In the aftermath of a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, commentators have noted that such an outcome is quite rare. “A grand jury could ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ but apparently not a white police officer,” wrote the U.K.’s Independent. “If a jury can indict a ham sandwich, why is it taking so long?” asked Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. Where did that delicious, evocative phrase come from?
As Barry Popik explains, Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of New York state, coined the term in a January 1985 interview with the New York Daily News’ Marcia Kramer and Frank Lombardi. The relevant bit:
In a bid to make prosecutors more accountable for their actions, Chief Judge Sol Wachtler has proposed that the state scrap the grand jury system of bringing criminal indictments.
Wachtler, who became the state’s top judge earlier this month, said district attorneys now have so much influence on grand juries that “by and large” they could get them to “indict a ham sandwich.”
A month later, the New York Times noted that Wachtler believed grand juries “operate more often as the prosecutor’s pawn than the citizen’s shield.” That belief—that prosecutors can get grand juries to do whatever they want them to do—will sound familiar to anyone who’s been listening to criticism of St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch.
The “ham sandwich” got some more cultural cachet when Tom Wolfe included the saying in the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. “But mainly you used the grand jury to indict people,” Wolfe wrote, “and in the famous phrase of Sol Wachtler, chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, a grand jury would ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ if that’s what you wanted.”
Of all the sandwiches in all the delis in all the world, why a ham sandwich? Although ham is indeed a common lunchmeat, Wachtler wasn’t convinced he’d picked the right kind of flesh. In his etymological blog post, Popik says the Jewish judge “told me that he regrets that he didn’t say ‘pastrami’ sandwich, adding that he may (surely) have been misquoted about ‘ham.’ “
Regardless of whether it was pastrami or ham, Wachtler got to observe the sandwich-making process from both sides of the lunch counter. In 1993, he was indicted for extortion and other crimes. Psychology Today explains:
Wachtler’s debacle began as an affair with prominent Republican fund-raiser Joy Silverman. After the relationship ended, he embarked on a series of threatening letters and phone calls to Silverman—including a sexually explicit note addressed to her 14-year-old daughter, complete with an enclosed condom—from various locales around the country.
Wachtler, who pleaded guilty to making threats to kidnap Silverman’s daughter, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. After his arrest, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and is now an advocate for the mentally ill. Wachtler, who is 84, had his law license restored in 2007.
In a biographical essay on the New York courts’ website, David Gould writes, “After Judge Wachtler was released from prison, he told an audience at a speech he gave that before his arrest, he was always worried that the ‘ham sandwich’ statement would be the only thing for which he would be remembered. Now, he said, he wishes that the quote would be the only thing for which he would be remembered.” That wish will surely come true—the ham sandwich he made 30 years ago will still be edible long after Wachtler’s personal scandal fades from view.