The Land of Hurd

Meet the lawyer who had the biggest impact on Illinois law

Judging History

Michael B. Hyman

Justice Michael B. Hyman sits on the Illinois Appellate Court, 1st District. He is a former president of both The Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois Judges Association.

No lawyer has had as much influence on Illinois law as Harvey Bostwick Hurd, who single-handedly codified the statutes of Illinois. Hurd also penned the groundbreaking Juvenile Court Act of 1899. His was a life of seeing a problem and doing something about it.

In an 1892 article, The Chicago Legal News said of Hurd, “Few men have been more active and untiring in the cause of humanity. In the line of legal reform Mr. Hurd has been foremost in this State for over twenty years.”

Barely a teenager, Hurd left his home in Connecticut, eventually making his way to Illinois, and then, just a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday, arriving in Chicago aboard a baggage stagecoach. Before long, Hurd studied law and by age 20 had been admitted to the Illinois bar.

Hurd actively pressed for the abolition of slavery, gave aid to runaway slaves and facilitated the migration of free state settlers to the territory of Kansas when it was the battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces.

In February 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown traveled to Chicago. Because there was a bounty on his head, Brown concealed himself in the house of a prominent black citizen. Brown desperately needed a new set of clothes. Hurd, about the same size as Brown, stood in for Brown so a tailor could take measurements. Hurd liked to tell the story, and say how glad he was that it was not him in the suit at Brown’s execution.

In 1869, the governor asked Hurd and two others to compile and rewrite the general statutes of Illinois. Complex, interlocking and conflicting statutes had to be organized into a coherent whole and made consistent with the new state constitution of 1870. His colleagues withdrew, and the responsibility lodged solely with Hurd. The task took Hurd five years to complete.

Hurd continued to produce updates, periodically issuing new versions known as “Hurd’s Statutes.” The Chicago Legal News published Hurd’s statutes, which the bench and bar acclaimed as the standard authority on Illinois laws. The 1903 version, for example, consisted of a single volume of 2,155 pages and sold for $5. Hurd edited 17 editions before his death in 1906.

Cook County being Cook County, in 1887 six members of the Board of County Commissions were convicted of defrauding the county. Men of stainless character replaced them, including Hurd. Around this time, Hurd devised legislation that led to the creation of the Chicago Sanitary District (“the Hurd Bill”) and to the end of the vexing (and stinking) problem of sewage flowing into Lake Michigan, the source of the Chicago’s drinking water. As with the Hurd bill, Hurd was often consulted on progressive changes to the law and generously gave of himself.

Arguably, though, Hurd’s greatest achievement came in 1899, with the enactment of the first-of-its-kind Law for the Care of Dependent, Neglected and Delinquent Children. When social reformer Julia Lathrop approached Hurd for participation in the project, Hurd told her it would require too much time, and besides, he was too busy. Lathrop insisted and Hurd relented. Although many lawyers, judges, civic activists and community leaders worked on formulating the statute, Hurd served as a committee of one in handling the writing duties.

The legislation, which classified children under 16 years of age as delinquents instead of criminals, attracted worldwide acclaim. Among its significant provisions was creating a separate court for children’s cases and a separate place of detention for children, treating delinquent children as wards of the court, eliminating fines and providing specially trained probation officers.

Throughout his life, Hurd understood that lawyers must ever be mindful of their community, and its needs, as well as of the needs of those without power or status or political influence. Lawyers like Hurd create legacies that transcend their lives and leave stories for future generations to follow.