Blast from the past Law professor has passion for Michigan legal history

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 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
Small marker – big history.
A Michigan Historical Marker on a building near the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Wayne Road in downtown Wayne marks the site of a tavern owned by Stephen Gifford Simmons – where in 1830 the 50-year-old tavern keeper and farmer murdered his wife Levana in a drunken, jealous rage.
Simmons, whose children testified as to his guilt, became the second – and last person – to be executed under Michigan law in a case that led to the abolition to the death penalty in the state.
Small consolation for Simmons, who was born near Philadelphia where his parents were refugees from their native New York City during the American Revolution. In 1825, he moved with his wife and six children from upstate New York to the wild, unpopulated Territory of Michigan, a wilderness known mainly for its fur trade. He bought many properties but his homestead, and where he opened his tavern in 1826, was 80 acres about 16 miles southwest of Detroit where the Old Sauk Trail, now Michigan Avenue, crossed the Rouge River near Ypsilanti.
Simmons, who was constantly in trouble with the legal system, met his end on the gallows in a public hanging on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, the territorial capital of just over two thousand inhabitants.
Law professor and history buff David G. Chardavoyne, who has written extensively on the legal history of Michigan’s early years, gives a vivid historical account of the hapless Simmons’ life and death in, “A Hanging in Detroit: Stephen Gifford Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law.” 
His book, published by Wayne State University Press and named a Michigan Notable Book of 2004 by the Library of Michigan Foundation, recounts the murder, Simmons’ trial and execution, with fascinating details of people, social and legal customs, tavern life, social life, farming and travel, in those bygone days. 
Chardavoyne also chronicles Michigan’s abolition of capital punishment. In 1847 the state of Michigan was the first English-speaking jurisdiction, and one of the first in the world, to abolish capital punishment. Today, the prohibition is part of the Michigan state constitution. 
Chardavoyne, who loves to research untapped historical sources including court records, diaries, letters, census records, and rare legal documents featuring dramatic eye witness accounts, was the principal speaker at the bicentennial celebration of the Michigan Supreme Court in October 2005 addressing the first decade of the Michigan court.
Following the bicentennial commemoration, a comprehensive study, “The History of Michigan Law” was published; named a Michigan Notable Book, it won the Historical Society of Michigan’s State History Award. Chardavoyne contributed the chapter “The Northwest Ordinance and Michigan’s Territorial Heritage,” in which he pointed out that Michigan was influenced heavily by New York and New England legal customs – much more so than were other Midwest states.
“I’ve always been fascinated by history, particularly about the stories and how they fit together,” he says. “For me, the people in the past are as real as the people I know today. 
“Research is like a good mystery novel, and I love spending hours online or up to my elbows in dusty archives trying to figure out who did what and why they did it, particularly if I discover an answer that is inconsistent with current beliefs. I find that, although human standards and morals may have changed over the centuries, basic human nature, motivation, and psychology remain remarkably consistent.”
Chardavoyne, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, is a frequent contributor to that organization’s journal, The Court Legacy. The Historical Society has commissioned his current project, a history of the District Court, which will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2011.  He has written several historical articles, including “Michigan Lawyers in History – George A. O’Keeffe: Pioneer Irish-American Lawyer,” for the Michigan Bar Journal. 
In another fascinating article, “When the District Court Sat in the World’s Largest Pool Hall,” Chardavoyne wrote of how the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan – located in the Post Office Building on the block surrounded by Lafayette Boulevard, Shelby Street, Fort Street and Washington Boulevard in Detroit – was torn down in 1931 and replaced by what is now the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse. From 1931 to 1934, the District Court was temporarily housed across Lafayette Boulevard in the Recreation Building, a seven-floor brick edifice boasting 103 billiard tables and 88 bowling alleys, and the motto “Eat, Smoke, Shave, Rest, and Play.” The edifice also had refreshment fountains and cigar stands, and a ground floor drug store and lunch counter, barber, laundry, and a “public shine and hat works.”
For three years, the fourth floor served as chambers and courtrooms, offices of the Master in Chancery, jury room, and two rooms for prosecutors when court was in session. The Court Clerk had two rooms on the third floor. The U.S. District Attorney and staff were housed in 20 rooms on the fifth floor of the Lafayette Building, where court stenographers also had their office.
The Recreational Building was eventually torn down, and the site has served the District Court as a parking lot for federal courthouse visitors.
An Ohio native, Chardavoyne lived for six years in Geneva, Switzerland where he attended the International School of Geneva. Returning stateside, he graduated from Kennett Square Consolidated High School, Penn., and earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Michigan. After serving in the U.S. Army Airborne in Germany, he graduated magna cum laude from Wayne State University Law School in 1976. 
After two years as a law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, he entered private practice in Detroit at what is now Bodman, LLP.  He was an associate and then partner for 20 years until he started his own practice in Farmington Hills and began his research.  In 2001 he began to teach as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University Law School and University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
When he’s not researching, writing or teaching, Chardavoyne makes presentations and book signings around the state, including recent appearances at the West Bloomfield Library and Canton Historical Society.
A compulsive reader, Chardavoyne is interested in most historical eras.
“My six years living in Switzerland exposed me to European history and historical sites, but I was 12 years old in 1961 when the centennial of the Civil War was celebrated, and the Civil War is, as a result, my favorite era,” he says. “I enjoy visiting historical sites. Gettysburg is a particular favorite.”
He may have a favorite era, but Chardavoyne plays no favorites with historical figures.
“I admire many people, but I guess I’m too old for heroes,” he says. “It’s important to realize that people are all a mixture of characteristics, good and bad.”

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