A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 15, 2004
Ambulance Chaser
"Ambulance chaser" is another derogatory term for a lawyer (see also the 1840s term"shyster"). An "ambulance chaser" preys on accident victims to sign them up to represent them -- the image given is that this type of lawyer chases ambulances. The term "ambulance chaser" comes from 1890s New York City.

(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
ambulance-chaser n
a lawyer or lawyer's agent who obtains clients by inciting accident victims to sue for damages, or through similar unethical practices; pettifogger.
1897 Congressional Record (July 24) 2961, in Dictionary of Americanisms: In New York City, there is a style of lawyers known to the profession as "ambulance-chasers," because they are on hand whenever there is a railway wreck, or a street-car collision, or gasoline explosion with...their offers of professional service.
1934 in Ruhm Detective 104: A cheap, lousy ambulance chaser.
1936 Duncan Over Wall 28: They appointed me a lousy ambulance chaser who was a scrammer.
1953 American Thesaurus of Slang (ed. 2) 504: Ambulance chaser or lawyer...a lawyer who specializes in damage suits for accident victims, hence a second-rate lawyer.
1982 Mamet Verdict (film): He's had four cases in the last three years. He's an ambulance chaser.

Old Fulton New York
30 May 1896, New York (NY) Sun, pg. 7, col. 2:
"The "ambulance chaser" who waits to learn of an accident from the newspapers is regarded now as a very unenterprising lawyer."

Chronicling America
12 September 1896, Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, UT), pg. 3, col. 4:
Pettifogging Lawyers Who Hunt Up
Cases in Which They Can Get
Anybody who doubts the activity of the lawyers known as "ambulance chasers" will be convinced of their alertness after a short experience in one of the accidents happening every day. Victims of any sort of accidents are very promptly deluged with cards and advertsiements of such attorneys: but it used to be necessary for the lawyers to wait until the cases were published in the newspapers. Now such delay rarely occurs. The method of acquainting themselves with such matters has been brought down to a science, and offers to obtain legal redress reach the victims of the misfortune rapidly. One instance of escpecial promptness happened the other day, when a man was run over by a wagon in Grand street. This occurred at half past 8 in the morning, and before 10 a lawyer had interviewed him and made arrangements to undertake the case. Such rapidity is rather exceptional, but instances little short of it are to be noticed every day. Many of these accidents from driving take place on the crowded streets of the East Side, and there the news travels quickly to the offices of the lawyers who make a specialty of such practice. They are seen on the spot, and the victim is readily traced to his home or the hospital to which he may have been carried. The "ambulance chaser" who waits to learn of an accident from the newspapers is regarded now as a very unenterprising lawyer. -- New York Sun.

Chronicling America
2 August 1897, New York (NY) Sun, pg. 9, col. 2:
An Occupation the Object of Which Is to Breed Lawsuits.
From the St. Louis Republic
There are about half a dozen men in this city who make a living in rather a peculiar manner. They have come to be known as "ambulance chasers," and one or more of them can be found on the scene of almost every accident.

The occupation of the "ambulance chaser" is rather a new one, although the methods he uses have been used to gain the same ends for years back. The "ambulance chaser" is in the employ of some lawyer who makes a specialty of handling damage suits.

When an accident of any sort happend the "ambulance chaser" is right to the front in the crowd which gathers. He gets the name and address of the person who is injured, or if the victim is so badly injured that he cannot give his name and address the lawyer's agent follows the ambulance to the dispensary, where he usually finds a way to learn what he wishes.

In a few days he calls on the person who was injured and explains to him what a good case he has if he will sue for damages. If the injured person has not sufficient means to prosecute the suit, or shows a disinclination to do so, the "chaser" gets in his fine work and offers to find an attorney who will take the case and carry it through to completion for a percentage of the amount gained as damages. All this at no cost to the plaintiff, for if the suit is lost the lawyer gets no pay. The smooth "chaser" usually succeeds in getting the case on these terms.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityWorkers/People • (0) Comments • Thursday, July 15, 2004 • Permalink