The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The remarkable story of Henry Wade, abortion case’s namesake

Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade in 1964, looking over his files on Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner who killed presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. (Bettmann Archive)
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They called him The Chief.

He stalked the halls of Dallas courthouses chewing a cigar.

In his office, he sometimes spat.

His name was Henry Wade.

To Texans, he was unforgettable. As Dallas County prosecutor from 1950 to 1986, Wade never lost a case he personally tried. His office racked up convictions — some, it later turned out, falsely — at the pace of a prize thoroughbred. He prosecuted Jack Ruby after he shot and killed President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the Dallas police headquarters in 1963.

And yet to the rest of the country, Wade is largely forgotten, a fact that boggles the mind given that his name is attached to perhaps the most controversial Supreme Court decision in U.S. history.

Roe v. Wade

Wade’s name was all over the headlines Friday as the Supreme Court overturned its 1973 ruling, and with it the constitutional right to abortion.

Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

The public debate about the decision to legalize abortion has extended way beyond the participants and facts of the case. You don’t, for instance, hear Norma McCorvey’s name all that much in the shouting. She’s the woman who sued Wade as “Jane Roe,” in the case that wound its way to the Supreme Court.

You definitely don’t hear much, if anything at all, about Wade, which is another mind-boggler because he was the losing party in a landmark case.

And he mostly shrugged his shoulders at the whole thing.

Wade was born in 1914, the ninth of 11 children, to small-town east Texas farmers. This is said about many great lawyers: As children, they liked to argue. This was true of Henry Wade, but also the majority of his siblings, five of whom also became lawyers.

He studied law at the University of Texas, joined the Navy, became an FBI agent and in 1950 was elected Dallas County prosecutor, a job he held down without challenge for 36 years.

Wade’s obituaries and stories about his death in 2001 noted that, in addition to chewing cigars, he liked to play dominoes. Also, when he returned to private practice late in life, he often left the office by 4 p.m. so he could go home to watch his favorite television show, “Bonanza.”

You could say he was a character. And a consequential one, at that.

The Guardian, in its obituary, put it this way in the very first sentence: “The lawyer who precipitated one of the most controversial judicial decisions in American history …”

But that would have been a point of contention with The Chief.

When “Roe,” a resident of Dallas County, served Wade with court papers in 1970, it was not because he had personally wronged her.

According to “Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision That Made Abortion Legal,” the cigar-chewing prosecutor — a Democrat — never showed any personal animosity toward abortion. In fact, author Marian Faux wrote:

…Wade’s office, like most district attorneys’ offices across the country, had instigated virtually no abortion prosecutions. District attorneys typically prosecuted an abortionist only when a complaint was filed by a police department, and that only happened when a woman showed up, usually at a large metropolitan hospital, with a badly bungled abortion and was willing to talk to the police about what had happened to her.

Which is to say, Wade wasn’t out crusading against abortions.

So why did “Roe” sue?

Because abortion was illegal in the county where Wade was the top law enforcement official. Roe wanted to challenge the law and his authority, should he choose to exercise it, to prosecute her if she underwent an abortion.

The result is well known: The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 in Roe’s favor. Roe won! Abortion was declared legal around the country. Wade lost!

But had he?

When abortions were illegal — and how women got them anyway

In his history of abortion and the right to privacy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David J. Garrow wrote that after the decision was announced, Wade “made no comments to the press” about a case he “had never taken any personal interest in,” despite the fact that it “bore his name.” He did privately acknowledge later in life that “in some cases abortion is justified,” according to Garrow.

A keen legal analysis of the case by Wade would have been impossible.

The Chief never read the decision.

A version of this story was published on Sept. 5, 2018, under the headline “Roe v. Wade’s forgotten loser: The remarkable story of Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade.”

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