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John G. Johnson: Giant of the Philadelphia Bar

by Gerard J. St. John

Winter 2007, Vol. 69, No. 4

Giants are big. They stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of us and are physically dominant. Giants exist in many aspects of human endeavor; their accomplishments tower above those of their contemporaries. One thinks of Beethoven in music and Einstein in physics, each a giant in his own field.

In 1841, not even his own parents had any expectation that newborn John Graver Johnson would be a giant. His father, David Johnson, was a blacksmith. David died before his son finished high school. Elizabeth Johnson, who was a Graver and whose parents owned the farm at the end of the road that people called ‘Graver’s Lane,’ took in sewing to support her small family. That was not the stuff of giants.

The house in which they lived was not a place where you would expect to find a giant. It was a diminutive wood-frame building that still seems out of place at 8428 Germantown Avenue. The Johnsons were hardworking people without the advantages of wealth, college, law school or social status. Yet, their son exceeded all expectations. By the time of his death in 1917, John G. Johnson was hailed by The New York Times as “the greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world.”

From the beginning, Johnson displayed strengths that were well-suited to a career in the law. He had a photographic memory. It was like having a personal computer a hundred years before computers were invented. He was decisive. He did not waste time agonizing over difficult decisions. He made the decision and his computerlike mind organized the supporting data instantaneously. He had a gift for advocacy that he developed into an art form. Instinctively, he knew what was persuasive to judges and juries. His arguments were not long-winded. He would select the most persuasive element of his position and then present a logical discussion of the facts of the case, returning time and time again to emphasize that one critical element. Observers said that it was like watching a man with a sledgehammer drive an iron spike into a railroad timber. Finally, Johnson was a workaholic. In his early years, hard work was necessary for survival — and Johnson’s work became Johnson’s life. He never turned down an assignment, be it as a scrivener, a messenger or a draftsman of legal documents. Gradually, he built up an expertise in both procedure and substantive law.

He argued one hundred sixty-eight cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and thousands of cases in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Twice he was offered a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States; twice he declined the honor. George Wharton Pepper, in his autobiography, proclaimed Johnson to be “the most prodigious man I have ever known.” He was a self-taught art collector whose Johnson Collection of nearly 1,300 paintings is the bulwark of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
John Graver Johnson is the giant of the Philadelphia bar.

Johnson was admitted to the bar in February 1863, but his legal career was interrupted by a short stint in the military. In June that year, Johnson joined Battery A, First Pennsylvania Artillery, a unit that consisted almost entirely of members of the Philadelphia bar. As the Confederate Army advanced toward Gettysburg, Battery A was assigned to set up a defensive line west of Harrisburg. The Battle of Gettysburg lasted four days; it did not reach the battery at Harrisburg. Within thirty days, Johnson was back in his office practicing law.

Johnson was at home in his law office. Banker George W. Norris, in his book Ended Episodes, describes Johnson’s office as follows: “[I]n the early Eighties, his office was an old dwelling house on the south side of Walnut Street, below Eighth. It consisted of a front and back parlor. In the front room were an assistant and one or two others. The wide double doors between the rooms were always open.”

George Wharton Pepper, in Philadelphia Lawyer, An Autobiography, added this account: “Prominent lawyers from New York and other large cities were frequently to be seen in his anteroom, waiting their turn to enter his private office. Perhaps ‘private’ is the wrong word to use because his door was always open. Nobody was announced, people in waiting observed priorities among themselves as if they were approaching a box office; and as soon as one person came out, the man at the head of the line went in.”

Johnson had little time for anything outside the office. He seems to have had no close friends. None of his contemporaries seemed to be his confidants. Rather, they talked about his idiosyncrasies, such as how he habitually lunched on a dozen oysters at a corner table — “his table” — of the Philadelphia Club, carefully placing a newspaper in front of him to discourage others from approaching.

Ironically, the law rescued Johnson’s solitary social life. It was as though the law issued him both a wife and a ready-made family, ideally suited to a busy lawyer. One of his clients was an attractive young widow with three small children. Johnson was not able to reverse the business losses suffered by her late husband, but Johnson was successful in persuading Ida Powel Morrell to accept his proposal of marriage. Ida was a “one-L Powel” — a significant family in the society register of Old Philadelphia. Ida’s standing opened to Johnson the doors of Old Philadelphia social clubs that otherwise would have excluded the blacksmith’s son. Moreover, Ida was content to manage the children and the social aspects of the family, leaving her husband free to concentrate on the practice of law.

Johnson’s early cases were primarily in the areas of property rights and decedent’s estates, in effect an extension of his work before his admission to the bar. Given his familiarity with the law of property disputes, his photographic memory and his capacity for exhaustive work, Johnson was the logical choice to oversee the clearing of title for the transfer of League Island to the federal government for use as a Navy yard. He completed the task with apparent ease. That work persuaded the directors of the Pennsylvania Company to retain 28-year-old Johnson as its general counsel.

Almost immediately afterward, Johnson found himself in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the company of five of Philadelphia’s most respected lawyers, arguing an estate case dealing with the proposed Ridgway Library. Young Johnson exceeded the expectations of those lawyers. He argued that the law required the court to carry out the clearly stated instructions of the testator. His client prevailed; and the facade of the Ridgway Library still stands at Broad and Christian Streets as the frontispiece for the Philadelphia High School for the Performing and Creative Arts. It is a monument to Johnson’s advocacy.

In 1884, Johnson argued his first case in the Supreme Court of the United States. More Supreme Court cases followed as Johnson’s advocacy skills became known to businessmen in other geographic areas. Johnson’s best-known local clients included Peter A.B. Widener and William L. Elkins, who made millions of dollars in the operation of horse-drawn carriages and the electrical streetcars. The Baldwin Locomotive Works was also a client, as was John Wanamaker. Now, J.P. Morgan, Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie and Philip S. du Pont rushed to Johnson’s door at the first sign of litigation. They expected Johnson to work magic with antitrust laws.

The American Sugar Refining Company controlled ninety-eight percent of the business of refining sugar at the time. The attorney general of the United States filed civil and criminal actions against the company and its officers alleging monopolization in violation of antitrust laws. Johnson represented the “Sugar Trust” — and he won the case, convincing the court that the refining of sugar was not interstate commerce. Over the next dozen years, Johnson was sought out in antitrust cases to defend the American Tobacco Company, Northern Securities Company, Great Northern Railway, Northern Pacific Railway, Standard Oil Company and United States Steel Company. Historian Nathaniel Burt, in The Perennial Philadelphians, summed it up this way:
“What his friend J.P. Morgan was to finance, J.G. Johnson was to corporation law. The Trusts and Moguls of the Gilded Age 1900 wouldn’t move without his advice, and Standard Oil and American Tobacco were merely two among his many similar clients. … His opinions were considered equivalent among financiers to judicial decisions.”

Like most of the lawyers of his day, Johnson was a sole practitioner. Still, he had able assistance because prestige was accorded to association with Johnson in the practice of law. Frank M. Prichard, an excellent lawyer in his own right, was associated with Johnson for thirty-four years. prichard served as Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association from 1915 through 1917. Another Johnson associate, Maurice B. Saul, founded a firm after Johnson’s death that would later become Saul Ewing. Thomas D. Finletter became a highly respected judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Thomas Sovereign Gates became a vice president of Johnson’s client Pennsylvania Company and later served as president of the University of Pennsylvania.

On the business side of the law, John G. Johnson paid little or no attention to the accumulation of wealth. Stories of his billings are legendary. George W. Norris, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, noted in Ended Episodes that: “His charges were almost always extremely low, and for that reason he was not popular with other lawyers.” Often, co-counsel would be embarrassed to learn that they had submitted bills that were substantially higher than those of the lead lawyer. Johnson is reputed to have submitted a bill to the Sugar Trust for the defense of its antitrust case in the total amount of just $3,000.

Judge Thomas D. Finletter, a former associate of Johnson, later told his judicial clerks of the time when Johnson was counsel on a securities offering, which entitled him to a fee of one penny for every share in the 1.5 million share offering. Johnson sent his client a bill for the total amount of $1,500. A few days later, the client came into Johnson’s office, saying that there was a mistake in the billing. It should have been $15,000. He showed Johnson that the decimal point was misplaced. Johnson threw the fee bill back at the client and roared, “I am the lawyer. I decide what the bill shall be. You are the client; and your duty is to pay your bills!” Despite his disregard for high fees, the sheer volume of Johnson’s law practice made him one of only three Philadelphia lawyers who earned more than $100,000 per year in the 1880s.
Judges recognized Johnson’s genius and accorded him an unusually high level of respect. Contemporary lawyers modeled their legal documents on those drafted by Johnson and then defended the validity of the documents by citing Johnson as their source. Public figures sought Johnson’s advice before making important decisions.

For example, George Wharton Pepper consulted Johnson after Pepper had been offered a position on the Circuit Court of Appeals. Johnson advised him to accept the offer; Pepper decided to decline. Most historians conclude that Johnson’s advice was the wiser course of action. Clients from all walks of life flocked to Johnson’s office and waited their turn to talk to the great lawyer. No matter how busy, Johnson always found the time to talk to everyone. Interestingly, George W. Norris observed in Ended Episodes that Johnson “was very profane, and did not modify his language to suit his client, but his profanity was so wholehearted and good-natured that it was never offensive.”

By the early 1880s, Johnson developed an appreciation for art, particularly paintings. He approached the subject in a way one would expect of an accomplished trial lawyer: He studied the lives and works of great painters; he spoke to museum curators, art historians and dealers; and he visited art museums in America and in Europe.

In those days, the courts closed during the summer, when Johnson would book passage on a ship to Europe to visit art museums. To ward off the boredom of ten days at sea, Johnson took along as many mystery novels as he could carry. He would read one book after another, casting each volume overboard as soon as it was finished. Johnson’s client Peter A.B. Widener, himself an accomplished art collector, sometimes accompanied Johnson on these trips and regularly engaged him in discussions about art.

In the fall of 1892, Johnson wrote a forty-four-page book titled Sight-Seeing in Berlin and Holland Among Pictures. It is a scholarly review and criticism of the Berlin Exhibition and other public and private collections in Berlin, Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam and Scheveningnen. In this book, Johnson presented clear and authoritative analyses of painting after painting and artist after artist. Also, he evaluated the characteristics of the environment in which each painting was displayed. He was especially impressed with the illumination in the museum in Berlin, although not at all with the works exhibited there.

Johnson brought to the world of art his meticulous research of chains of ownership, a database that proved invaluable in negotiating the purchase of works of art. Art curators, historians and dealers recognized Johnson’s abilities and increasingly solicited Johnson’s views on paintings. Johnson was convinced that a knowledgeable collector could assemble a significant collection of paintings by exercising good judgment and avoiding the purchase of paintings of lesser quality. Johnson set out to do just that. Again, he exceeded all expectations.

Unlike most of the barons of American industry who hired art dealers to assemble their private collections, Johnson personally accumulated his collection. He had a keen eye for color, composition and artistic technique. He found that the very best paintings, the ones that would increase his enjoyment over a period of time, were often not the artist’s best-known works. Johnson also was of the opinion that artists from different time periods displayed similar skills, and that the works of those artists were compatible with each other.

He quickly ran out of wall space for his paintings. Paintings were crowded into every nook and cranny of his home at 426 South Broad Street. When he wanted to show a painting to a guest, Johnson would tell a member of his household staff where to find the painting and what it looked like. The staff person would then fetch the painting for inspection and afterward return it to its storage place.
As he neared 70, John Graver Johnson was reminded of his own mortality. In 1912, he took up the challenge of his last will and testament. He wanted to leave his art collection to the city of Philadelphia. He wanted the collection to be displayed in a setting that provided proper illumination, however, such a setting as existed in the Kaiser Friederich Museum in Berlin.

Philadelphia had no such art gallery. That was why Peter Widener left his valuable art collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Johnson did not want to saddle Philadelphia taxpayers with the cost of constructing an expensive art gallery. Johnson was a member of the Fairmount Park Commission and he knew that the city had plans to build an art museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He also knew from sad experience that such noble plans often fell by the wayside.
Meanwhile, Johnson may have been influenced by the decision of Henry Frick to construct a mansion that would, after his death, be home to the Frick Collection. Johnson was then living at 506 South Broad Street. In 1915, he purchased the adjoining residence at 510 South Broad Street and used it to exhibit his paintings.

It was not like Johnson to equivocate, but equivocate he did. He chopped and changed, writing codicils up until nearly the month before he died in April 1917.

Ultimately, Johnson left his art collection to the city of Philadelphia, conditioned upon the city agreeing to exhibit the collection at Johnson’s residence at 510 South Broad Street. If the city did not accept the condition, the collection would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Johnson’s home on Broad Street bore no resemblance whatever to the Kaiser Friederich Museum. It also paled in comparison to Henry Frick’s mansion. Any way you looked at it, it was a poor place to exhibit an exceedingly valuable art collection. In the final analysis, Johnson’s equivocation assured that his will — like the testator — would spend much of its life in court.

In 1921, the city petitioned the orphans’ court for permission to sell the real estate at 510 South Broad Street and to apply the proceeds toward the cost of the art museum that was to be built in Fairmount Park. A Master recommended approval, but Judge John Marshall Gest denied the petition on the well-established principle of law that the court should sustain the clearly stated intention of the testator to exhibit the paintings in his home on South Broad Street. The city would have to find another way to get the Johnson Collection out of the rundown building on South Broad Street.

In June 1933, five years after construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was completed, Johnson’s paintings were moved there on a temporary basis. In the first year of its display at the museum, the Johnson Collection attracted almost 100,000 visitors, as compared with a single-year high of 11,388 during the years that it was exhibited in the South Broad Street residence.

In 1954, the trustee of Johnson’s estate filed an account and petitioned the orphans’ court for permission to exhibit the Johnson Collection at the museum on a permanent basis and also for permission to sell the real estate at 510 South Broad Street. President Judge Charles Klein reviewed the record and described the 1933 move of Johnson’s artwork as “a clear violation of the city’s contract with the executors … in open defiance of Judge Gest’s order, an obvious disregard for the sanctity … of the solemn judgment of the orphans’ court.”

President Judge Klein was “not pleased.” Eventually, Judge Klein did approve the exhibition of the Johnson Collection at the museum but required the trustees to report back to the court every ten years. In later years, further court decisions approved the integration of the Johnson Collection with non-collection works of art for exhibition purposes. In 1989, Judge Klein extended until December 31, 2083 the arrangement that will keep the Johnson Collection in the hands of the museum.

Philadelphia’s Museum of Art is a place that commands one’s attention. In location and design it dominates its surroundings. It is exactly the kind of place where you would expect to find a giant.

Gerard J. St. John is a retired partner of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP. He concentrates his practice in general civil litigation. His e-mail address is