Sex, Lies, and Affidavits

When Notre Dame lawyer Daniel Donahoe filed suit in October 1911 alleging that the wealthy and moralizing Clarence Funk had “wrongfully, wickedly, and unjustly … debauched and carnally known” Josephine Henning he set in motion a chain of events that Hollywood would envy. The characters included private investigators, political bosses, ”disappeared” witnesses, and double-agents. The scenes ranged from Los Angeles to Atlantic City, from Denver to the north woods of Minnesota, from genteel Mobile, Alabama to feisty courtroom brawls in Chicago. The action included drama, death, and disbarment. Oh, and an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

This case had it all. The tale is long and winding, veering from tragic to comic and back. It takes turns that are unexpected and inexplicable. It is worth your time. Settle in.

In September 1911 a bent and gangly unemployed man named John Henning appeared in the office of Daniel Donahoe, a fiery lawyer known as a “raging bull” and one of Chicago’s most successful criminal defense attorneys. Henning had a tough life. His back had been injured long ago, causing him to walk in an awkward gait and hold his head at a distinct angle. He had worked as a bellboy at the Congress Hotel – that’s where he met his wife, Josephine – but was laid off. He later found work as a streetcar conductor, but the constant jolting was too painful for him to keep the job. His lone bright spot had been his marriage to “Jo.”

Now even that light was dimmed. Henning told Donahoe that millionaire businessman Clarence Funk, general manager of the International Harvester Company, Sunday school teacher, and well-known leader of the “Upright” movement in protestant Chicago, had stolen Jo’s affections. She worked as a coat-checker at the Congress Hotel and a co-worker had recently told him that Jo was spending time with Mr. Funk in the hotel’s bedrooms, drinking, smoking, and God-only-knows-what-else. A female friend had seen Jo and Funk in the Grand Pacific Hotel; she had also seen them together in a taxicab. John and Jo had drifted apart, and Clarence Funk was the reason why. Henning wanted Funk brought to justice for the suffering he was causing.

The case was well outside Donahoe’s usual practice area, but he was touched by Henning’s confidence in him and outraged by Funk’s behavior towards Josephine. After mulling the matter over for a few days, Donahoe secured affidavits from several witnesses – including an acknowledgment from Josephine herself – corroborating the story that John had told. Then he filed a lawsuit against Clarence Funk.

At least that’s the story Dan Donahoe told. In today’s parlance he had used “alternate facts.” The truth was … different.

Dan Donahoe was born in rural Illinois, the son of Irish immigrants. He was academically gifted but delayed his schooling so that he could work the family farm. Eventually he made his way to Notre Dame where, in 1880 when he was nearly 30 years old, he received a Bachelor of Laws degree with highest honors. As a student he participated in debates over the U.S. electoral system; at graduation he was chosen to deliver a commencement address on Constitutional Law. Attention: this is your irony alert.

Upon graduation Donahoe established a very successful criminal defense practice in Chicago. He frequently represented defendants charged with murder, and he was active in support of labor unions (plenty of overlap with his murder cases in those days). He was ferocious in the courtroom, nearly coming to blows with opposing counsel on several occasions. He lived in a brownstone on West Jackson Boulevard, the happily married father of two boys and the brother of alderman James Donahoe. Daniel’s law office was high atop the Ashland Block, a new skyscraper towering 200 feet(!) above the corner of N. Clark and W. Randolph Streets. The offices of Clarence Darrow, Donahoe’s friend and one of the most celebrated lawyers in the country, were in the same building – five floors below. Donahoe was a player.

When he filed the lawsuit against Funk Donahoe took an unusual step. The typical route in this type of case was to file a complaint with very little detail so that the defendant could choose to settle and avoid a public scandal. It was good sportsmanship. Donahoe did the opposite: the papers he filed in court were so lurid that the newspapers avoided directly quoting the documents (although the term “debauchery” recurs with startling frequency in the press coverage). Donahoe announced to the press that he was not interested in a mere financial settlement – he was interested in taking the case to trial. He wanted to inflict maximum pain on Clarence Funk.

Funk was outraged (no surprise) and vowed revenge (perhaps a more strident response than Donahoe anticipated). Funk insisted that he had never heard of or met Josephine Henning and certainly had not had improper relations with her. Funk demanded a quick trial and said he wanted to hear directly from the Hennings immediately. The lawsuit, Funk declared, was nothing but a “frame-up,” a smear campaign designed to ruin his reputation.

He was right.

Clarence Funk had recently testified before Congress that one of Chicago’s most powerful and corrupt politicians, William Lorimer (aka the “Blond Boss”), had bribed his way into a seat in the U.S. Senate. Funk swore that agents of Lorimer had asked International Harvester to kick in $10,000 to cover part of Lorimer’s expenses in buying the votes of Illinois legislators (refresher: the Constitution originally provided that senators were elected by state legislatures, not by direct popular vote). Donahoe and Henning accused Funk of being a lecher shortly after Funk testified in Congress; Funk (and most observers) concluded that the lawsuit was simply payback for his claims about Boss Lorimer.

Funk was angry, indignant, and had virtually unlimited financial resources at his disposal through International Harvester. The hunt was on to find John Henning. It wasn’t difficult, even in a pre-internet world.

Reporters quickly learned that the Hennings had moved out of their Chicago apartment about two weeks earlier, hurriedly and unexpectedly, with a year remaining on their lease. When a reporter visited Donahoe’s office he noticed a train schedule on the desk with the destination “Mobile, Alabama” circled. It’s a scene straight out of the movies; who does that? And why would Donahoe allow a reporter into his office? Mysteries to this day.

Another reason it was easy to find Henning is that he violated the first rule of hiding out: you do not talk about hiding out. Henning sent a postcard to a friend in Chicago saying that he was in Mobile (at the lovely Bienville Hotel), spending a lot of money and grateful he would never have to worry about finances again. Tyler Durden would not have approved of John Henning.

Donahoe did not want anyone speaking to his client before trial. Funk’s investigators and newspaper reporters were on the scent, but Donahoe’s man, a young lawyer named William D. Bennett, got to Mobile first. Bennett had helped with previous matters involving Boss Lorimer. He paid the hotel bill and put John on a train to New Orleans.

By the time Funk’s team arrived, John Henning was gone. After some investigation and conversation with a compliant hotel manager, however, the detectives discovered a strange fact: John Henning, occupant of Room 364 in the Hotel Bienville, had not been alone. He had signed the guest register as “Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Henning” and the woman who was with him fit the description of Josephine, although the hair color was off. Hotel staff described the couple as very affectionate – indeed, the chambermaid assumed they were on their honeymoon. So much for a marriage torn apart by Clarence Funk. What was going on?

The answer wasn’t made clear until trial, but it was a doozy. From the very beginning, Josephine had been cooperating with Donahoe in concocting a scheme against Funk. He had hoped to find a woman willing to claim that she and Funk had engaged in an illicit relationship, that Funk had promised to marry her, and that after he had his way with her had reneged on the promise. A friend who worked at a nearby hotel suggested Josephine for the role. When Jo first visited Donahoe’s office he asked whether she was interested in making some easy money; she said she would think about it. When she returned a few days later Donahoe learned she was already married. No matter – he would change the theory of the case. Josephine hadn’t been jilted; John was a cuckold. Donahoe spoke with John and assured the Hennings that, if they went along, they would be set for life and never have to worry about money again. He had each of them sign affidavits regarding Josephine’s “relationship” with Funk, then he told them to get out of town. And it wouldn’t hurt if Jo dyed her hair and tried a disguise.

While Funk and the press had not yet learned these details they sensed that something was amiss, and Donahoe’s team knew it. So when William Bennett put John Henning on a train to New Orleans he put Josephine on a different train – to Memphis. Bennett understood the importance of maintaining the illusion that the Hennings’ marriage had foundered. He also provided Jo with a female traveling companion, someone to both keep an eye on Josephine and keep her flush with cash.

Over the next several months John Henning skittered into Chicago, signed affidavits, and slipped back out of town. The press never caught up with him. Josephine remained apart, always one step ahead of investigators, sheltered by her traveling companion. Luxury hotels, spa treatments at resorts (the glamorous Mudlavia!), whatever it took to keep her silent. When the case went to trial in June 1912 John was in the courtroom; Jo remained absent.

The trial was brutal for John Henning. Donahoe’s direct examination of him lasted less than five minutes; cross-exam by Funk’s attorneys continued for two days. He was frequently surprised by evidence they had accumulated, and at the end of the experience he was a crumpled, beaten man. It was clear to all that the claim against Funk had been a scam. The jury took only 11 minutes to dismiss the case – not even long enough to have the court pay for their lunches. 

Henning somehow managed to slip out of the courtroom before the press could get to him. Over the following months Bennett shepherded him around the country, while Josephine’s companion kept her out of the spotlight. But a big surprise was in store: Jo’s companion was a double-agent, working for Funk rather than Donahoe. The lid was about to be blown and the scandal reignited.

You’ll have to wait until the next installment of Story Time to read about that. You won’t be disappointed.

(Sources and additional reading here)

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