Wednesday, October 14, 2015

New Acquisition: 19th Century Justice of the Peace Ledger

Wilkes Wood entry on theft
This acquisition is a manuscript ledger of cases heard by Wilkes Wood, a justice of the peace for Middleborough in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Wood graduated from Brown University in 1793 and was admitted to the bar of Plymouth in 1796 after studying law there under Judge Thomas. He served as judge of probate and president of the Bar Association of Plymouth County. A member of the Whig Party, Wood served as a state senator for Massachusetts for two years and was a member of the electoral college that cast its vote for William Harrison.

Unlike today, justices of the peace in Massachusetts at the time had a good deal of power, with jurisdiction over criminal cases and some civil cases. Justices worked out of their own homes and kept their own records and ledgers. Dissatisfied parties could appeal the justices’ rulings to the local county courts, with the records for the appeal coming from the ledger or minute books of the justice of the peace who heard the original case. Catherine S. Menand, A Research Guide to the Massachusetts Courts and Their Records 60 (1987).

Wood’s ledger covers actions from 1801-1840, with the bulk of the entries from 1801-1816. Although most of them are related to defaults on debts, there are approximately one hundred actions brought for other matters including theft, assault and battery, and vagrancy. Additionally, there are several records of marriages performed by Wood. One of the more interesting actions is displayed above. In it, plaintiff Joseph Bisbe, a blacksmith, has brought an action against the defendant for theft. After examining the “proofs” offered, Justice of the Peace Wood declares the defendant to be guilty and orders him to pay a fine of three dollars as well as the costs of prosecution, listed on the bottom left of the page.

previous post showcased a similar record book belonging to a justice of the peace in Springfield.

Many thanks to Robert H. Rubin for the description on which this post is based.

Thomas Weston, History of the Town of Middleboro Massachusetts (1906)
Catherine S. Menand, A Research Guide to the Massachusetts Courts and Their Records (1987)

This posted was drafted by BC Law Library intern, Liz Walk, Boston College Class of 2016. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

New Acquisition: A Legal Commonplace Book

This commonplace book, published in London in 1680, is attributed to Samuel Brewster. It is succinctly titled A Brief Method of the Law. Being an Exact Alphabetical Disposition of All the Heads Necessary for a Perfect Common-Place. Books of this type were used as a tool for the study and retrieval of law. The owner was meant to follow the structure of the book and fill it in, or “common-place” it, with notes and precedents. The book is organized into an alphabetical outline of legal topics, from “Abatement del breve” to “Wreck”. The blank interleaves in our copy were filled in extensively by an English law student or lawyer; the language of the notes varies between English, Latin, and Law-French.

In his History of English Law, Holdsworth discusses the utility of commonplace books in the study of law at this time, making specific reference to Brewster's work. According to Holdsworth, the typical law student “was thrown upon his own resources; and that consequently the method of getting and assimilating a knowledge of law, which was universally recommended and generally followed, was the making of a commonplace book under alphabetical heads.”

In addition to his considerable notes in the text, the owner also copied a lengthy indenture into the first several pages of the book, indicating an intent to use this as a precedent book as well.

Thank you to Michael von der Linn at Lawbook Exchange for the description on which this post is based.

Holdsworth, William. A History of English Law. Vol. 6: 601.

This post was drafted by BC Law Library intern, Liz Walk. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

New Acquisition: Revolutionary Period Reference Letter

This acquisition, dated 1783, is a letter of reference for membership to the bar. In it, Peter W. Yates, Esq., endorses Anthony Hoffman’s good moral character and affirms that Hoffman clerked in his office for a period of one year. Yates was a prominent attorney in Albany and later a member of the New York State Assembly and a delegate to the Continental Congress.

The letter supports Hoffman’s application for admission to the bar. The standards for legal education and admission to the bar differed from those in place today. Law courses were uncommon at colleges until after the Revolution, when American legal education began to develop in earnest. Before the founding of independent law schools, chairs of law began to be established at several colleges, the first one at William and Mary College in 1779. The first school of law, Litchfield Law School, was not established until 1784, the year after this letter was written. Law books were difficult to come by, so the primary method of study came through an apprenticeship with a member of the Bar who would have superior texts and experience.

At the time Yates wrote his reference, neither the New York State Bar Association nor the ABA had been established, though there had been a New York Bar Association established in New York City that existed from 1747 until around 1770. We are not certain of what experience Hoffman would have had in terms of his legal education or in his process of admission to the bar. As of 1767, the New York Supreme Court controlled admission to the bar and decided that either a bachelor’s degree coupled with a 3-year clerkship or a 5-year clerkship without a degree would be required for applicants. After the adoption of the New York State Constitution in 1777, courts were given power to control qualification of the attorneys appearing before them. Hoffman likely would have been working with similar standards.

The bar exam itself was also markedly different. The first bar exam administered in the United States was in Delaware in 1763. It was an oral examination in front of a judge. The first written bar exam did not come until 1855, in Massachusetts. Would Hoffman’s experience have been an informal interview with a judge? A rigorous oral examination on all points of the common law?

Interestingly, Yates’s endorsement of Hoffman’s character is quite comparable to the affidavit as to an applicant’s good moral character still required in New York today, and similar to other states’ moral character requirements.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Otis Family: Part 3


Two previous posts showcased some of our Otis materials, which are largely related to the legal practice of James Otis, Sr. Otis was the father of the patriot James Otis, Jr., the poet and political writer Mercy Otis Warren, and the politician Samuel Allyne Otis.

This 1738 document is an indenture binding Hannah Attequin, a Native American woman from Mashpee, to Silvanus Bourn. Bourn was a wealthy merchant and lawyer living in Barnstable. He also served as judge of the Barnstable Court of Common Pleas, becoming Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas before his death. Additionally, Bourn  was a member of the Governor’s Council, Register of Probate, and then Judge of Probate for Barnstable County. The indenture transfers Attequin’s debt from the recently deceased Joseph Hinckley over to Bourn, who was actually Hinckley’s uncle. Though the indenture states that Attequin was binding herself to Bourn, her signature is nowhere to be found in the document.

James Otis, Sr., alongside John Gorham, acted as a justice of the peace in witnessing the document. Otis and Bourn were neighbors, friends, and cousins by marriage. Both were active public figures in Massachusetts, with Otis being appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas and judge of Probate for Barnstable County the year after Bourn died. Additionally, the two acted together as guardians of the local Mashpee Indian tribe.

From looking at various genealogical records, including this site and this book, we believe that Joseph Hinckley, the previous party to the indenture, was the great-grandson of Samuel Hinckley, Sr. Samuel is also known for being the common ancestor of three presidents: George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Many thanks to Robert Rubin for his helpful description of this item. Some of the information in this post comes from The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts by John J. Waters, Jr.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Recent Acquisition: More from Joseph Story on Proposed Federal Bankruptcy Law


A previous post introduced readers to the correspondence between Joseph Story and William Tudor. At the time of the letters, Story (1779-1845) was serving as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Tudor, who wanted to serve as the Massachusetts Commissioner of Bankruptcy as his father had, sought a letter of recommendation from Story. The initial request came from Tudor as Congress was considering a new bankruptcy bill, which Story emphatically supported. In our previously acquired letter, Story wrote that he was uncertain whether the legislation would grant appointment power to the executive or judicial branch.

In this letter, dated five months later, Story obliges Tudor with the requested letter of recommendation. He reminds Tudor that, as the bill stood at the time of writing, the appointment commission would be made up of State judges. Story notes that if the legislation were amended to give appointment power to the executive branch, Tudor would need to forward the recommendation to the President. At that time, he would have been referring to James Monroe.

Ultimately, the bill in question failed to pass. This would disappoint Story, who long advocated for a federal bankruptcy law. He would go on to aid in drafting similar legislation that was eventually passed by Congress in 1841, making it the first federal bankruptcy law enacted since the repeal of the Bankruptcy Act in 1803. Story would continue to serve on the Supreme Court until his death in 1845. To this day, he is the youngest Supreme Court Justice at the time of appointment.

Many thanks to Michael von der Linn at Lawbook Exchange for the description on which this post is based.

Monday, June 29, 2015

New Acquisition: Commonplace Book of a Massachusetts Practitioner

This new acquisition is commonplace book filled in by Julian Abbot (1806-1891), a 19th century lawyer in Lowell, Massachusetts. The book, called the Index Rerum: Or Index of Subjects..., Northampton, MA,1836 (3rd edition), is essentially blank, with the creator, Rev. John Todd of Northampton, providing an organizational structure for keeping track of valuable information. In the preface, Todd states that "the Index is ruled with blue ink, with a wide margin on the left hand of each page. The margin is to contain the word selected as a guide to the subject noted down. On the corners of the page, you will find the letters of the alphabet (capitals) and in the center, the first five vowels..." Entries were to be alphabetized based on the first letter and then the first vowel following that. Law students and lawyers like Abbot could use this structure to keep track of helpful precedents and treatise passages on important legal topics.

Julian Abbot did not fill in all of the pages, but he did write a fair number of entries, beginning with Acceptance and ending with the Writ of Withernam. There are several notes in the blanks at the end, including a list of legal maxims in Latin. Abbot's entries help us understand what an American lawyer at this time was studying and what sources he was using. He cites to a whole host of legal sources that are in our working lawyer's collection in the Rare Book Room. Case law citations abound, particularly to Massachusetts cases, but Abbot also quotes passages from U.S. and New Hampshire cases, among others. He also references a wide variety of treatises, including Blackstone's Commentaries, Kent's Commentaries, Story on Conflicts, Greenleaf on Evidence, Russell on Crime, Chitty on Contracts, and many others. There's also the occasional non-legal entry, including a passage from Goethe about Cervantes and Don Quixote.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Otis Family: Part 2

A prior post introduced our readers to a bit of information on our Otis materials, which are largely related to the legal practice of James Otis, Sr. (father of the famous patriot).

Today's item of interest is a 1733 writ of execution, issued by court clerk John Sturgis, in a matter involving a suit by James Otis, Sr. against Noah Wepquish, a member of the Mashpee tribe. According to the document, Otis had represented Noah's son, Phillip, in a criminal case. Phillip had  been charged with night burglary of a dwelling house and was facing a possible sentence of death. Otis claimed that Noah had promised a fee of three pounds if Phillip escaped with his life. Otis further claims that he will show at trial that Phillip "was not found worthy of death, that his time & well worth three pounds, yett the deft [the defendant, Noah Wepquish] refuses to pay...."

In this writ, clerk Sturgis orders the sheriff to attach Noah's goods or estate to the value of six pounds. A notation on the verso indicates that the defendant maintained that he had made no such promise to Otis. I'd love to go digging through the Barnstable, Massachusetts court records at some point to see how this played out...

Next time? A 1738 indenture binding a Mashpee woman to serve a Barnstable man.

Many thanks to Robert Rubin of Robert H. Rubin Books for his wonderful description of this item, on which this post is based. His keen eye and transcription made it much simpler for me to understand the circumstances surrounding this issuance of this writ.