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Rogers & Appel: Mental Illness

There is truth to the cliché, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity.” The lives of Horace Appel and Earl Rogers are a testament to this phenomenon. Today, psychology acknowledges that the association between genius and madness is not based on fables. Many serious studies endorse the notion of the “tortured genius.” As fate would have it, years after their representation of Darrow, Appel and Rogers renewed their acquaintance while both were serving a short period of confinement as required by separate court orders for involuntary commitment to a state hospital in Norwalk, California.

Appel, son of a Jewish father and Mexican mother, had been a prominent member of the California bar for years. He had been sent to Norwalk as incurably insane. His aberration was in the nature of delusions of grandeur. He believed himself to be one of the world’s wealthiest men. “Every morning,” related Earl, “Horace used to bring me a check for a million dollars. The real reason that I left there was because I found out that his bank account was slightly overdrawn.” Despite the virtuosity of his performances in the courtroom, eventually Appel succumbed to the demons between his ears. He was permanently committed to a mental institution, where died in 1922, delusional and destitute.

During his career, Earl Rogers defended 77 murder trials and lost three. To be the pioneer on multiple courtroom innovations, serve as a professor in law schools and medical colleges, and to maintain the high standards of legal practice as he did for more than 20 years, Rogers was no mere drunk. He was a legal genius, a brilliant advocate and a tortured soul. Rogers’ ruin was his self-medication with alcohol. He was known to disappear for days with his drinking pal, novelist Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang. At one point, Rogers’ family sought to have him involuntarily committed to a state hospital; Rogers represented himself and defeated their efforts. Later Rogers voluntarily underwent treatment for a brief period in the sanitarium where he found Horace Appel. Months later, in a moment of relative sobriety, Rogers told Adela that he planned to drink himself to death. Not long after, on February 23, 1922, a law clerk from his office found Rogers, at age 52, dead in a “humble lodging house.”

A long-time Los Angeles reporter said of him: “Rogers had a bottomless capacity for knowledge as well as booze. He absorbed foreign languages; he became an expert in forensic medicine; he was up on the newly discovered science of ballistics. His cross-examinations destroyed the prosecution’s expert witnesses. He cajoled and seduced juries with his histrionics. In person, he was immaculate. His clothes were one step beyond fashion.”

A decade following Rogers’ death, author Erle Stanley Gardner conceived his fictional lawyer Perry Mason, which filled books and television screens. Most people believe Gardner’s writing was inspired by Rogers’ career.

Earl Roger’s Young Old Friend

Though Rogers recognized the need for organized labor and generally sympathized with their goals, he rejected violence in the name of reform. With the Times bombing, what angered him almost as much as the death and destruction, was the lack of a warning to the innocent people working the night shift. Rogers viewed it a vicious deed. The loss he suffered as result of the Times bombing was so deeply personal that his willingness to represent Darrow is a testament to Rogers’ professionalism.

Rogers was at work in his office directly across the street from the Times building when the first blast echoed throughout the city. It was common for him to work late hours and he was one of the first persons to get to the inferno. The ground was still trembling and the heat drove him back; he stared unbelieving, as one of the walls of Times building collapsed. Rogers said the worst part was the faces appearing in the windows of the office windows like “fugitives from a graveyard.” One of those fugitives was a friend, Harvey Elder, a young editor hanging from the ledge of the third floor. Harvey jumped but missed the net held by firemen and was taken to the hospital where he died from injuries caused by his fall. As result of the bedlam that followed the explosion, Rogers didn’t learn of Harvey’s condition and hoped that he had survived the inferno.

Harvey Elder was a “young old friend” of Rogers and most nights Harvey visited with his mentor in the early evening before heading across the street to the Times building. Earl Rogers’ mother and Harvey Elder’s grandmother were best friends, and their families had socialized in one another’s homes for many years. Several years earlier, Harvey had graduated from the University of Berlin and upon returning to Los Angeles, he took a job at the Times. Many years earlier, his education interrupted due to family finances, and prior to turning to the law, a young Earl Rogers had worked as a newspaper reporter. He could still recall how he developed leads, the best ways to confirm a story, and then how best to relate the details of an exciting event to his readers.

Harvey’s night off was Monday, and on occasion he and Rogers went to vaudeville shows together. On slow nights at the newspaper, it was common for Harvey to walk across the street just to visit with Rogers or possibly share a sandwich. This night, Rogers knew that Harvey was at work and left his law office immediately upon hearing the blast. Adela made it to the Times shortly after her father, and as she recalled, Rogers was “Black with soot, his clothes in ribbons, his face raw and swollen with burns, he was holding his right arm away from his body and his hand looked like a piece of raw steak on the end of it… Papa was talking to himself through clenched teeth. The murdering fiends, he kept saying. The paranoiac assassins…His underlip was bitten through, his chin was covered with dried blood.”

When Rogers learned that Harvey had jumped from the burning building, he was overcome with emotion. He and Adela walked/ran to the nearest hospital, five blocks away, only to learn of Harvey’s demise. Rogers refused to accept that someone like his “young old friend” had to become collateral damage in the war between capital and labor. The death of Harvey Elder lingered in Rogers’ thoughts for a very long time. It would loom over all his dealings with Darrow.

Darrow & Rogers

When it became apparent that people of power in Los Angeles didn’t want “labor’s lawyer” to leave town, Darrow reached out for suggestions on defense counsel; time and again, one name surfaced, Earl Rogers. At that time, Earl Rogers was not merely the best-known lawyer in Los Angeles but in all of California. By this point in his career, after a string of successes in many high-profile matters, any trial in which Rogers was involved was an event.

Earl Rogers was sui generis. He was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.

Rogers was a celebrity lawyer with a following of his own. Nearly every case he handled in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, was before a standing-room-only crowd. Despite his troubled personal life and notoriety for after-hour antics, Rogers’ work ethic was legendary and his effectiveness as a champion of an accused was universally respected. Darrow could find no better “local counsel” than Earl Rogers.

No two people, nor two lawyers could be more unlike the other. Darrow, the sober, somber, philosophical crusader who cared little for the law but entered the arena for the sake of the struggling masses, versus Rogers, ever seeking laughter, battling unspoken demons, who cared only to be the champion of the forlorn individual in the clutches of the law. Darrow, the lawyer who loved reading classical literature, learned treatises on the social conditions of the working poor and contemporary poetry, and asked others to research the law for him, versus Rogers, the passionate student of the law, reading court decisions daily, and whose mind never stopped thinking about how best to gain an advantage for his clients in the courtroom. Darrow, the slovenly lawyer with grease stains on his tie and shirt who often looked like he had slept in his suit and needed a bath, versus Rogers, whose sartorial splendor was unrivaled, always appearing in court so well-groomed that his attire was often the first thing discussed in news reports of his trials. Darrow, the advocate extraordinaire whose words could melt the hearts of gruff men and bring them to tears, versus Rogers whose virtuosity in the courtroom had yielded mystifying acquittals, utilizing his voice and his brilliant legal mind. Finally, for Darrow it was all about social issues, for Rogers it was only about his individual clients. Regardless of their differences each needed and respected the other.

Darrow was fearful his career might end in disgrace, and needed help from this gifted local attorney. Rogers was fighting with an occasional loss of confidence; he was buoyed by the prospect of representing America’s most famous lawyer. Also working to his advantage, Rogers’ roots in Los Angeles were deep, he had a network of investigators, informants and drinking pals who kept him informed on anyone that might affect his law practice. Rogers’s stature what it was, and knowing the business and political players who would be delighted to see Darrow behind bars, it’s likely he expected being called upon by Darrow. Yet both men knew that if they were to have an attorney-client relationship it would be anything but routine.

Complicating their relationship further was the relationship between Ruby Darrow and Rogers’s daughter, Adela. They detested one another.