Actor, Lawyer, Stage

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

Winter Garden Theater, 1850

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.”

Fullerton presenting the award to Booth

Medal to Edwin Booth

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. 

Old Location of the Winter Garden Theater, 1850

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. 

‘Lady of the Locket’ Playbill, 1885

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. 

 For further reading:]

The Agony of Mary Millspaugh

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.

Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, 1876

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.

46-50 White Street, Tribeca, NY

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’”… 

Henry Lauren Clinton

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.    

Closing Address

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.


Cabinet Card

Dear Reader,

(Updated 10/14/20)

Greetings to all.

Perhaps I should call this blog “Tales of the Once Famous but Long Forgotten” or simply “So Many Stories”–but neither seems as catchy as “Scandal House.”

Have been obsessing over tidbits of local history for several years. In part this is because of the skeletons that kept tumbling out of the old closets when I started investigating the families that had lived in ‘The Fullerton’ (aka scandal-house), an Italianate 1868 brick not-quite-mansion in Newburgh, NY.  But the entire neighborhood — and the riverbank on the opposing side (all some sixty miles north of New York City) – is just chock full of lost greats and near-greats and not-so-greats.  

Newburgh itself is a mere stone’s throw from the other lost cities and villages of Orange County, New York – places like struggling Middletown and sleepy Goshen (a living museum of graceful Victorian architecture with a hulking 1960s brutalist masterpiece in the center). For me, the saddest of the bunch is Port Jervis – a once bustling transportation hub and manufacturing center, largely reduced to rubble fifty years ago, by the mad urban renewal frenzy.

Further upstate, the list seems nearly endless.  Utica and Syracuse and Buffalo were all powerhouses when the west was still wild and America was an emerging market. A newly-discovered fave: tiny Athens, 120 miles north of Manhattan, where a cluster of 19th  century architectural treasures merges seamlessly into a scenic bend on the Hudson, and the silent force of the daily tidal flow pushes the water uphill towards the river’s distant beginnings in the Adirondacks. 

Cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1878

At times, my aging brain feels near to bursting with a chaotic swirl of names and stories and questions.  But I will try to sort everything out and tell the overlapping tales one at a time.  

It all begins with a famous trial lawyer, who wound his way through conspiracies, the trial of Boss Tweed, U.S. Treasury extortion, whiskey frauds, and above all, sex scandals.

Thanks for your gracious attention,

  Michael Aaron Green 


Michael Aaron Green, by Brian Wolfe, 2020