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Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe & Hummel    by Cait N. Murphy order for
Scoundrels in Law
by Cait N. Murphy
Order:  USA  Can
Smithsonian Books, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

Scoundrels in Law takes an inside look at nineteenth century New York City, where crime and punishment danced together and very little justice was achieved.

The law firm of Howe & Hummel took on the cases of 'gangsters and con men; spurned mistresses and wandering husbands; strippers and Broadway royalty; cat killers and spiritualists.' These were the clients of two men who believed in the dollar first and guilty or innocent second.

William Howe was a man of large proportions with a giant appetite for the courtroom where he would sport more valuable gems than the Queen Mother. Abraham Hummel was his direct opposite. A tiny man, just over five feet with built-up shoes, he nevertheless dressed impeccably and never attended law school. The two were a force with which to be reckoned.

Both were smart and quick witted, and thought and acted on their feet. They were glib of tongue and rather mesmerizing when they hit their stride. The two were not above bribing witnesses or falsifying statements to the police, and more of their shady clients walked the streets free men and women because of their chicanery. They did occasionally lose a trial but were paid nonetheless.

Howe was considered one of the great courtroom orators of his era, winning cases through the sheer weight of his words. Tammany Hall was a power center at the height of their influence. If you had the money, you walked. Vice, corruption, bigotry, violence, blackmail, bribery and lies were the order of the day until Teddy Roosevelt took office and cleaned up the city.

Scoundrels in Law is a most captivating and engrossing book. Cait Murphy, also author of Crazy '08, has researched her work very well with numerous interesting footnotes as well as a good story to tell. One of my daughters claims that the research is more fun and interesting than the actual writing. Murphy must have had a very good time with this work. She manages to take non-fiction and dress it up in words that keep interest from flagging. The two lawyers come to life on the pages as well as the 'gangsters, cops, starlets and rakes who made the gilded age.'

It's also fun to see New York grow on the pages from just after the Civil War to 1908. Scoundrels in Law is a very good book and would make a great present for that lawyer in your life.

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