Sir Edward Marshall Hall (1858-1927) was the most celebrated legal figure of his era in England as the defense attorney for a large number of sensational murder trials that featured in British tabloids during the Edwardian era.
British barrister Edward Marshall Hall trained for a career in the law, but his successes in his chosen field came as a result of his abilities as an actor. The courtroom provided Hall with a rapt—and captive— audience, and he used his abilities as a persuasive speaker to convince countless juries that the "invisible weight" of the presumption of innocence should tilt the scales of justice in favor of the defendant. The details of Hall's courtroom antics, and the dedication with which he defended the lives of his clients, made Hall into a popular hero and one of the most widely known attorneys in England.
Used Courtroom as Theatre
Born in Brighton, England, in 1858, the son of an attorney, Hall grew up enjoying a privileged existence. While deciding early in his life that he would become a priest, he spent much of his youth perfecting his shooting skills. Educated at Rugby and then Cambridge, he became engaged to Ethel Moon shortly after graduation and decided to abandon his dreams of ordination in favor of a career either in acting or law. His inability to memorize material made an acting career impossible, and after a period of study Hall was admitted to the bar in 1888. He also married despite opposition from both his and Ethel's friends. Even on their honeymoon in Paris, Ethel was unfaithful, and she eventually abandoned her husband before dying at a young age.
Hall found consolation from his wretched marriage in his work. Setting himself up in private practice, he decided to dedicate his legal career to defending murder suspects— people he viewed as suffering the worst sort of torment as they hung in limbo between life and death. He quickly built his reputation through a series of high-profile murder cases. Among his early courtroom victories was the case of Robert Wood, a glass engraver and cartoonist tried in 1903 for the brutal murder of a prostitute. After a six-day defense and despite credible evidence against Wood, Hall cast enough doubt in the minds of the jury that Wood was set free.
Other wins for Hall included the 1909 trial of Edward Lawrence and the trial of Ronald Light the following year. Lawrence had left his wife of several years and was living with a barmaid who was discovered dead. Although Lawrence made an incriminatory statement during police questioning shortly after the crime was discovered, Hall did not let that deter him. His oratory captivated the jury and achieved a verdict of not guilty.
In 1920 Hall defended Welsh attorney Harold Greenwood, who was suspected of murdering his young wife for her sizeable fortune. When Greenwood and another woman announced their engagement a month after the death, Mrs. Greenwood's body was exhumed. Traces of arsenic were found and Greenwood was arrested, but Hall managed to convince the jury that Greenwood was not guilty. Hall's notoriety even attracted the attention of the infamous mass murderer Jack the Ripper, who wrote to Hall but never needed his services since he was never apprehended.
Created Doubt in Jurors
Hall was not noted for possessing a solid grounding in the law. His law clerks did most of the legal research and brief writing needed for his cases. But he had a talent for understanding and exploiting people's emotions, and he approached each new jury as if it were a new audience waiting to be won. One of Hall's techniques was to begin his defense argument with a list of the defendant's questionable attributes, and then, one by one, deny that they played any role in the charges leveled against him. "My client is not on trial for enjoying strong drink. He is not on trial for abandoning his ill wife and his three young children, though perhaps he should be," Hall would begin in such a defense. By exposing his client's shortcomings, Hall could then manipulate the jury into believing the defendant truthful, even contrite. Hall also had a habit of annoying the presiding judge to the point that the judge would snap at him. Then Hall would appear humbled, making all of the judge's subsequent objections seem to be motivated by a personal dislike of Hall rather than an appropriate point of law. By creating the impression that the court was prejudiced against his client, Hall often manipulated the outcome in his client's favor.
Not all of Hall's defenses were successful. When cases revolved more around circumstantial evidence than suspicion and emotions, Hall's shallow understanding of the law proved fatal. In the case of Lieutenant Frederick Rothwell Holt, for instance, the defendant suffered from both depression and shell shock, facts that should have prevented his execution for the 1919 murder of girlfriend Kitty Breaks. While Hall attempted to argue Holt's incompetence, he did not have the technical expertise to cite sufficient legal precedent to dissuade the jury from a guilty verdict.
In the case of Frederick Henry Seddon, Hall was hampered with a difficult client; far from eliciting sympathy during his trial for murdering his tenant, Seddon antagonized jurors with his arrogance. The case centered on the death of Miss Eliza Mary Barrow, a woman who rented the top floor of Seddon's Islington brownstone. After alienating most of her friends, Barrow began to look to Seddon for financial advice and gradually liquidated most of her assets in real estate and stocks, converting her wealth into gold coin. While it was believed that over four hundred pounds of gold coin was hidden in her room, no money was ever found after her sudden and mysterious death. Suspicion was aroused after family members called to visit and discovered Barrow dead and buried. When the body was exhumed, trace amounts of arsenic were found, and both Seddon and his wife were charged. On trial with his wife in 1912, Seddon was found guilty and hanged. But his wife—who the circumstantial evidence showed to have been the person who most likely administered the fatal doses of arsenic—was set free.
Hall suffered another loss in the trial of George Joseph Smith, charged with murdering three young brides in three successive years, 1912 through 1914, by drowning each young woman in a bath shortly after their wedding. Smith was executed in 1915.
Political Career at Midlife
Although most of his cases were criminal defenses, Hall also took on several civil cases, the most noteworthy of which was Russell v. Russell in 1923. While Hall was praised for his classical oratory, his ignorance of the nuances of the law and his tendency to get into heated arguments in court prevented him from advancing too far beyond sensational murder trials during his career. Knighted by the queen at the height of his popularity, Hall married again in the mid-1890s and had a daughter.
At the age of 42, Hall decided to enter politics. He was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament for Southport in 1900 and remained in that house for six years; he then ran in East Toxteth and served his new constituents from 1910 until 1916. Hall's parliamentary career remained undistinguished, in part due to an embarrassing maiden speech on the floor of the House in 1901. The events of that day became legendary in the House of Commons. Hall, in deference to the daughter of one of his constituents, spoke on the issue of temperance reform, in particular the problems caused when young children were ordered by their fathers to enter public houses and buy ale to bring back home. The issue was brought up late in the day, at an hour when most MPs were looking forward to going out drinking themselves or returning home to their families. As Hall dramatically outlined his proposal to have beer and ale distributed throughout the city on carts and left on subscribers' doorsteps like milk, jeers rang out in the chamber. From that day on, Hall refrained from speaking in Parliament unless absolutely required to do so.
Hall died in 1927 at the age of 69. His career continued to fascinate the public and served as the basis for a number of British television programs, including a segment of the 1990 series Crime Secrets and an eight-part BBC-TV series, Shadow of the Noose, in 1988.
Inge, W. R., Post-Victorians, Nicholson & Watson, 1933.
Marjoribanks, Edward, For the Defense: The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall, Macmillan, 1929.
Murder—UK Web site, http: //www.microwaredata.co.uk/murder-uk (February 2, 2002).