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.

Horace Appel

Horace Appel was a very capable attorney and like Earl Rogers, a tortured soul who wrestled with personal demons and struggled to stay grounded in his personal life.

Appel was actively involved, on his feet, throughout the entire trial, ready to do battle on every legal issue, armed with the controlling case law. As originally contemplated by Rogers and Darrow, “cocounsel” was to have been Cyrus McNutt who was part of the McNamara defense team. The 79-year-old retired judge was a quiet and unassuming person, who was respected enormously in the Los Angeles legal community. He was the archetypal retired judge: thoughtful in all his words and deeds; generous to everyone in dispensing wisdom; and, above the fray, interested only in justice. Judge McNutt’s arguments in court were earnest, engaging and highly persuasive with the California bench. His unexpected illness (he died during jury selection) was a loss to the Darrow defense team and delayed the start of trial to permit the selection of substitute co-counsel. Rogers reached out to his colleague, Horace Appel. Despite their many personal and life-style differences, Rogers and Appel shared a trait that mattered greatly; once retained by a criminal defendant, their commitment to gaining an acquittal was total.

Horace Appel was a pro. Nine years younger than Darrow and several years older than Rogers, Appel knew his way around the courtrooms of Los Angeles and had been involved in a fair number of high-profile trials with the district attorney’s office. Appel and D.A. Fredericks weren’t friends, nor were they friendly adversaries. Also, like Rogers, the law was not his first choice. Upon graduating from high school in Tucson, Arizona, Appel’s credentials earned him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: the first person from Arizona to matriculate there. Within days of his arrival in New York, Appel learned that his father had passed away and was forced to return home. He abandoned a military career and enrolled in St. Mary’s College in San Jose.

As described by news reporter Hugh Baillie who was present throughout the entire trial, “Appel was an entirely different sort [from the eloquent Rogers], a Mexican Jew with a vast command of accented English, who could goad the district attorney and his staff almost beyond endurance with his easy contempt.”

It’s likely Appel was selected as co-counsel not only for his brilliance but because of his knack for disrupting the district attorney’s office. As was learned during the trial, Judge Hutton’s inability to control his courtroom combined with the volatile relationship between Fredericks and Appel ultimately produced violence in the presence of the jurors.

(Note: Featured photo from Ashley Van Haeften on Flickr