I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
William Howe and Abraham Hummel were attorneys during New York City’s Golden Age. From 1870 to 1907 they behaved as though the profession of criminal lawyer described both their advocacy for the accused and the way they operated their business.
One biographer said the pair of rogues “were as crooked as the horns of a Dorset ram.” It seems the term “scumbag lawyer” might have been invented for Howe and Hummel.
William F. Howe
“Flamboyant” hardly does justice as a characterization of William Howe. History.net describes him as “… husky and portly, wore a white walrus mustache and a cheerful drinker’s ruddy cheeks. He favored loud suits, some of them purple …”
Howe liked diamonds; he liked them a lot. He wore rings adorned with the bright shiny gems.
He said he was born in Massachusetts in 1828, but that was a lie. He was British and arrived on American soil in 1858, preferring to live in the New World rather than deal with legal issues that had cropped up in the Old World. He had already served 18 months in prison for conspiracy and false representations and didn’t see the point in going back behind bars over other issues.
In those free and easy days of the mid-19th century, the authorities in New York didn’t think it was necessary for attorneys to benefit from a law school education. For a man of William Howe’s temperament this was a golden opportunity. He hung out his shingle and welcomed any miscreant who had the wherewithal to pay for his services.
In 1863, Howe hired an office boy who proved to have a very sharp, if larcenous, mind. The combination of smarts and dishonesty displayed by 13-year-old Abraham Hummel was exactly what Howe needed in an employee.
Hummel came out of the Jewish community in the Lower East Side. Where Howe was corpulent, Hummel was scrawny. But both men believed in dressing well. Hummel wore simple black suits that were perfectly tailored for his five-foot, skinny body. He once told a reporter “I’m a crook and a blackmailer. But there’s one thing about me―I’m a neat son-of-a-bitch.”
Within six years, Howe made Hummel a partner and the duo opened an office across the street from the notorious Tombs prison. A huge illuminated sign declared “Howe & Hummel's Law Offices.” Anyone going in or out of the prison couldn’t miss it.
William Howe’s Methods
The law firm had a golden rule; clients paid cash and they paid it up front. Their clients were resourceful people; if they didn’t have the money immediately they had ways of finding it.
Howe handled the courtroom work; his silver tongue working wonders with jurors. Hummel was busy studying law books to find loopholes through which their clients could squeeze.
If Howe’s eloquence and Hummel’s research didn’t produce an acquittal, there were other strategies at hand. Bribery is such an ugly word, but a small cash payment might encourage a police officer to remember events more accurately from the witness stand.
Incorruptible judges and jurors were, of course, similarly susceptible to offers of money.
Evidence could be manufactured and it could also be destroyed.
Howe also found it expedient to hire witnesses willing to lie under oath and provide the accused with an alibi. He would also pay to have people pose as the family of his client; a weeping mother, wife, and children might sway a wavering jury.
In murder defences, of which Howe handled more than 600, the lawyer used a number of tactics. He would start out dressed in his usual flashy suits and waistcoats. As the trial progressed he would dress down until in his final address to the juror he would clad in funeral director attire.
At one such trial he gave his last two-hour oration before the jury entirely on his knees. He also possessed the ability to cry at will. However, a prosecutor who frequently faced Howe suggested the tears were brought on with the aid of an onion hidden in his handkerchief.
There is no scorecard of the number of Howe’s murder clients who escaped the gallows but he was successful enough to have a lock on such trade in New York City.
The Blackmail Business
While Howe was performing histrionically in courtrooms Hummel was back in the office running the firm’s blackmailing sideline.
Many of New York’s brothel keepers and abortionists kept Howe and Hummel on retainers. This gave the lawyers access to all manner of gossip that could be turned into profit.
It would be a terrible shame if the fiancée of some wealthy bachelor got to hear of his dalliance with a call girl. Society ladies needed to be shielded from finding out their husbands had paid for the termination of a pregnancy. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if an upper crust man-about-town’s serious case of venereal disease was to be revealed?
None of these problems need trouble the delicate sensibilities of polite circles if the right people were paid to keep them quiet.
Abraham Hummel loved the theatre and theatre people and he worked a scam with several chorus girls. The young women would have affairs with wealthy married businessmen. After breaking off the relationship, the show girl would have Abe draw a breach of promise affidavit.
This was waved in front of the jilted lover who would be told the cost of making it go away. When the sadder but wiser victim paid up, Hummel made a show of burning the affidavit and then he shared the proceeds with his accomplice.
The End of the Fun
In September 1902, William Howe died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 74. In its obituary, The New York Times called him “the Dean of the Criminal Bar.”
Abraham Hummel tried to carry on without the marquee attorney, but times were changing. Manhattan District Attorney William Travers Jerome didn’t much like Hummel’s approach to the law.
In 1907, he was convicted of persuading a witness to commit perjury. He spent a year in prison and then sailed for Europe. He spent the rest of his life in Paris and London indulging his love of theatre.
- In 1884, New York found its moral compass and went on one of its periodic campaigns to clean up the city’s vice. Of the 74 brothel keepers arrested in a sweep every last one gave Howe & Hummel as their attorneys.
- Before he became famous, Joseph Heller (Catch-22) wrote a script for a musical comedy about Howe and Hummel. The author doesn’t seem to have been proud of his 1962 work as he never mentioned it in his autobiography.
- In 1891, Ella Nelson was charged with murder. Her married boyfriend lay dead with four bullets in him. William Howe’s defence was that, while his client had held a revolver, her finger slipped on the trigger four times. During his address to the jury, Howe went to his client who was weeping and forcibly pried her hands away from her face. She let out such a howl of anguish that the prosecutor, Francis Wellman, said “The jury seemed completely petrified by it, and I saw the case was over from that moment.” Wellman was right and Ella Nelson walked free.
“Howe and Hummel: The Grifters’ Gifters.” Peter Carlson, American History Magazine, June 2018.
“William Howe, William Thompson, Gavin Rickards.” Proceedings of the Old Bailey, September 18, 1854.
“Joseph Heller’s Lost Musical Comedy Unearthed at Yale University.” Alison Flood, The Guardian, November 7, 2014.
“Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in New York History.” Kara Hughes, Rowman & Littlefield, November 2011.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 18, 2018:
Hello Rupert, interesting piece of the old ties. I read History and so, I am carried away with your historical essays.
Such corrupted layers, jurist, and police officers exist today.
But time will flush them out.
Thank you, sir.