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No nobodies here

Fifty years ago yesterday, on the 18th of March 1963, Justice Hugo Black delivered a message for a unanimous United States Supreme Court to an inmate in a Florida prison.

You’re right, the message — set out in a court opinion — said.

It isn’t fair.

And what happened to you shouldn’t happen to anybody.

Now of course those aren’t the Court’s exact words, but they embody the essence of what it said in Gideon v. Wainwright, the milestone opinion that held — for the first time — that a state couldn’t send a poor man to prison after a trial where he hadn’t been able to afford to have an attorney represent him.1

There’s a lot of debate these days about how good the representation given to poor defendants is all these years after Gideon v. Wainwright was decided. And author Karen Houppert, who’s written a new book, Chasing Gideon, takes the strong position that it’s not very good at all.2

But there’s no debate over the importance of the Gideon decision, and the remarkable way it came to pass.

Take a look at the image illustrating today’s blog (click to enlarge).

It’s a photo of the first page of Clarence Earl Gideon’s petition — request — to the U.S. Supreme Court3 to hear his challenge to his Florida conviction on charges of stealing a few bottles of beer and soda and a few dollars in coins from a Bay Harbor pool hall in June of 1961.4

The petition was written by hand — printed, actually. In pencil. On paper supplied by the prison where Gideon was serving a five-year sentence. It’s not polished legal argument. Some words are misspelled; some legalisms perhaps misused.

But because that one inmate managed to write those words and send them off to the nation’s High Court, no other defendant facing jail time in any state court would face the same moment that Clarence Gideon faced when he asked that Florida judge in 1961 to appoint a lawyer to represent him.

The exchange is quoted at the beginning of Justice Black’s opinion:

The COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.

The DEFENDANT: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.5

So it’s hard to argue with Houppert when she says in an interview with NBC News that the petition packs an emotional punch: “As Americans, it’s moving to us to see someone take a stand against the big guys, that he had the guts to say: ‘That’s not fair. I’m an American, and this isn’t right.’”6

And you’ll get no argument from The Legal Genealogist with her characterization of Gideon’s efforts as “incredible.”

But we part ways for certain over the second part of her final sentence. “It’s incredible,” she said, “because he was nobody.”7


No, he wasn’t.

He may have been a drifter, a ne’er-do-well, a repeat loser in constant battles against the law. He may have been a little fish in a very big pond.

But he was not a nobody.

To a genealogist, there isn’t any such thing.

He was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father.

Clarence Earl Gideon was born to Charles Roscoe Gideon and Virginia (Gregory) Gideon in Hannibal, Missouri, on 30 August 1910. His father died when he was three.8

His mother remarried, to Marrion Anderson, and the family can be found in Hannibal on the 1920 census. Clarence was enumerated as a nine-year-old schoolboy, stepson to the head of household. And he had a younger half-brother, Francis.9

He ran away as a teenager, had several run-ins with the law and ended up in prison for robbery, burglary and larceny before he was out of his teens.10 He was in the Missouri State Prison on the 1930 census.11

He drifted after that, marrying four times, and fathering at least three children. The family had moved to Florida, and Clarence was having problems with his wife, when he was accused of the crime that became the focal point of the case that will forever bear his name.12

A single witness pointed the finger at Clarence for the petty theft at the pool hall. His inability to afford a lawyer made the outcome pretty much a foregone conclusion. And the judge who refused to appoint counsel threw the book at him — five years was the maximum the law allowed for that crime.13

Once the Supreme Court said he was right, that he should have had a lawyer, the case was sent back to Florida and Clarence stood trial a second time. This time he had a lawyer, who made mincemeat of the one witness who pointed the finger at Clarence. The jury took barely an hour to return a verdict of not guilty.14

It’d be nice to be able to say Clarence turned his life completely around afterwards. He did the best he could. He spent his last years doing odd jobs and pumping gas — and staying out of trouble.

But he didn’t have all that much time. He died of cancer in 1972, and his relatives buried him in an unmarked grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, a few feet from the grave of his father.15

It’s nice to know that his grave didn’t stay unmarked. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties union placed a stone on his grave in 1984.

The words on the stone come from a letter Gideon send in 1962 to the lawyer appointed to argue his case in the Supreme Court — then-Washington, D.C.-lawyer and later-Supreme-Court-Justice Abe Fortas: “I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”16

Those are the words of somebody. In genealogy, there are no nobodies here.


Tombstone image courtesy of Paul Auger (used with permission).

  1. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
  2. Karen Houppert, Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice (New York : The New Press, 2013).
  3. Petition for a Writ of Certiorari from Clarence Gideon to the Supreme Court of the United States; Appellate Jurisdiction Case File Gideon v. Wainright, 01/08/1962 – 04/12/1963; Record Group 267: Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1772 – 2007; National Archives, Washington, D.C.; digital image, ( : accessed 18 Mar 2013).
  4. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. at 336-337.
  5. Ibid., 372 U.S. at 337.
  6. M. Alex Johnson and Vidya Rao, “A ‘nobody’s’ legacy: How a semi-literate ex-con changed the legal system,” NBC News online, posted 18 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 18 Mar 2013).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Wikipedia (, “Clarence Earl Gideon,” rev. 17 Mar 2013.
  9. 1920 U.S. census, Marion County, Missouri, Hannibal Ward 5, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 113, p. 215(A) (stamped), dwelling 160, family 118, Clarence Gideon, stepson in Marrion Anderson household; digital image, ( : accessed 18 Mar 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 934.
  10. Jack King, “Clarence Earl Gideon: Unlikely World-Shaker,” Champion, ( : accessed 18 Mar 2013).
  11. 1930 U.S. census, Jefferson County, Missouri, Missouri State Prison, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 26-6, p. 87(b) (stamped), sheet 38-B, Clarence E Gideon, prisoner; digital image, ( : accessed 18 Mar 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 1184; imaged from FHL microfilm 2340919.
  12. King, “Clarence Earl Gideon: Unlikely World-Shaker,” Champion
  13. Wikipedia (, “Clarence Earl Gideon,” rev. 17 Mar 2013.
  14. King, “Clarence Earl Gideon: Unlikely World-Shaker,” Champion.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid. See also Mount Olivet Cemetery, Marion County, Mo., Clarence Earl Gideon; digital image, Find A Grave ( : accessed 18 Mar 2013).
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