Friday, August 14, 2020

The Wild Woman Lawyer who made history in Tombstone

 Practicing law in lawbreaking Tombstone. Wild Woman Lawyer

By Jacqui Nelson

Towns like Tombstone have histories full of gunfighters and gamblers, but what about lawyers? With all the lawbreaking going on, there must have been a few law practitioners. In fact, during its heyday, Tombstone had more attorneys than any other city in the Arizona Territory. 

One of them was Sarah Herring Sorin, a New York City native who traveled to Tombstone with the intention of becoming a teacher. She accomplished that swiftly and thoroughly. She taught in Tombstone for ten years. She also became the first woman admitted to the Arizona Territory Bar and the first woman to argue on her own before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Sarah Herring Sorin  
( born 1861 in New York City, NY ) 

Sarah attended high school, earned her teaching credentials, and taught school in New York City. In 1882, she moved to Tombstone to join her family. 

Four years earlier, her father (who’d been a successful lawyer in New York) had traveled to Arizona to settle an estate but then stayed to try his hand at mining before finally settling on opening a law practice in Tombstone. 

Sarah’s father was Wyatt Earp's attorney during the trials for the 1881 shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Earp was acquitted of murder, but due to the volatile and polarized atmosphere surrounding all of these events, Sarah's father had to be armed at all times (even in the courtroom) and was often under the protection of hired gunmen.

Sarah steered clear of the rowdy areas of Tombstone with saloons and entertainment businesses like the infamous Birdcage Theater (where Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Morgan Earp could be found). Instead, she focused on being the first woman schoolteacher in Tombstone. She taught here for ten years while also sometimes serving as the school librarian and principal. 

Sarah’s sister and brother worked at their father's law firm as an assistant and attorney respectively. Tombstone had more attorneys than any other city in the Arizona Territory. 

Tombstone around 1881
Tombstone around 1881

In 1886, the water levels in Tombstone's mines rose (due to seepage) and ruined their potential for mining. Many people left town, but Sarah's family stayed. She enjoyed teaching, and her father's law firm still thrived. 

In 1891, Sarah's brother died during a dental procedure at the age of 27. Sarah decided to take her brother’s place in her father’s law firm. Two years earlier, a census listed only 208 women in the U.S. as attorneys.

She applied for a license to practice law and unanimously passed her oral examination in open court. After being admitted to the Bar, she went to New York University's School of Law. NYU was one of the first law schools in the U.S. to actively recruit women. 

In 1894, Sarah graduated with an L.L.B. and a rank of fourth in her class of eighty-six graduates. She returned to Tombstone to practice law in her father's firm. 

In 1896, she represented a mining company in her first case before the Arizona Supreme Court and won. Ten years later, she became the 24th woman to be admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In 1913 during her fourth case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Sarah became the first woman to argue a case unassisted and unaccompanied by a male attorney. The written brief presented to the court was solely in her name. The final arguments were hers.

Sarah was admitted into the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame in 1985. And in 1999, the Arizona Women Lawyers Association created an annual award in her name. 

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Sarah Herring Sorin was an inspiration both during her lifetime and afterward. She left an intriguing legacy for us to discover today. Stories like hers are one of the many reasons why I love history.

How about you? Got a favorite historical profession or person? Hope you’ll share with us because if we all share what inspires us, then we can inspire each other. 

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Read more of my Cowboy Kisses Wild Women blog posts 

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kathleen Lawless said...

I love reading about women who were ahead of their time. Thanks for this, Jacqui.

ptclayton said...

This is a wonderful subject and so interesting. It is neat that a woman was among the others and their thinking was spot on. peggy clayton

Jacqui Nelson said...

Delighted to hear you enjoyed my blog post, Kathleen and Peggy! Thanks for commenting ❤️