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Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes

By Tara Mae

Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston was the first female Assistant United States Attorney. She was appointed to the position before women were legally allowed to vote in the country. A skilled attorney, later in her career she became a highly sought investigator, earning the nickname “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.” 

Quackenbos Humiston was born Mary Grace Winterton on September 17, 1869, to a wealthy New York family. Her father was a successful merchant and established in the lay work of the Baptist church. Her grandfather, Henry S. Hull, was the partner of renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. 

After attending Hunter College, Quackenbos Humiston briefly taught at Collegiate School. Invested in protecting her independent fortune, she studied at New York University Law School to learn how to best manage her estate. This introduction inspired her to pursue a degree and career in law. 

Impressed by her aptitude, the dean of the school urged Quackenbos Humiston to take evening classes, which enabled her to graduate in three years, ranked seventh in her class. She received her Bachelor of Laws in 1903, worked for Legal Aid Society for one year, and was accepted to the bar. In 1905, she founded the People’s Law Firm. 

Primarily focused on cases involving immigrants and the working poor, within two years, Quackenbos Humiston had opened a pair of offices: one on Broadway and one on Madison Avenue. Her reputation was growing. One case in particular, the defense of Mrs. Antoinette Tolla, an Italian woman in New Jersey, drew media attention. 

Tolla had been convicted of the murder of Joseph Sonta and scheduled to be hanged when Quackenbos Humiston took her case at the request of the Italian Consul-General, who offered her a substantial fee. Instead she worked pro-bono, as she did for many cases, noting she “would prefer to take the case without remunera as woman for woman.” By the time Quackenbos Humiston took up the cause, her firm had 550 pending cases and employed four attorneys and two stenographers. 

She and her team worked quickly and worked well. Seven days after officially taking the case, Quackenbos Humiston convinced the board of pardons of New Jersey to commute Tolla’s death sentence to a prison term of seven and a half years. She successfully argued that Tolla had killed Sonta in self-defense and that her previous testimony had not been properly translated. It was March 9th. Tolla was scheduled to be hanged on March 12th. 

Uninterested in notoriety, Quackenbos Humiston did not rest on her laurels but rather continued to build her practice. She strove to assist anyone who needed her expertise, stating in an interview “‘We give the same attention to all our clients, but we charge each according to his means...If our clients are rich we charge them regular level rates. Of course, that is why we can ask low fees from the poor.’” This policy drew the downtrodden and desperate to her. 

They came to her when the police could not or would not help. During the first years of the law firm, Quackenbos Humiston saw several clients who were searching for friends or relatives who had gone South for work opportunities and vanished. Rather than hire an investigator, she looked into it herself. Initial inquiries uncovered a network of New York City recruitment agents who lured laborers to the South, where they were ensnared in peonage. 

Although it was most rampant in turpentine camps, Quackenbos Humiston discovered it was a fairly common practice in a variety of industries. Traveling alone, she began a clandestine examination, donning disguises and stowing away on supply wagons to infiltrate the camps. Quackenbos Humiston posed as an old woman selling scissors and a magazine writer. Her first trip yielded a fever and 46 affidavits against perpetrators of the peonage system. 

This caught the attention of the Department of Justice, which opened an investigation. Assistant Attorney General Charles Wells Russell personally traveled through the South to conduct an inquiry. The Justice Department was so impressed by Quackenbos Humiston’s work that it appointed her Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. She was the first woman to have this job, thirteen years before women gained the right to vote. Her responsibilities centered around identifying and prosecuting peonage schemes and industry trust-busting. 

The peonage probes took Quackenbos Humiston abroad. She journeyed through Europe and part of the Middle East, pursuing leads and building her case. Quackenbos Humiston unearthed an extensive exploitation ring that ran through different countries. It enticed individuals to immigrate to the United States where they were trapped in peonage. 

Baron Edmondo Des Planches, the Italian ambassador to the United States, asked her to specifically look into the treatment of Italians working on the cotton plantations in Mississippi. Quackenbos Humiston targeted the Sunnyside Plantation, owned by the O. B. Crittenden Company, for her investigation. She dispatched an undercover investigator to sneak into the plantation at night. Quackenbos Humiston spent time in the shacks that housed the immigrants, drinking the polluted water and gathering evidence. 

With the proper motivation, threat of prison, one of the labor agents divulged the company’s dubious labor practices, and implicated LeRoy Percy. A cotton planter, lawyer, and local political leader, Percy fancied himself untouchable. In an effort to assert dominance, he arranged for Quackenbos Humiston’s case notes to be stolen from her hotel room and later dispatched an associate to return them. In response, Quackenbos Humiston had his partner, O.B. Crittenden, arrested and planted stories in the national press that detailed the plantation’s abysmal working conditions. 

In addition to her legal expertise, Quackenbos Humiston was known for her sharp investigative skills. Her career triumphs and professional ascent were featured in the New York newspapers, but she was uninterested in celebrity. The media, enamored with her procedural prowess and striking physical presence, was a useful ally when needed. 

Percy appealed to his friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, for relief. Quackenbos Humiston was removed from the investigation at Sunnyside, but the press had already gotten the story, and her report was published. The Italian government started to warn its citizens against moving to the Delta re