Butler The Beast?


It was arranged for Ben to go to the Baptist college at Waterville, Maine, where he could fulfill his mother’s dream of seeing him a preacher. But as a collegian his religiosity ebbed; he took keen interest in philosophy, history, and chemistry, and developed sufficient aptitude for debate to become head of the Literary Society. In Whig New England he proclaimed himself a Jacksonian Democrat, scornful nevertheless of the abolitionists and their incendiary agitation. Politics intrigued him, and his interest in the law was aroused when he attended a murder trial and watched the deft maneuverings of the lawyers before the jury. At the end of his sophomore year he applied for an appointment to the United States Military Academy; his rejection left him with a lasting bias against West Pointers. He graduated from Waterville (later Colby) College in 1838 and that fall returned to Lowell eager to become a lawyer.

He began to read law, in the self-educating legalpolitical pattern of Clay and Webster and Lincoln, in the office of William Smith; in exchange for doing clerical chores he was given access to Blackstone and Kent.

For two years he spent over twelve hours a day on his law books. Whenever he grew too restless in his confinement he would borrow a horse and gallop over country roads reciting snatches of Byron, Moore, or Scott to the evening sky. Since the small fees that he picked up handling Smith’s debt-collection cases were not enough to live on, he taught school for a term in 1839. Like schoolmaster Merrill, he believed in the strap. While teaching, he became friends with Fisher Ames Hildreth, the son of a local doctor and well-known patriotic orator. Hildreth took Ben home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Dr. Hildreth was a widower with five daughters; the eldest, Sarah, acted as his hostess. She was three years older than Ben, more graceful than handsome, yet witty, animated, and self-possessed. She fascinated him, and within days the two were keeping steady company. At first it went no further than that; Sarah, though promised an adequate dowry, had no intention of marrying until Ben’s as yet nonexistent law practice could support them. She would not say yes to him, although she would not say no, either.

In 1840 Butler took his bar examination, using the occasion to differ with a decision the examining judge had made earlier that very day. Nevertheless, he was admitted to the bar the following day, and to cap it, the judge reversed his finding. The road lay open: Butler was ready to turn Blackstone into gold. He set up his own office in Lowell, where he was soon working eighteen hours a day. Factory girls, ignored by other attorneys, came to him with their petty cases and two- or three-dollar fees. From the first, he disrupted the stillcolonial decorum of Massachusetts legal circles; he once spent a week in the Lowell jail after a judge had found him in contempt. Daring, astute, methodical, and unscrupulous, Butler, with his grotesque, rufous exterior, was unforgettable. His manner of speech and easily summoned tears were convincing to juries. The plea of insanity in murder trials was his innovation. He became noted for finding flaws in indictments; he once managed to free a burglar by claiming that a key the man had stolen was not personal property but real estate. When a reporter for the Whig Lowell Courier denounced Butler’s courtroom tactics as “very scaly and disreputable,” Butler stormed into the newspaper office and pulled the reporter’s nose.

Butler inspected the letter of the law with his good eye, its spirit with his bad one. When the Lowell City Council passed an ordinance that all dogs must be muzzled, Butler walked his dog with a muzzle attached to its tail. He knew how to court popular favor by belittling Harvard’s aristocratic pretensions. Once when asked in court to be more respectful because the witness was a Harvard professor, he told the judge, “I am well aware of that. We hung one of them the other day.”

Soon it was being said that the cross-eyed young attorney with the rasping, staccato voice was the man to win hard cases. Special reporters were assigned to cover his sensational courtroom conduct. “He liked audacious surprises,” said one of his enemies. “He was seldom content to try a simple case in a simple way.” Clients flocked to him. To the mill owners he said, “If I am not for you, I shall be against you; and you can take your choice.” Their choice was to hire him, even though he and they remained enemies. By the end of a decade of practice, Butler had become the most spectacular criminal lawyer in New England.

Ben and Sarah were finally married in 1844, and it turned out to be a serene and happy partnership. They had four children, three sons and a daughter (the firstborn, Paul, died before he was five). As Butler prospered, he invested in land, mills, and other ventures. When Lowell’s first woolen mill, the Middlesex Corporation, found itself in straits, he bought the controlling interest. With the mill came Belvidere, a graceful mansion in the Regency style. Situated in the select hill section above the city, Belvidere overlooked the Merrimack River; from its cupola one could gaze north to the hills of New Hampshire. Butler installed central steam heat—then an astonishing novelty—and a “Russian bath” in his bedroom. Though a lawyer of the people, he led the private life of a country squire.