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Had it not been for the Haymarket case, the life of trial judge Joseph E. Gary would have been typical of so many self-made men whose talent, ambition, and energy were vital to Chicago's rise from a frontier village to America's second largest city within a period equivalent to a human lifetime.
Gary was born in 1821 in Potsdam, New York, not far from State's Attorney Grinnell's home town of Massena. He had worked as a carpenter before training in the law. Prior to his arrival in Chicago in 1856, Gary had lived, among other places, in St. Louis, where he joined the bar, San Francisco, and the mining town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. He became judge of the Superior Court in 1863, of the Appellate Court in 1888, and remained on the bench until his death in 1906.
Writing before the Haymarket trial, Chicago historian Alfred T. Andreas approvingly noted that Gary was "noted for the rapidity of his decisions and for his great dispatch of business, evidently holding with Emerson that it is more important to the public that cases should be decided, than that they should always be decided correctly." This proved to be all too true in his handling of the Haymarket case, where Gary put his own prejudices and the expediency of presuming from the outset the anarchists' guilt ahead of making sure that they received a fair trial.
Still, it would be not be entirely fair to condemn men like Gary and Grinnell for not being able to transcend the frightened and vengeful spirit of the moment. Even their outspoken contemporary critics stated as much. In his reminiscences of the trial, Samuel P. McConnell, the son-in-law of Judge John Rogers (who later became a judge), found Gary's conduct profoundly wrong, but explained that the judge "manufactured the law and disdained precedent in order that a frightened public might be made to feel secure."
In his memoirs, legendary Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow, who came to the city the year after the bombing and worked hard in the clemency campaign, said that he was far less forgiving of the justices of the Supreme Court who refused to review the case than he was of Gary. They, after all, had time to reflect on what had happened well after the crime had been committed and the excitement had ebbed. Gary acted in the midst of this excitement. "To severely blame Judge Gary meant blaming a judge for not being one in ten thousand," Darrow wrote, "and few men can be that and live."
The tobacco-chewing Gary was known for an unpretentious, no-nonsense manner within and outside the courtroom. He was also reputed to have a good sense of humor ("he loves a keen encounter of wit," Andreas wrote, "and is himself a most incorrigible punster").
Gary also had a softer side, as evidenced by several sentimental poems within his papers in the Chicago Historical Society's collection. One celebrates springtime and motherhood, and was written on his Appellate Court stationery in 1892. Click on the small image to the right of his photograph to read Gary's poem.