A lady with a horse whip.

The lawyer, the whip lady, and a courtroom brawl

Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column is about a Chicago-based lawyer who got more that he bargained for...

When writing this week’s column, my first thought turned to the television show about the lawyer Perry Mason whom I never remember being quite taken to task by a woman like the lady with the whip in this story, but that is just what happened to a real life Chicago-based lawyer whose day in court painfully went down in history. The highly respected lawyer in question named McHugh was of Irish descent, the son of a Cavan man, who as we shall see found himself an unfortunate victim of circumstance before the eyes of a packed courtroom. Newspaper sensationalism took hold, gleefully reporting on the legal eagle that got ‘rawhided’, as they put it.

In ‘Biographical History of the American Irish in Chicago’ by Charles Ffrench, published in 1897, Patrick McHugh was fêted: ‘among the most honoured and respected citizens of this great city are many who either owe their birth to the dear green isle across the Atlantic or whose fondest associations are linked with that of their sires. Of these in Chicago, few are better known or deservedly more esteemed than the subject of this sketch, Patrick McHugh.’

Ffrench states, that the McHughs are of an ancient Irish pedigree that can be ‘traced back’ twelve centuries before the time of Christ.

Patrick McHugh’s father, also named Patrick, was born in County Cavan in 1807. Patrick senior married Catherine Curran but due to conditions in Ireland they departed for Ontario, Canada in 1841 where they settled, and he established himself as a ‘well-to-do farmer’. The McHughs had a family of seven sons and four daughters, of who two sons excelled themselves in the legal profession. Michael A. McHugh became a judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Ontario, and Patrick McHugh, who was born in 1843 at Ontario, studied for one year in Canada in 1861, then attended St Mary’s Catholic University in Chicago and afterwards he undertook legal studies at Chicago’s Union College of Law, and went on to become a leading lawyer in the same city. The McHughs and Currans were strong West Cavan based families.

All whipped out

During the early 1890s McHugh entered into a business partnership with John M. Rountree before going out on his own. McHugh’s name was associated with high professionalism and ‘skilful preparation, skilful handling,’ and an ‘entire faithfulness’ to clients. However, McHugh’s sharp no nonsense cross-examination of witnesses, was his real gift according to Ffrench who stated:

‘In the cross-examination of witnesses he is among the foremost in Chicago, and his shrewd ability in detecting the weak points has brought him into great request as a jury lawyer.’

They say that a sharp tongue stirs up anger and no doubt it was for this reason, that he once fell afoul of a woman who took umbrage to his line of questioning. He was not one to have the wool dragged over his eyes and did not care to hold back but just said what was on his mind anyway.

On 19 August 1891, there was nothing kinky about the article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch whose headline reported on Mrs Edward McMahon, ‘a pretty brunette’ from Chicago, who used a horse whip on Patrick McHugh, creating a sensation before Judge Kohlsaat and a packed courtroom. It seems that the woman’s husband was charged with the attempted poisoning of his own child by a previous wife, and it was to be decided by the court that day who would gain custody of the child and inherit a $30,000 estate. The mother of the previous wife was attempting to get control of the child.

Poor old McHugh was in a bad condition, the whip swishing around his head, leaving him severely knocked about. Next, he had his eyes blackened, before he got ‘knocked clean out’ by the woman’s husband, Mr McMahon. Trouble does not spring from nowhere and on the day, Attorney McHugh read an affidavit ‘taken in Canada,’ which said that Mrs McMahon was ‘a woman of bad reputation.’ Like lightning she angrily stood up shouting furiously that the allegations made against her were nothing but an ‘outrageous falsehood.’ The Pittsburgh Dispatch described how she quietly moved towards Attorney McHugh and ‘a minute later a black rawhide whip was hissing through the air and raising livid welts on the face and neck of the lawyer’ who ran ‘to the corner of the courtroom,’ to the left of the judge.’

But Mrs McMahon pursued him, giving him the ‘length and breadth’ of the leather three more times. Her husband who was a ‘sturdily built, good looking fellow’ then took into the lawyer giving him a senseless pounding around the courtroom. Presumably, recovering from shock, the judge eventually cried out for the Sheriff and his deputies to remove the rowdies from the courtroom. Mrs McMahon’s morning’s work took its toll and she fainted. The newspaper felt that Judge Kohlsaat was sure to decide in favour of the McMahons.

Personality and politics

Personality-wise, the ‘rawhided’ attorney was said to be normally of a ‘genial manner,’ a friendly guy who was well-received both in business and club circles, a life member of the Chicago Athletic Club and was involved with the Iroquois Club and the Columbus Club.

McHugh had a love of travel and traversed the American continent on many an occasion enjoying the beauty of it all.

Another bow to his arrow was his ‘active participation’ in the literary goings-on of the Chicago Athenaeum.

In politics, his leanings lay in the realms of the Democratic Party who held the shrewd lawyer in high regard, and then in 1893 adulation for him increased amongst his own tribe in the legal world with his nomination as a judge of the Circuit Court. The McMahon lawsuit and the punishment he received for reading an offensive sworn statement about Mrs McMahon, must have proved the most striking event of McHugh’s career, if not the most memorable.


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