After centuries of legal history in New Haven, the practice of law no longer is the sole domain of white Protestant males. That’s one of the messages of a book written by Wiggin and Dana partner Robert F. Cavanagh, with assistance from the New Haven County Bar Association’s Centennial Committee.
“I want [readers] to see the progress that’s been made in the legal profession over a long period of time, beginning with a bar that was very homogeneous,” Cavanagh said.
“From The Colonies To Today: Over Three Centuries of Law and Lawyers in New Haven” is a 56-paged, full-color paperback book written as a companion to an exhibit set last year to celebrate the centennial of the bar’s official incorporation.
Cavanagh relied on more than 70 written sources in his research in tracing the practice of law in New Haven from the colonial period to the current role of the bar association. A recurring feature is “Legends of the Law,” which offer biographical snippets of individuals who left their mark on the New Haven legal community.
The book benefits from documents, photos and artifacts that are part of the exhibition, which closes at the end of this month, at the New Haven Museum and Historical Society. The book is available through the New Haven County Bar Association, the New Haven Museum, Atticus Bookstore and the Yale Bookstore.
Cavanagh volunteered to write the book, and was placed on the Centennial Committee, “because of his vast knowledge not only of New Haven legal history but New Haven history, period,” said Carolyn Witt, executive director of the NHCBA.
Identifying the earliest movers and shakers in New Haven’s legal community was “easy because there were so few lawyers and you knew who the most prominent were,” Cavanagh said. In 1811, there were 19 lawyers practicing in New Haven. More than twice that many people were employed as carpenters and grocery story proprietors.
Cavanagh also relied on the Connecticut Reports, the official version of the state Supreme Court’s decisions, and leaned on Centennial Committee member Martha Sullivan, a former law librarian at the New Haven J.D.Courthouse.
“There’s no one source for any of this information,” Cavanagh said. “You have to dig around. Nobody’s written a complete history of law in Connecticut or New Haven, but people have written about various aspects of it in small segments.”
The book reveals that New Haven was the setting for the first use of an insanity defense in the case of William Clark, who murdered a suitor’s new husband in a jealous rage. Forensic evidence was first admitted in the murder case of Mary Stannard in 1878 to prove that arsenic used to kill her was the same type purchased by her murderer. Three years later, another famous case emerged from the murder of Jennie Cramer, known as the “Belle of New Haven.”
“The autopsy revealed a small quantity of arsenic in her stomach, and the question arose whether she had taken it for her complexion or it had been administered for the purpose of causing her death,” Cavanagh wrote.
The investigation led to the indictment of Walter and James Malley, son and nephew of the owner of New Haven’t largest department store, and Blanche Douglass, an alleged prostitute. The trial lasted three months, and after a short deliberation, the jury determined the defendants were not guilty.
These cases helped determine how evidence is gathered, how cases are prepared and how laws are interpreted.
Probably the most celebrated of New Haven’s legal figures, Cavanagh said, is Roger Sherman, the only man who signed all four of the great documents in early American history – he Declaration of 1774, the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Also among the notable lawyers highlighted is Mary Manchester, who in 1938 became the first female partner in an established Connecticut firm when she was named shareholder of Watrous, Hewitt, Sheldon & Gumbart, a predecessor to Tyler Cooper.
Female lawyers began filling the bar’s ranks after Yale Law School officially opened its enrollment to women in 1919. In 1886, however, Alice Rufie Blake Jordan was admitted to the law school after she used just “A.R.B. Jordan” on the application and the school thought she was a man. She was not asked to leave when she showed up for class.
Ethnic groups also gained a foothold in the legal community in the first half of the 20th century as Italians, Irish and Jewish lawyers became more common, Cavanagh noted.
Notable black lawyers from the American South and the West Indies, such as Walter J. Scott and George W. Crawford, also left their imprints on the local bar, but many “confronted discriminatory practices and lack of educational opportunity” in Connecticut until later in the century, Cavanagh said.
Cavanagh’s next writing project is already in the works. He has a “too long” manuscript ready to be edited that outlines the history of Wiggin and Dana. He’s targeting next spring for a release date to coincide with the firm’s 75th anniversary.