Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, including the legal thriller Midnight, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013. A number of his novels and short stories are set in the legal world, for he worked for many years as a law clerk in the New York County Courthouse—the setting he takes us to in this post. The author makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2019 issue (on sale next month) with the story “The Visit,” and we have another stunning tale from him coming up shortly after that. Stay tuned! —Janet Hutchings
The New York County Courthouse, my workplace for almost 30 years, has been a source of inspiration for much of my fiction writing. The building fascinates me. Its odd architecture of a hexagon surrounding a circle creates hidden spaces where mysterious events may occur. Its stratified culture, from judges to janitors, provides an array of characters with an endless variety of motivations. The courthouse was completed in 1927, but the court it houses—the institution, that is—dates back to 1691. Today, it draws approximately 5,000 people to its doors daily. Most are lawyers and litigants and citizens summoned for jury duty. Many are tourists who pose for photos and production companies that film scenes with the impressive courthouse portico as a backdrop. A dozen or more trials may be in session, from multi-million dollar commercial disputes, to serious personal injury claims, to bitter divorces. Of the many judges who have presided in the courthouse, the most famous was Joseph Crater, who walked out of his chambers on August 6, 1930, and into history as “the most missingest man in New York.” In short, the courthouse brims with story ideas, and I have had the good fortune to publish three novels and more than a dozen short stories set in the courthouse orbit. But what inspires a mystery writer may differ from what can inspire the casual visitor. Three such inspirational stories are memorialized at the courthouse.
The first is a bronze plaque that commemorates the 250th anniversary of the John Peter Zenger trial. The trial, in 1735, was a case of seditious libel brought by the colonial government against a newspaper for publishing articles critical of the governor. Zenger was neither an editor nor a writer. He was the newspaper’s printer, and since there were very few printers in the colonies at the time, jailing the printer effectively shut down the newspaper. The case went to trial, and unlike today’s settled law, the truth of an allegedly libelous statement was not a defense. Still, Zenger’s lawyer asked the jury to consider the truth of the articles printed in the newspaper, and the jury, despite the judge’s instructions that the truth was irrelevant, found Zenger not guilty. The case did not explicitly establish freedom of the press in the colonies, but it pointed directly to the rights and freedoms established in the U.S. Constitution.
The second is a marble bust of Thomas Emmet, an Irish barrister who was arrested and jailed for treason and conspiracy for helping to organize a failed uprising against British forces in Ireland. After several years in prison, Emmet was released on condition that he accept permanent exile in France. He stayed in France for awhile, but after the execution of his brother, Robert, for attempting a second uprising, he emigrated to the United States. He applied for admission to the New York bar, but the Federalists then in power denied the application on the ground that he was an alien subversive. Two years and a court case later, Emmet finally was admitted to the bar. He served as the state Attorney General and then, in private practice, became one of the leading lawyers in New York, arguing several cases before the United States Supreme Court. He died in 1827, after being stricken by a seizure while arguing a case in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. The bust was commissioned by Emmet’s colleagues and was created by Ottaviano Giovannozzi, a Florentine sculptor who worked off drawings of Emmet. It was first installed in a wing of City Hall that served as the New York County Courthouse in 1828, then traveled as the court itself traveled from courthouse to courthouse. In 2014, the bust was rededicated and placed in the courthouse rotunda. Remarkably, the law firm that Thomas Emmet founded in 1805 is still in existence.
The third is a bas relief panel honoring Rebecca Salome Foster. Ms. Foster was a wealthy woman with a missionary’s zeal. Her ministry focused on the Tombs Prison, where inmates, both male and female, were housed in squalid conditions. In an era that predated probation officers and parole boards, she counseled the inmates, offered financial assistance to their families, and helped the inmates find work after their release. Known as the “Tombs Angel,” she earned the trust of the judges and the cooperation of the District Attorney’s Office. She essentially functioned as a one-woman social-services agency until her death in the Park Avenue Hotel fire in 1902.
The original Tombs Angel memorial consisted of a medallion likeness of Ms. Foster and a bas relief marble panel of an angel comforting a young man in distress, both set in an elaborate bronze frame. The sculptor was Karl Bitter, who achieved early fame by winning a competition for the design of the bronze doors at Trinity Church. The memorial stood in the lobby of the old Criminal Courts Building (a contemporary of the original Tombs Prison) from 1904 until the building’s demolition in 1940, when it was placed in storage and largely forgotten. When it was rediscovered many years later, the medallion and the frame were gone, and the relief panel was badly damaged. The panel was restored and now stands in the courthouse lobby.
A plaque commemorating a trial verdict that became a cornerstone of the First Amendment, a bust of a deported immigrant who became the pre-eminent lawyer of his era, and a relief panel rendering a wealthy woman with a social conscience. Just parts of the scenery for people who pass quickly through the New York County Courthouse with other things on their minds. But each represents a story worth hearing and worth remembering.