Before he was appointed Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals in 1919-a position he held for only 13 months-Abram Elkus served as United State’s last Ambassador to Ottoman Turkey, where he played a vital role in a relief effort that primarily provided aid to the Armenian and Jewish people in Turkey. He also influenced the adoption of legislation that improved the unsafe and unsanitary work conditions in New York’s factories. A true public servant and human interest advocate, Abram Elkus used his legal education and political position to champion the rights of those powerless to help themselves.
The Elkus family first settled in Mobile, Alabama in 1849, when Elkus’s grandmother, a widow, brought her four sons to this country. Elkus’s father and brothers became wholesale clothing merchants and, when the firm opened a New York City office in 1853, Elkus’s father, Issac, moved to New York to operate the business. While there, he met and married Julia Katski.
Born August 6, 1867 on the East Side of New York City, Abram Elkus received a disciplined Jewish upbringing. He was one of nine children. In his memoirs, Elkus described his father as “a mature, level headed man” who, at meal times, kept “a cat o’nine tails handy with which to quiet his youngsters if they became too noisy in their arguments with one another.”1 Conversely, Elkus wrote, “[m]y mother won us over with her warmth and kindness. I recall with a glow of happiness and pride that I was her favorite. And it was indeed a prize much to be sought after in the eyes of her family to have her special affection and love.”2
As a young boy, Elkus attended Hebrew and Sunday school, accompanied his father to synagogue and, at home, observed the many rituals of an orthodox Jew. He played football and tennis in Central Park, enjoyed school and, at an early age, looked forward to a career in politics.
“I try to look back upon myself as a boy,” Elkus wrote,
It appears to me through the foreshortening of the years that I was a studious lad but not over-studious; that I read the standard authors but did not forego the pleasures of street play and athletic sports; that I studied the piano, or rather took piano lessons, but not for long; and that I watched the political rallies and the torchlight parades with eager anticipation of joining in the political life of the city.3
At age 13, Elkus entered City College, which he left before earning his degree to become a clerk in a law office and to attend Columbia Law School. At age 16, Elkus felt that he should “put everything aside and prepare [himself] for practice as a lawyer.”4 “When I determined to study the law,” he wrote,
my chief motive was not the drive for a financial competence, but rather for the attainment of a way of life and a place in civic life that seemed useful and worthy to me. The law seemed me to be more than an occupation leading to high money rewards. It was big with possibilities for public activity. It was the training field for the orator, the jurist, the statesman, the diplomat.5
Elkus graduated from law school in 1888 and, by 1892, had organized the firm of James, Schell & Elkus with Edward C. James and Edward R. Schell. Later, after the death of his initial partners, Elkus became senior partner in the firm of Elkus, Gleason & Proskauer. While in the midst of launching his legal career, he married Gertrude R. Hess on April 15, 1896. Together they had four children, Jane, Ethel, Katharine6 and James.7
Elkus was a successful trial lawyer who handled many important cases, and even argued before the Court of Appeals.8 Elkus was known for his success in the courtroom:
[T]here he was at his best; there he was phenomenally successful. Those who worked with him had a rare and thrilling experience. Nature endowed him with a fine, commanding presence and a rich, powerful sonorous voice which he used with a warmth of feeling, a flashing of the eyes and a dignity of gesture which carried conviction. Immaculately garbed as was appropriate to the occasion, he was a dominating figure in the court room. He had a mind which acted with the quickness of lightening; an emergency neither confused him nor caused him to falter; it galvanized him into prompt decisive action. He was a remarkable mixture of fire and cool, steady judgment.9
Of note, from 1908 to 1910 he served as a special United States attorney to prosecute fraud in bankruptcy cases. In that capacity, his advocacy helped establish the precedent that perjury in bankruptcy actions might be punishable as contempt.
Elkus was active in Jewish communal work as well. He was a founder and president of New York’s Free Synagogue, a trustee of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and president of the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, now the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women, which was the first successful free school in New York devoted to the vocational training of women.
Elkus also became involved in politics. In 1888, he stumped for Grover Cleveland, who lost his bid for re-election to the White House. Elkus became involved in the County Democracy which, at that time, fought with Tammany Hall for Democratic control of New York City. Until he grew ill later in life, he attended nearly every Democratic state and national convention. In 1911, he was appointed a Regent of the University of the State of New York. And, in 1912, he played a critical role in Woodrow Wilson’s successful presidential campaign by revealing to the American public that, under the tariff system in place at that time, Americans were paying considerably more for American-made goods than were consumers in England.10
Perhaps, however, Elkus’s most noteworthy contribution was his service to the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, which was formed by the Legislature after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire of March 25, 1911 that claimed the lives of 146 factory workers, most of them women. Elkus, who was named chief counsel of the Commission, wrote that this tragedy “stirred public opinion to its depths and led to a demand upon the legislature to make impossible the recurrence of such a disaster. The time had passed when such catastrophes were regarded as visitations of Providence against which there was no defense. Here locked doors, jammed exit-ways and thoughtless crowding had brought about the colossal loss of life.”11
In addition to fire safety, the Commission addressed “the less obvious but greater menace of sanitary conditions,”12 which had led to the death of thousands of workers. The Commission was also concerned with the exploitation of children. Elkus recalled that children “as young as five years were employed both in the fields to pick beans seven days a week and in the factories ‘snipping’ beans with scissors. This work done for long hours cuts through fingers and causes severe sores.”13
The Commission held several public hearings, took testimony from hundreds of witnesses and investigated more than 3,000 workplaces across the state. As a result, the New York State Legislature passed 20 laws providing stricter regulation of child labor, working hours for women, occupational safety and health conditions. In addition, the Commission’s work fostered a greater public awareness of workplace conditions.
In 1916, Elkus turned to national service when President Wilson appointed him Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Ottoman Turkey. With his wife and children, Elkus traveled to Constantinople (now Istanbul), where, due to World War I, destitution and poverty was prevalent. Elkus wrote that, in Constantinople alone, more than 50,000 people were starving and that, if not for American relief, many would have died. With help from the Red Cross and from American Armenian and Jewish committees, Elkus established soup kitchens that fed thousands daily.
Moreover, Elkus provided relief to many Armenians during the Armenian genocide, a massacre at the hands of the Young Turks that resulted in the murder of more than 1.5 million Armenians. In 1916, Elkus informed the United States State Department that the Young Turks were “continuing an ‘ . . . unchecked policy of extermination through starvation, exhaustion, and brutality of treatment hardly surpassed even in Turkish history.'”14 In addition to providing food and money, Elkus saved the life of an American woman whose Armenian husband was among those murdered in the genocide. She had witnessed some of the massacres and was taken prisoner. She was allowed to come to Constantinople and share her story with Elkus, who gave the matter “personal attention” because he “was not ready to take the responsibility of permitting the woman to go to her death . . . .”15 He provided her a passport so she could travel back to America, despite the risk of being dismissed from his post.16
Elkus’s relief efforts were numerous. He appealed to American Jewish leaders for help, informing them that many Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire were poverty stricken, and used the contributions to provide food and aid to Jews throughout Turkey. Elkus’s wife directed a Ladies Committee, which served soup to the poor. In addition, Elkus stopped the deportation of 100,000 Greeks who lived along the Black Sea Coast and arranged for the restoration of a French embassy chapel that had been walled up by the Turks. With his wife’s help, he brought food and supplies to British soldiers who were imprisoned outside of Constantinople, for which Elkus received the Decoration of Grand Cross of the British Empire.17
In 1917, the United States went to war with Germany, and the Turkish government broke diplomatic relations with the United States. Elkus, who had contracted typhus fever from a soup kitchen, was ill at the time. After his recovery, Elkus and his family returned to New York. Elkus resumed his law practice and traveled the country, giving speeches on the conditions abroad and raising money for the Jews of Eastern Europe. He supported Alfred E. Smith in his successful New York gubernatorial campaign. Thereafter, the war ended and Governor Smith appointed Elkus chairman of the Commission on Reconstruction, which was tasked with studying the details of post-war readjustment.
In 1919, Governor Smith appointed Elkus to fill the late Judge William H. Cuddebeck‘s unexpired term on the New York Court of Appeals. At that time, Elkus notified President Wilson of his resignation as ambassador and enthusiastically assumed his position on the bench.
Elkus wrote that “[t]he Court of Appeals work was fascinating and I threw myself energetically into it. My chief judge and associate judges were stimulating minds and dear friends. The old love for the law that made me forego an academic education for the sake of a law degree reasserted itself.”18 He also recalled that “[o]ne of my associates on the bench marveled that I was able to acquire as rapidly as I did, the fine points of the court activity or that after our strenuous, full day sessions and study cases, I still possessed energy enough to spend my evenings in consultation on state problems at the Executive Mansion in Albany.”19 Elkus took “special delight to be in the constant companionship” of Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, and hoped to spend several years on the bench.20 However, 1920 proved to be a successful election year for Republicans everywhere, and the Republican candidate, Judge Emory A. Chase, defeated Elkus in his bid for a full term on the Court.
In 1920, President Wilson again called Elkus into public service by naming him to a four-person commission formed by the Council of the League of Nations and tasked with attempting to settle the Aland Islands dispute between Finland and Sweden.21 The Aland Islanders were mostly of Swedish descent and desired independence from Finland so they could ultimately unite with Sweden. However, the League of Nations adopted the commission’s report, which recommended that the Aland Islands form part of Finland. In 1921, the League of Nations made the report public. At that time, Elkus, ever the public servant, had been touring soup kitchens in Paris and contracted the sleeping sickness, which “struck [him] down shortly after [his] return to New York” and physically incapacitated him.22
For the latter part of his life, the illness prevented him from further pursuit of his career and political interests. He became paralyzed on one side of his body, and his speech was affected. On the abrupt end to this chapter of his life, Elkus wrote:
A great physical catastrophe overcame me long before I was ready to put down my work and retire from active participation in the clamorous and energetic life about me. It was with unutterable sadness that I had to bid farewell to my legal, diplomatic and public career. There remained to me one great pleasure; the pleasure of recollection and reflection. I have seen the giants of my youth go. I have watched others stride naturally into the place left vacant for them. And my contact with, and memories of a good number of them have yielded many hours of grateful reminiscence. My friendship with these and other men in the fields in which I have been engaged have to some degree softened the rigors of my physical breakdown and enforced retirement. It is not impossible – everything is in the lap of the gods – that I may some day join with these and others once again in a conference room or on the speaker’s rostrum. Meanwhile, though in my own way I extend encouragement to those who need it, I am left in the main to a contemplation of their careers, trusting that ‘they also serve who only stand and wait.’23
Elkus died on October 15, 1947 at his home in Red Bank, New Jersey. In a memorial, Justice Bernard L. Shientag wrote that Elkus was at his greatest during his illness:
His mind remained as clear and as vigorous as ever; his judgment not in the slightest impaired. Almost to the end he fought to recover his lost powers but, alas, without avail. He never indulged in self-pity; he never railed at the inexplicable, unexpected blows of chance. There was a certain pride in the unfaltering, uncomplaining attitude he displayed in the face of destiny . . . His rich sense of humor never left him. He saw his friends; life never lost for him its savour. . . . To the end, he possessed to a surpassing degree that love of people, that gift of curiosity which are the signs of an ever active, elastic and young mind.24
Similarly, in a funeral address, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, Rabbi of the Free Synagogue, stated, “He never ceased to smile, this strong man laid low, and he became anew the joy of his friends and the strength of many, who marveled as his unbroken heroism. Verily, he was and became, more than ever before-after being physically broken-a heroic and noble figure.”25
Judge Elkus and his wife Gertrude (1873-1953) had four children, Jane (1900-1916), Ethel (1901-1953), Katharine (1906-1985), and James (1909-1966). Katharine Elkus White was the Mayor of Red Bank, New Jersey, an Ambassador to Denmark, and Chairperson of the New Jersey Highway Authority. Further, like her father, Katharine actively campaigned for democratic political candidates, including Franklin Roosevelt. Katharine and her husband, Arthur Joske White, had two children: Lawrence Elkus White (1931) of Moneta, Virginia, and Frances Elkus White Cohen-Knoerdel (1933) of Venetia, Pennsylvania. Ethel and her husband, Moses Hadas, had two children: Jane Gertrude Hadas Streusand (1928) of Greenville, Delaware, and David Elkus Hadas (1931-2004). James and his wife, Leonore Rosenbaum, had four children: Christopher James Elkus (1941) of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and triplets, Katharine (who died within days of birth), Jonathan (1948-2003), and Peggy Hulda Elkus (1948) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This biography appears in The Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, ed. Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). It has not been updated since publication.
Abram I. Elkus, Judge-Statesman, Dies in 81st Year, Red Bank Register, October 16, 1947, page 2.
Abram Elkus Dies; Diplomat, Lawyer, New York Times, October 16, 1947, page 27.
Abram I. Elkus, Former Envoy to Turkey, Dies, New York Herald Tribune, October 16, 1947.
Catalogue of Officers and Graduates of Columbia University, New York (XV ed) (1912), at 484.
Distinguished Jews of America, Vol. I (1917), at 111. History of the Bench and Bar of New York, Vol. I (various editors) (1897), at 553.
Fact Sheet: Armenian Genocide, Knights of Vartan Armenian Research Center, The University of Michigan-Dearborn, http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/facts/genocide.html (last visited February 5, 2006) (article on file with the author).
In Memoriam, 297 NY [Front] (1948).
Jewish Foundation for Education of Women Records, The New York Public Library, http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/spe/rbk/faids/jewishfound.html (last visited February 12, 2006).
Julius G. Getman, Review, Triangle Shirtwaist, Death, Disaster, and “some kind of victory,” Green Bag, Summer 2004, at 397.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume XXXVIII, James T. White and Company (1953), at 47-48.
The New York Factory Investigating Commission, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/history/mono-regsafepart07.htm (last visited February 04, 2006) (article on file with the author).
The Political Graveyard, http://politicalgraveyard.com/bio/white6.html (last visited January 22, 2006) (article on file with the author).
Taylor, Eminent Members of the Bench and Bar of New York (1943), at 239.
Who’s Who Among the Alumni, The City College Alumnus, Vol. 30, No. 3 (March 1934), at 45.
Published Writings Include:
In addition to his memoirs, which were published posthumously, Elkus co-authored “A Treatise on Secret Liens and Reputed Ownership” with Garrard Glenn. The treatise was published in 1910 by Baker, Voorhis and Company. He also wrote an article titled, “William McKinley.”
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 3, 4.
- Id. at 4.
- Id. at 6-7.
- Id. at 9.
- Katharine Elkus White became the Mayor of Red Bank, New Jersey, and served as Ambassador to Denmark.
- Some sources indicate that Elkus had only three children. However, the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography states that Abram and Gertrude had four children, Jane, Ethel, Katharine, and James. Jane is also included in the Elkus family tree, which is on file with the author.
- Gracie v. Stevens, 171 NY 658. Judge Elkus included an anecdote of this case in his memoirs. See Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 17-18.
- Bernard L. Shientag, Memorial of Abram I. Elkus, Memorial Book of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (1948).
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 38-49.
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 25.
- Minutes of the Hearing of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, New York, October 10, 1911, New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols (Albany, New York: The Argus Company), http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/texts/reports/nyfic1912p14.html (last visited February 4, 2006) (article on file with the author).
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 36.
- Fact Sheet: Armenian Genocide, Knights of Vartan Armenian Research Center, The University of Michigan-Dearborn, http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/facts/genocide.html (last visited February 5, 2006) (article on file with the author).
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 69.
- Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs conferred upon Mrs. Elkus the order of the “Chefakat” 1st Class, which was the highest Turkish order any woman could receive. She received the decoration for her work in hospitals and other charities “and because of the widespread affection in which she was held.” Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 89.
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 98.
- The Aland Islands, also spelled “Aaland Islands,” are located in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland and consist of more than 6500 islands and skerries. The capital and only city is Mariehamn. The Aland Islands have maintained their autonomy and preserved their Swedish culture.
- Elkus, The Memoirs of Abram Elkus, Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman, Taderon Press (2004), at 106.
- Id. At 108-109.
- Bernard L. Shientag, Memorial of Abram I. Elkus, Memorial Book of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (1948).
- Address at the Funeral Service of Judge Abram I. Elkus at Temple Emanu-El, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, Rabbi of the Free Synagogue (on file with the author).