Monday, September 26, 2011

Problem #4: Civil Suits

Hershfield vs. Hershfield

For this week, our case study concerned a rather convoluted civil case from 1894, involving Aaron Hershfield and Dell (Hogan) Hershfield. Our professor, Dr. Petrik, provided the documentation and the context. The documentation, compared to previous problems in the class, was rather extensive, but once I managed to work through it and piece together a coherent narrative, what emereged was a remarkably sordid story.

The basic outline of the story is this: Aaron and Dell met at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893; they had a courtship which resulted in pregnancy and then matrimony; Aaron brought Dell back to his home in Helena Montana, but for reasons which are never spelled out, he completely turned his back on his child and his wife, and abandoned both of them. He ended up in North Dakota, leaving Dell and their child at a hotel in Helena, where she was a stranger. So far, this is a sad but not terribly unusual story. But Aaron Hershfield wasn't content to simply abandon his wife. So, while using his temporary residency to create a legal fiction of not having been a resident of Helena, Aaron Hershfield began reaching out to unscrupulous professionals who agreed to help him create an alternate narrative which would not only invalidate his marriage, but also deny the paternity of his child; in fact, which would essentially deny that the child existed.

The details of this plot, and how it unraveled, are more fully evident within these documents than certain other details, notably why Aaron Hershfield wanted to be rid of his family, or why he didn't simply ask for a divorce--he was, after all, a man of some means, and could have afforded the alimony and child support quite handily. Instead, he chose bribery and legal counsel, in an effort to slander his wife, and even some of the witnesses caught in the crossfire.

His plot was elaborately conceived; he evidently used family connections in New York to obtain the services of a certain Hartman, a rather loathsome character who was wililng to do dirty work for a price; Hartman worked to, among other things, create the fictional character of "Max Stein" (who seems to have been played by an associate of Hartman named Louis Michaels), who gave testimony indicting a man he claimed to be friends and associate with, a Bettig, who supposedly introducted him to Dell Hogan prior to her relationship with Hershfield. This was a casual sexual encounter, part of a broader campaign to solicit personal testimony to her allegedly promiscuous nature. Hershfield's lawyers were able to provide several other sworn affidavits and testimonials verifying this characterization.

Amazingly, Hershfield had gone even further than this, claiming that he had been coerced into marrying Hogan by unnamed other parties; and furthermore claiming that she had never been with child.

Also, his brother and sister-in-law testified against Dell Hershfield, and Aaron's lawyers were able to produce testimony to the effect that she had been seen walking around Helena in an active and healthy state--since Aaron claimed that she hadn't given birth, he evidently decided to go one step further and claim that the nurse she had hired was completely unnecessary. As a campaign of intimidation and slander, it was as thorough and comprehensive as it was sinister.

But his plan had a flaw--the assumption that his estranged wife lacked the means and the will to fight back was clearly false. His plot was clumsily constructed, and I am not altogether sure how completely his official legal counsel was aware of all his machinations, making a coordinated--and sensibly modulated--defense less likely. It was a desperate, craven strategy, perhaps best characterized by the cross-examination of Bettig (when he was finally located--it becomes rather clear that, once they realized he couldn't be coereced into lying for them, Aaron Hershfield's legal team deliberately tried to scare him into hiding from the court) by Hershfield's lead attorney, F. B. Morrill. The line of questioning does Hershfield's story no good, and ultimately Morrill openly insinuates that Bettig had slept with Dell Hogan and was refusing to cooperate because he was engaged. It also came out that he had been possibly swindled by "Max Stein"; the impression is that Morrill was hoping against hope that he could somehow find some leverage to intimidate Bettig into lying on the witness stand.

Instead, Dell's capable and shrewd legal team, led by Atty. Walton Ball, were able to demolish his story rather comprehensively. They hired Pinkerton Detectives to follow "Max Stein" and expose him as a fraud; contacts in New York City were quickly able to determine that, more than likely, "Max Stein" didn't exist. The other character witnesses do not do well under Ball's able cross-examination; he is aided once again by careful research and cross-referencing.

In the end, the court dismisses all of Aaron Hershfield's claims, and orders him to meet his obligations to his family. It is never explained what drove him to such dispicable lengths, although the suspicion that his brother and sister-in-laws' collective disapproval was key is hard to avoid. All in all, an interesting case; once which sheds more than a little light into the level of criminal investigative savvy avaiable at the time, both for good and for ill.

1 comment:

Jacob Dinkelaker said...

Kirk- you make a good point about Aaron acquiring legal residency in North Dakota. I never thought of the fact that being a resident there could work for him in making a case of distress- that he was forced by Della to go to Helena, and that he actually 'lives' in North Dakota.
I see this whole case as a preemptive strike before a divorce - if Aaron is successful in getting an annulment, he is responsible for nothing - the marriage never happened, thus Della has no claim to any of his money.