The Story of Will Schley Howard
On television, Andy Griffith played Ben Matlock, a sly, brilliant Georgia trial lawyer who defended accused murders, mostly innocent ones, although occasionally he did represent the true killer. In real life, Schley Howard played a sly, brilliant Georgia trial lawyer who defended accused murderers, prosecuted them and represented all of us in the halls of the United States Congress. In his fifty-year plus legal career, Howard defended more than five hundred persons accused of murder, more than anyone in the entire United States. For one brief period in his illustrious career, Howard practiced law in Johnson and Laurens Counties.
William Schley Howard was born in the Kirkwood community of DeKalb County, Georgia on June 29, 1875. He was named for William Schley, who was the governor of Georgia from 1835 to 1837. His father, Thomas Coke Howard, was also an attorney. The elder Howard practiced law in Knoxville, Georgia and represented Crawford County in the Georgia Legislature. During the Civil War, Thomas Howard served as the postmaster of Atlanta. His mother, Susan Harris Howard, came from a political family. Isam G. Harris, former U.S. Senator from Tennessee and Governor of Georgia, was an uncle of Mrs. Howard.
Following his graduation from Professor Charles M. Neel’s Academy in Kirkwood, Howard began his study of stenography. With only a grammar school education, the self taught young man got his first taste of politics when he served as a thirteen-year-old page in the Georgia Legislature. He was given a position as the private secretary of United States Senator Patrick Walsh, of Augusta. While he was employed by the senator from 1893 to 1894, Howard decided to join his father in the practice of law.
With Atlanta full of lawyers, Howard turned his eyes southward to the town of Wrightsville, Georgia. In the years before the turn of the 20th Century, Wrightsville, a progressive community in East Central Georgia, provided Howard with an opportunity to make a name for himself. Howard was fortunate to be given the opportunity to study law under the venerable Alexander F. Daley, of Wrightsville. Daley was President of the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad and would later become Judge of the Middle Circuit. Judge Roger Gamble of the Middle Circuit administered the oath of admission to the bar to Schley Howard in September 1896. Howard began practicing law in Johnson, Emanuel, and Jefferson Counties in the Middle Circuit, as well as in Laurens County.
In the Summer of 1898, when the United States declared war with Spain, Howard left his practice in Wrightsville and Dublin and enlisted in the Third Georgia Volunteer Regiment. Howard’s hour-long patriotic speech held a large crowd of volunteers and Wrightsville citizens spell bound and ready to join up on the spot. After many petitions to the governor to appoint him as colonel of the regiment, Howard was made a sergeant following his enlistment, but his term of service was cut short when the war ended in a few weeks.
Instead of returning to Wrightsville, Howard chose to return closer to home and became associated with the firm of Westmoreland and Westmoreland in Atlanta. In 1901, Howard entered the race for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives from DeKalb County. After serving one term in the Legislature, Howard made himself a candidate for the office of Solicitor-General of the Stone Mountain Circuit. Howard won the election in 1904 and took office on January 1, 1905. He was reelected in 1908. As Solicitor-General of the Stone Mountain Circuit, Howard prosecuted defendants in the Superior Courts of Clayton, DeKalb, Newton, Rockdale, and Campbell Counties.
Howard’s success as a Solicitor-General led to his decision to run for the seat of the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia. Howard won the election and took his seat as a member of the Sixty-second Congress on March 4, 1911. Congressman Howard served four terms before making an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the United States Senate. He blamed his loss on President Woodrow Wilson, who as Howard put it, “committed the most disgraceful double cross in the history of American politics.”
After his retirement from Congress, Schley Howard concentrated on the private practice of law, and in particular, criminal defense work. Howard worked in partnership with James A. Branch, E.L. Tiller and later with his son, Pierre M. Howard, son of his wife, the former Miss Lucia Augusta de Vinage. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once commented that Howard had defended more murder cases than anyone in the history of the country. His son Pierre estimated the total number of cases to be at least half a thousand. Of those, only one of Howard’s clients were ever executed. That abhorrent miscreant was Ted Coggershall, the son of a wealthy Illinois man, who was convicted of the brutal murder of W.C. Wright, a former superintendent of Dublin City Schools.
Schley Howard represented one of the most famous, or infamous depending on what side of the story you believe, murderers in Georgia history. He was one of a battery of attorneys who pled the case for Leo Frank, who was convicted of murdering Mary Phagan and was later lynched for his crime.
Another of Howard’s most famous clients was Robert Burns, whose life story was immortalized in the book and movie, I Was A Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang. He represented the escaped prisoner before the Georgia Prison Commission, which included Vivian L. Stanley of Laurens County. When asked of his ability or desire to represent killers, Howard said, “I always assumed that I represented a man who was not guilty, or that there were circumstances in the case which would reduce the sentence to manslaughter. I never had a client to admit that he was guilty of murder.” Commenting further, Howard added, “Some of the finest men in the world are brought into court on murder charges and they have never committed any other offense.”
Former Dublin Tribune editor and legendary Atlanta newspaperman and radio personality Ernest Rogers described Howard as “a lawyer of rare forensic abilities and one of the finest actors I ever saw on or off the stage. If a case began going against him, he could become visibly ill in a matter of minutes. He would turn pale, perspiration would pop out on his forehead, his hands would tremble, and it was a hardhearted judge, indeed, who would not declare a recess at the request of the apparently stricken attorney.”
Rogers remarked, "I covered many trials in which Mr. Howard was the attorney for the defense, and never once did I know him to represent a client whom he had not known from infancy and whose mother wasn’t an honest, God-fearing, Christian woman. It was Mr. Howard’s proud boast that he had defended an even two hundred clients charged with murder, and not one of them had paid the extreme penalty. “One of my clients was sentenced to be hanged,” he would confess apologetically, “but he tried to escape from the jail in which he was being held to await execution, and a guard drilled him with a squirrel gun.” After this confession Mr. Howard would add, with a twinkle in his eyes: “This didn’t do my client any good, but it certainly helped my record.”
Schley Howard’s heart gave out on the night of August 1, 1953. He was 78 years old. His body was buried in the Decatur Cemetery near his home in Decatur, Georgia. He was admired by his colleagues and his constituents for being an outstanding public servant and private attorney. His life was one of service, to his community, to his state, and to his nation.
Howard left a lasting legacy of a family of public servants. His grandson Pierre Howard, Jr. was a lieutenant governor of Georgia. His close cousin, Augustus O. Bacon, was one of Georgia’s most respected congressman and senators of the late 19th Century. Despite his busy court schedule or his frequent hunting and fishing trips, Howard maintained his ties to his brother Thomas’ family who lived in the Harlow and Vincent communities of Laurens County.