Read CHAPTER XIV - BUSY DAYS IN BOSTON of Russell H. Conwell, free online book, by Agnes Rush Burr, on

Editor of “Boston Traveller.” Free Legal Advice for the Poor. Temperance Work. Campaign Manager for General Nathaniel P. Banks. Urged for Consulship at Naples. His Work for the Widows and Orphans of Soldiers.

Returning to Somerville, Mass., the long journey ended, he found the editorial chair of the “Boston Traveller” awaiting him. He plunged into work with his characteristic energy. The law, journalism, writing, lecturing, all claimed his attention. It is almost incredible how much he crowded into a day. Five o’clock in the morning found him at work, and midnight struck before he laid aside pen or book. Yet with all this rush of business, he did not forget those resolves he had made to lend a helping hand wherever he could to those needing it. And his own bitter experiences in the hard school of poverty taught him how sorely at times help is needed. He made his work for others as much a part of his daily life as his work for himself. It was an integral part of it. Watching him work, one could hardly have distinguished when he was occupied with his own affairs, when with those of the poor. He did not separate the two, label one “charity” and attend to it in spare moments. One was as important to him as the other. He kept his law office open at night for those who could not come during the day and gave counsel and legal advice free to the poor. Often of an evening he had as many as a half hundred of these clients, too poor to pay for legal aid, yet sadly needing help to right their wrongs. So desirous was he of reaching and assisting those suffering from injustice, yet without money to pay for the help they needed, that he inserted the following notice in the Boston papers:

“Any deserving poor person wishing legal advice or assistance will be given the same free of charge any evening except Sunday, at N Rialto Building, Devonshire Street. None of these cases will be taken into the courts for pay.”

These cases he prepared as attentively and took into court with as eager determination to win, as those for which he received large fees. Of course such a proceeding laid him open to much envious criticism. Lawyers who had no such humanitarian view of life, no such earnest, sincere desire to lighten the load of poverty resting so heavily on the shoulders of many, said it was unprofessional, sensational, a “bid for popularity.” Those whom he helped knew these insinuations to be untrue. His sympathy was too sincere, the assistance too gladly given. But misunderstood or not, he persevered. The wrongs of many an ignorant working man suffering through the greed of those over him, were righted. Those who robbed the poor under various guises were made to feel the hand of the law. And for none of these cases did he ever take a cent of pay.

Another class of clients who brought him much work but no profit were the widows and orphans of soldiers seeking aid to get pensions. To such he never turned a deaf ear, no matter the multitude of duties that pressed. He charged no fee, even when to win the case, he was compelled to go to Washington. Nor would he give it up, no matter what work it entailed until the final verdict was given. His partners say he never lost a pension case, nor ever made a cent by one.

An unwritten law in the office was that neither he nor his partners should ever accept a case if their client were in the wrong, or guilty. But this very fact made wrongdoers the more anxious to secure him, knowing it would create the impression at once that they were innocent.

A story which went the rounds of legal circles in Boston and finally was published in the “Boston Sunday Times,” shows how he was cleverly fooled by a pick-pocket The man charged with the crime came to Colonel Conwell to get him to take the case. So well did he play the part of injured innocence that Colonel Conwell was completely deceived and threw himself heart and soul into the work of clearing him. When the case came up for trial, the lawyer and client sat near together in the court room, and Colonel Conwell made such an earnest and forceful plea in behalf of the innocent young man and the harm already done him by having such a charge laid at his door that it was at once agreed the case should be dismissed, by the District Attorney’s consent. So lawyer and client walked out of court together, happy and triumphant, to Colonel Conwell’s office, where the pick-pocket paid Colonel Conwell his fee out of the lawyer’s own pocketbook which he had deftly abstracted during the course of the trial.

The incident caused much amusement at the time, and it was a long while before Colonel Conwell heard the last of it.

Into work for temperance he went heart and soul, not only in speech but in deed. Though he never drank intoxicating liquor himself, he could never see a man under its baneful influence but that heart and hand went out to help him. Many a reeling drunkard he took to his Somerville home, nursed all night, and in the morning endeavored with all his eloquence to awaken in him a desire to live a different life. Deserted wives and children of drunkards came to him for aid, and many of the free law cases were for those wronged through the curse of drink.

Friend always of the workingman, he was persistently urged by their party to accept a nomination for Congress. But he as persistently refused. But he worked hard in politics for others. He managed one campaign in which General Nathaniel P. Banks was running on an independent ticket, and elected him by a large majority. His name was urged by Senators Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson for the United States Consulship at Naples, the lectures he had given at Cambridge, England, on Italian history having attracted so much favorable comment by the deep research they showed, and the keen appreciation of Italian character. He was considered an expert in contested election cases and he frequently appeared before the Legislature on behalf of cities and towns on matters over which it had jurisdiction.

Mr. Higgins, who knew him personally, writing of these busy days in “Scaling the Eagle’s Nest,” says:

“He prepared and presented many bills to Congressional Committees at Washington, and appeared as counsel in several Louisiana and Florida election eases. His arguments before the Supreme Courts in several important patent cases were reported to the country by the Associated Press. He had at one time considerable influence with the President and Senators in political appointments, and some of the best men still in government office in this State (Massachusetts) and in other New England States, say they owe their appointment to his active friendship in visiting Washington in their behalf. But it does not appear that through all these years of work and political influence he ever asked for an appointment for himself.”

Catholics, Jews, Protestants and non-sectarian charities sought his aid in legal matters, and so broad was his love for humanity that all found in him a ready helper. At one time he was guardian of more than sixty orphan children, three in particular who were very destitute, were through his intercession with a relative, left a fortune of $50,000. Yet despite all these activities, he found time to lecture, to write boots, to master five languages, using his spare minutes on the train to and from his place of business for their study. In 1872 he made another trip abroad. Speaking of him at this time, a writer in the London Times says:

“Colonel Conwell is one of the most noteworthy men of New England. He has already been in all parts of the world. He is a writer of singular brilliancy and power, and as a popular lecturer his success has been astonishing. He has made a place beside such orators as Beecher, Phillips and Chapin.”

Thus the busy years slipped by, years that brought him close to the great throbbing heart of humanity, the sorrows and sufferings of the poor, the aspirations and ambitions of the rich, years in which he looked with deep insight into human nature, and, illumined by his love for humanify, saw that an abiding faith in God, the joy of knowing Christ’s love was the balm needed to heal aching hearts, drive evil out of men’s lives, wretchedness and misery from many a home. More and more was he convinced that to make the world better, humanity happier, the regenerating, uplifting power of the spirit of God ought to be brought into the daily lives of the people, in simple sincerity, without formalism, yet as vital, as cherished, as freely recognized a part of their lives as the ties of family affection which bound them together.