Oakey Hall was born in Albany, New York, to Elsie Lansing Oakey Hall and
Morgan James Hall, a wholesale merchant in New Orleans. His father died of
yellow fever in 1830, so his mother moved the family to New York City where she
ran a boardinghouse. With the pecuniary assistance of relatives, she was able to
provide her son with an education, and in 1844 he graduated from New York
University. Hall pursued his studies at Harvard Law School for a semester, then
dropped out to read law at a firm in New Orleans. In 1846 he passed the
Louisiana bar and began the practice of law. A writer since college days, Hall
continued to pen pieces for newspapers and magazines, and would eventually
author poems, plays, short stories, and children's books. A lifelong lover of
the arts, he moved back to New York City in 1848 to take advantage of Gotham's
cultural opportunities. The next year he married Katherine Louise Barnes; they
had seven children.
In New York, Hall's connections secured him a partnership with distinguished
lawyers Aaron Vanderpoel and Augustus Brown and a position as assistant to
district attorney Nathaniel Bowditch Blunt. When Blunt died in 1853, Hall was
elected district attorney on the Whig ticket. He was subsequently reelected
several times, serving until 1869 except for the 1859-61 term. An industrious
worker and lover of courtroom drama, he prosecuted 10,000 cases, including
several publicity-generating murder trials. Hall switched his political
affiliation from Whig to Republican to Democrat, aligning himself with the
city's Tammany Hall Democratic machine by 1864. He edited Tammany Hall's news
organ, the Leader, until 1871. He became wealthy as his prominence attracted
clients to his law practice.
"Boss" William Tweed hand-picked Hall to be Tammany's mayoral
candidate in 1868 and won by a landslide, and was reelected in 1869 and 1870 (in
the latter to a two-year term). Tweed used his position as state senator to
drive through the legislature a reformed city charter that augmented mayoral
authority. It established the mayor and two other city officials (also Tammany
associates at the time) as a board of audit that certified city expenditures.
The change in political power resulted in numerous projects expanding the city's
infrastructure as well as in concomitant corruption in the guise of inflated
payments to contractors and kickbacks to government officials.
The New York Times and Harper's Weekly exposed the graft and hounded Hall and
other members of the "Tweed Ring" out of office. Hall was tried three
times (1871-1873) for malfeasance, but it could not be proved that he intended
to defraud the public nor that he benefited financially from approving
monetarily bloated contracts. The first case against him was ruled a mistrial,
the second ended with a hung jury, and the third in acquittal.
Despite the "not guilty" verdict in the courtroom, the scandal killed
Hall's political career and brought hardships to his personal life. He was
forced to resign from his law firm and the socially prestigious Union Club, and
relations with his wife became strained. For the next few years he rather
unsuccessfully ventured into play-writing and acting, lecturing, and journalism.
In 1883 James Gordon Bennett Junior hired him to be the London correspondent for
the New York Herald. In London, Hall resumed the practice of law, socialized
with artists, and remarried after the death of his first wife. In 1892 he
returned to New York City, writing occasionally for newspapers until his death.