total ignorance of the manly art.
At 10:15, the pugilists entered the ring. Both wore white tights; Sullivan accented his with a green, shamrock-speckled sash, Greenfield with a red one. After a little strutting and posturing, the bell rang to start the fight. The first round went by without incident, though Sullivan had much the better of it. Greenfield could barely land a blow and at one point, escaped into a clinch of such desperate longing that a wag shouted, “Kiss ’im, Alf!”[xiv] Sullivan broke free and managed to land a couple more examples of scientific self-defense before the bell tolled.
But it was the second round that would become a point of contention. Greenfield kept whiffing, Sullivan kept connecting, and the two of them kept ending up in each other’s arms. Finally, the challenger managed to land two shots in a row, a success he would regret because, in the worlds of the Herald, “This made Sullivan wicked.” A right and a left opened a cut over Greenfield’s eye; as the blood began to flow, the crowd bayed in approval. Backed against the ropes, the Englishman took more blows to his body “of the sledgehammer description” while his own gloves waved feebly and hit with the force of a tired butterfly.
At ringside, Walling did not like what he was seeing. “This has gone far enough,” he told Captain Williams. Seconds later, Clubber cried “Stop!” and crawled through the ropes to end the right. “I’m sorry to interfere,” Walling explained, “but the second round was a slugging match.”
After dressing, the boxers led a procession of hundreds on a snowy walk of three blocks to the nearest police station. Sullivan, Greenfield, Fox and five others were indicted the next day for “instigating, aiding, encouraging and furthering a contention and fight without weapons between two persons.”
Greenfield was disgusted. “ ’Ere I’ve been a fortnight in this blasted country, and I’ve spent three days in the police courts, and ’eaven only knows ’ow many times I’ve been asked if I could read or write.” Sullivan, who looked as healthy and unmarked as if he had spent the evening at home with the wife and baby—a ludicrous idea—was also chagrined. “If I get out of this,” he said, “I think I’ll steer clear of New York. Things are getting a little too-too in this town.”[xv]
But could he get out of it? Well, he had a good shot. First, public opinion was swinging behind a more expansive view of boxing. And second, Howe & Hummel had stepped into the ring. Howe represented Greenfield, and one of the firm’s associates, Peter Mitchell, appeared for Sullivan, following in Howe’s slipstream throughout the proceedings. Mitchell could not hope, however, to emulate his mentor’s spectacular sartorial display—sealskin coat, peacock-blue tie, set off by diamonds dripping from his watch-chain, fingers, and cuffs.
Howe liked to brag that he was confident enough in his skills that he didn’t give a toss about the jury. But this was bravado; he dipped with purpose into the jury pool, skimming off men who showed unfortunate prosecutorial inclinations. He once turned down a juror because he did business in Jersey City. “We don’t want any Jersey influence here,” Howe sniffed. [xvi]
In this case, Howe wanted manly men of libertarian sensibilities, not earnest souls with sensitive consciences. So, for example, Henry Kraus, who admitted he didn’t like boxing, scientific or otherwise, was sent home. So was William McBride, who admitted “I dissipate, I do.” How? Playing checkers at night. Not what Howe was looking for. But Thomas Brennan, a merchant whose hobby was Roman history and who liked gladiators, was warmly welcomed.
When the trial opened on December 18, the court was graced by a truly remarkable number of flattened noses and large-checked trousers. The city’s pugilists had come to sit by their men. The first witness was Chief Walling, who gave a straightforward account of his night at ringside. For Walling, the tipping point came when Greenfield was bleeding, and Sullivan was still pounding him. At that moment, the chief said, the pair had crossed the line from boxing to slugging.
Passing the blood-flecked gloves for inspection, Howe asked, “Is there as much blood on these gloves as would come from a bloody nose?” Walling wasn’t sure. Don’t the police have a boxing club? Walling thought so. And doesn’t that club sometimes have sparring matches at Madison Square Garden? Well, yes. “And the men dressed the same way and wore the same gloves?” Pretty much. “That will do,” Howe concluded.
Things got no better for the prosecution when Walling stepped down, because not even his fellow cops shared his perspective. Captain Williams, who was an amateur boxer and a regular spectator at the fights, denied any untoward violence. So did Inspector Thorne, adding that the clinches that Walling saw as evidence of slugging were just a matter of technique. Look, he offered to Howe, let me show you. Thorne left his seat and attempted to put the defense lawyer in a clinch; but the two of them were both so fat, all they managed to do was to rub paunches, much to the edification of judge and jury. Taking advantage of the now-jocular mood of the court, Howe pointed out that clouts that looked hard to Walling might not be to the participants. “A blow given by such men” as Sullivan, Greenfield and even Williams, “all of them finely developed, muscular men, would have more effect than one dealt by my partner, Mr. Hummel,” who looked up from his papers to join in the general laughter at his expense.
Greenfield and Sullivan both proved that while they lacked education, they were eminently teachable. They stayed on point during their testimony, Greenfield noting that he hit Sullivan no harder than the young gentlemen back in England whom he schooled in the manly art. He bore no ill will toward his opponent.
“We had a friendly set-to,” Sullivan agreed, noting that of course he wanted to live up to the spirit and letter of Judge Barrett’s pre-fight strictures. As for the blood, that was just an accident. He could have hit a good deal harder.
What it came down to was the testimony of Chief Walling, who had never seen a boxing match before, against everyone else. A little after four, the jury retired. Less than 10 minutes later, they were back: Not guilty. But it was an expensive win; Sullivan later said he had paid his entire share of the Greenfield fight to Howe & Hummel.[xvii]
In the aftermath of the Sullivan-Greenfield affray, the conventional wisdom was that the victory had settled the matter: As long as the fighters used gloves and nodded at the legal formalities, they would be allowed to go at it. The Gazette could not resist patting itself on its pink back. “Thanks to this just judge and the energy and resolution of Richard K. Fox,” it concluded in its first issue after the trial, “the cause of manly sport has won a substantial and final victory.”[xviii]
Not quite: Like many social changes, the gradual reform and then legalization of boxing was a process, not an event. Howe & Hummel played a role in that process—though they didn’t give a damn for the cause. [xix]
After his technical knock-out against the New York authorities, Sullivan continued as undisputed heavyweight champ for another eight years, winning the last bare-knuckle championship in a 75-round brawl (for which he and his challenger were arrested and later convicted). Then he became the first champion to lose his title wearing gloves, to “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in 1892.
But Corbett was no gentleman, at least not according to his wife, Olive, who objected to sharing his attentions with a young lady named Vera, in particular, and other women in general. When Olive sued for divorce in 1895, she hired Howe & Hummel. Corbett had met his match this time. Olive got the divorce, $100 a week for life, and her name back.[xx]
Calculated indifference to the deepest values of their clients also marked Howe & Hummel’s defense of anarchism. There were three great figures in 19th-century American anarchism—Justus Schwab, Johann Most and Emma Goldman. Howe & Hummel would defend Schwab and Most. Goldman was a close friend of Schwab’s and one of her roommates would marry Most.[xxi]
The anarchists were, of course, more than a little bit odd, and their ideas were a mix of gibberish, unreality and insight. A world run according to anarchistic lines—and these were uncertain, given the ideological splintering that was one of the movement’s most characteristic features—would have been a chaotic disaster. No one would want to live in a city where anarchists were in charge of, say, maintaining the sewers.
That said, they were shrewd social observers, seeing more keenly than most of their contemporaries the racial, sexual and economic fault lines that were, particularly in retrospect, so glaring a feature of 19th century America. And the anarchists were sincere—desperately, even comically so. Goldman told the story, for example, of being taken aside by a young colleague during a gathering and reprimanded for her joyous dancing. The party disintegrated into a fierce debate between those who would allow dancing and those who saw it as egotistic indulgence that diverted energy and betrayed their deepest beliefs. Truly, being an anarchist must often have been a wearisome thing.
Anarchists tended to believe that a formal legal system blasted the spontaneous expression of human genius. Howe & Hummel, of course, needed a formal legal system, if only to express their own genius in wriggling around it. The partners saw little further than their own self-interest, and were cheerfully insincere about everything. When it came to working with the anarchists, though, such differences didn’t matter. The anarchists wanted to stay out of prison; Howe & Hummel wanted to win. That was enough common ground to forge an enduring connection.
Justus Schwab was the first anarchist to avail himself of the Howe & Hummel treatment. A German immigrant, Schwab owned a saloon in the basement of a tenement on First Street that all the best radicals went to. Lined with images of the French Revolution and stuffed with books on politics, the place was so popular that Schwab became embarrassingly prosperous. But he was also a true believer—generous with his wealth and loyal to the Cause. As one contemporary said of him, “A more amiable and better-informed man than Schwab never trod carpet slippers.”[xxii]
He got into trouble in February 1885, though, when he and other German anarchists crashed a meeting of the Social Labor Party, another German group, which had convened to condemn the recent dynamitings in London by Irish bombers, a denunciation Schwab considered a capitulation to the ruling class.
The two groups were literally fighting over the gavel when Police Captain John McCullagh—a protégé of Walling, and sometimes as clueless—announced his presence and ordered the fighting to stop. Schwab’s response, according to the captain, was to call on the crowd to kill him.[xxiii] A riot ensued, and by the time police reinforcements came, Schwab was gone. McCullagh ordered his men to go to the saloon and arrest him.
Schwab scoffed at this account. Then he called in Howe & Hummel. Their first ploy was to try to get the more serious charge thrown out on a technicality. Incitement to riot required the participation of three or more people, Hummel told the police court. On McCullagh’s own account, only Schwab had done any inciting; therefore, there was no case to answer. A clever idea, but it failed.
At the trial three months later, the defense was more straightforward: Prove it. The police, Howe & Hummel said, did as much as anyone to turn the affair into a riot, if there was a riot. Their man Schwab was no communist—he even had a bank account. If he was guilty of anything, and they weren’t saying he was, it was of nothing more than having unpopular opinions. And in this great land of ours, that was no crime.
At the trial, McCullagh re-told his story in greater, but not more convincing detail. In this version, Schwab had shouted: “Captain McCullagh! Police! Murder him, kill him and fire him out!”—a level of redundancy that judge, jury and courtroom all found damn funny. And a number of defense witnesses flatly contradicted him. The trouble began when the police reinforcements arrived, a reporter for the Herald told the court. “The clubbing was very thoroughly done.”
When Schwab’s time to testify came, Hummel introduced his client, with a touch of defensiveness, as an “estimable citizen with theories and pronouncements abreast of the able thought of the age.” The mute witness of petite wife and sleeping child bolstered the idea that Schwab was just another bloke with funny political ideas, sort of like being a Republican in the Sixth Ward.
Although Schwab, an atheist, refused to swear on the Bible, he managed to play along with Howe’s gentle questions, describing himself as a saloon-keeper, importer and news dealer, who had gone to the meeting strictly as an interested citizen. He had tried to calm the disturbance, not provoke it. Articulate and well-groomed—in marked contrast to his scruffy allies in the courtroom—Schwab made a good impression.
Under cross-examination, however, the radical within could not be suppressed. Yes, Schwab said proudly, he was a revolutionary socialist, and when the masses were educated enough, he would “certainly urge them to revolution and annihilation.” Schwab dug himself deeper with every phrase, until, mercifully, a juror stepped in. The trial was about an alleged riot, not the definition of socialism; “it is cruelty to animals to make us sit here to listen to this debate.”
All that was left were the closing arguments, always Howe’s specialty. Red in the face, his voice throbbing in passion, he played the patriotism card. Our own founders were revolutionaries, he pointed out, and in their wisdom the Constitution guaranteed liberty of speech and religion to all. The only question to consider was what happened at Concordia Hall the night of February 2, not Schwab’s atheism (granted) or political beliefs (peculiar, but protected). Schwab was a scapegoat for poor policing, nothing more, and deserved complete acquittal.
After the prosecution made its case, the judge made some pointed remarks about the difficulty of believing a man who did not believe in God, and a little before 3:30 the jury retired. They gave up, pale and haggard, at 3 pm the next day. The voting was 8-4 for conviction, but they were never going to agree on a unanimous verdict. Schwab was free to go; there would be no second trial. In victory, he was generous: “Mr. Howe and Mr. Hummel,” he said with relief, “have been brave and loyal, and I am very thankful to them.”
But Schwab did not quite get away scot-free. In his absence, his saloon had been robbed. He did not call the police.[xxiv]
Johann Most was a more consequential, and controversial, figure than the sociable Schwab. Born in Germany, Most was scarred for life when an operation for an infected jaw left his face permanently twisted. The disfigurement did nothing to soothe a combustible temperament; at the age of 12, he organized his first strike, against an unpopular teacher, and was expelled from school. It would become a pattern. He bounced around Northern Europe, wearing out his welcome first in Austria, and then in Germany, where he was arrested for a speech that was over-enthusiastic about the utility of explosions as a form of political discourse. Moving to London, he started a radical newspaper, Freiheit (Freedom), that was extreme enough to get him expelled from the Social Democratic Party. It was about this time that he picked up the nickname of “General Boom Boom.”
Most might have been able to beaver away indefinitely on the margins, if Freiheit had not gloated over the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. “At last he died like a dog,” Most concluded of the czar. It was too much for Britain, which had its own royal family and problems with bomb-throwers. He did another stint in jail.
On his release, he took up Schwab’s invitation to come to the U.S., arriving in late 1882. Taking up the reins of the Freiheit again, Most quickly established himself as the face of anarchism, which at the time was regarded as something of an inside joke that Europeans played on each other. Most was a ferocious and stirring presence, by all accounts, who favored what he called the attentat, or “propaganda of the deed.” The practicalities of this he addressed in 1885, with the publication of his most famous work: The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, Etc, Etc. The book won a devoted following among arsonists and insurance scammers, but it cost Most his friendship with Schwab, who failed to see arson-for-hire as an appropriate revolutionary tool.
America’s bemused tolerance of the anarchists expired in the bloody chaos of Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886. An anarchist-organized rally for the eight-hour workday began peacefully. Police moved in to break it up around 10:30; a pipe bomb was thrown, and police fired into the crowd. When the smoke cleared, eight policeman and four protesters were dead, and scores injured. It was a terrible day; but how the blame should be apportioned was impossible to determine.
At the time, though, the immediate reaction was to blame the radicals for everything. “The villainous teachings of the Anarchists bore bloody fruit in Chicago tonight,” began the New York Times account of the tragedy, “and before daylight at least a dozen stalwart men will have laid down their lives as a tribute to the doctrine of Herr Johann Most.”
Most wasn’t even in Chicago, and he couldn’t have cared less about the eight-hour day.[xxv] But as the most high-profile anarchist in America, he was going to pay for Haymarket. New York authorities did not have to look very hard to find a reason to arrest him. In fact, they had an indictment all ready. On April 23, he had given a speech to a meeting of anarchists in which he brandished a rifle and said:
You can make bombs out of glass tubes and old iron pipe which you can load with dynamite or gunpowder and fasten with caps at both ends. And when you see any of the rascals, throw them under their feet and kill them. …Then when we are all armed we can rise at a given moment, and take possession of all the armories and arsenals in the city. In one year, 100,000 men could be armed and then we should seize the capitalists by the throat.
And so on. This was, on one level, gas-baggery of the kind Most had been venting for years. But however incapable Most was of turning his rhetoric into rivers of blood, the sensibility was creepy. A grand jury quickly handed down indictments for incitement to riot and unlawful assembly. On May 11, he was arrested. The police said they found him half-dressed and hiding under the bed in the tenement apartment of an 18-year old acolyte. It was his first night in an American jail—and time, of course, for Howe & Hummel.
Most was released on bail a few days later, complaining of the filth and vermin of the Tombs, the calumny of the press—the hiding under the bed story infuriated him—and the theft of $180 from his belongings. At the trial, the prosecution was brisk. Colonel Fellows described the meeting, and read out extracts of Most’s remarks. Fellows was all for free speech, he asserted, but not to speech that “leads to acts of blood and violence.” Then half a dozen witnesses, a mix of cop and civilian, told what they saw, all broadly corroborative.
Most was panting to be heard, but he did not want to face questions. So he, rather than Howe, delivered the closing remarks, to the latter’s visible disapproval. Most did his cause no good. He denied again being found under the bed; accused the witnesses of mis-representing the nuances of his argument; and closed by shrieking, “My conviction means the downfall of free speech! Then will be the downfall of the press and the end of the Republic.” The one thing Most could never be accused of was not taking himself seriously.
The jury decided to risk the death of liberty and convicted him promptly. The judge chipped in a rousing commentary, telling Most, “A more wicked and atrocious scoundrel than you are does not disgrace the face of this earth.” Most got the max, a year at Blackwell’s, and was shipped over to the island of misfits and petty criminals a few hours later. His full beard was shaved off, exposing the dented left side of his face; now he really looked like the vicious murderer the Times, for one, considered him. “If ever a man earned death on the gallows,” that newspaper editorialized, “Most has earned it.” [xxvi]
By any measure, that was an extreme view, a sign of post-Haymarket fury more than any reasoned consideration of the man’s deeds. Howe & Hummel’s performance had been lackluster. But then, they didn’t have much to work with. Waving a rifle while urging the masses to take up arms to kill, kill, kill is not protected speech anywhere. When Most took away Howe’s best shot—the closing address, in which he had confused many a jury into letting real villains free—he sent himself to jail.
Most didn’t see it that way. “I did not expect anything else from a jury of capitalists,” he sniffed. “They were not my peers.” That the 12 small businessmen, bartenders and clerks were not of the same world as Most was surely true—and entirely irrelevant. They were far more representative of the society he had chosen to live in than his not-very-merry band of anarchists.
With time off for good behavior, Most was off Blackwell’s in 10 months; he had even been allowed to regrow his beard before release. He had not, however, been rehabilitated.
Back on the platform, he picked up where he’d left off, telling a crowd in Philadelphia, for example, “It is no crime to kill the policemen such as Chicago employs.” And he repeated his affection for the attentat: “Yes, bombs! Bombs are far better.” It was only a matter of time before he would have to answer again for his words.
That time duly came in the wake of the execution on November 11, 1887 of four anarchists for their alleged role in the Haymarket tragedy.[xxvii] It was natural for New York’s anarchists to mourn these deaths; and considering the preponderance of Germans in the movement, it was natural for them to do so in a beer hall. When Most came in, it was inevitable he would speak. What did he say? Well, according to the New York World, which hated Most, he began by addressing the 100 or so people in the back room of the beer hall as “Fellow slaves” and went on to threaten “death to the butchers” who were responsible for killing the Haymarket martyrs. Then he renewed the call to arms.
Such words would hardly have been out of character for Most, but he instantly denied the substance of the World’s account, threatening to sue the paper for slander. The New York Sun, which was of more tempered character than the World, had a substantively different account: “Most says Anarchy Lives,” was the headline, “But he isn’t very wild about it and doesn’t dabble in blood,” was the subhead. In the Sun’s account, Most made no threats and even contradicted a cry for immediate revenge. There was no gun-waving from the platform, and no melee. Nonetheless Most found himself indicted, again, on the charge of unlawful assembly.
The press had nothing but disdain for the anarchist cause, but even so, Most’s arrest gave some of them pause. The Times, which had wanted to gibbet Most the year before, now questioned the basis of the prosecution: “Is it wise to prevent his vaporings because he vapors to his own detestable kind?”
This time, then, Most had a real defense; and this time, Howe & Hummel would pull out the stops to defend him.
The trial convened on November 22. Prosecutor DeLancey Nicoll needed only a single day to make his case. He brought in three people to testify to Most’s allegedly riot-inciting words. Officer Louis Roth, a veteran of Howe & Hummel’s two previous anarchist cases, gave his rendering of what Most said; he had not taken notes at the time, Roth said, because he would have been attacked, but he wrote it down right after and his German was good.
Not, perhaps, as good as that of Abe Hummel, who had grown up speaking German. He whispered to Howe, who had one question to Roth on cross-examination: “Give me the German for ‘fate,’ ” a word Roth had used when testifying. Roth didn’t know. Howe waved his hand in dismissal: “You can go, sir.” The second cop at the meeting, John Sachs, also ran into trouble with the legal tag team. He, too, said his German was excellent. Again, with Hummel’s tutoring, Howe managed to expose some linguistic deficiencies.
When things resumed the next day, Howe’s opening remarks were a characteristic mix of brio and calculation. Referring to his own client as a “fanatic and a fool,” he reminded the jury that they, at least, were solid American citizens and therefore lovers of personal liberties. His voice dropping to a whisper, he advised the jury not to “allow your voices or your sympathies to be moved against the sacred right that our glorious Constitution guarantees to us.” Then he raised his voice in passion: It was not Johann Most who was on trial, he thundered, but “freedom of speech which is arraigned in this court of justice.” A few more flings of purple rhetoric, a scathing reference to Anthony Comstock, and Howe got down to business, calling half dozen witnesses who gave their own versions of the speech. It was emotional, they all agreed, but less than blood-curdling. In a nice touch, they all gave their testimony in German, an unstated but well-understood reference to the linguistic shortcomings revealed the previous day.
One of the witnesses, Emil Kosz, provided a dash of comedy—but one that also revealed the anxiety that proximity to anarchists provoked. Kosz took the stand carrying a box, an accessory that the judge eyed suspiciously and that worried Police Captain McCullagh enough that the put his hand on his gun. Asked what brought him to the meeting that evening, Kosz fingered his box; the crowd rustled as if ready to flee to the exits. He opened it, and revealed—corn plasters. When they did not explode, there were sighs of relief all around. Kosz explained that he was a peddler; he had thought he could sell a few plasters to the gathering. Later, both Howe and Hummel accepted Kosz’s kind donation of his wares because, they said, the prosecution had been treading on their corns all day.
From Hartwig the wigmaker, who had been moved to tears at Most’s words, to the blowhard who kept referring every question back to the concept of the “philosophical god” to Rosenzweig the cigar-maker who had been studying anarchy for eight years but could not define it, the defense witnesses were not impressive. But their accounts were consistent. Looked at dispassionately, there was little to choose from between them and the questionable testimony of the prosecution’s men.
Howe & Hummel should have left it there, but they knew the jury would want to hear from Most himself. Just as surely, he would want to speak. But allowing Most to testify was a gamble that did not pay off. At first, the grim-visaged anarchist performed well, giving a calm and compelling version of his speech. He even maintained his poise when Nicoll forced him to recount his various arrests and grilled him on his beliefs. But then his luck ran out.
The turning point came when Nicoll asked Most if he was an author. Sensing what was coming, Howe was on his feet, objecting. But the judge ruled that Nicoll could ask Most the names of his works, and Most could decline to reply if he so wished. Most chose to name a few pamphlets and his recent opus, The Hell of Blackwell’s Island. “Any more?” Nicoll queried. That’s enough, said Most. The prosecutor followed up, “Are you not the author of a book entitled, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare?”
Howe popped to his feet again. This was an outrage! The judge, he sputtered, had ruled several times that the book was immaterial. Nicoll replied that the judge had allowed him to ask about Most’s written work. That’s all he was doing, he shrugged innocently. The judge agreed that Nicoll could cite passages from the book, but only to ask if Most had authored them. It was all the prosecution needed. Nicoll paged through the book, reading out some of the more explosive passages. Did you write this, he asked about a reference to 10 pounds of dynamite being enough to take down a small building. Most took the Fifth. Then Nicoll turned the page, about a recipe for poisoning arrows. Did Most write that one? He took the Fifth. Finally, Most retorted that he didn’t say any of this at the meeting. And took the Fifth again.
In closing, Howe repeated that this was a trial about his client’s words and actions on the night of November 12, 1887 in a private room in New York, not about Haymarket or what Most had written years ago. “If the first dangerous encroachment of free speech is made now, how long, think you will it before the New York Herald, the Times, the Sun, the Tribune and the Star will be arraigned in this court.” (Note that he did not mention the World.) Nicoll replied that his own witnesses had no reason to lie and were certainly more credible than the atheists who supported Most. The defendant had every right to his opinions, but not to make threats.
The first ballot of the jury was seven to five for acquittal. Four-and-a-half hours and a hot dinner later, they managed to find unanimity: Guilty. Most would be sentenced to another stretch on Blackwell’s, but he wouldn’t go for several years. Howe had enjoyed his role as protector of civil liberties, and told Most, who made about $10 a week, not to worry about money.[xxviii] “I was just as certain this time of his innocence as I was before of his guilt,” Howe said.[xxix] “This prosecution was an attack on free speech and a free press.” He would take care of the appeal.
And he was as good as his word. In a closely reasoned motion for a new trial, Howe argued that no version of Most’s language, even that of the police, amounted to a threat; that any mention of The Science of Revolutionary Warfare should have been suppressed; and that referring to the defense witnesses’ atheism was contrary to the state constitution.[xxx] He was probably right on all three counts. There was enough to chew on that the appeals went through several courts. But the conviction was eventually confirmed and in June 1891, Most went back at Blackwell’s. He got out a couple of months before Emma Goldman’s lover, Alexander Berkman, shot industrialist Henry Clay Frick; Berkman had turned to guns when an effort to build a bomb from the blueprints in The Science of Revolutionary Warfare failed.
The shooting of Frick was Most’s theory of the attentat in action. And yet, Most was not impressed. When he heard of the attempted assassination, his first reaction was to deride it as a fiction to create sympathy for Frick. And his second thought was to denounce it. Such violence, he said, was not the answer, because America’s revolutionary sensibilities were too immature.[xxxi] This came as news to many of his followers, considering he had been saying the opposite for years. Emma Goldman, naturally, was incensed. When Most repeated his criticism at a lecture, Goldman stormed the stage, horse-whip in hand and, in her own words, “lashed him across the face and neck, then broke the whip over my knee and threw the pieces at him.”[xxxii]
Most would get in legal trouble one more time. In 1901, he reprinted a 50-year-old article on the virtues of tyrannicide; unfortunately, it was published the same day President McKinley was assassinated by a self-described anarchist.[xxxiii] Most got another year on Blackwell’s for that bit of extraordinarily poor timing. On his release, he went back on the lecture circuit, but managed to stay out of jail until his death, from natural causes, in March 1906. At his memorial service, a widow of one of the Haymarket martyrs spoke; so did Emma Goldman, who had long regretted horse-whipping her hero.[xxxiv]
It is America’s saving genius to turn extremism into bourgeois respectability in a generation or two. Though the anarchist did not live to see this outcome, his son, John Most, Jr, became a dentist, and his grandson, Johnny Most was the beloved sportscaster for the Boston Celtics for almost 40 years. His famous call—“Havlicek stole the ball!”—during the 1965 playoffs has achieved an immortality that none of his ancestor’s words ever did.[xxxv]
The anarchists were well outside the realm of polite society, a construct they believed didn’t exist, anyway. But they were almost mainstream compared to a peculiar little group that called itself the Midnight Band of Mercy. The self-proclaimed mission of the members of the band was to help cats. And they did so by killing them. Howe & Hummel—need it be said?— were not on the side the kitties.
It was not the first time the firm had been called in on a case related to animal cruelty—a concept that was essentially invented by Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. Before Bergh, the abuse of animals was casual, public and not considered anything worth noticing. Bergh made it his life’s mission to change that mindset. In 1867, he managed to nag the New York legislature into passing the first law against abusing animals. The state attorney general and the city district attorney appointed Bergh their representative in all such cases. [xxxvi] He went to work.
The following year, Bergh brought a prosecution against Christopher “Kit” Burns, for holding dogfights and rat-killing contests in Sportsman’s Hall in his saloon on Water Street. Sportsman’s Hall was thoughtfully designed. To reach it, customers started in the bar, then walked through a labyrinth of narrow passages that could be easily blocked to delay police, reformers and other riff-raff. The hall itself was about 25 feet square; in the center was an oval pit, about 16 feet long by eight feet wide, ringed by a two-foot fence. The ceiling rose 20 feet above the floor, creating enough space for a rude amphitheater whose benches could hold a couple of hundred people. There was a special spot set aside for Kit Burns’s pet bear.
The venue had another use. Burns rented it out to Christian revivalists, who implored the Almighty, above the din of the baying dogs in the cellar, “to flood Water Street with Divine Grace.” Burns took $150 a month to rent the place for an hour a day—“no pay, no preach” was his succinct bargaining position—but he didn’t like the company he was keeping. On one occasion, as soon as the irritating Christians left, he called to a colleague: “Them fellows has been a making a pulpit out o’ the ratpit and I’m going to purify it after ‘em. Jim, say, Jim. Bring out them varmints!”[xxxvii]
But dog-fighting was the main attraction at Sportsman’s Hall. The dogs aimed to kill each other and were specially trained to the purpose. Stray dogs were sacrificed to the cause to develop the champ’s jaw muscles and killer instinct. At the highest level, if that term makes any kind of sense, bouts were meticulously organized, with purses of $1,000 or more, huge betting on the side and detailed contracts.
Henry Bergh thought this was awful, but his was not a universal opinion. One judge threw out a case on the grounds that there was nothing wrong with the “fine sport of dog-fighting.”[xxxviii] Given the difficulties that many New Yorkers had just getting through the day, being nice to dogs was a low priority. But Bergh kept at it, and after a few failures managed to get Burns charged with cruelty to animals in 1868. The outraged entrepreneur turned to William Howe.
Howe was a slimmer man then, but the oversize personality was already in evidence. He lit into the prosecution with a combination of sarcasm and ridicule. Banning dog-fighting or rat-killing contests, he argued, was the thin end of the wedge. He could just see what would be next: People wouldn’t be able to open up shells and eat oysters any more. Or roast clams alive. And what about turtle soup? Was the American way of life to be sacrificed to the whims a rich dilettante like Bergh? The case was dismissed.[xxxix]
Bergh did not give up, though. In November 1870, he sneaked into Sportsman’s Hall accompanied by two cops. A dog-fight was in progress when they identified themselves and rounded up all the suspects who had not managed to escape out the windows—34 of them, including Kit Burns.
Perhaps recognizing that the public attitude to dog-fighting was darkening, Howe took a different tack when the trial started in February. After Bergh and the two cops testified to what they saw,[xl] Burns’s son-in-law, Jack Jennings, spoke for the defense (Kit had died in December). Bergh had it all wrong, Jennings explained. It was supposed to be an evening of dog v. rat when a couple of curs had got loose and started to fight. What was a man to do? To prove his point, Jennings noted that the police had taken away a cage of 150 live rats that were supposed to be the heart of the evening’s exhibition.[xli] The Water Street 34 went free.
Bergh took the loss in stride, and kept up his crusade. By the time he died in 1888, he could look back on far more victories than defeats. He had almost single-handedly made the case that animals, too, had a claim to kindness. What he could not do, however, was control the actions of those who made his mission their own—people, for example, like the Midnight Band of Mercy.
The first inklings of this curious crew came to public notice in June 1893, when the Times reported a conversation with one Mrs. G.G. Devide, president of the Midnight Band of Mercy, which she said had disposed of 8,000 cats over the previous four years. She was defending a colleague who had just been arrested for throwing a freshly killed cat in front of a Brooklyn butcher shop. The butcher objected; Devide objected to the butcher. There was “a perfect right to throw the cat there”; it was up to the city to pick up such carcasses. “Why, there was a time we used to put the dead cats in the best parts of Fifth Avenue because we knew they would be taken away from there quickly.”
In a later interview with Nellie Bly, the famous journalist, Mrs. Devide gave more details of the Band’s technique. She and her allies would dress in old clothes and toss out catnip to draw the felines. Then they would stuff them into a chloroformed basket, carefully lined with oilcloth to make it air-tight, and close the lid. The basket would shake and the cats begin to protest. In the kindest tones, the felines would be reassured: “Hush, kitty,” their rescuers would murmur. “You are going to Jesus, kitty. ‘Meow!’ Kitty, hush, Kitty; your soul is going to the Lord. ‘Meow! Meow! Meow!’ Kitty has gone to God. Amen, and all was over.”[xlii]
Devide herself was not religious; still, she respected the beliefs of the members who were, including one who was sure that the cats were unborn children, and the more she chloroformed, the more of her grandchildren she was saving. This particular theological innovator would go so far as to filch pets from her friends and send them heavenward without their consent. Devide thought that was asking for trouble, but “they knew I would never betray them as long as there was a bottle of chloroform and a cat.”
The Herald picked up the story when clumps of dead cats became a regular sidewalk feature on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. “There was much dead cat this morning,” said a German resident, “but not so much dead cat as yesterday. There was sure 12 dead cat here yesterday. My cat he is not go out now at all.”[xliii] Rumor had it that a veiled lady with a basket was the cause of the precipitous decline in the Village’s feline population.
A few weeks later, Policeman Joe Connelly was patrolling West 135th Street around 9 in the evening. He saw a woman calling to a cat, and then a flash of a white rag. “There’s a good pussy,” Sarah Edwards murmured as she held the rag over the animal’s head. When Connelly demanded to know what she was doing, she replied loftily, “I’m one of the Midnight Band of Mercy, King’s Daughters, Henry Bergh division.” Connolly was blank. “Don’t you know what that is?” Edwards barked. “Well, you’re slow.”
At Connelly’s request, the lady opened her basket; inside were five chloroformed cats. Asked to explain her actions, Edwards proudly acknowledged her membership in the Midnight Band and maintained that under their rules, any cat on the streets after 8pm would be deemed homeless and go into the basket. “The Bergh Society,” she said, referring to the ASPCA, “has authorized us to kill cats.” (The Berghers were, in fact, aghast.) Connelly tried to inform her that there was no such thing as a right to kill cats, and there was also an ordinance against carrying dead animals through the streets. Edwards was unmoved: “I know my business.”
So did the cops, who charged her on five counts of animal cruelty. Frustrated that the forces of law and order did not understand the nobility of her work, Edwards went public, telling a reporter from the Times:
Monday I chloroformed 19 cats, Tuesday 10, yesterday 18. On the last day of July, I chloroformed 53 cats. During the last three years I have painlessly put out of the way over 3,000 suffering animals which certainly would have died of starvation had I not done so.
As for the ASPCA, she had nothing but disdain:
The work is too dirty for them, consequently they leave it to us and simply because we are women and for the sake of suffering animals choose to depart a little from conventional methods, we are ridiculed and criticized….[xliv]
Edwards had the wit to notice that her actions were unconventional; and it has to be said, the Midnight Band had a point. Many of New York’s 400,000 or so cats[xlv] did live nasty, brutish and short lives. But what Edwards and the rest of her deadly band entirely missed, the fact that made them both ridiculous and frankly sick, was that their love for cats seemed to be expressed only by the act of killing them.
Edwards, then, was not going to be easy to defend, which made it a case for Howe & Hummel. This time, Hummel took the lead, accompanied by half a dozen young staff eager to see the master at work. A lawyer for the ASPCA prosecuted. The star witness would be Policeman Connelly. Titian-haired and sure of himself, the officer stood up well to Hummel’s implication that these were street cats who were better off dead.
Hummel: Was it [the cat in question] emaciated?
Connelly: I don’t know.
Hummel: Do you understand what I mean?
Connelly: No, sir.
Hummel: Well, was it thin, like a vagrant?
Connelly: It was a good-sized cat.
Not a good moment for the defense; Hummel had made the rookie mistake of asking a question for which he did not know the answer. But perhaps he was distracted. A couple of days before a woman named Annie Palmer whom he had represented in a divorce went to the papers to accuse Hummel of having married and abandoned her. “Every man must have his crank,” he said philosophically, “and I suppose it is my time now.”[xlvi] He was able to get rid of Palmer eventually, but not before she ran up hotel and shopping bills in his name..
So Hummel was not at his best in the case of the fanatic cat killer. He faltered again when he questioned the vet who had performed the autopsy on the cat Connelly had brought in. They testified that, before the last rites in the fatal basket, the animal had been fat and healthy, with a stomach full of potatoes, Hummel jumped in. “Is it not a fact that cats only eat potatoes when they are at the point of starvation?” Well, no, said the vet, he had fed potatoes to many a cat. “I mean cats born in this country,” Hummel clarified. “I refer to good American cats” was the bemused response.
Edwards took the stand in her own defense. Although she had not been allowed to kill a cat in court to show just how merciful an act it really was, she brought in the famous basket, from which she produced what Hummel called Exhibit A—to wit, a dead cat that she had personally chloroformed to oblivion. Holding it up, she instructed the court with the calm of a professor of anatomy, “See what a calm, peaceful look is on its little face,” she lectured. “There was no pain there.”[xlvii]
The judges knew their business: Guilty on all counts. Edwards was fined $10 per feline and ordered to stop. Considering how committed the little band was to their work, it seemed unlikely that they would give it up so readily. But either they did or they got better at hiding it. They were never heard from again.
So no, Howe & Hummel were not always on the side of the angels; but at least once, they did the right thing for the right reason. In the case of the sinister spiritualist, Howe & Hummel were at the height of their powers, and they deployed them all in a good cause. [xlviii]
Luther Marsh was a former law partner of Daniel Webster[xlix]; a retired judge and a commissioner of parks. But when his wife died, he became something else, too: a lonely old man. So when a woman approached him and told him she could help him communicate with his beloved, Marsh wanted to believe. And lo, she gave him reason to, revealing holy truths of the next world and creating majestic spirit paintings before his eyes.
The relationship gave Marsh a renewed interest in life; the 72-year-old took to sliding down banisters and invited the muse, her husband and two children to live with him. His home was filled again with companionship. Marsh became ever more convinced that spiritualism had solved the mysteries of both life and death. He was happy again.
At a public lecture in 1888, he explained his beliefs to a skeptical and not particularly polite audience. “If I am on the side of God”— and in the judge had no doubt of this alliance—“we are in the majority” he told the crowd. When Marsh displayed a portrait of Rembrandt, painted before his eyes by a truculent Raphael, his audience began to titter. When he showed a portrait of Alexander the Great, this one painted by “my friend Appelles,” the court painter of Macedon, (“Alexander would sit for no other”), the giggles turned into roars. Marsh was unruffled: “I like a hearty laugh,” he said complacently. And when he finally introduced his muse, he noted, “If she is a fraud, she is a big one,” a reference to her 250 pounds or so of undoubtedly material flesh. It was impossible not to like the man.
But then Marsh gave over his four-story brownstone on Madison Avenue, worth $60,000, to his spiritual guide; she promptly cashed in, mortgaging it for $11,000. Alarmed, his friends acted. A group of lawyers called on Howe and Hummel and asked them to bring a private prosecution for fraud against the spiritualist—a sign that if that the duo were not entirely trusted, they were respected for their skills. The firm rarely prosecuted, but they took this case gladly. It had the kind of outré character the partners enjoyed; and they, too, liked the deluded Marsh. On April 11, 1888, on the basis of two affidavits, Madame Diss Debar, her husband and two helpers, Benjamin Lawrence and his son Frank, were arrested for fraud. [l]
Who was Editha Diss Debar, alias Princess Editha, alias Loleta Montez, alias Madame Messant, alias the Countess of Langfeldt? Well, it depends on whom you believe. Diss Debar said her mother was Lola Montez and her father the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. More down-to-earth sources, including government documents and her brother, said that she was born Ann O’Delia Salomon in Kentucky in 1849. At the age of 20, she left home and began a peripatetic life, living on her wits and developing a reputation for booze and debt. She settled down for a time in Philadelphia, where she met a retired general, Joseph Diss Debar; they had been together for nine years.
Like any successful con artist, Diss Debar knew how to read the people she was dealing with. In this case, she understood that neither the court nor the prosecution, in the ample form of William Howe, were sympathetic to her spiritual emanations. After a couple of days in the Tombs, she weakened, deeding the brownstone back to Marsh; Cicero had told her to, she said.[li] If she hoped the transaction would change her circumstances, it didn’t. The court would not allow Marsh to pay her bail, and no one else was stepping up.
Because this was a private prosecution, proceedings would start in the police court. [lii] Howe & Hummel’s task was to persuade the judge that there was enough evidence to present to a grand jury.
From the start, the partners had two goals. One, of course, was to set the Diss Debars on the road to conviction. The other was to convince Luther Marsh of his folly. This was as much a defense of the kindly lawyer’s well-being as a prosecution of his swindlers. And so, they proceeded methodically.
On the first day, the star witness was George Salomon, who had signed one of the affidavits used to bring the prosecution. Salomon’s point was simple—the defendant was not the illegitimate spawn of European royalty, but his sister, born in Kentucky and an irritation all her adult life. The family had disowned her years ago, but she kept popping up, usually to ask for money (Howe read out several letters that backed this up). “She has destroyed the peace of mind of almost everybody who has ever said ‘good morning’ to her,” concluded her brother.
The other affidavit had come from J.W. Randolph, a theatrical manager who was planning to put Diss Debar on stage. Randolph saw a commercial opportunity; and in his forthright cynicism about the stupidity of the paying public, Diss Debar thought she recognized a kindred spirit. Work with me, she suggested, and we can take the old man for another $150,000. No need to worry about bad publicity: She had told Marsh that she had had a communication from the Angel Gabriel, saying that if he read the papers, “his punishment would be that his soul will be in hell 30,000 years.” Then she laughed.
Randolph was no altruist, but this cold-blooded fleecing of a nice old man like Marsh was too much for him. He was also revolted when Diss Debar made a most unwelcome attempt to seduce him. Pressed to explain her romantic technique, he blushed and whispered the specifics to the judge, who gagged and agreed that they were “unfit to be heard.”
In the next few days, the trial moved into new, and entertaining, territory. Here the star was genuinely a star—a dapper magician named Carl Hertz, known as the “King of Cards.” Hertz said that he could, by trickery, produce the equivalent of spirit writings. He handed a blank piece of paper to his wife, who folded in three times. Taking back the paper, Hertz placed the paper in her other hand, and instructed her to place her hand against her forehead. He waved his arms, then asked the judge to open the paper. On the previously blank paper were the words: “Luther R. Marsh—Editha.” Astonishment in the court, and deep red on the visage of Madame Diss Debar. The performance was intended, in part, to show Marsh how he had been deceived, but he had missed it.
A few minutes later, he arrived in court to make his own case. Gently questioned by Howe, Marsh described himself as a “reformed lawyer,” and he was serenely confident that the gods were on his side. As evidence, he offered three notebooks containing messages from Saints Anthony, Peter and Paul. What happened, he earnestly explained, was that when Diss Debar felt a communication coming, she would place a blank notebook inside a book or magazine. Then he would take one end, and Madame the other. Spirits willing, they would hear the workings of a quill on the pad. When the sound ceased, they would remove the notebook, and read the wisdom so transmitted. The one from Saint Peter was special; it took 15 minutes to read but had appeared to him in just over two minutes. “Peter was a lively scribbler,” remarked an irreverent Howe.
If that wasn’t enough evidence that the spirits were communicating through the wondrous medium, Marsh went on to describe how the 75 or so spirit paintings in his possession had appeared. “She suddenly hears spirit voices in the air, and she repeats the words, which I take down on a piece of paper,” he explained as if to a dimwitted child. Whenever the spirits promised a painting, a painting came. Why, in late December, the spirit of the late great actress Adelaide Nelson had informed him that Rembrandt would paint Marsh’s portrait. He could expect it on Christmas. It had not arrived by the time he went to church, so he asked his muse to check with Adelaide. She promised to do so, and when he got back from the service, she had glad tidings: The picture had arrived! Marsh rushed upstairs—and there it was. When he finished this story, Marsh leaned back in a pose of complacency and utter conviction. No one had the heart to laugh.
Hertz came back for his second act, this time with Marsh in the audience. The two sat down across the stenographer’s table, and Hertz showed Marsh a notebook exactly like the one Saint Peter had written in. Wrapping it in newspaper, the magician asked Marsh to hold it. He clutched it tight as a crowd began to press against the witness box. He passed it back to the magician, who suggested calmly, “If you wish to tear a corner so as to identify it, I have no objection.” Marsh did so, and passed it back: Lo and behold, the tablet was different, covered with writing. Marsh admitted, sadly, that the magician had deceived him.
But none of this disproved the “holy truth of spiritualism,” he insisted. There were still the spirit pictures; to prove his point, he brought some to court on the third day. One of these, a portrait of Lola Montez, he recalled, had arrived in February. On seeing it, the General had cried, “My mother-in-law!” Then there was the Rembrandt portrait, which had a fascinating back-story. “Rembrandt had painted Raphael’s picture,” the old lawyer recalled, “and the latter returned the compliment by painting Rembrandt’s. This so pleased Rembrandt that nothing would satisfy him but to paint mine. Of course I acquiesced, and that’s how my portrait came to be painted.”
In more down-to-earth testimony. Jennie Kellogg, a clerk in an art store, identified both Diss Debars as frequent purchasers of paint and canvas. Once they returned a canvas because it was marked with the store’s name. That would never do. Two art critics testified that the spook pictures sure looked like the product of human hands to them, and unskilled ones at that.
There was just one more thing to do before the defense had its day. Could the prosecution produce a spirit picture? On Day 4, it did. David Carvalho, a photographer, brought with him a blank piece of paper; this Howe unfolded to show the gallery. Two court officers held the paper up, while Carvalho passed a sponge over it. Instantly, Adelaide Nielson appeared. The gallery applauded, except for the coterie of spiritualists, who shifted and looked disapproving at the storm of laughter.
And then the prosecution rested.
The defense was simple. The Diss Debars had never asked for anything; Marsh had invited them to live with him and voluntarily deeded his home. If Marsh did not feel aggrieved, there was no case to answer. And their powers were real. To prove it, the defense lawyers called a parade of distinctly unimpressive witnesses. One was a blithering Harriet Beach, wife of the editor of Scientific American, who refused to leave the stand until she could explain her philosophy. As court officers carried her out, she kept talking, waving a picture of an ancient Egyptian astronomer with her right hand and pressing smelling salts to her nose with her left. “Now if you can crack that nut,” she tossed off as her last words, “do so.”
Another witness told of seeing Madame produce a spirit painting while bathing in the Massachusetts surf. “A water color, eh?” Howe asked. By the time the last witness surfaced—and never has a group done less to help their cause—Howe was enjoying himself again. He knew he had this thing won. So when Ezekiel Leonard was called to testify that he too had seen the emergence of a bad painting through the assistance of the spirits, Howe set him up, repeatedly referring to him as “Mr. Gosling.” After a couple of iterations, Leonard, nettled, asked the court to correct the lawyer. Howe pretended chagrin at his mistake and shot off his well-prepared witticism: “I ought to have known that so big a goose could not have been a gosling.”
It would be up to the Diss Debars to save themselves; they took the stand on the fifth and final day. And got hammered. General Diss Debar had to admit that he had a perfectly serviceable wife and family in Philadelphia, and that yes, he had a background as an artist. The Madame continued to insist that she was the daughter of Lola Montez and King Ludwig, and was non-plussed when presented with a copy of the Salomon family Bible, showing the record of Ann O’Delia’s birth.
Justice Kilbreth’s conclusion was the obvious one: The Diss Debars would have to face the grand jury. As for the Lawrences, all they were really guilty of was freeloading at the Marsh dinner table. They went free.
By now, even Marsh realized that the Diss Debars were not his friends. He was shocked that they were not married and he even began to question whether the Madame was the daughter of Lola Montez. They would not be returning to 166 Madison, he told the press; he sent the children packing, too.
In due course, the Grand Jury had no problems voting an indictment. At the trial in June, there was only one surprise for those who had been following the case. On the second day, in walked George Francis Train, the gadfly with a cause who had bailed out Woodhull and Claflin. “Dear cousin Luther,” he greeted Marsh. “You’re no more crazy than I am.” Despite Train’s dubious intervention, the Diss Debars were convicted of conspiracy with intent to defraud and packed off to Blackwell’s.
Howe and Hummel could be pleased and proud of their work in the case. Hummel had done much of the detective work, and Howe had managed the courtroom artfully, questioning Marsh without challenging his dignity. This was the partnership at its best.
Still, this was victory with no winners, only an over-riding pathos. More than a century later, the image that abides is of an old man hurrying home from church on Christmas Day, as eager as a child, to see if his new spirit painting had arrived. Perhaps there is a sucker born every minute, as Howe & Hummel client P.T. Barnum professed. Or perhaps there are simply broken hearts, willing themselves against all reason into an illusory happiness. [liii]
About once a decade, New Yorkers would wake up and decide that all was not as it should be in their fair city. So a committee would be appointed to prove the point. Disgusted, voters would vote in some goo-goos (“good government” types). They would get into trouble, be tossed out, and then everyone would get back to business as usual. The Committee of Seventy in 1871; the Roosevelt Committee of 1884[liv]; the Committee of 15 in 1900[lv]—all revealed monumental corruption and malfeasance.
And then, there was the 1894 Lexow Committee. In some ways, Lexow fit this pattern all too well; it ushered in a reform government that lasted a single term. But in Lexow’s genesis (a sermon) and one of its results (the rise of Theodore Roosevelt), it was unique. And Howe & Hummel were all over it.
The Lexow Committee was the 19th century’s most comprehensive investigation into the operations of the New York City Police Department; and its genesis was, of all places, in the Madison Square Presbyterian Church. On February 14, 1892, the Rev. Charles Parkhurst climbed the steps to his pulpit and delivered a blistering sermon. Tammany, not Scripture, was his subject, specifically the links between the municipal government and the city’s vice trade. The result, he thundered, was an “official and administrative criminality that is filthifying our entire municipal life, making New York a very hotbed of knavery, debauchery and bestiality.”[lvi]
The reaction was immediate, and hostile. The mayor denounced him; the Grand Jury chastised him for making accusations without evidence to back it up; and even the press professed to be dismayed at the minister’s audacity. The World, quick to exercise its specialty of sanctimony on demand, accused Parkhurst of “the bearing of false witness.” The Sun thought he should resign. No one, it appeared, would take Parkhurst on faith.
Ticked and more than a little humiliated, the minister set out to get the evidence his critics demanded. He did something it is impossible to imagine the man doing under any other circumstances. He went slumming.
Beginning in the mid-1880s, slumming was a popular form of recreation[lvii]; by the 1890s, a walk on the semi-wild side was an established part of the tourism industry.[lviii] A typical slumming expedition would start after dinner at a police station, where the tourists would check out the cells, and see such tools of the criminal trade as jimmies and tilted roulette tables. Then, accompanied by a cop, they would head off into the dense and lively streets around the Bowery—visiting a tenement, a flophouse, a concert saloon, with perhaps a peek into an opium den, and a rousing finish at a German beer garden.[lix] How the unfortunates at the flophouses felt about having a bunch of middle-class gawkers stare at them went unrecorded—if, indeed, anyone gave it a thought.
Parkhurst, though, went slumming with a purpose. On four evenings in March, he set out in disguise with a private detective, Charles Gardner, and a parishioner, John Langdon Erving, who was so innocent his nickname was “Sunbeam.” Gardner, paid $6 a night plus expenses, [lx] did his job with a will, and Parkhurst, too, went at it with clerical earnestness. As they went to dive after whorehouse, the minister would repeat, “Show me something worse.”[lxi] And Gardner did. An African-American dance house; a German whorehouse; a “French circus,” a term whose meaning has been lost but was apparently very naughty indeed; even the basement of Scotch Ann’s Golden Rule Pleasure Club, where heavily made-up boys were for sale.[lxii] At the establishment run by Hattie Adams, a couple of blocks from Madison Square Presbyterian, the unlikely trio saw a nude can-can, and a game of leapfrog. Gardner played the frog, while Parkhurst drank beer and watched[lxiii]—God bless him, the things the man endured for his mission!
When Parkhurst ascended the pulpit on March 13, 1892, he chose as his Scriptural text a line from Psalms: “The wicked walk on every side when the vilest men are exalted.”[lxiv] This time, when he said that the city was “rotten with a rottenness that is unspeakable and indescribable,”[lxv] he knew what he was talking about. He also had affidavits from private detectives hired by Gardner naming hundreds of saloons and whorehouses that had been wide open the previous Sunday.[lxvi] Parkhurst’s critics had demanded particulars, and he had delivered them. Waving the affidavits, he threw down a challenge: “Now what are you going to do with them?”[lxvii]
Well, something clearly had to be done—not much, just enough to make Parkhurst go away, but something. So the powers-that-be—among them Howe & Hummel—devised a novel strategy. They would actually prosecute one of the places on Parkhurst’s tour, choosing the disorderly house run by Hattie Adams. And rather than do the usual—that is plead guilty, pay the fine (plus Howe & Hummel’s fee), then go back to work, Madame Adams would contest the charge. If she came to trial, Parkhurst would have to testify against her. There was no way, they figured, that the upright Presbyterian would let himself be grilled.
Thomas Byrnes, the pride of the New York detective force, apparently came up with the idea, but Howe and Hummel were happy to cooperate. Helping Byrnes, who had just been promoted chief of police, could be useful. Besides, they all agreed that the city was better off without Parkhurst,[lxviii] who clearly had no business in Gotham. But they underestimated the man.
Howe and Hummel did their best to discredit the minister, beginning with jury selection. Lip curled, voice dripping with scorn, Howe asked one man, “Do you know this so-called clergymen?” To another: “Did you ever hear that Parkhurst once played leap frog?” Poor Sunbeam Erving had to endure Hummel at his most puckish. The lad was mortified at having to recount the awful things he had seen, and almost fainted when ordered to demonstrate how he danced with one of Mrs. Adams’s naked ingénues.[lxix] Then Parkhurst took the stand.
In a classic courtroom conflict that had New York atwitter, Howe, dressed in “a constellation of diamonds and a wilderness of brilliant dry goods,”[lxx] took aim at the Reverend. But Parkhurst combined the zeal of a missionary with the certainty of a 19th century reformer; cool and self-possessed, he simply refused to be embarrassed.
“Did you tell Mrs. Adams that you were a minister of the Gospel?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you remind those poor creatures that they were misbehaving?”
“Did you see them undress?”
“I did not. I turned my gaze away.”
“Did you play leap-frog?”
“But you drank beer?”
“And you are a minister?”
Hummel was also upset at the disgraceful behavior of “this nauseating, slimy polluter of the Gospel.” Getting himself nicely worked up—no need for Howe to have all the fun—Hummel delivered the closing argument. He imagined Parkhurst saying, “‘Come to my arms. I am here to suppress vice. On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined.’” Sure, the women at the Adams residence might be degraded—a significant concession, given that this was supposed to be a prostitution case—but “I hold Hattie Adams’s character,” Hummel concluded, “against all the Dr. Parkhursts in the universe.”[lxxii] Adams wept.
All in a day’s work for Howe & Hummel, but to no avail. Adams was convicted and Parkhurst vindicated. “They are truly the devil’s advocates,” he said of Howe and Hummel. “But they never unsettled me.”[lxxiii]
But the story did not end when Adams shipped out to Blackwell’s. The pressure on Tammany continued to build, and when the state Legislature went Republican in the 1893 election, it moved quickly to institute proceedings to embarrass the city’s Democratic machinery. The result was a committee to investigate police corruption. State Senator Clarence Lexow would lead it.
It almost died at birth. Democratic Governor Roswell Flower vetoed a bill to fund the committee, saying that New York was the best-governed city in the state, and that the committee was just a partisan effort to shame Democrats. New York’s Chamber of Commerce stepped in and agreed to pay the bills.
With that, the Lexow Committee was off. John Goff, an acerbic lawyer who looked like a Biblical patriarch, was the chief counsel. A stickler for the law in the U.S., the Irish-born Goff was a quasi-revolutionary when it came to the old country. His grandfather was hanged by the British for his part of the 1798 rising,[lxxiv] and Goff himself once organized something called the “Irish Rescue Party,” which chartered a whaling ship to go to Ireland to try to rescue some rebels about to be shipped to Australia.[lxxv] He had two assistants: William Travers Jerome, a former assistant district attorney and the man who would ruin Hummel, and Frank Moss, the lawyer for Parkhurst’s Society for the Prevention of Crime.
Between March and December 1894, the committee interviewed 678 people, almost all of them extremely reluctant. The witness chair, for good reason, became known as “Goff’s Gridiron.”[lxxvi] The man was relentless, sarcastic and well informed; the published account of the proceedings comprises almost 6,000 appalling pages, and proved Goff’s contention that the police force was, “to all intents and purposes, exempt from and above the law of the land.” [lxxvii]
Witnesses were guaranteed immunity from prosecution for their testimony; on the other hand, they were not allowed to have lawyers with them. Even so, Howe and Hummel were all over the proceedings, on stage and off.
Prostitution, for example, was proved to be a rich source of supplemental income for the cops. (It was also a reliable source of cash flow for Howe & Hummel. When the police for some reason raided a bunch of Tenderloin establishments in 1892, the partners represented most of the women—and not a few of their clients.[lxxviii]) The key witness before the Lexow Committee in this regard was Matilda Herman, known as the French Madame. The prospect of her testimony was considered so dangerous that a group of police chipped in $1,700 and escorted her out of town.[lxxix] She got snagged on an ill-advised visit back.
Nell Kimball, a business rival, described the French Madame as “a monster with the mustaches and whiskers of a horse-car driver” who ran a rough house where “nude women were manhandled, danced the can can and put on gang bangs, circus shows for the customer who demanded wilder and wilder stuff” [lxxx] So we can safely assume that Matilda Herman was no innocent. Nevertheless, the shakedown was extreme. She testified that she had paid more than $30,000 to various police over the previous few years, becoming known to the force as the “French gold mine.”
Then there was police brutality, which was so routine that Goff took to referring to police stations as “slaughterhouses.”[lxxxi] It was also almost never punished. The most telling testimony came from Augustine Costello, a former police reporter who in 1885 had published—at his own expense, and for the benefit of the police pension fund—a ludicrously slavish book, Our Police Protectors. After a series of complications regarding a similar hagiography of the Fire Department, Costello found himself at a police station on behalf of two employees. He posted bail, went to dinner, and returned around 7pm to retrieve his men. “Like a spider and the fly,” he told the Committee, “I walked right into Inspector Williams’s arms.”
This was terrible timing; Costello had just written an article critical of Williams. Clubber was not amused. He kept Costello on a leash for the next few hours while he sent a few men to ransack the writer’s house and terrify his family. This they did. Around midnight, Costello was formally arrested on a charge of destroying evidence. Transported to a different police station downtown, he was about to enter when two men came out of the darkness. One, seen clearly in the light of the lamps, was Captain McLaughlin; his fist enveloped in brass knuckles, he punched Costello in the face. The writer fell to the sidewalk, where he was kicked and mauled. Dragged into the station house, he was booked and beaten some more, then sent to the cells, where he was denied water.
The next morning, Costello called in Howe & Hummel. The latter represented him, and got the bogus charge dismissed. In his only appearance before Lexow, Hummel confirmed Costello’s story. The writer was in a “very badly bruised condition,” Hummel told the committee. “He seemed almost unrecognizable to me.”[lxxxii]
The cops were also directly involved in gambling and other rackets, as the testimony of George Appo made clear. Appo was the son of Quimbo Appo, who came to the city in the late 1840s and may have been the first Chinese immigrant to New York;[lxxxiii] he was certainly the first one to be convicted of murder. George Appo was also a career criminal, albeit a non-violent one. A Howe & Hummel client, as his father had been, [lxxxiv], Appo gave Lexow what amounted to a tutorial in the green-goods game, a con game in which people thought they were buying counterfeit currency, but actually got robbed of their own good money. Appo detailed how the police helped to codify the rules of the green goods game, assigning territories to different dealers—$500 for exclusive rights to a ward, plus 50% of the profits from any sucker who complained[lxxxv]— then clearing out the competition.[lxxxvi] Howe & Hummel were not only Appo’s lawyer for his numerous days in court, but the counsel for most of the green-goods industry. And it was an industry. James McNally, a Howe & Hummel client, was the J.P. Morgan of the panel game. He had something like 300,000 names and addresses[lxxxvii] and employed eight writers to compose letters intriguing enough to draw in dupes.[lxxxviii] In a big operation, 20,000 circulars a day might be sent out,[lxxxix] and $8,000 in profits taken in.[xc]
Shakedowns of legitimate businesses, from bootblacks to sailmakers to peddlers to steamship companies, were routine. One man, short of money, got a helpful suggestion: Pawn your wife.[xci] Saloons were assessed a fee to keep their license and to stay open after hours. Harry Hill[xcii] ran a famous saloon/dancehouse (ladies’ free all the time, and not-quite ladies too) on Houston Street that was a staple of slumming tours.[xciii] Hill didn’t allow robbing or killing on the premises, and he insisted that the ladies at work there be treated as such. [xciv] He had always been on cordial terms with the police, opening his wallet without being asked. But when an old friend, Captain Murphy, took over the local precinct, he shook his old pal down for a $1,000 “initiation fee” and insisted on a $50 a month retainer. Hill bristled at the brazen demand, and also refused to pay another assessment of $800. Murphy’s law struck back. A few weeks later, Hill’s place was shut down. Then he was hounded out of Harlem and blackballed from Brooklyn. In his better days, Hill was fat and jolly and wore a diamond on his shirtfront [xcv] that Howe might have envied. Now he was ruined, reduced to hocking his winter coat. In April 1894, friends sponsored an evening benefit to raise some money to put him back on his feet; Abe Hummel chipped in $50.[xcvi]
For those who are tempted to regard all this with a wink and an indulgent smile, perhaps even feeling warm nostalgia for the naughtiness of Olde New Yorke, consider the story of Caela Urchiteel, a Russian immigrant widow with three children who toiled long hours at a boardinghouse to save $600 to buy a cigar store. On her first day in business, the local bobby demanded a payoff; when she refused, he dragged her through the streets, tossed her in jail, and found a couple of urchins to testify she had sold herself to them for a combined 90 cents. Convicted in a police court that couldn’t be bothered to hear testimony as to her respectable character, she went back to jail. Finally able to pay her fine and go home, she found her children had been sent to an orphanage, which refused to give them back because she was a convicted prostitute. In short, Mrs. Urchiteel lost everything because she shooed a crooked cop out of her shop with a broom. The widow pleaded to the court: “My heart craves to have my children with me.” On October 19th, in a scene that softened even the gruff Goff, the family was reunited.[xcvii]
All of this was terrible, but it could also be dismissed as the actions of a few, or maybe more than a few, rogue cops. But as the Lexow committee ground on, proving uncomfortably competent, that convenient fiction became increasingly unbelievable. The question became: How far up did the rot go?
Right to the top. That was the bombshell dropped by Captain Max Schmittberger, who had been accused of taking payoffs by an agent of the Cunard shipping line and then accused, even worse, of not sharing the wealth with his juniors. The Police Board charged him with taking bribes.
Why him? At this point, many more disgusting things had been heard, but snatching graft from another cop crossed the blue line. Facing years in state prison for doing what everyone else did, Schmittberger made two decisions. First, he hired Howe & Hummel. And second, he decided that he would be damned if he was the only one who went down.
With pressure bearing down from two directions—the Lexow committee wanting answers and the District Attorney’s office wanting his scalp—his wife made up his mind for him. On the morning of December 21, Frau Schmittberger gathered their eight children in the dining room and asked her husband, “Max, are you going to prison and leave your wife and children to starve in the street?” He broke down at the pathetic sight, and vowed to tell all.[xcviii] Beginning that afternoon, he did, in a confession that Harper’s magazine called “astounding in its revelations of the depth and breadth of official degradation and corruption.”[xcix]
Schmittberger told an ugly tale, accusing two of the four serving inspectors of accepting bribes and two of the three commissioners of protecting vice (the third took money for promotions). One of the commissioners, he said, even ordered a patrolman to return to a whorehouse he had investigated to apologize to its keeper, Sadie West, for his lapse of protocol.[c] Link by link, Schmittberger described the chain of systematic blackmail that bound the police to the criminal element. He admitted he was involved from both ends, taking the tribute collected from gamblers, saloon-keepers, pimps, numbers runners and businesses by his inferiors and then passing it up to Inspector Williams, [ci] among others. As for getting on the force or getting promoted, Schmittberger said, there were only two options: “politics or money.”[cii]
The captain, in truth, told the committee nothing new. But what he said was shocking, anyway, because he said it. It was possible to doubt the veracity of the Matilda Hermans and Harry Hills of the world, and even to question the motives of patrolmen who had good reason for contempt against their superiors. But when a captain with a record of bravery and 20 years on the job confirmed all the worst that had been said, implicating himself in the process, there was no more room for doubt. Asked if the department was rotten, Schmittberger’s reply was simple: “to the core.”[ciii]
Howe & Hummel made the criminal indictment against Schmittberger go away, as even the prosecution must have known would happen. The Lexow Committee had repeatedly assured its unwilling witnesses that nothing they said could be used to prosecute them. The rules could not be changed because the department was angry with a man it regarded as a snitch.
But Schmittberger did not get away scot-free. A few weeks after his testimony, he was transferred to an outpost in the Bronx that was so remote it was commonly known as “Goatsville.” But he would get the last laugh. A few months later, he came back to civilization;[civ] he went on to become chief of detectives and one of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite officers. Journalist Lincoln Steffens was so fascinated by the handsome German, that he tried (and failed) to write a novel about him[cv] on the theme of how a good man goes bad. But the captain had lost the respect of much of the force. At the police parade in 1896, the first since Lexow, “Schmittberger the Squealer”[cvi] was hissed.
What the Lexow Committee revealed, convincingly and publicly, was what many people suspected—that the police were not so much the enemies of crime as the regulators of it. This was old news to the bad guys, of course. And to be fair, this system—and it was very much a system—was okay, for a time, with many New Yorkers. But things went too far. Vice became too visible; cops too greedy; the corruption too wide and too deep; the victims, like the widow Urchiteel and Augustine Costello, too innocent. The Lexow Committee used the term “terrorism” to describe the police hold on the city.[cvii] It became almost impossible to be an honest cop, which was profoundly demoralizing to the many men who wanted to be just that. Lexow was backlash.
But was it effective? Less than it might have been, given the detailed and convincing evidence. When Lexow ended, the newspapers confidently predicted further investigations into the police courts and the fire department, whose operations, as hinted at during the hearings, also smelled distinctly rotten. That never happened. And although dozens of men in blue were suspected, only a few were convicted. McLaughlin was one of these—not for crushing Costello, but for bribery. In his 10 days in the Tombs, he shared a cell with Michael Considine, a Howe & Hummel client. McLaughlin was able to get the verdict reversed; he would step out of the Tombs, get back on the beat and retire with an estimated fortune of $1 million.[cviii] All the other cases were thrown out for lack of evidence.[cix]
Many a criminal cop left the hearings to return straight to duty. One of these was Clubber Williams. As far back as 1878, the National Police Gazette was saying of him that it was a rare month “in which he does not furnish at least one newspaper item in the way of an assault upon some un-uniformed plebian.”[cx] By 1887, according to one historian, he was the subject of 358 formal complaints and had been fined 224 times.[cxi] He barely dodged being expelled from the force. By 1891, though, he was so highly regarded that he almost became chief; Byrnes got the job instead. [cxii] The two had a testy relationship; Byrnes had brought Williams before the Police Board on charges of neglect of duty in 1893. Clubber got off with a talking-to.
Lexow was a sterner test. Forced to testify and at least listen to tough questions, Williams denied everything and displayed a defiant insouciance that affronted the committee but served his own interests well. The 18 charges of assault that had been brought against him? He wasn’t sure there were so many. Disorderly houses in his district? He didn’t close them because, “They were kind of fashionable at the time”[cxiii]—a rare instance of his saying something that approached truth. The charges, from Schmittberger, former Mayor Hewitt, the grand jury, the board of education. Charles Parkhurst, and innumerable merchants and crooks, of corruption? They all lied. What about the many dives operating all around him? He didn’t know what was meant by a “dive.”
Williams even came up with a dandy explanation for how he managed to own a yacht and a Connecticut mansion on his civil service salary. He had profited from real estate holdings in Japan, he said, where he had traveled as a ship’s carpenter. When the Japanese consul explained that foreigners were not allowed to buy or sell land in Japan,[cxiv] Williams simply said, well, he had. The man couldn’t be embarrassed.
Byrnes was the last witness heard from, on December 29. He made a better impression. Even so, his testimony damned the department. When he took over as chief in 1891, Byrnes said, he found it “honeycombed with abuses.” Why that should have been a surprise to a 32-year veteran went unexplained and unexplored. Ditto for the story of his surprising wealth. Byrnes acknowledged a personal fortune of about $350,000; this, he said, was the result of stock tips he got from Commodore Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, who were grateful for his protection of Wall Street.[cxv] Politics was the root cause of the police problems, he said, not alliances with crooks and certainly not management.
All in all, the committee treated Byrnes with circumspection. Perhaps they wanted to leave the department with one hero; perhaps they were simply tired. Byrnes offered a patently insincere letter of resignation, which the committee declined to accept. He, too, went back to work.
Nonetheless, change was coming. A couple of days after Byrnes testified, New York had a new government, courtesy of the November elections in which voters vomited out Tammany. William Strong, the candidate of the reform coalition, became mayor. John Fellows beat incumbent DeLancey Nicoll to become District Attorney, and John Goff replaced Frederick Smyth on the felony court. [cxvi]
Elected in large part because of Lexow, Mayor Strong had a mandate to do something about the police. And he had a man in mind, to do it: Theodore Roosevelt became president of the revamped Board of Police Commissioners in May 1895. An interested observer of Lexow, TR believed that the Police Department was rotting from the top down, and that the rank-and-file was forced into corruption by their superiors. “The bulk of the men,” he believed, “were highly desirous of being honest.”[cxvii] He wanted the scalps of those who felt otherwise.
Less than two weeks after he took office, both Byrnes and Williams were gone. Many dirty cops had already resigned, fearful of prosecution; TR coaxed 200 more to do the same and appointed 1,700 new men,[cxviii] chosen mostly on merit.[cxix] On Roosevelt’s watch, patrolmen were more likely to walk their beats, rather than wait them out in saloons, and morale improved. He also shut down the shelters in many police stations that made them the place of last resort for the homeless, began a bicycle squad and insisted on firearms training.[cxx]
Roosevelt picked the wrong battle, though, when he decided to try to enforce the law that forbade the sale of booze on Sundays. He was right that payoffs to cops to stay open on the Sabbath were the source of petty corruption from which much else flowed. In this at least Roosevelt was no prude; he would have preferred a law legalizing Sunday openings. But the law was on the books, and he decided to enforce it, thus enraging the hitherto staunchly Republican German community. It all became a bigger mess than anyone intended. A civic hero in 1895, Roosevelt might have been the most unpopular man in New York in 1896—and the most frustrated one in 1897. He was thrilled to go back to Washington in April 1897 as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. And much of New York was glad to see him go. Hummel said of TR: “When they bury him, they can write on his tombstone, ‘Here lies all the civic virtue there ever was.’”[cxxi]
The Lexow backlash inevitably wrought backlash of its own. Strong was a one-term mayor as Tammany re-took power with the slogan, “To hell with reform!”[cxxii] Boss Croker returned from England. Schmittberger rediscovered the delights of off-the-books income.[cxxiii] New York, it appeared, was back to business as usual.
Not quite. The effects of Lexow were less than they should have been; still, they were more than anyone anticipated, and linger to this day. Lexow broke the idea that the way to police New York was to operate hand-in-glove (or pocket) with the criminals. Under Roosevelt, the police began to show that they could, as he put it, “be both honest and efficient.”[cxxiv] That was a new and refreshing concept for Gotham, and one that has informed the way the city sees its police ever since.
There are tangible reminders of the Lexow era as well. Back then, reporters worked across the street from the police headquarters on Mulberry Street in apartments known as “shacks.” In today’s Police Headquarters, a squat brown building of quite remarkable ugliness, journalists share a warren of rooms known, of course, as “the Shack.” And to this day, all of New York’s police commissioners sit at the wooden desk first used by Theodore Roosevelt.
[i] Yes, really. This was the work of the Flower Mission; see Campbell, Knox and Byrnes, Darkness and Daylight, p. 308
[ii] Riis, who was rarely popular with those in power, was not invited to the opening; his account of the new park can be found in American Review of Reviews, August 1985.
[iii] Clay McShane, Down the Asphalt Path, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 53
[iv] Elliott Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 196
[v] New York Times, June 9, 1877
[vi] Gorn, p. 216
[vii] Alexander Johnston, Ten—and Out!, London: Chapman and Hall, 1928, p. 61
[viii] Every, p. 261
[ix] Michael Isenberg, John L. Sullivan and His America, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, p. 94
[x] Every, p. 151
[xi] The account of the match and subsequent legal proceedings is taken from the New York Herald, Sun, Times, Tribune and World, with a few other clippings from the DA scrapbooks.
[xii] New York Sun, Nov. 18, 1884
[xiii] Isenberg, p. 178
[xiv] Johnston, p. 64
[xv] Boston Globe, Nov. 20, 1884
[xvi] New York World, Feb. 12, 1887
[xvii] Rovere, p. 28
[xviii] National Police Gazette, Dec. 6, 1884
[xix] New Orleans legalized prize-fighting with gloves in 1890, and gradually so did many other cities and states. New York went back and forth. In 1896, Albany passed the Horton law, which allowed glove fights to take place in members-only clubs. This proved impossible to enforce and the state went back to abolition in 1900. This, too, proved impossible to enforce, so in 1911, New York passed the Frawley Law, which limited bouts to 10 rounds but otherwise liberalized the laws of boxing. This provision died in 1917 and three years later was replaced by the Walker Law, which finally legalized and regulated prize-fighting.
[xx] Patrick Myler, Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend, New York: Rolson Books, 1998, p. 101
[xxi] Helene Minkin; a common-law marriage, of course, and unhappy one. (Emma Goldman, Living my Life, Dover Books, 1930, p. 44; Frederic Trautmann, The Voice of Terror—A Biography of Johann Most, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980, p. 251)
[xxii] Tom Goyens, Beer and Revolution, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, p. 43
[xxiii] The account of the Schwab affair is drawn chiefly from the New York Herald, Sun, Times, and Tribune.
[xxiv] Schwab died in 1900; his funeral was a day of rare unity for the Cause. Goldman and Most both attended, as did about 2,000 others (New York Times, Dec. 21, 1900)
[xxv] Richard Drinnon, Rebel in Paradise, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, p. 34
[xxvi] New York Times, June 3, 1886
[xxvii] Three others were sentenced to prison. In June 1893, Gov. John Peter Altgeld, in a monumental act of political courage, reversed the verdict and gave the three an absolute pardon, citing numerous flaws in the trial.
[xxviii] New York Times, Dec. 1, 1887
[xxix] New York Tribune, Sept. 13, 1887
[xxx] Municipal Archives: The People Against John Most, Motion for new trial, Dec. 8, 1887
[xxxi] Drinnon, p. 53
[xxxii] Goldman, p. 105
[xxxiii] Trautmann, p. 225
[xxxiv] Trautmann, p. 252; New York Times, April 2, 1906
[xxxv] Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 18-9.
[xxxvi] American Heritage magazine, Dec. 1967
[xxxvii] New York Herald, Sept. 22, 1868. The varmints were often provided by a local businessman known as Dick the Rat. He was paid to clean out local hostelries, then would sell the critters he caught for two cents a pair to the rat pits. Ragged Dick made a good if unorthodox living and was generally left alone to his work. One day, though, a policeman saw him coming out of a basement with what looked like a bag of swag. Escorted to the police station, he was ordered to dump the contents of his bag. Dick demurred. “Empty out that bag,” the captain insisted. So he did. (National Police Gazette, June 12, 1880)
[xxxviii] New York Folklore Quarterly, “Henry Bergh, Kit Burns and the Sportsmen of New York,” by Martin and Herbert Kaufman, March 1972, p. 23
[xxxix] Ibid, p. 25
[xli] Saved from the dogs, the rats were nonetheless doomed. The cops dumped the cage in the East River.
[xlii] New York World, Dec. 31, 1893
[xliii] New York Herald, Sept. 14, 1893
[xliv] New York Times, Oct. 6, 1893
[xlv] M.H. Dunlap. The Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 247
[xlvi] Boston Globe, Nov. 12, 1893
[xlvii] New York Sun, Nov. 16, 1893
[xlviii] Newspapers consulted: chiefly the New York Herald, Sun, Times, World; also the DA clipping files
[xlix] Munsey’s magazine, Dec. 1911, p. 337
[l] More precisely: conspiring to cheat and defraud by criminal means, and conspiring to obtain money or property by false pretenses.
[li] John Mulholland, Beware Familiar Spirits, New York: Arno Press, 1938 p. 256
[lii] The proceedings, however, were actually held in the Court of Special Sessions at the Tombs, which had more room than the Police Court there.
[liii] After her stint in jail, Debar went back to work, persuading Harriet Beach, wife of the editor of Scientific American to support her. Mrs. Beach was later committed to an insane asylum, in part because of her connection to Diss Debar; Howe acted for Beach’s husband in the matter.
Diss Debar—who ditched the general but kept his name— then bounced from boarding house to boarding house in Brooklyn, and appeared on stage, briefly, as Cupid. She filed a lawsuit against having to wear tights; with no Abe Hummel, the world’s leading expert in tights to appear for her, she lost. Indicted for a couple of minor fiddles in Illinois, she served two years in prison there and was last heard of in 1901 when she was convicted of aiding and abetting a rape at the Theocratic Unity temple.[liii]
As for Luther Marsh, he gave up on the Diss Debars but not on spiritualism. Not long after the trial, he moved upstate to dedicate the remainder of his life to the memory of his wife. Unfortunately, that meant more spiritualism. He found a new and better medium, Clarissa Huyler, whose voices from the Biblical authorities he took down and published in a book, Voices of the Patriarchs. In turn, Huyler took Marsh for various pieces of real estate and also induced him to transfer several life insurance policies; her husband later estimated she took him for at least $35,000. When Huyler died in 1901, she was kind enough to provide that Marsh’s own funeral expenses be provided for from these policies. She also willed Marsh various spirit pictures; the curious thing is that he already owned them. But perhaps property rights are unsettled in the spirit world. Marsh died in 1906, age 90.
[liv] New York Times, March 15, 1884
[lv] New York Times, March 25, 1901
[lvi] Burrows and Wallace, p. 1167
[lvii] Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 17
[lviii] M.H. Dunlop, Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn of the Century New York, New York: William Morrow, 2000, p. 135
[lix] Dunlop, p. 135-7
[lx] Burrows and Wallace, p. 1168
[lxi] Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1966, p. 426
[lxii] Sante, p. 285
[lxiii] Ellis, p. 428
[lxiv] New York Times, March 14, 1892
[lxv] Sante, p. 286
[lxvi] Wallace and Burrows, p. 1169
[lxvii] Ellis, p. 428; the NewYork Times, which was much the most sympathetic to Parkhurst, ran the whole sermon on March 14, 1892.
[lxviii] Rovere, p. 82-3
[lxix] New York World, May 6, 1892
[lxx] New York World, May 6, 1892
[lxxii] New York Herald, May 7, 1892
[lxxiii] Sante, p. 287
[lxxiv] Harper’s magazine, June 30, 1894
[lxxv] Richard O’Connor, Courtroom Warrior: The Combative Career of William Travers Jerome, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963, p. 48
[lxxvii] New York Times, Oct. 3, 1894
[lxxviii] New York Times, May 5, 1892
[lxxix] O’Connor, p. 49; Lexow Committee transcript, p. 4186
[lxxx] Stephen Longstreet, editor, Nell Kimball--Her Life as an American Madam by Herself, New York, Macmillan, 1970, p. 178
[lxxxi] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 3598
[lxxxii] Ibid, p. 4654
[lxxxiii] Works Progress Administration, New York City Guide, New York: Octagon Books, 1970, p. 104
[lxxxiv] Gilfoyle, Pickpocket, p. 147, 288
[lxxxv] New York Times, Jue 20, 1894
[lxxxvi] Gilfoyle, Pickpocket, p. 214; the proceedings of the 1894 Lexow Committee (Chapter 7) left no doubt of the connections between cops and the green goods men; see, for example, George Appo’s testimony, New York Times, June 15, 1894.
[lxxxvii] New York Times, June 17, 1896
[lxxxviii] New York Times, Sept. 11, 1894
[lxxxix] New York Times, June 17, 1896
[xc] Lexow Committee transcript, testimony of George Appo, p. 1647
[xci] Ibid, p. 44
[xcii] National Police Gazette, May 12, 1894; New York Times, Nov. 28, 1886
[xciii] New York Times, Sept. 14, 1884
[xciv] Every, p. 199
[xcv] Walling, p. 484
[xcvi] National Police Gazette, May 5, 1894
[xcvii] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 2961+
[xcviii] Boston Globe Dec. 23, 1894
[xcix] Harper’s magazine, January 5, 1895
[c] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 5363
[ci] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 5343, 5349
[cii] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 5382
[ciii] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 5383
[civ] Lardner and Repetto, p. 111
[cv] Justin Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens: A Biography, New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 89
[cvi] The Outlook, Sept. 5, 1917, p. 406
[cvii] Ibid, p. 25; Chicago Tribune, Nov. 3, 1894; New York Times, Nov. 3, 1894
[cviii] New York Times, May 25, 1907
[cix] New York Times, Oct. 29, 1895
[cx] National Police Gazette, June 22, 1878
[cxi] James Richardson, The New York Police, New York: Oxford University Press, 170, p. 205
[cxii] New York Evening P|ost, March , 1891
[cxiii] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 5466
[cxiv] Lexow Committee transcript, p. 5457
[cxv] New York Times, Dec. 30, 1984
[cxvi] This was a deeply satisfying win for Goff, who had been charged with contempt of court for protesting Smyth’s vigorous pro-prosecution rulings during the trial of Parkhurst detective Charles Gardner on trumped up charges of extortion.[cxvi] Ironically, Goff would get a reputation of being even tougher than Smyth.
[cxvii] Hermann Hagedorn, The Theodore Roosevelt Treasury: A Self-Portrait from his Writings, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1957, p.96
[cxviii] Theodore Roosevelt, American Ideals, New York: AMS Press, 187, p\. 182
[cxix] Lincoln Steffens: The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, Heyday Books, 2005, p. 261
[cxx] Morris, p. 562-3
[cxxi] Rovere, p. 104
[cxxii] Lloyd Morris, Incredible New York: High Life and Life from 1850 to 1890, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1951, p. 233
[cxxiii] When Schmittberger went back on the take, his bagman in the Tenderloin was Charles Becker, until the two fell out in the early 1900s. Becker, who was a protégé of Clubber Williams, later became the first New York City cop executed for murder.
[cxxiv] Hagedorn, p. 99