Yuma owes debt to lawyer from Tennessee
If it hadn't been for an obscure law case years ago, Yuma might not have one of its greatest tourist attractions, the Territorial Prison Museum. The Yuma City Attorney who was victorious in that suit has mostly been forgotten, but we owe him a great debt. His name was Henry Wupperman.
Born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1863, Wupperman got his legal training in that state and married Mary in 1895. Why he left the Eastern state for the West isn't known, but he arrived here with Mary in 1901.
Mary Wupperman was a lawyer, too. Possibly the first public indication that the couple was practicing law here may have been an advertisement appearing in Yuma's Arizona Sentinel newspaper on Nov. 19, 1902. It announced, "H. Wupperman and Mary Wupperman, Attorneys."
Henry may have been an excellent lawyer, but in his early criminal cases that attracted local newspaper publicity, he was often on the losing side. When the town leaders decided to try to eliminate saloons which were harboring prostitutes in 1909, it used a city ordinance making it unlawful to have "a disorderly house within 200 yards of a public building."
W.T. Dutton, owner of the Turf Saloon, was indicted along with several other bar owners in the Main Street area. He hired Wupperman to defend him against the charge. The Tennessee lawyer first tried to get a dismissal by alleging that the members of the grand jury who indicated the saloon owner were prejudiced. When that failed, he argued that the Turf Saloon was no noisier than the others, sold no liquor to women and wasn't used for immoral purposes. None of his arguments moved the jury. Dutton lost his saloon license, was sentenced to five months in jail and fined $300.
In another celebrated case, Wupperman filed an alienation of affections suit against a local businessman in 1910. His client was Joe Bell who had separated from his wife, Mary. When Mrs. Bell became pregnant after the separation and a baby was born, Joe and his wife were reconciled. Then they accused a merchant of fathering Mary's baby. Joe's lawsuit demanded $25,000.
Mary Bell had been living in a house rented from the businessman when the child was born. Testifying in his own defense, the man told the court that he never was intimate with Mrs. Bell. He testified that he only went to the house to make repairs. Another defense witness testified that he saw "quite a number of men go in and out of the Bell house between 7 and 8 p.m. and this occurred every day, but he did not see (the defendant) there." The jury denied Bell's demand for $25,000.
It would appear from the results of a local school board election that attorney Wupperman was not a very popular man at the time of the Bell case. As a candidate for the local high school board the same year, he was defeated, running eighth in a field of 10 seeking the positions.
With the passage of years, Wupperman's public image began to change. Shortly after the city's charter was adopted in 1914, he ran for city attorney and was elected. He held the office until his death in 1932.
It was while Wupperman was the city attorney in 1929 that he had to defend Yuma's right to the property where the Territorial Prison Museum now stands. In January of 1929, Mrs. Emma Townsend, a descendant of O.F. Townsend, filed suit claiming that the titled to the land where the prison is located belonged to her family.
That the Townsend family once occupied the land wasn't disputed. Yuma's town records in the Arizona Historical Foundation Records show that pioneer Yuman O.F. Townsend filed a claim for the property on Dec. 5, 1870. He later turned the land over to Arizona Territory so it could build the prison. Mrs. Townsend's suit contended that the land was given to the Territory with the understanding that whenever it was no longer used by the prison, the property would be returned to the Townsend family.
Wupperman saved the prison site for the city by demonstrating to the court that the Townsend family never actually had title to the property. He also found evidence that there was no official record of a transfer of the prison site from Townsend to the Territory. The court denied the Townsend family claim to the land.
Henry Wupperman was still serving as the city attorney at the time of his tragic disappearance in 1932. He was then 69 years old and in poor health. The Morning Sun reported him missing on June 1 after he was seen walking toward the river. It speculated that he had fallen into the Colorado and drowned.
This was confirmed a month later when a body was discovered 11 miles below the border in the river. Leslie Wupperman, Henry's son, identified it as his father.
While Henry Wupperman never won any really famous criminal cases, he won one that mattered. The lawsuit for control of the prison property could have cost Yuma its most important tourist attraction, the Territorial Prison Museum.
FRANK LOVE is a local historian.