Bill Fallon, the “Great Mouthpiece” and Archetypal Amoral Criminal Defense Lawyer

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.




"He’s
the guy that the joke was wrote about: ‘Is he a criminal lawyer?’


"Yes, very.’"

–Dashiell
Hammett, Red Harvest





 




Bill Fallon
was called "The Great Mouthpiece." Though he practiced law in Manhattan
for less than a decade, he represented some of New York’s leading pimps,
illegal narcotics dealers, embezzlers, swindlers and operators such as Jules
W. Arndt Stein, better known as Nicky Arnstein, the husband of Fanny Brice.
Fallon was counsel to Arnold Rothstein, one of the first nonpoliticians
to
successfully organize crime in New York. Few Fallon clients spent a day in jail
before trial and, if not acquitted, they usually enjoyed hung juries. One newspaperman
called Fallon "The Jail Robber." However, Fallon’s reputation
stemmed from murder. He represented over 120 homicide defendants. None was convicted.
Fallon’s style was Runyonesque before Runyon invented it for himself. His
suits were exquisitely tailored, his ties of finest silk; he wore no shirt more
than once and left his cobbler-made shoes unshined.



The relationship
with Rothstein, the gambler and operator whom he called "Old Massa Mind,"
won him his nickname. Rothstein was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Meyer
Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (alas, Wolfsheim is an anti-Semitic caricature
without Rothstein’s intelligence and polished charm), fixed the 1919 World
Series and died from a gunshot wound inflicted in the Park Central Hotel, without
ever naming the killer.


Fallon was
famous at his death in 1927: four years later, Gene Fowler published The
Great Mouthpiece
; in 1932 Hollywood released The Mouthpiece, based
on Fallon’s career; and so long as he endured in public memory, he was
the archetype of the amoral criminal defense lawyer. Even Fowler, whose compassion
and hero worship occasionally endangered his common sense, never let Fallon’s
charm overcome his reporter’s instincts. Thus Fallon’s intelligence,
eloquence and panache forever stand trial beside his immorality, dishonesty
and self-indulgence.


William
Joseph Fallon was born at 134 W. 47th St. in Manhattan on Jan. 23, 1886. Valedictorian
of Fordham College’s class of 1906, he graduated from Fordham Law in 1909.
Fallon was strikingly handsome, a broad-shouldered 5-foot-10, weighing about
165 pounds, with full features, pale skin, gray-blue eyes and wildly tousled
auburn hair that he barbered himself with a system of triple mirrors, scissors
and razors. He moved with an athlete’s grace. His voice was resonant, his
diction flawless and he never wanted for the right words. He was a brilliant
tactician, with a startling grasp of technicalities. He had a genius for "horse-shedding"
witnesses, a coinage attributed to James Fenimore Cooper that refers to rehearsing
testimony in carriage sheds; any resemblance to a vulgarism for equine excrement
is purely intentional. Last, he possessed a phenomenal memory, with a quick-fire
intelligence honed by the Jesuit tradition of daily extemporaneous oral examinations.


Fowler claimed
Fallon could read and memorize a book, nearly word for word, within two hours.
This let him save Ernest Fritz from the electric chair.


The accused
had mortally injured his mistress during rough sex. Fallon began trial preparations
only a week before opening statements. He then analyzed more than 100 medical
texts and, during the trial itself, mastered four medical textbooks on gynecology
overnight to confound the prosecution’s expert witnesses in the morning.
His cross-examination compelled one witness’ fatal admission that Fritz’s
mistress had been so delicate a mere coughing fit might have caused a lethal
hemorrhage, let alone her lover’s intimacies.


Another
expert witness said, "Mr. Fallon, I did not know you were an M.D. When
did you get your degree?" Fallon replied, "I received my degree last
night. I began practice this morning."


Fallon first
became notorious in 1915, as a Westchester County assistant district attorney,
for his prosecution of Thomas Mott Osborne, Sing Sing’s reforming warden.
Gov. Charles S. Whitman, who considered Osborne’s ideas so much mollycoddling,
desired to be rid of him. Apparently, Whitman’s cruelty, deceit and cowardice
blinded him to the ease with which a governor may fire or reassign even a famous
prison official.


Instead,
he arranged Fallon’s prosecution of Osborne on seven counts, including
"gross immorality" with certain prisoners (according to Andy Logan’s
Against the Evidence, John Jay Chapman, a friend of Osborne’s, later
wrote, "I have just read 292 editorials on his death and only one stated
what the precise charge was"). George Gordon Battle, Osborne’s counsel,
discredited the witnesses against his client, most of them prisoners who had
been offered sentence reductions for their testimony, and the court dismissed
the charges for lack of evidence.


Fallon claimed
he left the district attorney’s office after convicting an innocent man.
In 1918, he opened an office in partnership with Eugene McGee, a Fordham classmate.
Fallon & McGee began with three chairs, a desk, no law books and Fallon’s
charm and audacity, which swiftly made him a favorite of the sporting and theater
worlds.


Fallon soon
met Arnold Rothstein. A.R., whose veins flowed with arsenic in ice water, was
as charming and polished as Fallon, and, one gathers, considerably more lethal.
He was intelligent, self-disciplined, a sound judge of character and apparently
a born financier. The gambler might have been a legitimate success but for his
obsessive need for an edge, an advantage, an ace in the hole, in every transaction.
He became Fallon’s client.


At this
time, the police sensed some guiding hand in the underworld. A series of daring
securities thefts, all with a common pattern, betrayed some semblance of organization.
Nicky Arnstein somehow became obscurely involved with the theft of $5 million
in securities. He vanished after his indictment, surfacing only to retain Fallon
as counsel. Most people involved thought Arnstein, a lightweight with a very
thin gloss of charm, was Rothstein’s patsy, and Fallon’s appearance
as his lawyer only clinched it. Fallon negotiated his client’s surrender
after arranging reasonable bail. Legend holds Fallon and Arnstein drove in Nicky’s
Cadillac Landaulet in a police parade en route to the D.A.’s office. Fowler
states the car was stolen while Arnstein was surrendering to the D.A. Fallon
immediately telephoned Rothstein, who then directed Monk Eastman, the gangster,
to return the car at once and it was, "with apologies, inside the hour."


On Fallon’s
advice, Arnstein declined to answer questions because the answers might incriminate
or degrade him. It was among the first times a defendant took the Fifth. The
state court held Arnstein in contempt. Fallon obtained a writ of habeas corpus
and presented it to each United States district judge for the Southern District
of New York. None would sign it. He obtained an order delaying issuance of the
writ and appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court, which directed
the writ issue and reversed the contempt order. Arnstein was then tried on federal
securities charges in Washington, DC. The jury deadlocked. Before his second
trial, Arnstein’s nerve and temper failed him. Insisting Fallon could have
won the first trial if he had not been out drinking and womanizing, Arnstein
insulted Fallon’s professional integrity and, worse, his current mistress.
Fallon declined to further represent Arnstein. Fallon’s partner conducted
the second trial, and Arnstein became a guest of the sovereign people. People
remembered only Fallon’s brilliance at the first trial, never grasping
the irresponsible self-indulgence that had terrified his client.


Most people
believed Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series, though he always denied it.
Yet one Rothstein associate, Abe Attell, claimed he was acting for A.R. while
paying off some of the Chicago White Sox, who then threw the Series to the Cincinnati
Reds. Fallon orchestrated Rothstein’s appearance before a Cook County,
IL, grand jury. He was not indicted. Attell was indicted for conspiracy and
arrested in New York. Fallon persuaded a New York judge to uphold a writ of
habeas corpus, arguing that the Abe Attell indicted in Cook County was not the
Abe Attell arrested in New York.


Fallon had
been a teetotaler until he was 29. Now he began making up for lost time. His
bright insouciance often sustained him. Fallon once appeared somewhat the worse
for wear at a federal hearing. The judge asked him to approach the bench.


"Is
it possible," the judge said, "that the court smells liquor on counsel?"


Fallon bowed.
"If Your Honor’s sense of justice is as keen as your sense of smell,"
he said, "then my client need have no fear in this court."


He harassed
prosecutors, once saying as he presented a dictionary to an assistant district
attorney, "On hearing you address the court today, I am sure this book
can’t belong to you. However, take it. I can think of no one who needs
it more." In response to the same assistant’s closing words, "The
People rest," he stage-whispered, "They should."


Reporters
found Fallon a genial companion and a good source of copy. But when William
Randolph Hearst’s editors at his New York daily, the American, noticed
Fallon’s uncanny knack for hanging juries in white-collar criminal cases,
they began investigations. It only takes one dissenter to hang a jury. Publicly,
Fallon claimed that he addressed his summations to the one wise man on a panel.
In reality, his clients paid off one of the talesmen. A hung jury usually suited
Bill Fallon’s clients, who were content with that civil status defined
by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary: "Innocence, n.
the state or condition of a criminal whose counsel has fixed the jury."


Most who
knew Fallon and his genius for courtroom work finally concluded that the juror
payola was an admission that he feared his powers of persuasion were waning
through too many white nights, too much booze and too many broads. (Fowler,
who once characterized himself as a battered polygamist, said of his hero "his
blanket covered all women.")


Most of
the white-collar cases involved bucket shops, crooked stock-brokerage houses
run for the enrichment of the insiders and the mulcting of unsophisticated investors.
Nat J. Ferber, a Hearst reporter, investigated Fallon’s role as defense
counsel for numerous bucket boys. He observed a case in which a lone holdout
juror, Charles W. Rendigs, defeated the prosecution of 23 defendants for fraudulent
use of the mails. Rendigs apparently came into money by the end of the trial.
He was indicted and then persuaded to cooperate with the federal authorities.


In 1924,
Fallon was tried for jury tampering. With another attorney as nominal counsel,
Fallon conducted his own defense, delivering the opening remarks, cross-examining
the prosecution witnesses, putting himself on the stand and surviving cross-examination,
and concluding with a two-hour summation, to all accounts a triumph of heaven-storming
oratory. He argued the entire prosecution was a frame-up engineered by Hearst
because Fallon had discovered birth certificates in Mexico for twin children
Hearst had allegedly fathered with a movie actress. The jury went out at 5:08
p.m. and returned at 10:10 p.m. The judge was at the theater; he returned to
the courthouse within the hour. Then Fallon stood up, and the verdict was read,
and he learned they had found him not guilty. He strode over to Ferber. Fallon
gazed into the reporter’s eyes as they shook hands and said, "Nat,
Ipromise you, I’ll never bribe another juror."


It was his
last triumph. Clients thereafter shied from him in fear that Hearst’s reporters
might investigate them, too. The Great Mouthpiece died on April 29, 1927. He
was 41 years old.


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