Scoundrels: Read All About ‘Em

scoundrelsIt seems that there have always been high-profile, less-than-virtuous lawyers around. In the 1880s in Manhattan, the firm of Howe & Hummel were probably the most prominent and outrageous of the legal scoundrels plying their trade.

Cat Murphy’s book on these two upstanding citizens is the kind of non-fiction reading that keeps me up until two.  In a review of Murphy’s book, Old Salt Books summarizes

The partners bestrode Gilded Age New York with wit and brio, and everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Lola Montez had a part in their story. In Howe & Hummel’s prime, it would not have been unusual to see a leading politician, a pickpocket, a Broadway star, a bank robber, and a socialite all crowded together into the waiting room of their offices, located conveniently across the street from the city jail.

To get the full picture of these men, their manner of practicing law, and their view of the world,  it would be a good idea to read the book they wrote about the city where they lived and worked. It’s in the public domain and can be read on-line in a number of places, including

Howe-HummelI read Danger! because it provides insight into the way the wealthy thought about poverty and the poor. Whatever amusement you may get from the antics these two pulled in courtrooms is offset by the way they described homeless girls as deviant criminals, motivated by greed and loose morals:

It is safe to say that very few of the flower girls were virtuous. They remained out until all hours of the night and plied a double trade, selling both their flowers and themselves. There was one well-known house in Thirteenth street which these little girls made a headquarters. It was between Broadway and University place. The proprietress had no other “ladies” but flower girls, as she found them more profitable, charged them higher prices for accommodations, whether by the day or week, and as but few places would assume the risk of harboring the waifs, they were compelled to pay her extortionate rates.

1880s Child Prostitute

1880s Child Prostitute. Source unknown.

Some time since a man could hardly pass along Fourteenth street or Union Square, at night, without his being accosted by one of these girls, who, instead of asking him to purchase flowers, would invariably remark, “Give me a penny, mister?” by which term, afterwards, all these girls of loose character were known to ply their trade. Many of these girls were so exceedingly handsome as to be taken by gentlemen of means and well cared for, and one instance is known where a flower girl married a very wealthy man of middle age.

As a class, they were excessively immoral. They purchased their flowers, out and out, from the florists and made handsome profits, amounting to as much as two and three dollars a night when the weather was fine; but their habits and immoralities became so patent that the societies put a stop to their selling, by sending some to the House of the Good Shepherd, and arresting others for soliciting and other unlawful acts; so that to-day it is very much to be doubted if there are more than half a dozen in the city.

Both Howe and Hummel ended up on the wrong side of the law at various times. Hummel was disbarred at least twice, and Howe had a similarly checkered career.