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Gaslight Lawyers: Criminal Trials & Exploits in Gilded Age New York


A fascinating history of crime and punishment, Gaslight Lawyers paints a serious and entertaining portrait of colorful characters, courtroom drama, and the emerging importance of forensic science and medical-legal jurisprudence.

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A fascinating history of crime and punishment, Gaslight Lawyers paints a serious but entertaining portrait of colorful characters, courtroom drama, and the emerging importance of forensic science and medical-legal jurisprudence in Gilded Age New York City.

From the 1870s to the early 1900s, post-Civil War New York City was becoming a wonder city of commerce and invention, art and architecture, and emerging global prominence. It was also a city of crime, corruption, poverty, slums, and tenements teeming with newcomers and standing in sharp contrast to the city mansions and the extravagant lifestyle of the rising American aristocracy. The New York City of those days is not just the venue of the intriguing true stories told in this book—it is also a supporting actor in them. The city and its innocent inhabitants needed to be protected. Order had to be maintained. Then, as now, malefactors had to be brought to justice. But not every victim was quite so innocent, and not every defendant was as guilty as he (or she) looked.

The Gaslight Era has been called the Second Golden Age of the New York Bar. Gaslight Lawyers sheds new light on a gallery of notables of the day, including the exploits of famous William “Big Bill” Howe and his archrival, Tammany prosecutor Francis Wellman (author of The Art of Cross-Examination), along with trial tactics and ethics of the day—skullduggery on both sides. It tells of the passing of the old guard, exemplified by Howe, and the rise of a new generation of criminal defense lawyers, including Emanuel “Manny” Friend and Abraham Levy, and the aggressive and sometimes ruthless prosecutors William Travers Jerome, William Rand, and James W. Osborne. The book also chronicles judges and politicians, police bungling and corruption, and famous physicians and “alienists,” like Dr. Allan McLane Hamilton, the grandson of Alexander Hamilton. Other characters, such as photojournalist and reformer Jacob Riis, “Tombs Angel” Rebecca Salome Foster, and infamous criminals, like Madame Restell the abortionist and “Marm” Mandelbaum the notorious fence, illuminate the social conditions in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New York City.

Drawing from the experience of a legal scholar and from a wealth of meticulous research gleaned from trial transcripts, other court records, contemporary newspaper stories, and memoirs, Richard H. Underwood also reconstructs and recounts the absorbing legal drama of a number of spectacular criminal cases. Among the murder trials are the Nack-Thorn-Guldensuppe scattered body parts case, the trial of “Frenchy” for the murder of “Old Shakespeare” (the so-called Jack the Ripper case), the trials of Italian immigrant Maria Barbella, who escaped the electric chair with a defense of “psychic epilepsy,” the ordeals of the unfortunate Dr. Samuel Kennedy, and the trial of Florodora Girl Nan Patterson for the murder of gambler and “man about New York” Thomas “Caesar” Young.

Gaslight Lawyers is a compelling, witty, and insightful account of an important era in American legal history, individual human experiences and tragedies, and society at large. It reminds us to acknowledge and deal with biases that continue to manifest themselves in our criminal justice systems today and to be mindful that we “are the guardians of the law.”

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Law/History/True Crime





Publication Date:

September 2017

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