Short selling’s long history. History lovers can find distant echoes in pretty much anything that happens. Take the recent GameStop roller-coaster, in which a group of posters on the Reddit website tried to harness the power of social media to engineer a massive ‘short squeeze’. It’s a bit mystifying that this gang of speculators sold themselves as a populist revolt against Wall Street tyranny—it’s well-known on Wall Street that no one really likes short-sellers; for one thing, they are too negative.
But it’s surely noteworthy that two great short-sellers whose shadows loom large over 19th and 20th century financial history both died broke. Let’s work our way backwards.
Death of an Icon. The most famous American short-seller was Jesse Livermore (1877-1940). He reportedly made $100 million ($1.5 bil today) in the stock market crash of 1929. As a result, while much of the nation was struggling to survive during the Great Depression, the legendary trader was living the high life, at least until he squandered everything.
After a wild decade that included two divorces and three bankruptcies, in November 1940, Livermore fatally shot himself in the head at Manhattan’s luxurious Sherry-Netherland hotel.
Corner of the Century. Among the many ironic twists in this spectacular antihero’s story—back in 1922-1923, Livermore joined the bulls (those who, in contrast to the short-selling ‘bears’—drive up the stock) in a GameStop precursor: the Piggly-Wiggly short squeeze.
Clarence Saunders of Memphis Tennessee opened the first Piggly Wiggly in 1916. In essence, it was the first supermarket—a ‘self-service’ store in which customers were no longer required to hand their orders to clerks. By 1922, the business had grown rapidly and Saunders took it public. But an aggressive expansion effort resulted in some franchisee bankruptcies in the North-East. Seeing a potential profit, a coordinated group of Wall Street traders began driving down the stock price. An irate Saunders borrowed $10 million ($150 mil today) and recruited Livermore to create a ‘corner’ and counter the ‘bear raid’.
Much like the Reddit revolutionaries of 2021, Saunders used the media (back then—newspapers) to portray his cause as a Main Street crusade, pitting America’s small investors against the Wall Street establishment. By March 1923, he appeared to be winning. The stock had risen from a low of 39 to 124. But the New York Stock Exchange stepped in and halted trading, giving the shorts time to find shares to cover their positions. Saunders went bankrupt.
The Pioneer. Livermore was preceded, however, in riches and in drama by a largely forgotten figure who would pave the way for future generations of short-sellers—Daniel Drew (1797-1879). Unlike Livermore, Drew was devoutly religious with a stable family life. But he was utterly unscrupulous in business; his sneakiness became the stuff of folklore. One probably apocryphal story has Drew ‘accidentally’ allowing a scrap of paper with a false stock tip to fall out of his pocket.
Drew grew up in dire poverty in Carmel, New York, but discovered Wall Street, still in its infancy, as a cattle drover. Hard work and shrewdness paid off, and he soon owned the leading marketplace for beef cattle in New York City, the Bull’s Head Tavern on 23rd Street. But stock speculation was his true destiny.
Clashing Barons. It was not a public crusade, however, that would undo the magnificent speculator. Rather, it was the combined effort of an unholy trio—‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould and the flamboyant ‘Jubilee Jim’ Fisk. These men were the first of the “robber barons”: transportation magnates whose naked pursuit of wealth helped set the tone for the entire Gilded Age.
In the 1830s, the Hudson River and the Erie Canal combined to provide the most important transportation routes for the growing national economy. Drew controlled a major steamboat line connecting Manhattan with the canal’s Albany-Troy terminus. But he found himself in a fierce rivalry with Vanderbilt. The on-and-off relationship between the two men would continue for over forty years.
During that time, the Commodore would become the richest man in America, mythologized for tying immense wealth inextricably with the American dream. Meanwhile, Drew also met and mentored a younger, unboundaried dreamer: Jay Gould. Eventually, Gould would control the first transcontinental railroad. But first, there would be fierce corporate warfare in New York.
Railroad Wars. Everything began shifting around 1850 with the railroads. It was obvious that profits would be elusive without monopoly pricing power. And so, there were endless struggles for dominance. As for Drew, by 1864, he was part of a group who was short-selling the New York and Harlem. At the time, though it was the only direct line into Manhattan, it was poorly run and undervalued. Vanderbilt saw an opportunity to buy control on the cheap and cornered the market in the shares. Drew lost $500,000 (over 8 million in today’s dollars).
The real action, though, was in the Erie Railway, which offered a land route between the docks at Piermont, NY and Lake Erie. Until the rise of the transcontinentals, it was the leading connection between the Eastern Seaboard and the vast agricultural and commodity riches of the Midwest.
Naturally, the Erie was a devil magnet, with a board that eventually included Drew, Vanderbilt, Gould and Fisk). The control contest became known as the Erie War. It was the first major takeover battle in American corporate history and is possibly still unsurpassed for its complexity and outright malfeasance.
Drew’s own habit of buying and selling Erie stock while serving as the company Treasurer earned him the nickname the “speculative director” in a later exposé. But it also set him up for another short-squeeze from which he never recovered.
At first, it was an 1868 Drew-Vanderbilt rematch, with an obvious revenge motive. And Drew initially got the better of his old adversary by conspiring with Gould and Fisk to water down the Erie stock, and relocating the Erie board temporarily out of New York jurisdiction. But by 1870 Gould and Fisk had joined hands with the Commodore and cornered Drew into a loss estimated at $1.5 million (over $29 mil today).
Trader’s End. A few years later, the Panic of 1873 forced the aging high-stakes gambler into bankruptcy. He had to renege on promises to beloved religious and educational institutions, including Drew Theological Seminary (today’s Drew University in New Jersey) and Drew Ladies Seminary in Carmel, NY.
Following the death of his wife and loss of his Putnam County homestead, Drew moved in with his son at 3 West 43rd Street. According to his leading biographer, at age 81, he could still be seen haunting the trading floor, where his “his gray eyes [having not] lost their fire, occasionally glint[ed] with the joy of a small ‘killing’ that would give him pocket money.”
He is buried with the rest of his family at Drew Cemetery in Brewster, NY.
For further reading, Livermore’s wisdom for stock traders has been enshrined in the classic 1923 text “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator.” For a definitive biography of Drew: Browder, Clifford. “The Money Game in Old New York,” Lexington, KY, the University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
But for any reader thinking about taking up the grand game, consider another time-honored Wall Street adage—“Bulls make money; bears make money; pigs get slaughtered.”
The Walworth family of Saratoga, New York seems designed to prove Tolstoy’s idea that every unhappy family suffers its own unique form of misery. The trial that revealed the depths of their problems was tailor-made for a scandal-hungry press and their self-righteous Victorian-era readers. But from a 21st century viewpoint, it’s just another sad domestic violence story. The DV fact pattern is all too familiar.
Mansfield Walworth was the youngest son of a towering legal figure: “Chancellor” Reuben Walworth. The Chancellor’s work ethic, capacity for detail and domineering personality were legendary, but at home there was chaos beneath the surface, and tensions that were tearing at the nation’s fabric were also consuming the occupants of Pine Grove, the stately, now-vanished family home in Saratoga.
Reuben Walworth had married twice — the first wife shared his abstemious old-school Presbyterian ethic, but the second wife, Sarah Hardin, widow of the war hero John J. Hardin, some 20 years his junior, was a socialite with Kentucky slave-owning roots. At a time when anti-Catholic prejudice still ran deep, the Chancellor’s oldest son, Clarence, much to the horror of his father, converted to Catholicism and became a well-known member of the Catholic clergy. But the deepest rift of all was a gender war, which descended into violence.
Clarence’s younger brother Mansfield married his 19-year old step-sister, Ellen (“Nelly”) Hardin. She gave birth 8 times, but the marriage was doomed. His fits of rage gradually turned into physical and emotional abuse. After she showed her bruises to their oldest son, Frank, he became privy to intimate details no child would ever wish to learn about his parents.
Mansfield had dabbled in law practice, but tried to make a career out of writing lurid gothic novels, which invariably featured a misunderstood, heroic version of himself. Over time, he failed at everything. He lost custody over the children in the divorce from Nelly, and after the Chancellor’s death, the inheritance that Mansfield anticipated (and borrowed against) was placed in trust for the benefit of Nelly and the children.
As Mansfield became increasingly desperate and delusional, his ex-wife was proving to be more than competent — in fact, an extraordinary woman who eventually left behind a remarkable record of accomplishments. Mansfield blamed all his failures on Nelly. Holed up in a boarding house in New York City, he sent a steady stream of letters, full of mad ravings, sexually-explicit fantasies, and threats to kill Nelly as well as Frank, who had become his mother’s protector.
Finally, on June 3rd, 1873, Frank shot and killed his father, at the fashionable Sturdevant Hotel at 29th and Broadway. A first-rate legal team — all with longstanding connections to the family — began assembling at his holding cell on the day of the shooting. They were prepared to work without charge. Frank and his lawyers may have felt that he would escape serious legal consequences because his actions were so clearly justified. If so, they miscalculated. The family’s travails were now public property.
The defense team was headlined by two leading courtroom advocates. Among the elite tier of New York City’s trial bar, Charles O’Conor was the unofficial ‘dean’. William Beach, while less famous, had been associated with a number of high profile murder cases, such as that of Edward Stokes, the killer of James Fisk. Newburgh’s Judge Fullerton was not on the pro bono team, but had close ties to both O’Conor and Beach. A published illustration of the trial scene shows the widow and mother Nelly Walworth, dressed in black mourning attire, appearing as a witness and being examined by O’Conor. A prominent figure seated between O’Conor and the witness looks a great deal like our Judge F.
The presiding judge, Noah Davis, made a point of admiring the array of talent representing the defendant. But his remarks only underscored his intention of demonstrating that a man who killed his own father would receive due punishment, regardless of wealth or status. Judge Davis was a former politician — a one-term Congressman — and more recently a Federal District Attorney. 1873 was his year to make an indelible mark – most famously by presiding over the trial and conviction of “Boss” William Tweed, likely the most powerful (and most corrupt) political figure in New York City history. But first, he was going to make an example of Frank.
At the time, New Yorkers were painfully aware of the city’s high murder rate and low percentage of convictions. The ability of well-heeled defendants with high-priced lawyers to escape scot-free was an especially sore subject, which had recently been driven home by the ongoing Stokes trials. It ultimately required three efforts to convict financier Jim Fisk’s wealthy killer (with Judge Davis presiding over the final trial). To make things worse for the Walworth legal team, a freshly revised criminal code had just created the category of “second degree murder,” in order to make it easier for jurors concerned about the death penalty to reach a guilty verdict.
To the Victorian mindset, the concept of ‘parricide’ was horribly offensive as well as deeply religiously immoral. Scholars who have pondered the Walworth case all note that judges and juries were often sympathetic when a jealous husband shot his wife’s lover. There is also evidence that a battered woman who killed an abusive partner might be dealt with leniently. But a young man who killed his abusive father was not going to be similarly excused.
Judge Davis’ jury instructions left little room for doubt as to the outcome he expected:
“The general bad character of a person slain can neither tend to show that the party is not guilty of homicide, or in any sense to mitigate the taking of human life. Equality before the law is a maxim of universal justice, and the life of the humblest and most abandoned is equally entitled to the protection of the law, as that of the most cultivated, refined, and elevated. It is not for man to say which may be taken and which spared.” (NY Times, July 3, 1873)
Frank was sentenced to life in prison for second degree murder. Other than in Saratoga, where local sympathies were with Frank and Nelly, the press and the public hailed this result as a victory for justice over privilege. With her son shipped off to Sing Sing, Ellen Hardin Walworth faced limited choices. Top flight professionals such as O’Conor and Beach were not going to undertake a long, iffy appeal process without being paid for their time. So the most practical hope was a pardon from the Governor.
Then, as now, the exercise of the pardon power is controversial. By 1873, several states had created formal application procedures to bring some order and transparency to the process. It’s an obscure bit of legal history that the form used in New York for many years was created by O’Conor in the effort to obtain a pardon for Frank. But Republican Governor Dix and his Democratic successor Samuel Tilden turned down the request. A busy O’Conor stepped away from the task but Ellen pursued the goal relentlessly. She enlisted the esteemed poet and editor William Cullen Bryant in support and obtained a report from a physician, Dr. John Gray, who visited Frank in prison and described in detail the deterioration of his health (as well as the underlying, always present condition of epilepsy).
In 1877, newly-elected Governor Robinson granted an unconditional pardon, and a permanently weakened Frank finally came home on August 1st. He married a sweetheart who had visited him in prison. They had a daughter and he obtained a law degree, but Frank passed away in 1886 from a lung condition originally contracted in prison.
There is at least one redeeming aspect to this family tragedy. The trial and long effort to save her son seems to have crystallized Ellen’s determination to address women’s condition in society and unlock her own potential. She became an avid public speaker and achieved a law degree from New York University. She joined many organizations; and when she found she was barred from entry on the basis of her sex, she formed her own alternative organizations. She was passionate about preservation and historical lineage, and helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she was the first editor of their magazine.
During the Spanish-American War, Mrs. Hardin Walworth established the Women’s National War Relief Association. At that time, she suffered another loss when her daughter Ruby, who shared her dedication to service, perished from typhoid while tending to the sick in Long Island. In the wake of this additional, crushing grief, she dedicated herself afresh to the many philanthropic avenues she had opened for herself.
She is still revered as a pioneer of the women’s movement.
The Judge’s only son, William Fullerton, Jr., had a brief, but shining moment in the footlights as an expatriate composer of romantic songs and light opera, in the height-of-empire 1880’s London. They are clearly a study in contrasts: aggressively male father and sensitive, musical son. But both were well-known players at unique historical moments on opposite sides of the Atlantic. And perhaps if there had been a better accommodation between them, neither would have been so thoroughly forgotten later.
There are only scattered Willie footprints from his youthful New York years, but these provide a glimpse into gilded age NYC as well as the origins of the ‘Broadway’ Theatre District. Intentionally or otherwise, Willie left a roadmap to his personal relationships and ambitions on the front covers of published sheet music.
The earliest surviving piece, Silver Strains, is a waltz published in 1871. He was 17 and still living in Newburgh. The dedication reads simply: “To My Parents.” In 1865, Willie’s father had described in unmistakable terms a rigid, if idealized, view of a mother’s role:
While the husband is battling with the sterner duties of life, she remains at home to form the infant character…She is not only to guide the tottering footsteps, she is to guide the immortal mind. Her husband may go out into the world to win its wealth and honors, but she has a far higher sphere in which to act.
William S. Fullerton, Closing Statement, Millspaugh v. Adams.
Compared to the public lives of her husband and son, Cornelia Augusta Fullerton (like most women of her era) is both silent and invisible. But we can safely assume that she nurtured and encouraged Willie’s talents, and cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that she took some of the blame for whatever sorrow the old man felt over his only son’s choices and ultimate fate.
That Judge Fullerton could be both forceful and intimidating was well known to generations of witnesses and opposing counsel. Willie would pass away in 1888, at 34, consumed by a combination of tuberculosis, financial woes and distress over his inability to stage what was supposed to be his greatest work — the lost operetta “Waldemar: Robber of the Rhine.” Shortly after his death, sister Gussie wrote to her own daughter that Willie had once admitted he sometimes lay awake at night and cried when he felt their father was disappointed.
Still, during Willie’s boyhood, the busy trial lawyer was usually 60 miles away and mid-century Newburgh was a thriving place, filled with music. Adjacent to the bustling docks, the Water Street business district (utterly demolished during 1970s urban renewal) featured competing dealers who sold musical instruments, along with sheet music that could be brought home to fill evenings with intimate performances of song.
The emerging middle class was buying pianos. Although professional musicians and actors were not considered respectable, any well-bred young lady was expected to play an instrument and entertain friends, family and gentlemen suitors. Up and down the Hudson Valley, there were home-grown composers writing waltzes and military-style marches, and the public calendar was full of orchestral and choral group performances.
But Willie clearly had his sights on bigger things. His next surviving piece, Waltzes Marguerite, was published in 1873. The title as well as the dedication at the top of the cover page — “to Miss Clara Louise Kellogg” – speak volumes.
Fullerton Jr. ‘s intended public would have known that ‘Marguerite’ referred to the leading female role in the opera Faust, by French composer Charles Gounod, and that Clara Louise Kellogg (1842-1916) was a home-grown opera star, an internationally popular prima donna who had been born in South Carolina and raised in New England. In November 1863, 21-year old Kellogg performed the role of Faust’s ill-fated love interest in the opera’s American debut at New York’s Academy of Music. Her Marguerite catapulted the lyrical soprano to stardom, brought crowds to the Academy of Music on 14th Street (demolished in 1926), and helped establish opera’s place in New York City, just beginning to emerge as a cultural capital.
Marguerite was an early, signature role, and Kellogg also performed it in her London debut in 1867, at Her Majesty’s Theatre. By 1873, Kellogg had moved on to other challenges. In a memoir published 50 years after the first American performance of Faust, the world-weary diva wrote: “Musically, I loved the part of Marguerite—and I still love it. Dramatically, I confess to some impatience over the imbecility of the girl.” But 19-year old Willie — a descendent of hardscrabble, revolutionary war era farmers — was paying homage to Kellogg as a reverse pioneer — a ‘made-in-the-U.S.A.’ songstress who achieved widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, as he himself would set out to do.
Kellogg’s 1913 memoir also offers a glimpse into an exclusive, private musical world that Judge Fullerton’s son must have found enchanting:
In the seventies, New York was interesting musically, chiefly because of its amateurs…at that time, New York had a collection of musical amateurs who were almost as highly cultivated as professionals. It was a set that was extremely interesting and quite unique; and which bridged in a wonderful way the traditional gulf between art and society.
One of these glittering, gilded age amateurs was Mrs. Peter “Fanny” Ronalds, who would have a considerable influence on Willie’s career in London. To Kellogg, these talented socialite-singers “combined music and society in a manner worthy of the great French hostesses and originators of salons.” And in time, William Fullerton and his life-companion, artist and costume designer Percy Anderson, would host their own bohemian salon in London, where musicians and actors would mingle in an unrestrained atmosphere that would have been shocking back in Newburgh (and possibly in Manhattan as well).
But young Will Fullerton was under pressure to undertake a serious career. Law was something of a family business. His father and two of his uncles were attorneys. Willie’s sister married a promising young lawyer who joined Judge Fullerton’s law firm (but unfortunately died young), and an older cousin, Captain Stephen Fullerton, had been a promising attorney and politician whose brilliant prospects were cut short when he died from illness contracted in a Civil War army camp.
Plus, there was one more role model in Willie’s own generation. One of his father’s law partners, Benjamin Dunning, had named his son after Willie’s dad. That dutiful son, William Fullerton Dunning, went on to graduate from Columbia Law School and became an outstanding New York practitioner. But Willie steered clear of the well-worn path.
The records of Columbia University’s School of Mines (precursor to today’s Columbia School of Engineering) show that 20-year old William Fullerton, Jr. enrolled in a preparatory program for the academic year 1874-1875. Willie organized their annual December dance – the height of the year’s social calendar for those eligible bachelors. The surviving dance program includes a long list of Waltzes (nearly all predictably by the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, but there was, of course, a performance of Marguerite Waltzes, by William Fullerton, Jr.
It is difficult to imagine that young Fullerton had in mind a career of designing or operating machinery or transportation networks. But if Newburgh was not widely known for its musical offerings, the opposite was true for its architecture, much of which was in the immediate neighborhood of the Fullerton home. Newburgh’s most famous native son, A.J. Downing (1815-1852), is sometimes described as the “father of American landscape architecture.” He died two years before Willie was born, but his lost gothic revival mansion, Highland Garden, was still standing a mere block away from the Fullerton family home.
The genesis of the Greensward Plan, which became New York City’s Central Park, began when Connecticut gentleman farmer Frederick Law Olmsted met Downing’s junior partner, young English architect Calvert Vaux, at the Downing home. Even today, the Grand-Liberty-Montgomery Street corridor is a showcase of 19th American architectural design, where surviving homes and churches reflect the vision of Downing’s peers like A.J. Davis and Thornton Niven, as well as Vaux and Downing’s other U.K. import, Frederick Clark Withers.
It is probably coincidental that Vaux’s son, Downing Vaux, as well as Olmsted’s nephew and stepson, Owen, attended the Columbia School of Mines at the same time as Willie. But the School of Mines offered many possible career avenues, including architecture, which was folded into their curriculum until the establishment of Columbia’s vaunted School of Architecture in 1881.
School of Mines was a tough program – rigorous and rigid. A student could fail a course simply by coming late to class. Young Downing Vaux dropped out and so did Willie.
A year later, in 1876, Willie applied for a passport. Records show that he crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool twice — in 1876 and again in 1878. His concerned father may have followed him abroad (or at least prepared to do so). William Fullerton, Sr. applied for his own passport in 1877.
There is a peculiar discrepancy between American and English versions of Willie’s European education. English reviews of Willie’s music from the 1880’s referred to his studies at Leipzig’s renowned Conservatory of Music. But certain biographical sketches of the prominent American lawyer William Fullerton state that his son studied in Heidelberg (a major institution for science and engineering). Perhaps Willie tried Heidelberg, or told his parents he was doing so, in 1876, before undertaking studies in music composition at Leipzig, beginning in 1878.
The next surviving scrap can be found in the sheet music archives of the U.S. Library of Congress: On theSilent Sea (1877), composed by Rudolph Aronson, with lyrics by William Fullerton, Jr. The title evokes the trans-Atlantic steamship passages that were an essential element of the burgeoning cultural exchanges between New York and the Old World, something he and Rudolph would have known well of by 1877. And Silent Sea’s dedication — to Mlle. Emma Albani — is a sort of a matching book-end to the 1873 homage to Kellogg.
Kellogg’s 1913 memoir traces her own 1867 glimpse of Mlle. (later Dame of the British Empire) Albani (1847-1930), in London. The celebrated diva had gone to check out the rival company at Covent Garden, where the competition included ”a pretty, young, new singer from Canada with them…who had a light, sweet voice and was attractive in appearance.” Like Kellogg, French-Canadian Albani was a successful North-American cultural export into the demanding European market. The sheet music salutes to these two divas clearly point in the direction of Willie’s own hopes.
The U.S. Library of Congress has a second Fullerton/Aronson collaboration, Bright Blue Eyes, published in 1878. Rudolph Aronson (1856-1919) was an orchestra leader and composer – aided at the time by the music publishing business of his younger brother, Edward. But by 1878, as 24-year old Willie Fullerton was leaving New York for good, on the ship Abyssinia, Aronson was turning his attention to a different kind of role – raising funds to build the Casino Theater, a lavishly decorated Moorish revival palace at 39th and Broadway. The now-lost Casino Theater became an important home for the production of light opera and musical comedy for nearly fifty years.
There are no other known instances of Willie writing lyrics, and no evidence of a continuing connection between the two men after Willie settled in London, and went on to produce a major work of his own, Lady of the Locket. Curiously, it was not Aronson, but his erstwhile business partner-turned competitor, ‘Colonel’ John A. McCaull, who would later purchase the American rights to William Fullerton’s now-lost operetta Waldemar, and broadcast loudly his intention (never-fulfilled) to bring Willie’s work home to his native New York.
Notes on further reading:
Many theatrical figures published memoirs which — with due allowance for the authors’ biases, settling of old scores, and the vagaries of memory — provide wonderful period pieces. These include:
Albani, Emma, Forty Years of Song, Toronto, Ontario, The Copp Clark Co., 1911. Aronson, Rudolph, Theatrical and Musical Memoirs, New York, McBride, Nast, and Co., 1913. Kellogg, Clara Louise (Mme. Strakosch), Memoirs of an American Prima Donna, New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913.
For musical theater history, all paths lead to Kurt Ganzl, whose vast output includes Encyclopedia of Musical Theater (Schermer Books, 1994) and the earlier, groundbreaking British Musical Theatre (Oxford University Press, 1986). Without Kurt’s writings, as well as his guidance and encouragement, research into lost composer Willie Fullerton would have been next-to-impossible.
As to Newburgh’s rich C19 architectural heritage — the definitive book remains to be written.
Many thanks to Research Assistant and Images Editor Jessy Brodsky for her invaluable contributions to this post.
“Bench andbarsinks deeper in the mud every year and every month. They must be near bottom now.”
Diary of George Templeton Strong, April 9, 1868
It must be admitted — for a five-year period running from 1868 to 1873, ex-Judge Fullerton was hanging with the bad boys. These were some of the most colorful and imaginative scoundrels that American history has to offer. And he had his own brush with the law.
Fullerton may or may not have been guilty of anything — he was eventually acquitted. But an indictment for extortion and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Treasury could easily have made him a more sympatico counselor to the rogues who were re-shaping the nation’s transportation systems and manipulating financial markets, as well as the career politicians who were working the system to accumulate considerable personal wealth.
A thorough study of ex-Judge William Fullerton’s activities, as found in newspaper articles and other contemporary sources, could easily mushroom into a multi-volume encyclopedia of early Gilded Age corrupt practices. In deference to the attention span of 21st-century readers, below is a brief timeline, followed by short bio’s of a few select clients and colleagues.
Erie Railway “War”: This epic corporate takeover battle pitted Cornelius Vanderbilt (probably America’s richest man at the time) against a wily triumvirate consisting of aging financier Daniel Drew, emerging railroad magnate Jay Gould and his showboating confederate “Jubilee Jim” Fisk. At its frenzied peak in 1868, battle-tactics included open buying of legislative votes in Albany, rabid private-press printing of unauthorized stock, and late-night injunctions issued by obviously bribed judges, roused from bedside in their nightclothes.
The two-year struggle came to a head in March 1868, when Gould, Fisk, and Drew fled to New Jersey to avoid arrest with $7 million in cash they had earned from selling watered down Erie stock to Vanderbilt. The matter was settled after “Boss” Tweed, the powerful head of New York City’s democratic machine, became a director and threw his support behind the Drew/Gould/Fisk faction.
Fullerton served on the Vanderbilt legal team, led by his former law partner Charles O’Conor. The opposing team, led by the brilliant legal authority David Dudley Field II, included more than 40 paid attorneys, Charles Seward, a nephew of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and William Evarts, a future Attorney General and Secretary of State, among them. Later in the year, Fullerton would be representing Fisk and Gould, who were then firmly in control of the Erie Railroad, in litigation with German-American financier August Belmont. Legal fees paid on behalf of the railroad, for 1868 alone, totaled $330,510, over 6 million dollars today.
New York Whiskey Ring Conspiracy: Beginning around March 1868, Fullerton was quietly retained as counsel to Special U.S. Treasury Agent, Alfred A. Belknap, who was on a hunt to expose fraud and bribery within the New York ‘Whiskey Ring.’ Belknap’s shadowy attempts to circumvent the U.S. District Attorney Samuel G. Courtney (who was suspected of collusion with the whiskey manufacturers) eventually burst into open conflict between the Treasury team and the Justice Department.
In September, at the direction of President Andrew Johnson, ex-Judge Fullerton was formally appointed as Special Counsel to Treasury for the ongoing investigation. Fullerton called for D.A. Courtney’s removal, but Johnson’s Attorney General (former Erie War participant William Evarts) did not take any action.
Andrew Johnson was becoming irrelevant — he was not nominated by either party to run in the November Presidential election. On November 16th, Courtney indicted Belknap, Fullerton and other members of the team on nine counts of extortion, conspiracy and fraud against the Treasury. Attorney General Evarts maintained a studied neutrality — although he did not remove prosecutor Courtney, he quietly arranged for the trial to be postponed, with the result that Fullerton would not face a judge who was aligned with the D.A.
Another Railroad War: Fresh from victory in the Erie War, Jim Fisk launched an offensive against West Coast-based Union Pacific Railroad, along with its affiliated (and fraudulent) construction arm Credit Mobilier, in Judge Barnard’s notoriously sympathetic New York courtroom. UP retained D.D. Field II and lobbied Congress for legislation to put railroad cases under Federal jurisdiction. While serving as local counsel for the railroad in New York City, Fullerton arranged a private meeting with Fisk to discuss a settlement. (The meeting was later revealed publicly during the impeachment proceeding against the corrupt Judge Barnard.) Fisk bragged to friends that he made $50,000 from the meeting, but the suit was not settled.
Exposure of the Erie Excesses: In July, “A Chapter of Erie”, by Charles Francis Adams (a direct descendant of two U.S. Presidents) was published in The North American Review. The public was shocked by its portrayal of blatant misconduct by judges and lawyers. Fullerton made a cameo appearance — a brief, heated exchange with D.D. Field in Judge Barnard’s courtroom.
U.S. v Fullerton et al: The trial continued to be postponed on various pretexts, such as illness on the part of the senior figure on the defense — Charles O’Conor. The New York Times publicly criticized the continuing delays and noted the array of legal talent on Fullerton’s defense team.
Fishing with Chester Alan Arthur: Earliest documented excursion with “Gentleman Boss” Arthur, a sixteen day stay at a popular fishing camp at Big Tupper Lake, in the Adirondacks, as later recalled by legendary fishing guide “Uncle Mart” Moody.
U.S. v. Fullerton, cont.: The long-awaited trial finally commenced in March. Fullerton’s case was severed from the other defendants (some of whom eventually went to prison.) A two-judge panel was assigned to the case, with the prosecution led by the new U.S. Attorney (and future U.S. Attorney General) Edwards Pierrepont. Assisting the prosecution — well-connected Brooklyn lawyer-politician Benjamin Tracy (eventual Secretary of the Navy.)
After nine days, Fullerton was acquitted by a ‘directed verdict’. (Judges Blatchford and Woodruff ruled from the bench that the prosecution had not presented a case that was strong enough to present to a jury.) The merits of the decision were debated in the press, but eventually all was quietly forgotten.
Back home in Newburgh, the lawyers threw a dinner in Judge Fullerton’s honor, where he was serenaded.
Real Estate deal with Arthur: Arthur and Fullerton purchased an uptown parcel of land at Broadway and 139th St, for $40,000 (or $732,160 in today’s terms).
Representing Tammany Hall: Fullerton (together with E.W. Stoughton) defended James H. Ingersoll, a building contractor and Tweed henchman, in a suit brought by William Havemeyer, three-time mayor of New York City, contending that Ingersoll was responsible for five or six million dollars of missing tax revenue. He escaped conviction at the time, but eventually went to prison for his role in the Tweed Ring theft of public money.
Fisk versus Stokes and Josie Mansfield: Toward the end of 1871, the great gilded age love triangle — involving the rotund and shameless James Fisk, his handsome young friend Edward Stokes, and voluptuous Josie Mansfield — was coming to its breaking point. Initially, Fisk sued Stokes for embezzling funds from the oil company they both had invested in, after which Stokes countered by threatening to expose incriminating love letters Fisk had written to Josie Mansfield, who also brought her own suit demanding $50,000. Fisk paid her $10,000 but then brought another suit for blackmail, to which Mansfield counter-sued for libel. In January 1872, Stokes shot and killed Fisk on the ladies’ entrance staircase of the Grand Central Hotel.
Fullerton served as one of the attorneys for Fisk during the chaotic rounds of litigation, but did not have a visible role until after Fisk’s dramatic end.
Trial of Edward Stokes for the Murder of Jim Fisk: Fullerton (along with his colleague Augustus Beach) were sitting next to the prosecutors at the beginning of the trials that eventually led to a prison term for Fisk’s murderer. And Fullerton personally made the opening argument. His role was never explained, but the under-funded New York City prosecutor’s office was obviously happy to collaborate. Eventually, the jury reached a verdict of Manslaughter, and sentenced Stokes to be hanged, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Stokes spent four years in Sing Sing and lived out the rest of his life as a free man.
Effort to Impeach the “Tweed Ring” Judges: The Association of the Bar of the City of New York had been formed in the wake of the scandals surrounding the Erie War and the general corruption of the New York judiciary. Investigations and impeachment efforts centered around three “Tweed Ring” Supreme Court Justices –George Barnard, John McCunn and Albert Cardozo (father of the future great jurist Benjamin Cardozo).
Fullerton defended Cardozo, who was accused of extreme acts of corruption, nepotism, and taking bribes for Tammany Hall. Barnard and McCunn were impeached and convicted by the Senate, while Cardozo resigned and returned to private law practice, under a cloud that persisted long after his death.
Trial of ‘Boss’ Tweed: Tweed had been charged with Grand Larceny and in January the trial was begun in front of Judge Noah Davis. D.D. Fields II led his defense team. Fullerton’s old friend O’Conor helped orchestrate the prosecution effort, which involved a large team of lawyers, including future Democratic presidential candidate Samuel Tilden and Fullerton’s former adversary in the Millspaugh case, Henry Laurel Clinton.
The first trial ended in a hung jury, amid suspicions of Jury tampering. During the second trial, Field (who was an internationally acclaimed expert in legal procedure) was in Brussels and Fullerton played a more prominent role in Tweed’s defense.
At the beginning of jury selection, Fullerton quietly handed Judge Davis a letter signed by the entire defense team, which asked the judge to recuse himself on grounds that he had shown prejudice against the defendant. At the receipt of this letter, the Judge famously turned red, and insisted that the trial would continue.
Mid-November, Judge Davis slapped Tweed with a much harsher verdict than expected–thirteen years in prison and $12,500 in fines. He then summoned the defense team to a special hearing at which Fullerton and two others were held in contempt, fined $250 and “held committed” (i.e. jailed) until the fine was paid.
Judge Davis’ rebuke became part of the folklore of the legal community for decades.
Phelps, Dodge, and Co versus the U.S. Customs House: Judge F’s fishing buddy Chet Arthur was appointed Customs Collector for New York in 1871. At the time, the customs system was the largest source of political patronage jobs in the U.S. as well as a source of plentiful opportunities for graft.
Phelps Dodge (which still exists today) was an import-export firm dealing in metal and cotton. The Customs House charged that the company had devalued their goods and defrauded the government by $1,000,000.
Later investigations showed that the Customs House claims were greatly overstated and Arthur was accused of personally benefitting, due to an usual compensation arrangement that awarded customs officials a percentage bounty for successfully prosecuting cases.
Fullerton played a curious role as a would-be “fixer”. Retained as counsel for Phelps Dodge, he tried to negotiate a private settlement, which would involve a payment of $200,000 but avoid any publicity or litigation.
The offer was actually rejected because of Phelps, Dodge, and Co’s proclaimed innocence, and a litany of he-said-she-saids between the government and the firm delayed settlement. The case dragged on for nearly two years, between 1872 and 1874, led to a payment by Phelps Dodge of $ 271,000 (over $6 million today) which was split between the informant on the company, the Collector of the Port, and other government officials, and became a flashpoint in the heated debate over reforms to the entire “spoils”-based system and government corruption.
Select Player Bio’s:
Arthur, Chester Alan (1830-1886) New York lawyer and political operative. A key member of Senator Roscoe Conkling’s Republican ‘machine,’ Arthur served as Collector of the Port of New York from 1871-1878 and amassed considerable wealth. Became 21st U.S. President upon the assassination of James Garfield. Sometimes called the ‘Dude’ President, because of his extensive wardrobe, and famously fond of fishing, including at least two lengthy trips with William Fullerton.
Beach, Augustus (1809-1884) Lawyer based in Albany, frequently involved with the great criminal cases of the day, including the prosecution team against Edward S. Stokes. Collaborated with Fullerton in Tilton v. Beecher, arguably America’s most notorious 19th century sex scandal trial.
Cardozo, Albert (1828-1885) Attorney and judge. Prominent member of the Sephardic Jewish community of New York City. During the 1850s became involved in the Tammany Hall political machine and beginning in 1864 was appointed to judicial posts, where he was able to perform many favors for the Tweed ring, and issue rulings that benefitted Jim Fisk and Jay Gould. Resigned under the threat of removal from office for misconduct, after which he continued to practice law until his death in 1885. His son Benjamin (age 11 at the time of Cardozo’s disgrace) eventually became one of the most venerated judicial figures in the nation, serving as Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Evarts, William (1818-1901) Prominent New York lawyer and statesman. Served as U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State as well as Republican Senator from New York. Famously represented Andrew Johnson in the Senate trial. Helped found the Association of the Bar for the City of New York and spearheaded efforts to reform the judiciary, in the wake of revelations of corruption on the part of the Tweed Ring judges and complicit lawyers. Was part of the star-studded defense team in the 1875 Henry Ward Beecher adultery trial where he jousted publicly with Fullerton.
Field II, David Dudley (1805-1894)* Trial lawyer and renowned legal scholar, whose Code of Civil Procedure (the “Field Code”) was adopted in 24 states and influenced procedural reforms in England and its colonies. Led the legal team on behalf of Fisk and Gould as well as for Boss Tweed, all of which associations cast a shadow on his reputation.
Fisk, Jr., James (1835-1872) The “Prince of Erie,” closely associated with unscrupulous financier Jay Gould in railroad takeover battles as well as a notorious 1869 attempt to manipulate the gold market (with assistance from Judge Cardozo) which led to a spectacular market crash that embarrassed President Grant and caused economic distress. His antics and high living flouted society’s conventions, but came to a tragic end when he was shot by his former friend and business partner, Ned Stokes over their shared love interest, Josie Mansfield.
Johnson, Andrew (1808-1875) Tennessee Democrat. Became 17th President of the United States following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Conflict with the Republican radicals over the policies towards the South and the newly-freed slaves led to Johnson’s becoming the first U.S. President to be impeached by the House of Representatives. At the Senate trial, he narrowly escaped removal from office by a margin of one vote. Allegations of bribery in connection with the vote were never proved, but were part of the background to the “New York Whiskey Frauds” investigation, which ensnared Fullerton.
O’Conor, Charles (1804-1884)* Trial lawyer and politician. O’Conor was the son of an exiled Irish revolutionary. His courtroom skills were widely admired, and he was generally considered the “dean” of the practicing trial bar. Famously solitary and irascible, in the 1850’s, he invited Fullerton to move his practice to New York City where they formed the short-lived firm of O’Conor, Fullerton and Dunning. Headed the team representing Cornelius Vanderbilt in the Erie Railway battle and (like opposing counsel D.D. Field) attracted negative attention for the violation of legal norms and abuse of the system. But he helped spearhead the effort to prosecute Boss Tweed, without compensation. O’Conor was sympathetic to the South during the Civil War and represented former Confederate President Jefferson Davis when he was indicted for treason. In 1872, he was nominated for the Presidency by a breakaway faction of the Democratic party, thus becoming the first Catholic candidate for the Presidency.
Porter, John K (1819-1892)* Trial lawyer and Union College classmate of William Fullerton (class of 1837). Served on the New York Court of Appeals from 1865-1867 (overlapping Fullerton’s brief term). Famously served as special counsel to the prosecution in the case of Charles Guiteau, who was executed for assassinating President Garfield.
Seward, Clarence (1828- 1897)* A respected corporate lawyer, who had been raised by his uncle, William Seward (Secretary of State to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson). Partner in the firm Blatchford, Seward, and Griswold, predecessor to today’s powerhouse Cravath, Swain and Moore. Served as Assistant Secretary of State to Andrew Johnson after William Seward was wounded in the assassination conspiracy that killed Lincoln.
Stoughton, Edwin W. (1818-1882)* Well-regarded patent lawyer and member of the stalwart faction of the Republican Party. Along with William Evarts, Stoughton represented Rutherford Hayes before the Electoral Commission that decided the disputed Presidential election of 1876 and was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Russia.
Tweed, William M. (1823-1878) Widely referred to as “Boss” Tweed. Democratic politician and power broker extraordinaire who rose from humble roots in the Lower East Side to Grand Sachem of the Tammany Hall political machine. The full extent of the graft and theft committed by the Tweed Ring has never been fully accounted for, with estimates ranging from $25 million to $200 million. (Roughly $500 million to $4 billion in today’s dollars.) After a series of trials. Tweed was eventually convicted of Larceny, as well as other counts, and spent a year in the ‘Tombs,’ before escaping and fleeing across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Spotted because of the popularity of Thomas Nast’s pervasive political cartoons, he died in NYC’s Ludlow Street Jail.
Vanderbilt, Cornelius “the Commodore” (1794-1877) Son of a poor farmer, started out ferrying people from Staten Island to New York City on a small boat, and eventually became a steamboat operator and then railroad magnate. He created the Grand Central depot, predecessor to Grand Central Station, and organized the New York Central Railroad. By the time of his death, Vanderbilt was believed to the wealthiest man in America.
It is an unfortunate coincidence that 1868 was the year in which ex-Judge Fullerton found himself accused of extortion and criminal conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Treasury.
At the beginning of 1868, ex-Judge William S. Fullerton was 52 years old. He was not yet famous — that would not come until 1875 — but highly respected among New York City’s elite trial lawyers. It had been a long hard slog for the former farm-boy from rural Wawayanda. In the twin, Thornton Niven-designed courthouses of Newburgh and Goshen they remembered him as the “Orange County Cyclone,” but he had long since moved his practice to the ever-expanding metropolis, while parking his wife and two children sixty miles up the river in Newburgh.
Modesty was not expected in successful Gilded Age circles. It was time to provide Cornelia, Gussie and Willie with a comfortable home that would also announce that Judge Fullerton had arrived.
The lot was carefully selected, roughly 1.5 acres on a slight rise west of Grand Street, which at the time offered sweeping views of the Hudson River in a neighborhood that was dotted with architectural gems. Only one block to the North, A.J. Downing’s picturesque Gothic mansion, Highland Gardens, was still standing, although its visionary creator had died in a steamboat accident in 1852.
William Hilton was a carpenter/builder who lacked formal training as an architect, but made rich use of the models that were available. The Fullerton’s house can best be described as Italianate-eclectic, (The front porch was added some 50 years later, by patent-medicine king Harry Cathcart. We will get to him in due course.) Although the house interior has suffered from the ravages of the time, and the original furnishings and wall paper have long since disappeared, surviving details suggest a great deal of expense and careful attention to decor.
We know very little about Cornelia, but one of her grandfathers had been a respected Judge in the Revolutionary War period (when Judge Fullerton’s ancestors were barely eking out a living and coping with Indian raids) so she likely had her own ideas about status and style. New York’s Victorian ideal held that the woman was the ruler of her domestic sphere. Some of the surviving features, like the ornate white marble fireplace in the salon and the nature-themed (grapes and morning glory) crown molding in the dining room should be viewed as her surviving contribution.
The salon features remarkable acoustics, and music must have played an important role in their home life. A well-bred young lady like Gussie (and her own daughter Daisy) was expected to learn an instrument, and singing around the piano with friends and extended family must have filled many evenings. Prosperous Newburgh had its own musical instrument dealers and sheet music publishers in the now-vanished business district along Water Street.
Willie obviously showed early promise as a musician and composer — his earliest surviving piece is a waltz dated 1871 — the year in which he turned 17.
For those weekend visits home, the Judge had his sanctum. At the end of the long formal hall, a curved, Moorish-revival doorway opens into a small but dignified library/study, with dark wood bookshelves and a fireplace. The room features its own overhanging arch, which frames the windows looking out onto the gardens behind the house.
From the apex of the central bookcase, a carved monogram “F” reminds us of the now forgotten lawyer who had little doubt of his own importance.
On a quiet evening, it can be pleasant to lose yourself (like Edgar Allan Poe) in a “quaint and curious volume” of 19th century New York local history.
Unfortunately, genuine historical facts are often found floating randomly in a sepia-tinted haze of folklore.
Take, for example, the summary of William Fullerton’s judicial career in Chapman Publishing Company’s 1895 history of Orange County:
In 1867, while in Canada on his annual salmon-fishing trip in company with Chester A. Arthur and other friends, he was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy in his district, this being without his knowledge. The appointment thus made him ex-officio member of the Court of Appeals, and at the following election the people of this district elected him without opposition. His services in the Court of Appeals added to his reputation as an advocate and jurist.
True: In August 1867, following an elected judge’s death, Fullerton was temporarily appointed by Governor Reuben Fenton to a Supreme Court post, which under the system in effect at the time, also placed him on New York’s prestigious Court of Appeals.
False: That he was elected for the next term or built a reputation as a jurist. What might have been is another story entirely. Biographical sketches reproduce letters exchanged between two of Fullerton’s closest associates — John K. Porter and Charles O’Conor. Fifteen years earlier, an invitation to become O’Conor’s law partner was the reason for Fullerton’s professional move from Newburgh to Manhattan. Notoriously solitary and irascible, O’Conor was considered by many to be the greatest trial lawyer of his era. Porter’s career had many parallels to Fullerton’s. They were classmates at Union College (class of 1838), although Fullerton never graduated. In 1867, Porter was a full member of the Court of Appeals, but had decided to return to the financial rewards of private practice.
The letters discuss O’Conor’s and Porter’s unsuccessful effort to persuade Fullerton to seek the Court of Appeals position that Porter was giving up. Both felt that their mutual friend could make a genuine contribution to that renowned court. A year later, all three must have looked back with regret. Porter and O’Conor would soon combine forces again — to defend ex-Judge Fullerton against Federal criminal charges.
Also false: That he was away on a salmon fishing trip with future-President Arthur at the time of the appointment.
21st U.S. President Chester Alan Arthur’s love of fishing was legendary. In 1867, Arthur was beginning to emerge as a force in New York’s Republican political machine, but he was part of a faction that was hostile to Governor Fenton. It was eight years later, in the summer of 1875, when ex-Judge Fullerton joined Chet and other friends on a salmon fishing vacation in the Canadian wilds.
We know this, because the month-long 1875 fishing trip was memorialized by one of their companions — George Dawson, the politically-connected editor of The Albany Evening Journal. Dawson had a lighthearted weekly column in the paper, where he wrote up his recreational adventures. He compiled some of these in his classic homage to fly-fishing — The Pleasures of Anglingwith Rod and Reel for Trout and Salmon.
George Dawson, The Pleasures of Angling (1876)
And so generations of fishing aficionados have been treated to a comparison of trial lawyer Fullerton’s fishing techniques with his painstaking courtroom methods, as well as the story of the former Judge’s confused first efforts to haul in a large salmon. There is even a cartoonish illustration of the moment he realizes that he is facing in the wrong direction as the hooked fish breaks water, a long way off.
But all the fun was eight years and many scandals down the road from those few months on the bench in 1867.
Probably False: That William Fullerton was unaware of the judicial appointment when it was made. New York state politics was a byzantine universe of connections, rivalries and payback. And the circumstances around his temporary elevation to the bench remain a mystery.
Still, the honorific Judge Fullerton had a nice ring to it. Hopefully, he was flattered when the owner of a promising young racehorse borrowed the name. In the mid-1870’s, the equine Judge Fullerton graced the covers of popular sporting magazines and was featured in Currier and Ives illustrations.
Later, his expatriate composer son Willie apparently told his friends and patrons that he was the son of an American Judge. This description is engraved in the white marble base of Willie’s recently rediscovered monument in a time-hallowed English churchyard.
The purpose of playing….to hold, as ‘t were, the mirror up to nature…and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
On January 22, 1867, a grand affair took place at Manhattan’s Winter Garden Theatre, located in the heart of Greenwich Village. Following a production of Hamlet, the stage was re-configured as a drawing room, where a select group of dignitaries emerged to greet the actor Edwin Booth. Musicians from all of New York’s principal theaters came together to play the Danish national anthem, after which Booth was given a specially designed gold “Hamlet” medal.
A confluence of themes came together in that celebration. It was New York’s way of announcing to the world (and especially its perennial rival Boston) that it had arrived as a cultural capital. It was also a message of post-Civil War reconciliation — that the beloved actor would not be held responsible for the sins of his younger brother, Lincoln’s despised assassin, John Wilkes Booth. And implicitly, it was a nod to the acceptance of theater — at least in the high form represented by Shakespeare — as a legitimate, elevated form of entertainment. Centuries of Calvinist-Puritanical preaching was being inexorably swept in the direction of the trash receptacles.
An assortment of dignitaries and cultural figures filled the stage. New York Governor John T. Hoffman was joined by Civil War heros — Major General Robert Andersen (commander of Fort Sumter) and Admiral David Farragut. The ad hoc award committee included the journalist Charles A. Dana and the painters Albert Bierstadt and Jervis McIntee.
For reasons that are not recorded, the medal was presented by attorney William S. Fullerton, whose speech singled out Booth’s “life-long efforts to raise the moral standards of the drama.”
The sad mystique of Booth’s Hamlet had been captured by the writer George William Curtis in April 1865, following a then-record run of 102 performances:
Throughout the whole play, the mind is borne on in mournful reverie….under all, beneath every scene and word and act, we hear…the melancholy music of the sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh….The cumulative sadness of the play…is a spell from which you cannot escape.
The Winter Garden Theater, which had been Booth’s main venue in New York, was destroyed by a fire only a few months after the Hamlet medal ceremony. The actor then built his own Booth’s Theater — an ornate Second Empire palace — at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. It was never profitable, and in time the building became McCreery’s Dry Goods. The building was tragically demolished in 1975 to make room for a parking lot.
The great actor’s footprints can be found all over Manhattan. The Shubert Organization’s Booth Theater on W. 45th St. is a theater district mainstay. Central Park’s statue of Shakespeare was built in part with funds raised at an 1863 Winter Garden benefit performance of Julius Caesar, in which Edwin starred alongside both of his brothers — Junius Booth, Jr., and the infamous John Wilkes. Booth’s own statue is located in Gramercy Park. Nearby, the Player’s Club, which Booth founded in 1888, still occupies its Stanford White-designed building, and maintains a memorabilia-filled Edwin Booth bedroom.
We don’t know whether Fullerton arranged for his wife Cornelia, or daughter Augusta (“Gussie”) or son William, Jr. (“Willie”), to come down from Newburgh for the performance and presentation. Perhaps 12-year old Willie was there, and came away starry-eyed. In the 1880’s, Judge Fullerton’s expat son would have a flickering moment of theatrical fame in London. A surviving playbill from Willie’s whimsical 1885 operetta, Lady of the Locket,does not exactly suggest the ‘high moral standards’ publicly espoused by the old man.
Unlike Booth, few traces of Judge Fullerton can be found in the frenetic city of forgotten greats. But the stories still hover in the bustling atmosphere, like restless spirits that cannot lie in peace until their secrets have been revealed.
Crim. con., or criminal conversation, was once well-known legal jargon. Originally based on the idea that a husband had a proprietary interest in his wife’s sexual activity, the law gave him the right to sue any other man she slept with. By the middle of the 19th century, the theory had been modernized slightly; a man was entitled to be compensated for losing his wife’s services in maintaining the home and raising the children. But unlike a sister tort, “alienation of affection”, it was based solely on whether or not there was extra-marital sex. Since the only valid grounds in 19th century New York for divorce was adultery, both crim. con and divorce trials provided the public with a delicious combination of cheap thrills and self-righteous indignation.
The former Mary Minturn was trapped in marital misery. She was born into rural New York state poverty, but a popular actress, Mrs. Elizabeth Abbott, took her in as a ward, and brought Mary to New York City. As the girl came of age, she fell for a penniless young man. Concerned for Mary’s future financial well-being (and in declining health), Mrs. Abbott engineered her darling ward’s marriage to Andrew Jackson Millspaugh, a successful merchant twice Mary’s age.
The couple had one son, but the marriage was doomed from the get-go. Mary’s friends later testified to Millspaugh’s drinking, moroseness, verbal and possibly physical abuse. Barely out of her teens, Mrs. Millspaugh fell in love with a young attorney who lived in the same boarding house. They exchanged keepsakes, but his sudden death left her heartbroken.
Two couples had befriended Mary, and when a young broker — Seth Adams III — arrived on the scene, they helped concoct an escape plan. Indiana was America’s earliest ‘divorce mill”. Mary and Seth travelled together to Fort Wayne, a romantic two week journey that took them through Niagara Falls and across Lake Erie. They married in Boston and settled down as a married couple in New York City.
Hell hath no fury like a middle-aged dry-goods merchant scorned. Maybe it was the humiliation of repeatedly running into the couple in his own neighborhood. A witness testified that although Mary was hoping for a private settlement, Millspaugh “would have it public, before a jury, and…it would ruin two or three families.”
When the crim con trial opened in late January 1865, the public was unaware of the unfolding spectacle, but a New York Times reporter was on the scene and William S. Fullerton was loaded for big game. Famously methodical, Fullerton carefully dissected Adams’ and Mary’s course of behavior in New York and traced the runaway couple’s two week trip to Indiana, honing in on details like adjoining hotel rooms and Mary’s use of false names. The child’s nurse testified about being dispatched with the boy to a park, so Seth and Mary could be alone in her room, and walking in to find them kissing. There was testimony that before the great escape, Adams had bragged about the plan in his favorite brothel and showed Mary’s picture.
Besides trying to prove that the young couple had been too impatient to wait for the divorce decree, Fullerton had another line of attack. They had clearly not complied with Indiana’s one-year residency requirement for divorces. If the divorce was not valid, then the New York marriage was a sham and ‘Mr. and Mrs. Adams’ life together was a continuing act of adultery.
Seth Adams’ attorney, Henry Lauren Clinton, was no slouch. The lawyers went at each other like blood-thirsty gladiators, incidentally shredding the reputations of anyone in their way. Fullerton portrayed Mary’s close friends, the Babcocks, as running an illegal gambling parlor, while Mrs. Babcock entertained gentlemen alone in her room.
Clinton hurled so many epithets at Millspaugh that Fullerton — ever the risk-taker — sarcastically recited a list of them in his closing argument: “‘base wretch’, ‘beast’, ‘brute’, ‘candidate for the state penitentiary’…’coarse’, ‘vulgar’,’avaricious’…‘grasping’”…
Fullerton explained the demand for money damages was a bulwark protecting everything sacred and good:
Give then liberal damages, and thus show the approbation which you entertain of the holy relation initiated by Heaven for the benefit and happiness of mankind. Strike down the marital relation and you strike a blow at the roots of society. Uphold it, and you defend your hearthsides.
Henry Laurel’s Clinton’s closing argument touched only glancingly on a feminist viewpoint:
Ah, gentlemen, do you wonder that she strove, from the very first of her married life, upon every opportunity to escape from — I had almost said — the legal prostitution of this marriage.
Clinton was an unlikely proponent of human freedom. In 1852, he represented slave owners, in New York’s classic Lemmon case. (Abolitionists had succeeded in freeing 8 slaves whose owner made the mistake of staying overnight in Manhattan while in transit by ship from Virginia to Texas.)
Millspaugh was awarded $ 10,000 in damages. (He had asked for $ 50,000.) Fullerton capped his success by publishing his closing argument.
Some thirty years later, his retired adversary published a popular book of his courtroom experiences called “Celebrated Trials”. Clinton included his Millspaugh closing statement with a short post-script, explaining that the parties had settled the case while appeal was pending. According to Clinton, Mary returned to Indiana, met the residency requirement and obtained a proper divorce, but her relationship with Seth Adams did not survive. Instead, he tells us, Mary remarried Millspaugh and they lived together again as man and wife.
What really happened is unclear. An 1870 Federal census shows A. J. Millspaugh and the couple’s son, Willie, living at the Millspaugh family homestead in Montgomery, New York. Mary is not listed. Andrew Jackson Millspaugh died in 1871. An 1890 census shows Mary Millspaugh, a ‘widow’, living on East 39th Street, not far from the addresses and locations that are peppered throughout the trial testimony.
The couple’s son Willie married and settled down in Providence, Rhode Island. The 1900 Federal census shows two teenage children.
Attorney Fullerton’s special relationship with New York’s newspapers and public would continue for decades.
To be clear on the facts, William S. Fullerton spent over 50 years as a practicing trial lawyer, and something like three months as a Judge. The circumstances surrounding his temporary appointment are a little murky, and may have had something to do with his fishing buddy, Chet Arthur (New York political operative and future U.S President). We’ll get back to this later.
Fullerton was a master of courtroom tactics, a wily strategist with a flair for the dramatic as he quietly worked a hostile witness into unfortunate admissions before turning the tables. The former farm boy from a remote corner of Orange County, New York took risks (and clients) that more genteel peers may have shunned. In those days, the “media” was only newspapers and magazines; and the emerging American middle class was starved for entertainment. A Judge Fullerton trial promised to deliver the goods.
The ‘carte de visite’, or CDV, collectible originated with a Paris photographer and by the 1860’s were a world-wide fad. Later in the 19th century, the ‘cabinet card’, a larger version that could be displayed in specially-designed cabinets, took their place. People collected famous actors, political leaders, civil war soldiers, and family members in their Sunday best. I was lucky enough to find a CDV and a cabinet card for Judge Fullerton, in addition to a number of newspaper and magazine illustrations.
Modern celebrity culture was still in its infancy. And only a handful of lawyers have ever crossed over into this kind of fame. Judge Fullerton obviously succeeded.
Later posts will ‘examine’ some of the cases. Scandals galore.
Unfortunately, they don’t know anything about its original source, or what case it was connected with. It was donated by a long-deceased memorabilia collector. Coincidentally, the archivist who helped me find it lived on Fullerton Ave in Newburgh.