The Four Ages Of Joseph Choate

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In his years as an advocate Choate’s practice ranged far. He represented the trusts: oil, sugar, and tobacco. He extracted money from two of his era’s leading skinflints, Hetty Green and Russell Sage. He kept Stanford University’s endowment from being taken over by the federal government, preserved the Bell System’s hold on the telephone patent, and won legal sanction for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Disputes over wills, club membership rules, and even over an America’s Cup race competed for his efforts with grave constitutional issues.

What first brought him out from under the shadow of Evarts and into the limelight on his own, however, was a breach-of-promise case right out of Feydeau or Gilbert and Sullivan. Early in 1875 Miss Eugénie Martinez, aged twentyone, slipped and fell on the ice in front of a hotel at Broadway and Twenty-ninth Street in New York. To her assistance rushed Juan Del Valle, a middle-aged Cuban banker and widower. Wonder of wonders, she spoke Spanish! He escorted her home. He met her mother. He took her to restaurants. He installed her in a hotel under an assumed name. When summer came, he leased a country house near Poughkeepsie and engaged her as his housekeeper. When summer departed, so did Miss Martinez, threatening suit for breach of promise. Del Valle offered her twenty thousand dollars to desist. She demanded fifty thousand dollars. Del Valle retained Choate.

Public interest was intense, largely because of Miss Martinez, who was described in a newspaper as having “raven black hair and melting eyes shadowed by long, graceful lashes, the complexion of a peach, and a form ravishing to contemplate.”

 

Choate’s tactic was to attack the motives of “the fair plaintiff,” as he kept calling her. He brought out in testimony that she, her mother, and her sister had for years been dominated by her stepfather, a ferocious despot “without occupation or resources [who] quietly acquiesced in all expenses being paid by the female members of his family without ever asking whence the money came.” From this Choate went on to assert that Miss Martinez at the time she met Del Valle was “not a mere, inexperienced young girl but already an adept in the ways of New York life. … Upon her own evidence nothing can be clearer that never did a privateer upon the Spanish Main give chase to and board a homeward-bound Indiaman with more vigor than that with which this family proposed to board this rich Cuban and make capture of him. He was a big bonanza to them. …”

In his closing argument to the jury Choate discoursed on “the appearance of this fair and beautiful woman upon the stand here. Gentlemen, have you seen her blush? Have you seen one symptom of distress upon her sharp and intelligent features? Not one. There was, in a critical point of her examination, a breaking-down. … Her handkerchief was applied to her eyes. There was a loud call for ‘Water! water’ from [her counsel] and his amiable junior, as if the judge’s bench was about to be wrapped in flame. But it turned out to be only an eclipse by handkerchief, that she had been shedding dry tears all the time. …”

Having fired this salvo, Choate proceeded to close in: “Now I want to speak a word of warning to all good Samaritans, if there are any in the jury box, against this practice of going to the rescue of fallen women on the sidewalks … I know the parable of the Good Samaritan is held up as an example for Christian conduct and action to all good people, but, gentlemen, … this is an historical trick of the ‘nymphs of the pave.’ Hundreds of times has it been practiced upon the verdant and inexperienced stranger in our great city.”

Despite these entertaining arguments he lost the case. The jury decided that Miss Martinez had indeed been wronged by Del Valle. She had sought fifty thousand dollars in damages. She was awarded fifty dollars.

The case that Choate himself considered his most difficult and his greatest victory arose out of the Civil War and had as its central figure Fitz-John Porter, a former general in the Union army.

Porter was a West Pointer of martial family background with a distinguished record in the Mexican War. At the outbreak of hostilities between North and South Lincoln commissioned him a colonel. He saw action almost continuously, was brevetted major general of volunteers by his fortieth birthday, and commanded the Union center at Antietam. A few weeks afterward, in November, 1862, he was charged by General John Pope, the Union commander at the calamitous defeat of the Second Bull Run during the preceding August, with disobeying orders and treasonable inactivity in the presence of the enemy in that battle. Porter was ordered before a court-martial, convicted, and dismissed from the army in disgrace. He never stopped protesting his innocence and more than fifteen years later, in 1878, persuaded President Hayes to appoint a board of officers to review the case.