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Of Things Evil, By Derek Davis

A century ago, the brutal killing of Law School favorite Roy Wilson White in Powelton Village horrified Philadelphia. But what happened after his death was even crueler.Illustration by David Hollenbach

 

ROYWilson White graduated at the top of the Penn Law School class of 1898, neck-and-neck with Owen J. Roberts, who would become a Supreme Court justice and later dean of the Law School itself. White was one of those rare people who everyone simply knew would make a difference. A scholar and intellect who worked 16 hours a day at his studies, he also tutored his classmates, edited the student-run American Law Register, and gave lessons to students in prep schools around the city to support himself, his mother and his sisters following his father’s early death.
    A handsome, square-faced man who parted his hair in the center, White sported the neat mustache common to the time. A classmate, George Nitzsche, described him in a way that recalls the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: "White’s watch was a great friend to him. It was worn from continual taking in and out of his pocket. He timed everything to the minute, and when talking to you would nervously finger his watch and, pulling it out suddenly, would bid you good-bye and rush off."
    Remember that watch. Directly or indirectly, it became a focus of four violent deaths.
    The Law School’s young dean, William Draper Lewis, took on both White and Roberts as lecturers. Roberts quickly became known as the department’s finest teacher, but White was entrusted, at the ripe age of 28, with organizing both the nascent postgraduate program at the Law School and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program with the philosophy department in the College.
    These projects would require him to teach courses in elementary Roman law and Spanish-American civil codes. Lewis asked White what would be required in the way of preparation for such courses. White replied with a minutely detailed 10-page letter (included in the faculty minutes) which suggested a five-month scholarly tour of South America: "It would obviously be folly to attempt to give a course of lectures on ‘social, economic, political, and public-administrative-legal conditions in Spanish America,’ without having oneself beheld those conditions."
    Amazingly for a cash-strapped department, the dean and the faculty proposed the trip for trustee approval. For unexplained reasons–mostly likely cost–White never went to South America. However, on leave from June 1899 to February 1900, he studied Roman law at the University of Paris. By the time he returned in 1900, the Law School’s grand new home at 34th and Chestnut Streets–the largest building in the world devoted exclusively to legal education–had opened to greet him.
    I first ran across Roy White while paging through the bound volumes of the Law School’s meeting minutes to research a history of the school for its 150th anniversary in the year 2000. I was delighted by his warm, witty and thorough reports on the French legal system (as well as the French misapprehension that all legal education in America took place at Harvard). His wealth of detail is leavened by a jaunty, self-deprecatory wit: "I hope you will not think me like the German colonial officials, who are said to elaborate such minute reports of what they do that they never have time to do anything."
    Then, in the minutes for May 1900, I read with a shock that Roy White was dead. Scrambling ahead, I found a note that he "was killed." How could this be? A hundred aged clippings pasted in two scrapbooks soon gave me the sad, horrifying answer.

 

 

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