The Courtroom That Literally Relitigated History

For San Francisco’s Court of Historical Opinion, no case was too frivolous or too controversial

The headline of the San Francisco Call details the ouster of police chief George Wittman (Newspapers.com screenshot / Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito)
smithsonianmag.com

In March 1905, San Francisco’s police commissioners hauled in chief George W. Wittman to answer charges that he had allowed gambling to flourish in the city’s Chinatown. It was a scandal; some suspected he was accepting bribes to turn a blind eye to the fantan parlors and lottery games that thrived on the streets he had first walked as a patrolman 24 years earlier.

After a lengthy hearing, the commissioners, by a vote of 2 to 1, found Wittman guilty of neglect of duty and incompetence. The defendant was to be immediately dismissed from the force. He jumped to his feet to protest his innocence. “Never while I have been in the department have I been guilty of one wrongful act,” he declared, still wearing his uniform and his seven-pointed star. “I have tried to do my duty in every way possible.”

But Wittman’s words fell on deaf ears. “There was no response to this valedictory,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. “The commissioners looked bored.”

It would be 70 years before a San Francisco judge heard Wittman’s appeal and pronounced that the disgraced chief of police—by then long dead—had been “cheated by history.”

In 1975, Wittman’s case became the first heard by the Court of Historical Review and Appeals, a one-off publicity stunt that went on to become a unique Bay Area tradition. The court—which claimed the past as its jurisdiction and had no legal authority whatsoever—was the brainchild of Bernard Averbuch, a San Francisco publicist and civic booster who was looking for a way to promote an upcoming exhibit on law enforcement.

Averbuch had heard of Wittman when city archivist Gladys Hansen discovered police personnel records dating back to 1853. He saw injustice in Wittman’s firing, noted briefly in the ledger in red ink, and enlisted the help of his friend Harry Low, a Superior Court judge, to stage a rehearing. Local TV cameras turned out for the much belated trial. With the benefit of hindsight, Wittman’s “defense team,” a collection of civil servants, including Hansen, told a twisted tale of turn-of-the-century yellow journalism, mayoral corruption, racism and greed that had been hidden from the public at the time. Wittman, they argued, had been a pawn in a scheme to paint Chinatown as an unseemly and dangerous place, part of a bigger effort to move the Chinese immigrants off of their valuable land. With a bang of his gavel, Judge Low rewrote history, ruling that Wittman’s firing was unjust.

“The hearing came 70 years too late to help ousted San Francisco police chief George W. Wittman,” the San Francisco Examiner reported this time, “but his reputation was restored just the same.”

“We brought out events and personalities that were forgotten or needed to be restored in some way to their proper place in history,” Low says today. “San Franciscans loved to examine their past. There’s so much ‘colorful’ history here.” The now-retired judge presided over some two dozen sessions before giving up his role as historical arbiter when he was named to the District Court of Appeals. By then, the mock trials were part of courthouse custom, maintained for the next 25 years by a revolving cast of judges, lawyers and public officials. “Courts today would be too conscious of criticism to do something like this,” Low says, but in its time, the historical court was a destination for school field trips.

Its proceedings were replayed on local radio and its decisions made the pages of the New York Times. (The paper of record took the court seriously when it determined baseball had been invented in New York City, but far more skeptically when Judge Roy Wonder announced “the San Francisco bagel is equal to that in New York.”)

The press loved the weird ones. It was front-page news in California, Kentucky, New York and Wisconsin when the court investigated the birthplace of the fortune cookie. (San Francisco, natch.) The court also looked into the origins of the martini—San Francisco or Martinez, California, 30 miles north? (Again, San Francisco, until Martinez appealed. A three-judge panel then ruled for Martinez, after a few drinks.) It considered the citizenship of Cinderella, trotting out a clear plastic high-heel in its decision that while the centuries-old fairytale didn’t originate in the United States, it was a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story. And the court, unconvinced by an attorney decked out like the King, found that Elvis was, indeed, dead.

But the most memorable case was its most serious. In 1986, in between a case that asked if Babe Ruth really called his home run in the 1932 World Series and one on the creator of spaghetti, the Court of Historical Review heard the appeal of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who had been executed 50 years earlier for the murder of the Lindbergh baby. Hauptmann had professed his innocence until the moment of his death, and decades later, some still wondered if he had been wrongly convicted.

In a San Francisco courtroom, Hauptmann’s 88-year-old widow, Anna, took the stand. Through tears, she recalled the night of March 1, 1932, when the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. “My husband was home with me the night the baby was taken,” she said. “I told the police that. I told the jury that. But they believed all the lies and they killed an innocent man.” The Hauptmanns’ attorney also addressed the San Francisco court, presenting documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that he believed showed evidence had been planted in the Hauptmann home and witnesses pressured to support the case against him.

“My only wish in my life is Richard’s name be cleared,” Anna Hauptmann concluded. And finally a court, as unofficial as it was, listened to her pleas. Judge George Choppelas ruled there was a “historical need” to reconsider the case in light of the defense’s newly obtained documents. This time, when newspapers reported on the verdict, they forgot to mention the absurdity of the Court of Historical Review and Appeals. New Jersey never did reopen the case, but the state Attorney General was forced to issue an official response, denying the request of the mock court.

Anna Hauptmann died in 1994 and the Court of Historical Review and Appeal heard its last case not long after, but the Lindbergh kidnapping remains a historical mystery for many.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus