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Pioneering “lady lawyer” deserved a better legacy

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By Finn J.D. John
May 20, 2012

(Part 2 of a 3-part series on Mary Leonard; Part 1 is here, and Part 3 is here.)

IT WAS AROUND 1878 that newly-single Mary Leonard moved to Portland and set herself up as the proprietress of a boardinghouse in the North End waterfront district — the seediest, roughest neighborhood in Portland.

Mary was in her early 30s, striking in appearance and more than a little notorious. She’d moved there from The Dalles, where she had just been acquitted of charges of sneaking into her estranged husband’s bedroom one night and shooting him in the head while he slept. She’d spent a full year in jail there while the government prepared its case.

The jury had found her not guilty, but few people thought she was actually innocent. Newspaper accounts talked of the brilliant job her defense attorney had done in defending her, the implication being that it was because of his brilliance, not her innocence, that she was acquitted. Her husband had been quite well-off, she was his only heir, and he’d been in the process of divorcing her when he was murdered. So she had a motive, and in The Dalles, that was good enough for most folks.

So she’d come to Portland to start a new life — in the Skid Road neighborhood.

An unlikely law student

Mary settled into her new role, and apparently made her peace with singlehood; she never remarried. But something must have been missing in her life, because five years after that, she became a law student — first in Portland and then in Seattle, where she moved to study under renowned attorney J.C. Haines, leaving her boardinghouse behind.

In 1885, having passed the bar exam, Mary became the first woman ever licensed to practice law in Washington.

Then she turned back to her home state, applying to be licensed to practice there as well. But although Judge Matthew Deady ordered her admitted to practice in federal courts, at the state level it was not so easy.

The fight over female lawyers

It had long been the state courts’ practice to recognize the credentials of attorneys from other jurisdictions without requiring them to prove their merit and “good moral character.” But the state supreme court now suddenly and conveniently decided to question whether that “exuberance of liberality” was appropriate, and denied her application. Mary responded by lobbying in the state Legislature and getting a law passed that would require women to be admitted to the bar on the same basis as men. It passed overwhelmingly in both houses.

The Supreme Court responded to that by hastily cooking up a brand-new one-year residency requirement and using that to deny Mary’s application a second time. This time, Mary argued her case in person before the Supreme Court itself.

She started by pointing out that in the month since it had adopted the new rule, the court had made exceptions for 12 other (male) attorneys moving to the state.

“If in its discretion the court saw fit to treat these men with such consideration, then may I ask who is entitled to more consideration than I am?” she said. “Since I have been deprived of practicing my profession for the last twelve months, having made my arrangements and my calculations under the old rule, and knowing nothing else until a month ago, when the rules were published. I am now pleading to this court not to impose upon me a hardship which the court deems too hard for a strong, free and unfettered man to bear. I am not a free man, but since I belong to the protected sex, or oppressed sex, whichever you please … I am asking for the pitiful privilege to be allowed to obtain a livelihood as best I can, which is a natural and God-given right and my right in law.”

One of the things that historians have frequently said of Mary is that she was incompetent as an attorney. This was probably true late in her career, when she was probably suffering from some unknown and progressively worsening medical condition. And it was certainly true that she never was much of a detail person.

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This drawing of what we know today as the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland appeared in 1888 in The West Shore magazine. When this drawing was inked, Mary Leonard was a regular visitor to the courthouse.

But as this quote nicely shows, in the late 1880s she had some serious rhetorical skills, and she was hell on wheels in a closing argument. Of course, the court admitted her. It really had no choice.

The first “lady lawyer”

As a practicing attorney, Mary was not particularly successful, but she was most definitely noticeable. Her practice was mostly in the criminal courts, where she represented down-and-out prostitutes, gamblers, vagrants and laborers in trouble with the police. These clients had little or no money, so to make ends meet she went back into the boardinghouse business again.

She was also famous for going out drinking with the young attorneys, who seem to have regarded her as something of a mascot. She drank and caroused as wildly as any of them despite being in her late 40s — twice their age. But as far as I’ve been able to learn, there was no hint or rumor of anything sexual.

If Mary Leonard had been run over by a trolley at this point in her life — in the early 1890s — she would have been remembered as a pioneering woman of considerable promise and talent cut tragically short in the prime of her career, and probably would have had a monument in her honor at Riverview Cemetery.

But as it turned out, fate had something considerably less glorious in store for her.

Mysterious personality changes

About 10 years after she was admitted, Mary’s behavior started to change. She started feuding with people — neighbors, clients, the owner of the building in which her boardinghouse operated.

Other things were happening too. Mary’s pleadings in court were getting increasingly erratic. She was getting arrested for things that ranged from stupid to bizarre — suborning perjury, embezzling $1.40 in witness fees from a client’s mother, threatening bodily violence, menacing her landlord with a pistol. Her handwriting started to change. By the end of her career, it was completely different, and it wandered off the lines in strange and illegible ways.

Her famous oral arguments started to lose their edge, fading into a chaotic style of wandering, garrulous griping. Her success rate in court dropped accordingly.

What was going on? Alcohol-induced dementia? Tertiary-stage syphilis? Early-onset Alzheimer’s? It’s just not possible to say.

Mary’s law career ended just a few weeks before her death with complete humiliation in an attempt to claim title to some real estate in lieu of payment from a client who’d been judged insane.

Maybe Mary, too, should have been judged insane. Her habits and practices at the end of her career were totally different from those she’d shown at the beginning of it. And by the end, she’d apparently lost every friend she had.

A homeless, penniless, friendless end

The end came just days later, when Mary was admitted to Multnomah County Hospital on Oct. 11, 1912. On her admission papers, the lines for the names of friends and family members are blank. Her coterie of young lawyers was gone; apparently they’d all stepped away from the awkward spectacle that she’d become. Her sister lived in town, but they never spoke and her nephew didn’t even learn he had an aunt until years later.

Two weeks later, she died in her hospital bed — alone, friendless, penniless. Today, no one even knows where she’s buried.

(Sources: Clark, Malcolm H. “The Lady and the Law,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1955; Abrams, Kerry. “Folk Hero, Hell Raiser, Mad Woman, Lady Lawyer,”