Mobile Bar Association Celebrates 150th Anniversary

Take a glimpse into the lives of the incorporators and a few noteworthy attorneys throughout the Bar Association’s long history.

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Mobile Bar Association’s sesquicentennial event. Photo by Chad Riley

Lawyers have “associated” ever since there have been lawyers, on circuit or on steamboats or over coffee or whiskey or meals. But 32 lawyers incorporated the Mobile Bar Association 150 years ago, on April 12, 1869.

The Association celebrated its birthday on March 28, 2019, during a ceremony in the new Federal Courthouse in Mobile, with addresses by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mobile native Judge William H. Pryor Jr., a former Alabama attorney general and now United States circuit judge who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The subject of Judge Pryor’s address was the only U.S. Constitutional doctrine that originated in Mobile, “the Equal Footing Doctrine,” first espoused in the 1840s by Mobile lawyer John Archibald Campbell.

The 1869 incorporation sought “the establishment of a Law Library in the City of Mobile and the increase of professional learning and the cultivation of friendly intercourse among the members of the Bar of Mobile.” The library was a particular point of emphasis, since times were hard and libraries expensive.

Of course, this was right after the Civil War, and times were hard all around. Those who gathered to found Mobile’s Bar were all men — it was years later that women became lawyers in Mobile. They were all white, although there were a couple of very rare black lawyers way back. Most of them were Democrats, meaning “anti-Reconstruction and anti-Republican.” And in the 1890s, the days of William Jennings Bryan, nearly all of them were gold-standard “sound money” men.

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Lawyers — like other professionals — can be boring. In the famous 1979 Karen Silkwood trial, her family’s lawyer, Gerry Spence, said the defense lawyers were all “gray men in gray suits,” which could probably be said about most lawyers today. But not so much in 1869. The incorporators, along with a few other notable lawyers from our city through the years, lived amazing lives and had exceptional professional careers. Let’s meet a few of them.

Distinguished Members of the Bar

Some say that good lawyers tend to be boring, and those who are not boring are probably doing something illegal. This is not true in every case, however, as these exceptionally interesting — and accomplished — Mobile lawyers prove.

Photo courtesy History Museum of Mobile

Daniel Perrin Bestor (1840 – 1911)

Founding member and first president of the Mobile Bar Association

Birthplace: Greensboro, Alabama
Parents: Daniel Bestor and Eliza Townes
College: University of Mississippi
Spouse: Nellie Tarleton
Children: Grace Tarleton Bestor Inge and Daniel Perrin Bestor
Worth noting: When war came in 1861, he volunteered for the 37th Mississippi Infantry. He spent the war in the Virginia theater, and after the cessation of hostilities, he came back to Mobile. After passing the bar in 1867, he read law with Robert H. Smith. A Democrat and a Baptist, Bestor was president of The Strikers Mystic Society for nine years from 1883 to 1891, years during which one scholar wrote that to be in the top level of Mobile society, “you have to live on Government Street, attend Christ Church and go to the Strikers’ Ball.” Bestor checked all those boxes other than his being a Baptist.

Photo courtesy Palmer Hamilton

Peter Hamilton (1817 – 1888)

Founding member of the Mobile Bar Association

Birthplace: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Colleges: Princeton University, University of Alabama
Spouses: Ann Martha Beers; Caroline Cunningham Goodwin
Worth noting: Hamilton was shy and modest and hardly made a living for several years. As part of the firm “Hamiltons & Gaillard,” which included his brother Thomas, he tended to the chancery and appellate side of the practice, thought to require less personality and aggression. Hamilton served as U.S. attorney under President Zachary Taylor and, in that role, condemned the east end of Dauphin Island to become Fort Gaines. In 1872, he was elected for one term to the Alabama Senate and was called on to draft a bill to bring Alabama out of financial chaos. He sat down at 10 p.m. one night, handwrote without a note or a book, and by 8 p.m. the next night, had a bill to reorganize the debt. It passed without a single change.

Photo courtesy Palmer Hamilton

Thomas A. G. T. Hamilton (1820 – 1897)

Founding member of the Mobile Bar Association

Birthplace: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Spouses: Lucy Beverly Hogan; Henrietta Porcher Gaillard
Children: Lucy, John Hogan, Thomas Jr. and Minnie Hamilton; John Gaillard Hamilton
Worth noting: Before becoming a lawyer, Hamilton joined Phoenix Fire Company No. 6 at the age of 18, but by 1842 he was practicing law. (He would later join forces with his bother Peter.) Hamilton was the last of the old school in dress — he was the last in Mobile to wear a silk top hat daily in winter and wore white or brown linen suits in summer. In 1870, he was chairman of a bar committee in which his duties included getting rid of a drunken judge and ousting the Republican [read: Reconstruction] city government and replacing it with Democrats. Hamilton mostly tried jury cases and was said to have been very good at it before retiring in 1896 due to ill health.

Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Hurieosco Austill (1841 – 1912)

Founding member of the Mobile Bar Association

Parents: Jeremiah Austill and Margaret Eades Austill
College: University of Alabama
Spouse: Aurora Roberta Ervin
Children: Margaret, Robert Ervin, Jennie Fee, Hurieosco Jr., Aileen and Jere Austill
Worth noting: Austill’s father, Jeremiah, was one of three heroes in “The Canoe Fight,” the famous battle on the Alabama River in the Creek War in which the settlers got the better of the Red Stick Creeks after a humiliating defeat at Burnt Corn Creek. He served one term in the Alabama House of Representatives, one term in the Senate, and one term as chancellor of Mobile County. Afterwards, he devoted his professional practice to railroad law and finance and was a founder of the Mobile and West Alabama Railroad. About half the people in Spring Hill are descended from him: the Austills, Lotts, Gates and others.

Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Gessner T. McCorvey (1882 – 1965)

Birthplace: Hale County, Alabama
Parents: Thomas C. McCorvey and Netta Tutwiler McCorvey
College: University of Alabama
Spouse: Emily Gray
Children: Three daughters, all of whom died maiden ladies
Worth noting: McCorvey’s aunt, Julia Tutwiler, was a notable progressive and prison reformer. McCorvey was a noted conservative, and while some Mobile lawyers would be considered “heroes” regarding racial equality, McCorvey likely would not, despite being a very good lawyer. As a member of the University of Alabama board, McCorvey, himself a Crimson Tide running back and graduate, took part in two events resisting integration. He and other trustees led the expulsion of African-American student Autherine Lucy in 1956, and as president pro tem of the board in 1963, he led the board to support Gov. Wallace in his “stand in the schoolhouse door” to avoid the university’s integration.

Azalea City News Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Harry Seale (1895 – 1989)

Birthplace: Choctaw County, Alabama
College: University of Alabama
Spouse: Marie Grutka
Worth noting: Seale—simply known as “Mr. Harry” by lawyers and courts—was the top all-around trial lawyer in Mobile for 50 years. After service in the Army during World War I, Harry moved to Mobile and married. Seale had a working-class background in the lumber mills, lead mines and rubber plants and could be rough when necessary, but graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Alabama in 1927 and from its law school. Seale became Mobile’s city attorney and held the job for 23 years until 1958. An aggressive and competitive trial lawyer, his expertise was criminal law. Though he thought he handled more murder cases than any lawyer in Mobile, he never had a client die in the electric chair. Seale, a storyteller and jackleg historian, shared his lawyer stories with newspapers and others. Without him, we would not have the few tales we have today.

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