"I submitted the article to him and asked if it was libelous. He read it carefully and then looked up and said: 'Young man, if I had an enemy that I wanted to libel and could hire you to look after the job, I would not hunt further.'"

Winter 1999

Mr. Vice President's Brush with the Law
How a future vice president of the United States learned his lesson after impetuously penning a piece of Wabash student journalism that nearly cost him $20,000.

One day he'd practice law, be elected governor of Indiana and, later, vice-president of the United States, but as a student at Wabash College, Thomas Riley Marshall, Class of 1873, was best known for a newspaper article that landed him in civil court. An editor for the College's bimonthly publication, The Geyser in 1873--a period, Marshall noted, "when journalism was in its incipient stage"--the Wabash senior wrote an article ridiculing a visiting temperance speaker and "teacher of elocution" named Ida Leggett. Zealous, but lacking a credible source, Marshall reported a scandalous breach of etiquette--an alleged game of "footsie" the married lecturer played under the table with students at the boarding house where she was staying.

"Mrs. Leggett hath shown her cloven foot at last," he revealed with glee in the March 19, 1873, issue of The Geyser. "Though the cause of her departure was kept a secret for several days, it leaked out at last. She was caught tramping on the feet of the boys boarding at her house and was immediately kicked out. We have nothing to say, however, as she gave us the worth of our money in her entertainments."

Ten days following the article's publication, Marshall and the rest of The Geyser staff were served "with a summons to answer the charge of libel, with a demand for $20,000."

Marshall recalls in his autobiography, A Hoosier Salad, that his codefendants urged him to take the article to General Benjamin Harrison, then practicing law in Indianapolis, to ask his opinion on the merits of the case. Marshall recalls his encounter with this man who twenty-six years later became president of the United States: "After much difficulty I found myself in his presence, submitted the article to him and asked if it was libelous. He read it carefully and then looked up and said: 'Young man, if I had an enemy that I wanted to libel and could hire you to look after the job, I would not hunt further.'"

"I told him that I was a minor and could not raise 20,000 cents, let alone $20,000. He said I would have to justify the article by proof of the truth of what I had written or have a big judgment which some time I would have to pay or have it everlastingly hanging over my head."

Sufficiently convinced of his precarious situation, Marshall asked Harrison to represent the students against Leggett's attorneys, General Lew Wallace and Indiana Senator Joseph McDonald.

"I asked him if he would represent us and he said he would," Marshall recalls. "The details are not necessary [and aren't to be found in the historical record]; it is sufficient to say that after the testimony was taken in New York, and after the jury was sworn, the plaintiff dismissed her case, and this set of college boys breathed far more freely. I took the General aside and asked him what I owed him, saying that I would write my father and get the money and pay him. His answer was: "Not a cent. I wouldn't think of taking anything from you. You have been foolish boys and this will be a great lesson to you. Never hereafter in life charge anybody with wrongdoing or crime that you do not have in your hands undoubted proof that it is true before you make the charge, and even then don't make it unless you are quite satisfied that by the making of it you are either defending yourself or performing some real public service.'"

Marshall took Harrison's scolding with characteristic good nature. He also developed a generous respect and fondness for Harrison, and he concludes his version of events surrounding his brush with the law by defending his legal champion: "This convinced me, as I thought of it later, that all the talk of the cold-blooded nature of President Harrison was false and unfounded. He and Senator Turpie were, in my judgment, the two greatest lawyers that the Indiana Bar has produced. The general was too busy thinking, reasoning, seeking the right, to be a light-hearted man such as I am, but when in full and profitable practice he could waste four or five days on a bunch of foolish college boys, seeking to save them from the punishment of their folly, whatever anyone else may think of the President, I think his heart beat true to all the finer and nobler instincts of our nature."

Marshall also took Harrison's advice to heart, as he proclaims in his autobiography: "I have never again been sued for either slander or libel."

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