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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.