A tale of two lawyers

Courtesy photo Sarah H. Sorin

Who sent the letter? We may never know, because all that’s left is the envelope – and that came from the office of a woman dead two weeks when it was mailed.

She was Arizona’s first female attorney, and though the letter’s sender might be a mystery we know it was mailed to the state’s second female attorney.

Both women spent parts of their careers, and worked together, right here in Globe.

The Letter

An otherwise unremarkable business envelope, it advised the post office to return it to “SARAH H. SORIN, GLOBE, ARIZONA” after five days. It was postmarked Cochise, Arizona at 3 p.m. on May 17, 1914 – meaning Sarah H. Sorin was unlikely to have sent it, having passed away on April 30, 1914.

Cochise, southwest of Willcox on the western shores of a dry lake, was founded as a railroad stop in the late 1880s. Today it has a population of roughly 50. Sarah Sorin may not have been there in May 1914, but she knew the region well; her father served as Wyatt Earp’s defense attorney after the O.K. Corral shootout, and her husband was a co-founder of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper.

Whoever sent the letter addressed the envelope, by hand, to Miss A.M. (Alice) Birdsall at her post office box in Globe.

New York to Tombstone . . . to Globe

Sarah Herring Sorin, born in New York in 1861, was not only Arizona’s first female attorney but also the first to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on her own.

When her father, lawyer William Herring, went to Arizona Territory in 1878 to settle a relative’s estate, he decided to stay and work mining claims. Sarah Herring remained in New York until 1882, when she joined him in the town of Tombstone. By then he had moved on to representing mining companies in court. Sarah later followed in his footsteps, arguing on behalf of United Globe Mines and Old Dominion Copper Mining, but her initial career was as Tombstone’s first female schoolteacher.

After studying law in her father’s office, Sarah Herring was admitted to practice in Cochise County District Court in November 1892. In 1894 she graduated from the University of New York’s law school, fourth in a class of some 80 students, then joined her father’s practice. “There is probably no woman in Arizona possessed of greater intellectual attainments,” the July 28, 1898 Arizona Silver Belt stated. That year she married miner and rancher Thomas Sorin, who in addition to helping start the Tombstone Epitaph was in charge of Arizona’s mineral exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

The father-daughter law firm of Herring & Sorin eventually moved from Tombstone to Tucson, remaining there until William Herring died in 1912. During that time – on April 14, 1906 – Sarah Sorin became the 25th woman to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, at her father’s side. After his death she moved to Globe, where she would meet, and work with, Alice Birdsall.

On Nov. 5, 1913, Sorin became the first woman to appear before the Supreme Court unaccompanied by a male attorney, defending United Globe Mines’ claim to the Big Johnny and O’Dougherty mines against a man named James Work. Her arguments convinced the court, which ruled in the company’s favor in January 1914.

“Mrs. Sorin has conducted some of the most important litigations ever brought in the State or Territory of Arizona,” declared the May 3, 1914 Epitaph.

“Although she did not come to Globe to live until about a year ago she had been appearing regularly in Gila County courts and was widely known and admired in this district,” the Copper Era and Morenci Leader said on her passing.

A long career

Alice M. Birdsall, with whom Sarah Sorin briefly shared her Globe law office, was born in Iowa in 1880. Opening her career as a secretary in her brother’s law office, for a time she was also a Gila County notary public. She later said a copy of 19th Century American lawyer Simon Greenleaf’s “Treatise on the Law of Evidence” inspired her to change professions.

In 1911 Birdsall graduated from Washington College of Law, a school in the nation’s capital that was founded by women. During her long career – she practiced law until 1958 - she became an authority on bankruptcy law, fought for women’s right to vote and led the charge for a law giving Arizona women the right to serve on juries.

After Sarah Sorin’s death, which left her “the only woman practicing lawyer of Arizona,” Birdsall briefly remained in Globe. In 1914 she was a leader in the fight against a proposal to create a new Miami County from part of Gila County, centered on the town of Miami. An initiative for the new county – its backers dubbed it “Home Rule” in newspaper advertisements – went before voters in that November’s election. It was soundly defeated, 30,000 to 5,800.

Alice Birdsall then moved to Phoenix, starting her own practice there in 1915. “Miss Birdsall is not only a particularly capable member of the bar, but has written a number of law books which are standard and has been of practical use in codifying Arizona laws,” stated the July 24, 1917 Arizona Republican.

Birdsall served as treasurer for the Maricopa County Bar Association and, starting in 1915, was the state Supreme Court’s reporter of decisions for 20 years. During World War I, as chair of the Arizona Women’s Liberty Loan Committee, she was active in liberty bond drives; after the war, she was a delegate to the 1920 Democratic National Convention.

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