I’m sure you’ve all heard about the fictitious law firm of Dewey, Screwem, and Howe. But in real life there existed a law firm which was, without a doubt, the most crooked and corrupt law firm of all time. The name of the law firm was Howe and Hummel (William Howe and Abraham Hummel). These two shyster lawyers were the main players in a sleazy law firm, founded in 1870, of which New York City District Attorney William Travers Jerome said in 1890, “For more than 20 years, Howe and Hummel have been a menace to this community.”
The founding member of the law firm was William Howe. Howe was an extremely large man, over 6 feet tall and weighing as much as 325 pounds. Howe had wavy gray hair, a large walrus mustache, and he dressed loudly, with baggy pantaloons, and diamonds, which he wore on his fingers, on his watch chains, as shirt studs, and as cuff buttons. The only time Howe wore a tie was at funerals. At trials, or anytime he was seen in public, instead of a tie, Howe wore diamond clusters, of which he owned many.
A New York lawyer, who was acquainted with Howe, said Howe derived tremendous enjoyment from cheating jewelers out of their payments for his many diamond purchases. “I don’t think he ever paid full price for those diamonds of his,” the lawyer said. “He never bought two at the same jewelers. When he got one, he would make a small down payment, and then when he had been dunned two or three times for the balance, he would assign one of his young assistant shysters to fight the claim. Of course, he had enough money to pay, but he got a kick out of not paying.”
Howe’s background before he arrived in New York City is quite dubious. What is known, is that Howe was born across the pond in England. Howe arrived in New York City in the early 1850’s as a ticket-of -leave man, or in common terms, a paroled convict. No one ever knew, nor did Howe ever divulge, what his crime had been in England. However, it was often said that Howe had been a doctor in London and had lost his license, and was incarcerated, as a result of some criminal act. Yet, Howe insisted that while he was in England he was not a doctor, but in fact, an assistant to the noted barrister George Waugh. Yet, Howe’s explanation of who we was, and what he did in England, could not be confirmed.
In 1874, Howe and Hummel were being sued by William and Adelaide Beaumont, who were former clients of the two lawyers, and were claiming they had been cheated by them. Howe was on the witness stand being interrogated by the Beaumont’s attorney Thomas Dunphy, who asked Howe if he was the same William Frederick Howe who was wanted for murder in England. Howe insisted that he was not. Dunphy then asked Howe if he was the same William Frederick Howe had been convicted of forgery in Brooklyn a few years earlier. Howe again denied he was that person. Yet, no definite determination could ever be made whether Howe was indeed telling the truth.
Rumor had it, before Howe set down stakes in New York City, he had worked in other American cities as a “confidence man.” Other crooks said that Howe was the inventor of the “sick engineer” game, which was one of the most successful sucker traps of that time. In 1859, when he arrived in New York City, Howe immediately transitioned from criminal into criminal attorney, which in those days most people considered to be the same thing.
In the mid-1800s, it was easy to get a license to practice law, and background checks on the integrity of law license applicants were nonexistent. Famed lawyer George W. Alger once wrote, “In those days there were practically no ethics at all in criminal law and none too much in the other branches of the profession. The grievance committee of the Bar Association was not functioning and a lawyer could do pretty much anything he wanted. And most of them did.”
In 1862, “Howe the Lawyer,” as he came to be known, suddenly appeared as a practicing attorney in New York City. However, there is no concrete evidence on how Howe actually became admitted to the New York Bar. In 1963, Howe was listed in the City Directory as an attorney in private practice. In those days, almost anyone could call themselves a lawyer. The courts were filled with lawyers who had absolutely no legal training. They were called “Poughkeepsie Lawyers.”
Howe began building up his clientele in the period immediately after the Civil War. Howe had the reputation of being a “pettifogger,” which is defined as a lawyer with no scruples, and who would use any method, legal or illegal, to serve his clients. Howe became known as “Habeas Corpus Howe,” because of his success in getting soldiers, who didn’t want to be in the service, out of the service. Howe would bring his dispirited soldiers into court, where they would testify that they were either drunk when they enlisted, which made their enlistment illegal, or that they had a circumstance in their lives at the time they were drafted, that may have made their draft contrary to the law. In a magazine article published in 1873, it said, “During the war, Mr. Howe at one time secured the release of an entire company of soldiers, some 70 strong.”
Howe also had as his clients scores of members of the street gangs who instigated the monstrous “1863 Civil War Riots.” Reports were that Howe, using illegal and immoral defense efforts, was able to have men, who committed murders during those riots, acquitted of all charges. As a result of his dubious successes, by the late 1860s Howe was considered the most successful lawyer in New York City. One highly complementary magazine article written about Howe was entitled “William F. Howe: The Celebrated Criminal Lawyer.”
In 1863, Howe hired a 13-year-old office boy named Abraham Hummel. At the time, Howe had just opened his new office, a gigantic storefront at 89 Centre Street, directly opposite The Tombs Prison. Hummel was the exact opposite in appearance of Howe. “Little Abey” was under 5-foot-tall, with thin spindly legs, and a huge, egg-shaped bald head. Hummel walked slightly bent over, and some people mistook him for a hunchback. Hummel wore a black mustache, and had shifty eyes, that always seem to be darting about and taking in the entire scene. While Howe was loud and bombastic, Hummel was quiet and reserved.
However, Hummel was sly and much more quick-witted than Howe. Where Howe dressed outlandishly, Hummel’s attire consisted of plain expensive black suits, and pointed patent leather shoes: “toothpick shoes,” as they were called at the time. Hummel’s shoes were installed with inserts, a precursor to Adler-elevated shoes, which gave Hummel a few extra inches in height, putting him just over the 5-foot mark. Hummel considered himself neat and fastidious, and extremely proud of the fact.
Hummel started off as little more then an office go-fer for Howe. Hummel washed the windows and swept the floors at 89 Centre Street. Hummel also was in charge of replenishing Howe’s ever- dwindling stock of liquor and cigars. Hummel’s job also included carrying coal from the safe, where it was stored, to the stove, which stood right in the middle of the waiting room. Soon, Howe recognized the brilliance of Hummel’s mind, and directed him to start reading case reports. Howe called Hummel “Little Abey,” and Howe repeatedly told his associates how smart his “Little Abey” was.
Yet, instead of Howe being jealous of Hummel’s superior intellect, Howe felt that Hummel’s abilities were the perfect compliment to Howe’s brilliant courtroom histrionics. And as a result, in 1870, Howe brought Hummel in as a full partner. At the time, Hummel was barely 20 years old, and Howe 21 years older.
With his reputation of being a sly fox before the jury, Howe handled all the criminal cases, while Hummel was the man behind the scenes, ingeniously figuring out loopholes in the law, which was described by Richard Rovere in his book Howe and Hummel, as “loopholes large enough for convicted murderers to walk through standing up.”
Howe was known for his dramatics in the courtroom, and was said to be able to conjure up a crying spell whenever he felt it was necessary. Other criminal attorneys said these crying spells were instigated by Howe sniffling into a handkerchief filled with onions, which he conveniently had stuffed into his coat pockets. Howe’s courtroom melodrama was so pronounced, he once gave a complete two-hour summation to the jury on his knees.
Howe and Hummel’s names were constantly in the newspapers, which with their ingenuity in getting off the worst of criminals, they were almost always front-page news. Whereas, in the newspapers, Howe was called “Howe the Lawyer,” Hummel was always referred to as “Little Abe.” There were rumors that the two shyster lawyers had several newspaper men in their back pockets, and there was more than a little evidence to prove that was true.
Howe and Hummel’s clients were as diverse as President Harrison, Queen Victoria, heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan, John Allen (called by the newspapers, “The Most Wicked Man in New York City”), P. T. Barnum, actor Edwin Booth, restaurateur Tony Pastor, actor John Barrymore, belly dancer Little Egypt, and singer and actress, Lillian Russell. They also represented such murderers as Danny Driscoll, the ringleader of the street gang “The Whyos,” and Ella Nelson. Howe’s histrionics before the jury in Ms Nelson’s trial was so effective, he got the jury to believe that Ms. Nelson, who was on trial for shooting her married lover to death, had her finger slip on the trigger, not once, but four consecutive times.
However, probably the most outrageous defense Howe had ever perpetrated in the courtroom, was in the trial of Edward Unger. Unger had confessed he had killed a lodger in his home, cut up the body, thrown parts of the body into the East River, and mailed the rest of the body in a box to Baltimore. Howe had the courtroom, including the judge, jurors, District Attorney, and the assembled press, aghast, when he announced that Unger was not the murderer at all. But rather the true murderer was Unger’s seven-year-old daughter, who was at the time, was sitting on Unger’s lap in the courtroom. Howe, crocodile tears flowing down his chubby cheeks (onioned handkerchief?), said that Unger felt he had no choice but to dispose of the body, to protect his poor little girl, who had committed the crime in the heat of passion. As a result, Unger was found innocent of murder, but convicted on a manslaughter charge instead. Unger’s little girl was never charged.
At the peak of their business, Howe and Hummel represented and received large retainers from most of the criminals in New York City. These criminals included murders, thieves, brothel owners, and abortionists. In 1884, 74 madams were arrested in what was called a “purity drive.” All 74 madams were represented by Howe and Hummel.
Lawyer and legal crime writer Arthur Train claimed that Howe and Hummel were, during their time, the masterminds of organized crime in New York City. Train claimed Howe and Hummel trained their clients in the commission of crimes, and if their clients got caught doing these crimes, Howe and Hummel promised to represent them, at their standard high fees, of course.
In the case of Marm Mandelbaum, the most proficient fence of her time, Howe and Hummel were able to post bond for her, while she was awaiting trail, using several properties Marm owned as collateral. Marm immediately jumped bail and settled in Canada. When the government tried to seize Marm’s properties, they were aghast to discover that the properties had already be transferred to her daughter, by way of back-dated checks, a scheme certainly devised by Abe Hummel, but a crime which could never be proven.
During the mad 1870’s-80’s, in which the city was in the death grip of numerous street gangs, including the vicious Whyos, Howe and Hummel represented 23 out of the 25 prisoners awaiting trial for murder in the The Tombs. One of these murderers was Whyos leader “Dandy” Johnny Dolan, who was imprisoned for killing a shopkeeper and robbing his store. Dolan had invented an item he called, “an eye gouger.” After he had killed the shopkeeper, a Mr. Noe, Dolan gouged out both of Noe’s eyes, and kept them as trophies to show his pals. When Dolan was arrested a few days later, Noe’s eyes were found in the pockets of Dolan’s jacket. Even the great William Howe could not prevent Driscoll from being hung in the Tombs Prison, on April 21, 1876.
However, before Dolan was executed, he escaped from the Tombs prison, by beating up a guard. After his escape, Dolan dashed across the street to the law offices of Howe and Hummel. The police, following a trail of Dolan’s blood, found Dolan hiding in a closet, in a back office of Howe and Hummel. Of course, both Howe and Hummel denied any knowledge of how Dolan wound up in their closet, but the police were sure Howe and Hummel were in someway involved in Dolan’s escape. However, since there was no concrete evidence, and also because Dolan dummied up under police questioning, Howe and Hummel were never charged.
While Howe was an expert in criminal cases, Hummel was the mastermind in “breach of promise” cases, some of which Hummel invented himself. Hummel’s methods as a divorce lawyer, and as a petty blackmailer were an opened secret in New York City. Whenever Lillian Russell needed a divorce, and that was often (since she was married four times) it was “Little Abey” who came to her rescue.
No doubt, Hummel’s blackmailing/breach-of-promise schemes were a thing of beauty, as long as you weren’t the rich sap whom Hummel was scamming. It was estimated between 1885 and 1905, Hummel handled two to five hundred breach-of-promise suits. Amazingly, Hummel was so good at his job, just the threat of him bringing a breach-of-promise case to court, was enough for the rich gentleman, or more correctly, the rich gentleman’s lawyer, to bargain with Hummel over the price of the settlement, behind closed doors, of course, at 89 Centre Street. Because of Hummel’s discretion, not one of the victim’s names was ever made public, or entered into any court record.
However, Abe Hummel wasn’t a man to sit idly by and wait for “breach-of-promises” cases to come to him. When things got a little slow, Hummel sent two of his employees, Lewis Allen and Abraham Kaffenberg (Hummel’s nephew), to walk along Broadway and the Bowery looking for potential female customers, who had been wronged in the past, and didn’t realize they could make a bundle as a result of a past dalliance. Allen and Kaffenberg would explain to young actresses, chorus girls, waitresses, and even prostitutes, that if they could remember a rich man whom they had relations with in the past one-three years, that their boss Abe Hummel would be able to extract a sizable settlement from Mr. Moneybags. From this settlement, the girls would get half, and the law firm of Howe and Hummel would get the other half.
Sometimes these young “ladies” would tell the truth about their liaisons with rich men. However, sometimes the affidavits drawn up by Hummel were pure fiction. Yet the rich mark, who was probably married in the first place, would pay, and pay handsomely, just to have the case disappear, whether he was guilty or not.
Most of the time, Hummel never even met the rich mark, whose life Hummel was making miserable. Lawyer George Gordon Battle, sparred with “Little Abey” many times in these matters. Battle said, “He (Hummel) was always pleasant enough to deal with. He’d tell you right off the bat how much he wanted. Then you’d tell him how much your client was fixed. Then the two of us would argue it out from there. He wasn’t backward about pressing his advantage, but he wasn’t ungentlemanly either”
To show he was of good old sport about these sort of things, when the bargaining was done, and the payment made, always in cash, Hummel would provide his legal adversary with fine liquor, and the best Cuban cigars. Then Hummel, in plain view of the other attorney, would make a big show of going to his desk, where he removed all copies of the affidavits, and handed them to the victim’s lawyer, so that the lawyer could verify them as the proper documents. After the verification was done, the victim’s lawyer had a choice of bringing the documents to his client, or have them burned in the stove right in the middle of Hummel’s office. Almost always the latter course of action was chosen. After the affidavits were destroyed, Hummel and the other attorney would kick back their feet, toast themselves with the finest liquor, and spend the next hour, or so, laughing about lawyerly schemes.
Yet Hummel, in certain ways, was a man of principle. Hummel made sure that none of his blackmail victims were ever troubled again by the same girl who had scammed them in the past. Hummel once explained how he did this to George Alger, a partner in the law firm of Alger, Peck, Andrew, & Rohlfs.
“Before I hand over the girls share,” Hummel told Alger, “the girl and I have a little talk. She listens to me dictate an affidavit saying that she has deceived me, as a lawyer, into believing that a criminal conversation (what they called an act of adultery in those days) had taken place, that in fact nothing at all between her and the man involved ever took place, that she was thoroughly repentant over her conduct in the case, and that but for the fact that the money had already been spent, she would wish to return it. Then I’d make her sign this affidavit; then I gave her the money. Whenever they’d start up something a second time, I just called them and read them the affidavit. That always did the trick.”
So much money was coming into the law firm of Howe and Hummel, it is extraordinary that neither of the two lawyers kept any financial records at all. At the end of the day, both lawyers, and their junior associates, would meet in Hummel’s office. There they would all empty their pockets of cash onto the table. When the money was finished being counted, each man would take out his share of the money in accordance with the proportion of his share in the business. As time went on, this procedure was changed to take place on Friday nights only.
In 1900, Howe and Hummel were forced from their offices at 89 Center Street (the city needed the site for a public building). They relocated to the basement of New York Life Insurance Building at 346 Broadway. Soon after they moved, Howe became sick; then incapacitated. Howe stopped coming into the office, and instead stood feebly at his home at Boston Road in the Bronx. Howe was said to be a heavy drinker, and this had affected his liver. Howe suffered several heart attacks, before he died in his sleep, on September 2, 1902.
After Howe’s death, Hummel muddled on, as he had before, handling all the civil cases, and an occasional criminal case. However, the bulk of the trial work Hummel designated to two of his former assistants: David May and Issac Jacobson.
Hummel was 53 years old at the time of Howe’s death. He must have figured he had a good 10 to 15 more years to accumulate more wealth. However, New York City District Attorney William Travers Jerome had other ideas. It was the Dodge-Morse divorce case that was Hummel’s undoing. For years, Hummel had skirted around the law, and sometimes, in fact, broke the law, but there was never enough evidence to indict him. However, this time Hummel went too far. The Dodge-Morse divorce case dragged out for almost 5 years (Hummel was able to finagle delay after delay, using his thorough understanding of the procedures of the law), but in the end, District Attorney Jerome was able to get an indictment against Hummel for conspiracy and suborning perjury.
Hummel went on trial in January of 1905. The trial lasted only two days, and Hummel was found guilty. Still, Hummel was able to avoid jail for another two years. He hired the best lawyers available, hoping they could find some loophole in the law, or some technicality, that would keep Hummel from going to prison. But nothing could be done, and on March 8, 1907, Abraham Hummel was imprisoned at Blackwell’s Island, the same island, where in 1872, Hummel was able to have 240 prisoners released on a technicality.
Hummel left prison after serving only one year of his two-year sentence. Upon his release, Hummel traveled to Europe, and spent the rest of his life there, mostly living in France. Hummel, as far as it can be determined, never returned to his former stomping grounds in New York City.
After Hummel’s conviction, he was also disbarred. Furthermore, in 1908, the law firm of Howe and Hummel was enjoined by law from further practice, thus ending an era of lawless lawyering that has never been duplicated. Howe and Hummel are accurately portrayed in the annals of American crime, as the most law-breaking law firm of all time.