Although his legal fame was acquired outside Tennessee, Martin W. Littleton (1872-1934) was born January 12, 1872 near Kingston, Tennessee as one of 19 children in a one-room cabin.
He never attended any school and was self-taught by his father and older sister who used a Bible and a few other books they had acquired as teaching tools.
Up to the age of eight he worked on the family farm when they moved to Weatherford, Texas. He became interested in law at this early age and attended trials at the Parker County Courthouse. He engaged in a variety of menial jobs in hopes of earning enough money to further his education beginning at the age of 11.
While working on the road he met the county prosecutor who offered him a job as a law clerk and janitor at the courthouse. It was in this capacity that he was able to watch trials and continue to study to be a lawyer. At the age of 20 he passed the bar in 1891.
From this humble beginning he would eventually become one of the wealthiest attorneys in the country.
In 1922 Merle Crowell authored The Amazing Story of Martin W. Littleton which described the attorney’s life and listed him as a rags to riches success story in motivational books and articles.
He rotated between being a prosecutor and defense counsel in Parker County and eventually became a prosecutor in Dallas.
In 1896 Littleton and new bride, Maud, moved to New York City where he got a job with a law firm but become dissatisfied with the work and began representing indigent defendants and quickly developed a reputation of being an excellent criminal defense lawyer.
As a fine speaker he naturally became involved in Democratic politics. His political career including making the nomination speech for Alton B. Parker at the 1904 Democratic Convention/ Parker was chosen to be the party’s presidential candidate and would eventually lose to Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1910 Littleton was elected to Congress and served one term from 1911-1913. He was narrowly defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate and wound up losing in a three-way deadlock after incurring the opposition of the Tammany Hall political machine.
In 1908 after millionaire Harry Thaw’s first trial for the murder of prominent architect Sanford White on the roof top garden of the Madison Square Garden ended in a hung jury, Littleton was hired for the retrial in the first “Trial of the Century”.
Littleton raised the defense of “not guilty by reason of insanity” and successfully acquitted the defendant of the criminal charge and the court committed Thaw to a mental hospital.
This victory in a sensational trial spring boarded Littleton’s legal career to international fame.
Producer-director D.W. Griffith’s controversial film The Birth of a Nation led to charges being raised against Griffith in New York and a hearing by the Congressional Committee on Education. Littleton defended him successfully at the hearing in the face of opposition by the NAACP and other groups wanting censorship of the film
His third high profile case was in the Teapot Dome scandal in the oil industry in 1928 in Wyoming. Industrialist Harry Ford Sinclair was charged with bribing United States Secretary Albert F. Fall to grant Sinclair Oil leases on government land without competitive bidding. Although Sinclair served nine months on contempt of Congress and jury tampering charges he was acquitted of the bribery charges.
Time magazine likened Littleton’s legal maneuvering to Houdini.
Martin’s wife, Maud, was instrumental in starting the campaign to preserve Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, which ultimately was purchased in 1923 by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a private non-profit organization and was referred to in the Hearst newspaper Syndicate as “The Lady of Monticello”.
It is unfortunate that Littleton’s migration to Texas at the age of eight deprived Tennessee of claiming him as one of the most prominent attorney’s in history.
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