In 1943, an aging attorney released his autobiography, complete with tales from his childhood, legal education, descriptions of cases he’d litigated, and even pictures of the key figures in his life.
The book became a bestseller. In fairness, the lawyer was not unknown to the American public. Many had read accounts of his courtroom adventures, where the intrepid counselor took on the cases of the downtrodden that no one else would touch, since 1919.
The autobiography was hailed by the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The only problem was the star attorney never really existed….
Ephraim Tutt appeared in more than 80 short stories in the Saturday Evening Post from 1919 through 1945. The clever advocate “who wore a stovepipe hat and smoked stogies,” per the description of Michael Train in a 1984 Grand Street article, boasted several impressive legal war stories:
“swangdangled a real estate corporation out of a hundred thousand dollars for the sake of a poor widow, detecting a forty thousand dollar forgery by the use of acid fumes, exposing a supposedly reputable Wall Street firm who were running a bucket shop, showing up the Comptroller of the City of New York as a nincompoop and generally playing Solomon and the ‘Good Samaritan’ and guardian angel to any sweet young thing that happened to be in trouble.”
You know it’s the past because today the “reputable Wall Street firm” running the bucket shop would only get a C&D letter from the SEC and nincompoopery wouldn’t be the charge leveled against the Comptroller.
Arthur Cheny Train — Michael Train’s grandfather — created Tutt. Train, a Harvard Law grad, went to work as an assistant in the New York District Attorney’s Office in 1901, which I think was Robert Morganthau’s fifth year as District Attorney. Train went on to private practice, but entertained a second career as a writer. In 1919, Ephraim Tutt debuted, and a few years later Train left the law to write exclusively.
All but the most dimwitted understood Tutt to be a fictional character, until 1943:
In the early 1940s, Train’s health began to fail, and he decided to give Tutt a grand literary sendoff. He decided to imbue Ephraim Tutt with life, at least on paper. Yankee Lawyer details Tutt’s childhood, his education, his career, and what events turned him into such a tireless champion of the underdog. To add to the sense of realism, Train had Tutt meet real-world personalities, including Calvin Coolidge and Richard “Boss” Croker. Train cast Tutt’s relatives from his own family photos, which were included in the book. Young Ephraim Tutt was played by a guide Train had once hired. And, to complete the illusion of Tutt’s “autobiography,” Train removed his own name from the byline. Ephraim Tutt was listed as the sole author of Yankee Lawyer.
Tutt’s autobiography was a cause célèbre. Suddenly, fans who had been reading about Tutt’s courtroom theatrics for years were fuzzy on whether their legal hero was, in fact, a fictional character—and many people desperately wanted him to be real. It helped that the book’s reviewers argued for his existence. The New York Times said that Yankee Lawyer “couldn’t be a work of fiction,” and the Washington Post rejoiced that Tutt had finally written a book about himself. Although Train claimed that he thought no one would be confused by the absence of his name on the “autobiography,” he added to the post-publication hoax. He wrote a review in the Yale Law Journal, which began, “To review the book of a friend is inevitably a delicate and ofttimes a dangerous task.”
So Train was more careful in disguising his authorship than, say, the Unicorn author. The experimental style of fusing real pictures into the work confused everybody for months. The publisher even got mail “from men who reminisced about their days with Tutt back at Harvard.” Think “A Million Little Subpoenas.”
Train eventually revealed the hoax in a slightly snarky essay for the Saturday Evening Post:
One might think that, after a fictional character has appeared for many years in a magazine of wide circulation, there would be plenty to stand up and nail as monstrous any suggestion that he was other than imaginary. Yet there seems to be almost as much uncertainty about it among habitual readers of the Tutt books and stories as among those of the public who have never before heard of him.
The reason seems to be—and here lies the difficulty of ever clearing the matter up—that, while the readers of Ephraim’s legal adventures know that they are pure fantasy, this in itself does not preclude the possibility of there being an actual person of that name upon whose experiences they are based. Former readers of the Post, hearing that Mr. Tutt has written an autobiography, may easily forget just where they became acquainted with him, and recall only that they have vaguely heard of such a person; thus swelling the ranks of those who are not only bewildered but actually deceived. After all, it is, of course, possible that there is an Ephraim Tutt. Who can tell? My personal denial is not conclusive. He may still exist, even if I honestly assert to the contrary.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, there was still an appetite for the belief that a superhero lawyer could exist. Despite abuses of the system and corruption, the public could still believe that a skilled advocate with the right moral compass could work within the system to achieve justice. That the hero was an old-school “cross between Abraham Lincoln and Uncle Sam” furthers the symbolism that any fault of the then-modern age was a recent phenomenon and that, at root, the age-old system would work for good.
It’s a troubling juxtaposition with the Zeitgeist of the present. The villains, such as the reputable Wall Street firm, are the same, but there is little faith in the legal system as the avenue for salvation. Pop culture is the domain of the comic book superhero who can work outside the system. Legal drama itself focuses on the need to eschew the system to secure results. The last honest-to-god legal drama to be nominated for Best Picture, Michael Clayton, followed the “fixer” that a law firm used to bend the law to get results and punish the villain… who is a lawyer. If legal fiction is intended to convey some civic education, it’s worth worrying that the lesson is increasingly (though certainly not exclusively) focused on the efforts of extra-judicial actors rather than the lawyers and judges.
Now Tutt is more or less lost to the world. The most famous fictional lawyer of the early 20th century (and the most famous real lawyer of 1943) was eventually eclipsed by Perry Mason as the archetypal fictional lawyer. Like the stovepipe hat he wore, Tutt didn’t fit the modern world anymore.
Still, it’s a fitting cap on the career of the wily Mr. Tutt that he’s most remembered for that time he showed up everyone in America like the fictional adversaries in his stories.
For more, check out The Myth of Ephraim Tutt: Arthur Train and His Great Literary Hoax (affiliate link).
What happened when a fictional character penned an autobiography [io9]
A Not-So-Guilty Pleasure [New York Times]