From the 1860s to the first decade of the 20th century, the story of the notorious New York City law firm of Howe & Hummel.
Murphy (Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, 2007) noticed a reference to the firm in Luc Sante’s New York City period history Low Life (1991). Intrigued, the author discovered four 1940s-era New Yorker features about the firm written by Richard Rovere, who collected them in The Magnificent Shysters (1947). Murphy dug deeper, examining court documents and extensive newspaper coverage of their cases. Although the author found very little information about the personal lives of William Howe and Abraham Hummel, she glories in the stark differences between the two men who gained renown during their lifetimes primarily through their immoral tactics in courtrooms. Howe was a flamboyant, obese Catholic. The Jewish Hummel was more understated. Howe tended to defend high-profile murderers, while Hummel focused more on Broadway stars and others involved in civil litigation. Murphy is obviously fascinated by the fact that so many prominent New Yorkers sought out the ethically challenged firm, but, she notes, the lawyers’ questionable reputations might have been a major selling point. “Being rascally was a job recommendation in itself for a Tammany-era lawyer,” she writes; “being rascally and getting away with it was free advertising.” Though full of period color and lively characters, Murphy’s narrative suffers from shifting tones, as the author seems uncertain about whether to approach the lawyers’ exploits using praise, disdain or irony.
An uneven but rollicking read.