Anyone who hasn’t read The Barbary Coast, the classic colorful history of San Francisco’s underworld, by Herbert Asbury, should. Aside from the wonderful descriptions of harlots, gamblers, miners, and murderers, Asbury also makes some notes on the lawyers and judges that defended truth and frontier justice in the early days of our fair city, like a judge named Meade who hated smokers and a lawyer named Ben Moors whose legal arguments were based on famous speeches he’d learned by heart. While he relied heavily on the newspapers of the times, which were not always rigorously and soberly reported, we choose to believe every colorful word. Asbury writes:
The only official with power to hold court and try either civil or criminal cases was the First Alcalde, whose duties were roughly similar to those of the American mayor. But too often this dignitary was of the type of an early Alcalde named Meade, who knew little law, but who had a violent antipathy toward Mexicans and cigarette-smokers. To admit being either or both was tantamount to conviction in his court. Once when a Mexican was arraigned before him charged with stealing a horse, he asked but two questions:
“Do you smoke cigarettes?”
“Do you blow the smoke through your nose? “‘
“Then I find you guilty as charged, and may God have mercy on your soul! Constable, take this fellow out and shoot him! He stole the horse sure enough!”
After the jump: Skip law school, memorize a good speech and slug a U.S. senator ...
Apparently the lawyers who practiced in these early courts were for the most part on the same intellectual plane as Alcalde Meade. One of the best-known and most successful was Ben Moors. He was said to have known no law whatsoever, but he had memorized three speeches by John Randolph and one by Daniel Webster. Regardless of the nature of the case upon which he chanced to be engaged, he delivered one or another with magnificent gestures and impressive oratorical effects. His chief claim to fame in California, however, probably lies in the fact that he once publicly slapped United States Senator David C. Broderick. Moors was arrested for this heinous offense and in court described himself as “a gentleman of elegant leisure.”
As we can see, not much has changed since the 1850s.
— Zusha Elinson