The Autobiography of W. T. Jerome
JAMES B. MORROW IN WORKER’S MAGAZINE
It may appear to many that William Travers Jerome, New York's district attorney, won success suddenly and without having to pass through years of drudgery. But this is far from the case. In his own words he tells of his struggles, not only against conditions and men, but against disease.
AS a child and as a youth I had one attack after another of membranous croup. My winters were seasons of terror and suffering. I lost much time from school and tutors had to come to the house. Besides my eyes were astigmatic and I was 27 years old before I knew it. What other fellows could do at college without much effort wore me down and tore my nerves. But at the age of 28 a change quickly came without medicine or corporal exercise. I had spectacles, for one thing, and that helped. Year by year, I grew stronger, and now I take poor care of my health. I eat too much, I suppose, take as little sleep as possible, and during a political campaign can work almost continuously day and night for weeks at a time.
After leaving Amherst college I went to Columbia law school, where I was graduated in 1884. Then I became a clerk in the office of Stanley, Clark & Smith, lawyers, with a large (practice. My family had gone to smash in Wall street, and when that happens everything goes, roots as well
as branches. So I had no means of getting clients for the firm I was with.
In New York business connections count, especially in lawyers’ offices. The situation was clear to me, and I was innocent enough and bold enough to hang out my shingle. I shiver when I think of my unsophisticated courage. Those were dreary and desolate years—four of them. I lived at home. I couldn’t have lived elsewhere and paid a dollar a week for my board. But 1 put in my time. I took up the Harvard law course and studied it alone and to the end. I read all the law I could find and searched out its history. Finally my father sued some men in Wall street. I tried the case and won it. On the appeal I got the decision. I scarcely shall lie as happy again as I was at that time.
But life dragged. My coat became shiny and even hope grew ragged around the edges. I recollect that I spoke of my discouragement to an elderly lawyer. “Don’t be impatient,” he said. “Business is an
accident that always happens.” Moreover. I was engaged to be married and that bothered me—had been engaged for five years. I was madly in love and most miserable. After the election of John R. Fellows as district attorney my father asked me one morning at the breakfast table if 1 would like a place in his office— it might enlarge my experience, and so on. I thought of my wedding day and vehemently accepted the suggestion. Fellows always had said he was under obligations to my father, and so my father went to him and there was some talk of a $1,200 position. I heard the ringing of my marriage bell and the odor of orange blossoms was everywhere, especially in my lonely little office where I sat and saw visions which are to sacred to describe.
But Fellows hesitated, and dodged, and never came to the point. The peal of the bell grew less joyful, the orange blossoms began to fade, and the visions stole away one by one as if ashamed of being seen in my presence. Then my father thought of Richard Broker. When I was a lad in school Broker, a city fireman, was arrested for murdering a man on election day. ITe was tried and acquitted. The person who actually committed the crime sat in the courtroom and heard the trial. Broker had been a rough fellow, a member of the notorious tunnel gang, but he took his medicine and never said a word. He was declared to be innocent, but, nevertheless, was a marked man. John Kelly, then chief of Tammany, told him that he wras ruined unless he ran for some minor office, was elected. and thus vindicated by the people themselves. Accordingly, Broker became a candidate for
coroner, or something like that. Natui ally enough the newspapers attacked him, and they didn’t employ soft words either. “Broker, the murderer,” was printed in big type, and the fury and tenacity of the assault wore on him. One night he came to my father’s house. “You don’t know me.” lie said, “and I have come to tell you who I am. I can reach all the democratic newspapers in the city but the Herald. I am informed that you are the friend of James Gordon Bennett and his father. My wife is broken-hearten because the Herald calls me a murderer. Gan’t you induce the Herald to let me alone?”
My father was interested in the frank and manly character of the man, and after hearing his story agreed to see Mr. Bennett. The Herald stopped its attacks.
Thereforewhen Fellows began to back and fill about giving me a place in his office my father thought of Broker, who was then in the south with Stokes, the man who shot and killed Jim Fisk. He wrote to Broker. The letter followed Broker for several days and then caught him. “I have arranged it,” Broker telegraphed back. Bonsequentlv I was made a deputy in Fellows’ office at $3,000 a year. It was a hard place for a young fellow. This office is the jaws of hell even when everything is honest. Under Fellows matters were awful. But I got married. I toiled like a galley slave, preparing briefs and getting not only the facts but the law. My work impressed the assistants, and by and by one of them said: “That young fellow can try cases.” I was sent into the courtroom and made a friend of Recorder Smyth, the judge. I held the deputy-
ship for thirty-six months and was in court twenty-eight months of that time.
Presently a reform movement came along, I could have kept out of it and retained my job, but there were evils of which I knew and I thought it to be a part of my duty to help correct them. I was young and easily persuaded, and therefore readily believed that the time was at hand for better conditions of government. I even convinced Mrs. Jerome that we were bound to win, that there was to be an upheaval, and that virtue was to sit enthroned where sin was wont to congregate.
On election night I came downtown to hear the peans of victory and to do some singing myself. I walked home in the clear moonlight of a beautiful night, but in the most hopeless gloom of my young life. I crept into my flat thinking I could cheat my wife, but she was sitting up in bed. “How big is our majority?” she asked. “Polly,” I replied, and I tried to look unabashed and even reconciled, “Polly,” I replied, “we have been pounded into the earth and are no longer visible.”
In the morning I took an inventory. I had two months in office, $330 in bank, and a wife and baby. I was scared into a state of mental paralysis. Of course I knew that we wouldn’t starve. Mrs. Jerome had a home and I had one, but I was a man of family, a lawyer by profession, and the mortification contained in the possibilities of my case almost made me weep. In woe and more or less shame I served my two months and again hung out, my shingle. It is heaven’s truth when I tell you that I didn’t smile for six months.
A man walked into my office one day and said: “I sat on a jury
while you were trying a case in the Criminal court. I rather liked your way. The cashier of my establishment is a thief. I have hired lawyers and expert accountants, but can’t catch him. I have spent money enough, but I want you to take hold of the matter and run it down.”
I went to work and attacked the case from every possible hypothesis. By the process of elimination I decided that the cashier had removed the names of the payees to whom checks had been issued by his employer and had written in his own name. Then when the paid checks were returned to the bank he had erased his name, also with acid, and had written in cleverly the names of the original payees. I sent for a number of the paid checks and examined them under a microscope. There was no visible evidence of alteration in the writing. I had taken a course in chemistry at college and was interested in photography. The base of ink is either logwood, which is vegetable, or iron salts. I steamed one of the checks to make it moist and put it over a flask of sulphide of ammonia. The ink used by the cashier in writing his name after lie liad erased the name of the payee thus became black sulphide of iron and was brought out so clearly that I photographed it. I tried other checks with the same result. The bank settled with my client, the cashier went to the penitentiary, and I got a whooping fee. Thereafter I was on Easy street and once more smiled.
Clients came straggling in, and the need of money gave me no further concern. Presently the Rev. Dr.
Parkhurst made his stir about corruption in the police department, and the Lexow committee was appointed to examine into his charges. I was asked to act as assistant counsel and served in that capacity. Reforms in the way of committees followed—we had one such an organization, nonpartisan in character, with a membership of seventy good and earnest men. but it was too large to be effective against Tammany. Some one was needed to look after the political end of the work in hand. I was chosen, and our forces, being thus unified, we helped to elect A illiam L. Strong mayor of the city. Our police courts in those days were a disgrace to the community—all kinds of disreputable men were around. Some of them were lawyers and some were not. I helped to write a bill to reform these courts, and Mayor Strong appointed me to be justice of the Special Sessions, an office which I held for seven years.
I always held that a magistrate ought to have inquisitorial as well as judicial power. The committee of seventy asked me concerning my policy. I told them I thought we should take the worst thing at hand, which was gambling, attack it, and then let our policy shape itself. New York was as wide open as any tough town in the far west, and the police were in partnership with the gamblers.
With a peace officer and a number of men as a posse comitatus I swooped down on a place and captured every one redhanded. I opened court right there. A policeman came to me and said: “You have caught a city commissioner. Shall I let him go?” I called the man and asked his name. He told me he was John Hoe.
“That’s too indefinite,” I replied. “I must have you as a witness. If you can’t identify yourself so that I can find you I shall send you to the house of detention.”
“My God!” he groaned, “you can’t mean it.” Then he gave his name, adding by way of explanation that he had come to the gambling house to look for a wayward son. The newspapers got the story, and my expedition gave the city something to think about and to laugh over.
One night we raided more than twenty places. Then some of the newspapers began to turn. I was dragging the judicial ermine in the dust, they said. My friends on the reform committee got scared. But I kept pounding away. I would work iu court all day and do my raiding at night. Through it nil Robert Ful-tou Cutting and several other genuine and courageous reformers stood by me. They brought about my nomination in 1901 for district attorney, and I was elected.
I was re-elected in 1905, but I would have been glad of a decent opportunity to escape. I had no money, to speak of, I never have had any insurance on my life, and I have a wife and son. I would have welcomed some honorable way back to the practice of my profession, but I didn’t want to retreat nor to be whipped. I thought the matter all out and decided to ignore both political parties and go straight to the people. It was a hard fight. I spoke from five to seven times a night. On one occasion I rode thirty-six miles in an automobile between dark and 1 o’clock in the morning and made half a dozen speeches. The newspapers reported what I said and I
had to have something new for every audience.
I believe in political parties, but platforms do not make political parties. There are two general groups of men in this country. One group is conservative in different degrees, shading downward from pi ogressiveil ess to inaction. These men are republicans. The other group is liberal, believes in advancement and often runs riotously into radicalism. Such are the democrats, and I am one of them. So the divisions among men who think in English are generic. Platforms usually are claptrap and politicians often are opportunists who follow after votes rather than principles. McKinley’s free silver speech a few years later could have gone out of Bryan ’s mouth and been acceptable to a large part of the democratic party. Then, too, the American people are idealists and desirous of having honest judges. A man may not live up to his own standards, but he expects his public officials to do so.
When I got into a house of my own, after my election as district attorney, I thought I should like to run a lathe. I got one and put it in my basement. Then I bought other metal working machinery. Now I have three machine shops at my home in Lakeville, Conn., which contain two-' engines, two generators, and everything else that a machinist would need or think of. I make all
kinds of things out of metal—compasses, ornamental brass boxes, etc. —and I love the work. During my vacation I spend from ten to twelve hours a day in my shops. What little I know I learned myself, and I find great delight in discovering how to do things which are common enough to men who have learned the trade. When an artisan lays out mechanical work and executes it he gives it more and better thought than would a lawyer who is engaged in ordinary practice. It is an intellectual pursuit. Moreover, I have found that when a man, especially if he is young, has stood behind a machine for ten hours he doesn’t want Carnegie libraries nor essays in the evening, but amusement.
I made but one promise when I was running for district attorney. I said if I were elected 1 should be the lawyer of the people. If I practiced corporation law I would associate with my clients, live among them, go to their clubs, and, I fancy, ride in an automobile. Elected to the office I wanted, I chose the most densely populated district in the world for my home. I live in a fiat and have an assistant and a detective with me in the morning and in the evening. We listen to every complaint that is brought to us—2,000 of them a year. Mrs. Jerome spends two or three days each week at the flat and then we go to Lakeville over Sunday.
It is the demands, not the promises, that make men of us ; the responsibilities, not the einovments, that raise us to the stature of men and women.