by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He’s another one of those forgotten names who was once a major figure in the legal, political, and religious realms of Los Angeles and even his 8-foot bronze statue, placed in a position of prominence on Grand Avenue in front of the Los Angeles County courthouse, was moved to a less noticeable spot a dozen or so years ago.
Yet, for about a half-century or so, Joseph Scott was so ubiquitous in the public life of the Angel City that he was commonly known as “Mr. Los Angeles.” Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a press photograph of Scott, dated 10 July 1925, and when he was easily one of the best known denizens in town.
Notably, he was born in 1867 in Penrith, just about three miles northwest of Clifton, where William Workman grew up. His father was a Scottish Presbyterian and his mother an Irish Catholic and Scott was raised in her faith, remaining a devout son of the Church for the rest of his long life and earning a number of lay honors, including five knighthoods from three popes.
Scott attended Ushaw College near Durham (the city where a brother of William Workman went to school until his death as a teen) and then the University of London. He obtained degrees in English and rhetoric, this latter serving the young man particularly well later in life.
Some sources suggest he left England because he was concerned his faith would be held against him, but others indicate a poor British economy, the rise of America’s financial might, and his mother’s encouragement, led him to migrate to the United States in 1889. He hoped to find work with a newspaper as a journalist, but wound up as a common laborer, a teacher and a football and baseball coach. In 1893, he traveled across the country and arrived in Los Angeles, where he was admitted to the bar the following year.
Scott had a long and thriving practice as an attorney and perhaps his two best-known moments were over thirty years apart. In 1911, he was an associate to two much better recognized lawyers, socialist Job Harriman, who nearly won election as mayor of Los Angeles that year, and Clarence Darrow, whose career included defending socialist Eugene Debs during the violent Pullman railroad strike of 1894, serving as counsel for child murderers Leopold and Loeb in 1924, and, most notably, for his role in the famed Scopes Monkey Trial the following year, in the trial of the radical union leaders, James and John McNamara for their role in the bombing of the pro-business Los Angeles Times‘ headquarters.
While the trio vigorously advocated for the innocence of the brothers and there was considerable support in many quarters for that view, it was a shock to them and plenty of others when, in the middle of the court proceedings, the McNamaras suddenly pled guilty. Moreover, Darrow was charged with attempted to bribe of a juror and, though he was acquitted (his attorney was Earl Rogers, long a prominent lawyer of Los Angeles and who was admitted to the bar with Scott in 1894), the firebrand lawyer’s career sunk until he resurrected himself with the Leopold and Loeb and Scopes cases.
Scott’s other moment of fame was in 1945 when he represented the young actress Joan Barry in her paternity claim against the legendary film comedian Charles Chaplin, who was her protege. Scott managed to have a paternity test that evidently showed that he was not the father of her child, Carol Ann, deemed inadmissible and used his considerable oratorical skills to attack Chaplin, who had a history of bad relationships with young women, on an intensely personal level.
In the end, Scott managed, with a jury tally of 11-1. to secure child support for the toddler until her 21st birthday, though his tactics raised eyebrows (we’ll refrain from a crack about the attorney’s own bushy brows!). There are many who argue that Chaplin was unfairly treated and continuing battles over his politics led to his leaving the United States permanently for Switzerland several years later, though his reputation as one of the great film figures in movie history remained basically intact.
His other public recognition in the courtroom came after the McNamara affair, when the Times took Scott’s defense of the brothers very personally and launched continuing attacks on the attorney, who had been a friend of its powerful publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, including one that claimed he seduced a client.
Scott responded by filing several libel suits against the paper and, although it took several years and a few trials, he persevered and prevailed with a judgment of some $35,000 against the paper, which appealed to the state supreme court and lost. Notably, Otis’ son-in-law and successor, Harry Chandler, kept his friendship with Scott going.
Scott’s civic activities were legion. He was a president and long-time director of the powerful and influential Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; served for years as a member and president of the city school board; was a founding trustee who remained on the board for a half-century of the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles; and was a popular speaker, whose aggressive courtroom manner transformed into a spellbinding advocate for a variety of causes. These included the Los Angeles Community Chest, Catholic charities, and support for Irish nationhood.
An ardent Republican, Scott refused to stand for United States senator when approached and, outside of his school board tenure, did not hold elective office. This did not prevent him, however, from being the speaker who officially nominated Herbert Hoover for reelection at the G.O.P. convention in Chicago in 1932, even though the worsening of the Great Depression and Hoover’s perceived lackluster response essentially doomed his chances.
One reason cited for Scott’s refusal of the Republican nomination for U.S. senator from California in 1910 was his desire to spend as much time with his family as he could. In 1898 he married Bertha Roth, with whom he sang in the choir at St. Vibiana Cathedral. The couple had eleven children, seven living into adulthood, including two who became priests and two who followed their father’s footsteps into the law.
Scott continued to practice until just before the end of his life. When he was in his ninetieth year, he fell and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, though he managed to take part in a large public celebration of his landmark birthday. Still, he went to his office regularly until he fell there in mid-March 1958. He spent the next ten days at the hospital and had just spoken to his son and a doctor when he quietly passed away.
It was a notable measure of the esteem in which Scott was held that his body lay in state for three days at Los Angeles City Hall, an honor rarely accorded to anyone who wasn’t a politician, though he was a towering figure, as noted above, in local Republican circles. This photo, which includes typical crop marks for a detail published in newspapers, is a representation of a major figure in Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th century, but who is essentially forgotten today.