My Turn: Few attorneys could match his legal flair

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He was a poor boy from Alabaster who grew up to rival the likes of Clarence Darrow, the legendary lawyer known for his courtroom duel with William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 “Monkey Trial.”

William Henry Gallagher, cast as a Detroit “Legal Legend” by The Legal News in 1995, upon the centennial of the daily newspaper, was a gifted orator and a master at cross examination, utilizing those skills to become one of the most prominent trial attorneys in the state during his heyday.

His courtroom talent was showcased during a highly publicized 1929 Detroit trial that captivated a city for six weeks, according to The Legal News profile of Gallagher, a dapper sort who sported signature bow ties and wing collars in his courtroom appearances.

The case involved a jilted lover, Bertha Cleavenger, who was suing real estate agent John Castle for breach of contract. As her attorney, Gallagher charged that Castle, 7 years younger than the defendant, entered into a courtship with her that lasted 7 years, and had promised to marry her.

Castle had led a “rags to riches” life, toiling for years as a factory worker before striking it rich while selling real estate. He was at the low end of his financial ladder when Cleavenger “took him in” as a boarder at her house and encouraged him to sell Detroit real estate. He gladly took her advice, eventually becoming a millionaire. After making beaucoup bucks, Castle reportedly bid a not-so-sweet adieu to Cleavenger, taking his fortune and his marital intentions elsewhere, moves that prompted a legal response.

The plaintiff, by press accounts, was a “rather plain, 42-year-old woman,” who would spend eight days on the witness stand telling her story of betrayal. The defendant, her former boarder and alleged fiancé, would go one better, delivering nine days of testimony to refute her claims.

Gallagher took some 16 hours and four days to present his final argument for Miss Cleavenger, employing a tenor to his voice that ranged from “thundering” to “cajoling,” according to court reporter, Harry Howse. As Gallagher neared summation, it was almost as if Mother Nature was in partnership with him, according to The Legal News profile of Gallagher. December dusk cast a chilly spell over the courtroom, snow beat at the windows.

Gallagher, finishing his summation, gripped the railing of the jury box. He went silent for a moment, then he looked at the men and women and began to speak:

“Ladies and gentlemen, will you let her (Bertha Cleavenger) wrap that faded green coat around herself and then go out to face this storm and all the storms of life without the helping arm of a husband, without compensation – alone?”

Such eloquence persuaded the jury to award the jilted lover $450,000 (later reduced by the judge to $150K). It was the largest settlement ever granted in a breach of promise suit and remained the record into the 1960s.

But while records were nice, Gallagher also believed in principle, taking on various titans of industry to prove a point. In 1925, he represented plaintiff Aaron Sapiro in a libel suit against Henry Ford and his Dearborn Independent, which had launched an anti-Jewish attack on the man who had gained national prominence by organizing California fruit growers.

“After two years of trials and legal maneuvering, Gallagher got a retraction and lengthy apology for all Ford had said about Sapiro and Jews in general,” according to The Legal News profile of Gallagher.

As for his success, Gallagher attributed much of it to his weekly elocution classes at the University of Detroit, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1903 at the age of 18. Three years later, he graduated from Detroit College of Law, beginning what would become a career lined with success and adoration. A Detroit “legend” for sure.

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