Tuesday 14 October 2008

Marshall Hall, the 'great defender'

Anyone with an interest in Edwardian criminal trials has probably heard of Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC: he was the most famous criminal barrister of his day. He still has a reputation as England's greatest legal advocate, although some of his tactics would be unacceptable in modern courts and his style far too flowery and emotive. Most famously, in his closing speech at the murder trial of prostitute Marie Hermann, he ended with 'Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her. God never gave her a chance, won't you?' The jury did, convicting her of manslaughter rather than murder.

He had taken his law degree at Cambridge, and was called to the Bar in 1883. (Despite an early interest in acting, he was unable to memorise lines). At first, he made more money from dealing in jewels than from his legal practice. Soon though, matters improved and with the Marie Hermann case his reputation was established. Marshall Hall's talents did not, surprisingly, extend to a strong grasp of the law. Robin De Wilde's profile of him in this year's Inner Temple Yearbook notes that he would openly request his junior to argue difficult points of law.* However, he was good-looking and charming, with a beautiful speaking voice. He also used tricks such as provoking the judge to lose his temper so that the court appeared biased against him and his client, arousing the jury's sympathy.

It is for his murder cases that he is best remembered. One made legal history: defendants had only been able to give evidence in their own defence since 1898, and his client Robert Wood was the first person to be acquitted of murder after giving evidence on his own behalf. In another notorious case, Madame Fahmy shot her Egyptian husband dead in the Savoy Hotel but was acquitted after Marshall Hall attacked the victim's character at trial, not least by playing on racist stereotypes.

However, by no means all of Marshall Hall’s cases ended in success. Most famously, George Joseph Smith was convicted in the ‘brides in the bath’ case in 1915. He had bigamously married at least three women; each would insure her life or make a will in his favour; they would take lodgings in a house with an indoor bathtub; Smith would claim to a doctor that his wife was epileptic or prone to fainting; and soon after, she would drown in the bath, where Smith would discover her. Medical evidence showed that accidental drowning was impossible in the bath tubs involved. Although Smith was only charged with the murder of his first wife, the court allowed evidence of all three deaths to go before the jury: the case was thus hopeless and Smith was convicted and hung.

Marshall Hall was also an MP for twelve years, but was not a successful politician. His maiden speech, which proposed doorstep deliveries of ale so that children would not have to go into public houses to fetch it for their fathers, was greeted with derision. He died of pneumonia in 1927, surrounded by his family. It is for his criminal cases that he is still remembered today.

* As a King's Counsel, a senior barrister, he would have a 'junior' - a non-KC, not necessarily either young or inexperienced -to assist him in his cases.


Chris Partridge said...

I suspect that Marshall Hall was one of the main models for Rumpole of the Bailey, apart from John Mortimer himself, of course.

CarolineLD said...

I'm sure you're right: he certainly uses the same winding-the-judge-up technique!

The Brief said...

Not true, a quick google search will reveal the inspirations, which are said to include James Burge, and Mortimer's father!

CarolineLD said...

'The Brief', I can't agree - while of course there were other inspirations, it's hard to read the Rumpole stories without seeing the strong echoes of famous Marshall Hall techniques. (For an example, read Mortimer's own article here. Indeed, it would be surprising if a barrister of Mortimer's generation wasn't well aware of Marshall Hall and his theatrics - although not encouraged to emulate them!

philxvfy said...

He was not much like Rumpole save in the intensity of his compassion for his client's predicament and in the extreme commitment he showed to fighting for his clients. John Mortimer nonetheless was a criminal barrister himself and wrote a radio series about Hall's cases.

What is required is for the BBC to re-release Shadow Of The Noose, the excellent 1989 series about Hall and his cases. For some reason - possibly the disturbing nature of the cases and of the drama - this seems to have vanished into the vaults of the BBC. Puzzling.

Jonathan Hyde portrays Hall as a melancholy, slightly neurotic, absolutely brilliant orator driven to fight for underdogs and especially women by his grief and guilt. He does Hall's Edwardian oratory brilliantly - his rendering of Hall's famous closing address in the Marie Hermann case actually did bring me to tears. Moving. Wonderful.

BBC please release this series on DVD and stream it on Netflix so American lawyers can see how a genius of the English bar could move juries to tears.