Hamilton Herald Masthead Hamilton Herald


Front Page - Friday, April 2, 2021

Legal Aid’s Fowler preserves pieces of history

Russell Fowler admires the autograph of William Carroll. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

During a time when people are digitizing everything from contracts to signatures, Russell Fowler is something of a modern-day Indiana Jones, a raider of the lost art of putting pen to paper.

The artifacts Fowler seeks are not made of gold or jewels, but of yellowed paper and faded ink.

Likewise, he won’t find them in caves or tombs, but in attics where timeworn documents are stored, the back rooms of century-old courthouses and wherever else someone has tucked away bits of the past.

As a student, teacher and lover of history, Fowler doesn’t place the relics he’s acquired – which include the signatures of several revered jurists – out of sight. Rather, he displays them in his personal museum at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, where he serves as director of litigation.

Mounted on the wall near the door is a frame containing the signature of the Hon. John Marshall Harlan, who served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1877-1911.

Harlan is often called “The Great Dissenter,” Fowler notes, due to his many dissents in cases that restricted civil liberties, including Plessy v. Ferguson.

Fowler leans forward to look closely at the scribbles on the small square, which he placed below a black and white photograph of Harlan.

“It says, ‘Your servant, John M. Harland, associate justice, Supreme Court, United States,’” Fowler reads. As was customary at the time, “associate” is spelled with a long form of the letter ‘s’ that looks like an ‘f.’ “I was really pleased to acquire this one.”

Fowler is also delighted with his signature of William Carroll, whom he says is widely considered Tennessee’s greatest governor.

“He built the first mental hospital and the first state penitentiary,” recounts Fowler, who’s never more than a breath away from a brief history lesson.

Carroll also shuttered debtor’s prison and initiated the creation of Chancery Court in Tennessee in 1827, Fowler continues.

“He wanted to protect what he called ‘widows and orphans,’ so he introduced a court of equity. It was his prized achievement.”

Although Fowler has paired Carroll’s signature with a hand-drawn portrait of the governor rather than a photograph, he’s just as proud of the moniker as he is Harland’s, partly because of the effort he expended to acquire it.

“Signatures pop up in all sorts of places. When the state sold land back then, the governor would sign the deed, for example. But William Carroll’s is very rare. I searched a lot of collections to find it.”

Displayed behind glass in other frames are the John Hancocks of Charles Evans Hughes, Sr., the 11th chief justice of the United States, Chancellor Milton Brown, who began serving in West Tennessee in 1837, Justice Joseph Story, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1812-1845, and others.

Working near the actual ink marks these judges made as they moved mountains brings Fowler comfort. History is not an obsolete curio he occasionally pulls out of mothballs to admire or a collection of stories for enlightening others, but a warm embrace.

“I’ve always loved history,” Fowler says as he gazes at the signature of Judge Hugh Lawson White, who in 1801 was appointed judge of the Superior Court of Tennessee. Its artfully written letters and fancy flourishes set it apart from the other, more pedestrian samples in the room.

“When I was in grade school, I’d buy and read little books about history because I wanted to learn more.”

Fowler’s profound affection for history is no secret; not only is he an award-winning adjunct professor in the political science department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but he also writes a long-running column in the Tennessee Bar Journal titled “History’s Verdict.”

If someone has somehow missed this detail about Fowler, the long stretches of memorabilia on his walls and crowded shelves would correct this oversight.

In addition to signatures, Fowler’s collection includes items related to Chancery Court in the U.S. and England.

Fowler points to a small frame that contains an ordinary-looking form and taps the line for the date, which reads “192_.”

“It’s a Shelby County Chancery Court document from the 1920s. You can tell when it was printed because it leaves off the last number,” Fowler explains.

Fowler practiced with a litigation firm in Shelby County after graduating from the University of Memphis School of Law in 1987. He also served as a special chancellor in the county’s Chancery Court, giving him a connection to the everyday piece of paper.

Of even greater personal significance is the folded robe of the late Chancellor Neal Small, which is displayed in a glass case. Small’s initials on the back of the collar are visible through the folds of fabric.

Fowler clerked for Small and calls him “the best man … [he has] ever known.” When the chancellor died, someone gave Fowler his robe.

As with the robe, each piece comes with a small story, if one gives Fowler a few moments to tell it. This is even true of some of the most intriguing pieces in the collection – pages of newspapers from Victorian England.

Each page displays an intricate rendering of a scene from Chancery Court, with the dates at the top indicating the issues were printed in 1852, 1897 and 1889.

Curiously, one of the pages features soft patches of green, blue and orange that highlight different aspects of the drawing, including the attire of a distressed gentleman whose face is buried in his hands. Fowler speculates the man is the loser in the case.

When people ask about the specially decorated pages, Fowler dispels them of the notion that they were printed in color. Instead, he says, they were colored by hand.

“Poor people would color the newspapers that were going to the rich people in the middle of the night so the wealthy and elite would have a more vibrant paper.”

Fowler’s Chancery Court collection spans centuries – from an engraving of Lord Chancellor John Somers printed in 1747 to the docket for the day Fowler attended Chancery Court in London in 1995.

His heftiest piece is the last unspoiled minute book of Shelby County Chancery Court. An imposing velvet red tome made of metal and thick sheets of paper, he acquired it when the court adopted a different method of recording.

“It weighs a ton,” Fowler says, grunting as he lifts and then opens the monstrosity. “After I clerked for Small, I practiced there for a decade, so when they switched over they gave it to Russell.”

Many of the items in Fowler’s collection are gifts from friends and family members, as well as fellow attorneys who read Fowler’s column and sent him artifacts they believed he’d appreciate.

“One lawyer said he was giving me a large number of books because he knew I would use them and care for them, and his children would just sell them at a yard sale for a few cents when he died,” Fowler notes.

As a collector of what Fowler says are unique artifacts, competition is scarce. But he says he’s still does his homework before purchasing an item.

In addition to working with a well-known collector with a long track record of integrity, Fowler compares the signatures he comes across with photographs contained in government records or archives.

Slipped in among his collection of signatures and Chancery Court artifacts is a variety of historical miscellany, including an English deed from “the year of our Lord 1803,” Fowler reads, the gavel of Chancellor John Swepston and four cigarette pack cards of lord chancellors.

“Those are over 100 years old,” Fowler explains. “I enjoy them.”

Fowler relishes his entire collection, although Small’s robe is his favorite piece due to his personal connection to the late chancellor. He also treasures Story’s and Carroll’s signatures because of who the men were.

“These aren’t just artifacts, they’re people who made a difference,” he says.

Fowler won’t reveal how much money he’s spent on his collection or estimate its worth, insisting that its monetary value is far less than its personal worth.

The items also hold significant cultural worth, he says.

“One of the glues of our society is our history. Some of it is good and some of it is bad, and we need to preserve the good. These artifacts represent the rule of law.”

When it comes to preserving the past, Fowler laments the digital methods of the modern age, which he says fail to safeguard the physical imprints of today’s history makers.

“So much is electronic and doesn’t bear the mark of the individual. There won’t be any artifacts because things are stored in a format that’s easily altered or lost. I’m a little fearful of that.”

To help nurture an appreciation for history and an understanding of how it shaped modern society, Fowler is willing to conduct free tours of his small corner of the past. All it takes is a phone call or an email from an interested party.

After Fowler is gone, he hopes someone else will take the mantle of preservation and display his collection for others to see. He doesn’t have children, so he might leave them with a clerk’s office or the state archives.

“I’ll find someone. They won’t end up in a yard sale.”