Saturday, November 9, 2019

Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston, The $1 Lawyer

While doing some research on the web I ran across this story about Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston who was regarded as the woman Sherlock Holmes of her day.

She participated and helped solve many mysteries of her day. Mary was also the first female United States Attorney. I am sure that we will be covering other aspects of her life down the road. This story is about how she battled debt slavery (peonage) in Florida. Enjoy! --Will

Peonage, Part 2 - Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston
By Joanna Grey Talbot

At the turn of the 20th century debt peonage preyed on African Americans and immigrants alike. Frederick Cubberley, U.S. Commissioner for the northern district of Florida, lived in Cedar Key and worked to prosecute cases and the majority of his clients were African Americans. At the same time, a female lawyer from New York City, Mary Grace Quackenbos (Humiston), began hearing tales from immigrant families that their husbands, sons, and fathers were being prevented from leaving jobs in the south because they supposedly owed money and were being treated inhumanely.

Ms. Quackenbos graduated from the New York University Law School and after working with the Legal Aid Society opened her own practice. The People’s Law Firm, located in Manhattan, worked to help immigrants adjust to living in the United States. She quickly won their trust and was widely known among immigrants of all backgrounds. According to

a Boston Evening Transcript article from December 13, 1905, the firm “takes the cases of all clients. But those who can afford to pay liberally are charged accordingly, and the fees accepted from the poor are often but one dollar, and that is returned if nothing is accomplished.” The reporter talks of sitting in the firm’s waiting room and seeing clients ranging from a poor Italian immigrant to the second secretary of the Spanish legation at Washington, D.C.

Ms. Quackenbos was a rarity and is described by Jerrell H. Shofner as a “militant, middle-class reformer whose legal training and personal economic independence enabled her to undertake a crusade against corrupt New York labor agents and their southern employers.” After hearing from the family members and a few men who had been able to escape she decided to investigate herself. She traveled to Florida under her maiden name, Grace Winterton, and posed as a reporter for McClure’s Magazine (a magazine famous for its muckraking articles). Funded by McClure’s and the Jewish Aid Society she investigated peonage throughout Florida and was horrified by what she saw.

She found that New York labor agents were paid $3 a head by Southern firms to find labor for their lumber, turpentine, and railroad operations. The labor agents lured the workers to the South with promises of high wages and good accommodations. Yet, they would arrive to find backbreaking work at a grueling pace in desolate conditions. The workers would arrive in debt because they were charged more for their travel and paid less for their work than they agreed. Other workers would owe more at the company commissary than their first paycheck totaled thus beginning a cycle of debt. Some businesses would even charge their workers for water during the work hours.

She reported her findings to the U.S. Department of Justice in July of 1906 and President Theodore Roosevelt in August. Assistant Attorney General Charles Wells Russell headed the DOJ’s peonage investigations and after reading through Ms. Quackenbos preliminary findings he appointed her a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. She was the first woman to be given such a title.

Ms. Quackenbos was involved with three major cases, the first being US vs. Harlan. The case was against the manager and overseers of the Jackson Lumber Company, which operated on the border between Alabama and Florida. Not only were the men not allowed to leave because of trumped up debts but “hardly a day passed without someone being run down by the bosses or the bloodhounds and returned and whipped.” The trial began on November 14, 1906, and the defendants were found guilty on November 23. William S. Harlan, the manager, was sentenced to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The overseers were sentenced to less. The decision was of course appealed and on February 24, 1909, it was upheld by the Circuit Court of Appeals. An appeal was again placed and on November 28, 1910, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Harlan would end up serving only four months.

The next case, which ran almost concurrently with the previous case, was US vs. O’Hara. F.J. O’Hara was the superintendent of a sawmill in Buffalo Bluff and a naval stores operation in Maytown. Not only were the conditions similar to the Jackson Lumber Company but here the men were charged $0.15 for a drink of water. If they took a water break not only were they charged but they also were docked an hour of time. As a result of this, one immigrant said that by the end of the week of backbreaking work he had earned $6.30 but owed the commissary $7.90.

The trial began on December 10, 1906, in Jacksonville. O’Hara and his overseers were charged with conspiracy to commit peonage. After 14 days of evidence by the prosecutors the jury returned a not guilty verdict after deliberating for 17 minutes. Charles W. Russell decided to try O’Hara alone and his trial began on January 2, 1907. Testimony by more than 50 witnesses lasted for 22 days but it took the jury only 12 minutes to return a not guilty verdict. A large factor in both decisions was the Florida press and the acceptance of

peonage by many Floridians. The press had vilified Quackenbos and Russell. For example, the March 4, 1908, issue of The Pensacola Journal, described Ms. Quackenbos as “a smooth female who imagines she is a great reformer, but who would be better employed in raising babies, attending to household affairs and otherwise making a legitimate woman of herself, than in nosing around among the negroes of the South and smelling out all sorts of imaginary evils.”

The most highly publicized case that Quackenbos and Russell collected affidavits for was one against Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad extension to Key West. Flagler had decided in 1904 to extend his railroad to Key West and his company began contracting with labor agents in New York City to bring workers south. After arriving the workers found that their only means of transportation was company boats and the gates were locked behind them when they reached the dock. The living conditions were horrible and the workers were forced to work by fear of death. They couldn’t leave until they had paid their transportation and commissary bills, as in the other peonage cases. Local fishermen were warned that they would be shot if they tried to help any of the men escape.

Escaped workers had contacted the government on many occasions and the Department of Commerce and Labor finally sent an agent to investigate. He was accompanied by a railroad agent and found no peonage. Another federal investigator never left his Miami hotel to view the work site. In a preemptive strike the Florida East Coast Railroad submitted a 199-page report stating that peonage was not being practiced in the building of the extension. Within the report, though, they did describe horrible sleeping quarters and stated that they did hold men to pay debts but they never harmed them.

Not surprisingly, Russell and Quackenbos were the only ones to prove peonage. All other investigations were poorly done or purposely misleading. In 1907 the Florida Board of

Trade asked for an investigation of the “greatest menace to increased immigration to this state, namely, the unceasing agitation of the peonage question.” Meaning, they were tired of the federal government sticking its nose into their business. A month later a muckraking article, “Slavery in the South To-Day,” was published in the March 1907 Cosmopolitan Magazine. Writer Richard Barry wrote that “The Standard Oil Clique, H.M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway Co., the turpentine trust, the lumber trust, and other trusts have put in force a system of peonage which is actual slavery […] and it is done under the legal sanction of state laws – not by direct laws, but by subterfuges and circumventions which nevertheless attain the end in view.” The Florida legislature passed a resolution to condemn Barry and publisher William Randolph Hearts, calling the article “infamous, false, and libelous.”

Yet, in spite of all this, Russell and Quackenbos continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the men who were being held in peonage. The case finally started when on March 27, 1907, a New York grand jury indicted Francesco Sabbia, a labor agent, Edward J. Triay, a Florida East Coast Railroad agent, and two other men under the 1866 slave-kidnapping law. The trial began a year and a half later on November 10, 1908. The men could not be found guilty of peonage, though, since they were being tried for slavery. Their defense attorneys, therefore, said their clients were guilty of peonage not slavery. The trial got stuck on definitions and Judge Charles Hough continually sided with the defense. The case was dropped.

As a result of these cases, less and less immigrants traveled south for work and immigrant peonage became less typical. African Americans would continue to bear the brunt of debt peonage. Ms. Quackenbos would continue in her legal career in New York City and passed away in 1948.


“Lawyers vs. Shysters: An Institution Doing Excellent Work in New York” by Kellogg Durland, Boston Evening Transcript, December 13, 1905

“Mary Grace Quackenbos: A Visitor Florida Did Not Want” by Jerrell H. Shofner, Florida Historical Quarterly, January 1980, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp 273-290

“The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969” by Pete Daniel, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1972

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