The Courtroom That Literally Relitigated History

The Court of Historical Review and Appeals was an unofficial court in San Francisco that tried cold cases, often very cold cases that were thought to have been settled decades ago. It was a publicity stunt concocted by San Francisco publicist Bernard Averbuch in 1975. The first case it heard was that of police chief chief George W. Wittman, who was relieved of duty after being charged with accepting bribes to allow gambling to flourish in Chinatown -in 1905.

Averbuch had heard of Wittman when city archivist Gladys Hansen discovered police personnel records dating back to 1853. He saw injustice in Wittman’s firing, noted briefly in the ledger in red ink, and enlisted the help of his friend Harry Low, a Superior Court judge, to stage a rehearing. Local TV cameras turned out for the much belated trial. With the benefit of hindsight, Wittman’s “defense team,” a collection of civil servants, including Hansen, told a twisted tale of turn-of-the-century yellow journalism, mayoral corruption, racism and greed that had been hidden from the public at the time. Wittman, they argued, had been a pawn in a scheme to paint Chinatown as an unseemly and dangerous place, part of a bigger effort to move the Chinese immigrants off of their valuable land. With a bang of his gavel, Judge Low rewrote history, ruling that Wittman’s firing was unjust.

The "re-trial" was so popular that the Court of Historical Review and Appeals continued, examining many other historical cases for possible injustice over the next 25 years. The findings were not binding, but drew a lot of national press. Read about some of the other cases heard by the court at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Shaylyn Esposito)

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