His onion-scented handkerchief

by Walter Olson on September 9, 2005

Another tidbit from Sadakat Kadri’s colorful history The Trial, which I reviewed yesterday:

Howe’s [legendary NYC courtroom lawyer William Howe, whose heyday was the late 19th century] most remarkable talent, a skill that won him plaudits from colleagues and hoodlums alike, was an apparent ability to weep at will. Although [prosecutor Francis L.] Wellman suspected that he used an onion-scented handkerchief to get in the mood, the ducts, once opened, flowed steady as a siphon, and never were they deployed more effectively than during his summation in 1887 for a client named Edward Unger.


The trial had left Unger with not so much his foot on the scaffold as his neck in the noose. He had admitted his hatred of the victim, one August Bohle. He acknowledged battering him with a hammer, dismembering his body, and sending his limbs and trunk in a box to Baltimore. He also accepted that he had taken Bohle’s head to Brooklyn and dropped it off an East River paddleboat. It was hard to identify any doubt, let alone a reasonable one, from the evidence. But as the handkerchief hit Howe’s forehead and his eyes began to shine, an argument, if not quite a defense, swirled out of the maelstrom. Unger had three children, including two daughters who had been clinging to him throughout the trial, and — although Howe begged the jurors not to let that sight cloud their judgment — it was to their tragedy that he turned. For Edward Unger’s only crime, he insisted, had been to spare the little ones the sight of death. He was no guiltier than the girl being dandled on his knee. “It was his son that cut up his body,” he sobbed. “It was that beautiful child that used the saw: it was the elder sister that throw [sic] the head in the river.” Reminding the jurors that there were no eyewitnesses to the killing, he pleaded with them not to make up that deficiency with logic. “Did you leave your homes to hang a man upon inference or your reasoning?” he demanded. “God forbid.” The point was, in every sense, a rhetorical one. Unger was found not guilty of murder.