Monday, July 21, 2014

New database for Appeals to the Privy Council

A wonderful new resource for legal historians has recently been released online from two familiar faces at Boston College Law School: Sharon Hamby O'Connor, Professor Emerita, and Mary Sarah Bilder, Professor and Lee Distinguished Scholar. The database is called "Appeals to the Privy Council from the American Colonies: An Annotated Digital Catalogue" and currently offers access to all known cases appealed from the thirteen colonies that would become the U.S. to the Privy Council. That court heard appeals from the British colonial courts and ruled on all sorts of matters that would come to shape the law in these colonies, including U.S. constitutional law.

For these known appeals, the database provides links to digitized images of the original documents, where available. Fifty-four of the appeals include "printed cases" or briefs that lay out the reasons for the appeal. Contents are searchable via an internal search engine or via lists arranged in a variety of different ways (by colony, year, case name, etc.--be sure to look at the "Useful Lists" link on the bottom right of the homepage). 

Law students and scholars new to this type of research should review the compilers' memorandum, "Opportunities for Further Research, Discovery, and Investigation on Appeals to the Privy Council." Also, keep an eye out--the catalogue will expand to include appeals from Canadian and Caribbean colonies. In the meantime, have fun browsing through this rich source of U.S. legal history! 


Friday, June 20, 2014

In the trenches with a Springfield justice of the peace...

This slim volume--with a pretty jazzy cover--provides a look at four years in the life of a Massachusetts justice of the peace, in the early days of the United States. Titled Justice Matters, Or a Memorandum of Civil Actions Before William Pynchon, Esq. Over 5 Pounds from 1789-1793, this book contains the records of disputes coming out of Hampshire County, Massachusetts; most of the parties were from Springfield or surrounding towns. Virtually all of the entries name the plaintiff and defendant and describe the action as a "process of confession in a plea of the case"; this leads to a discussion of some dispute over payment.  In many of the entries, Pynchon notes that the plaintiff appeared before him with an attorney but that the defendant "though solemnly called did not appear but made default," leading to the plaintiff's recovery of damages and costs.

Each entry includes a seal and Pynchon's signature, suggesting that this was an official record. In instances where the parties were dissatisfied with the result, Pynchon mentions the matter being taken to the Court of Common Pleas at Northampton.  

This William Pynchon is apparently a descendant of the William Pynchon [1590-1662] who founded Springfield.  This Pynchon ancestor is the subject of a similar book about "grass roots" legal practice--Joseph H. Smith, ed., Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1702): the Pynchon Court Record, An Original Judges' Diary of the Administration of Justice in the Springfield Courts in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Just as a point of interest: I noticed that the plaintiff in several matters was a Jonathan Dwight of Springfield. A couple of years ago, I acquired a complaint filed by a Seth Dwight of Hatfield against Medad Negro. Curious about a possible connection, I turned to the interwebs. It turns out that Seth was Jonathan's great-uncle!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Applying for admission to the bar? Try to beat this letter of recommendation...

The deadline for applications to take the July bar exam just passed in May, and we had a flurry of 3Ls seeking letters of recommendation, signatures from the recommending attorneys, and so on. Naturally, this item caught my attention. It is a March 29, 1817 letter written and signed by Daniel Webster, who argued many important cases before the Supreme Court and served in the U.S. House, Senate, and as Secretary of State.  At the time of this letter, Webster had just finished his term as a representative from New Hampshire in the U.S. House; it was two years before he would argue passionately for the survival of Dartmouth College in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819).

Webster's letter is addressed to Mr. Pickering, Secretary of the Suffolk Bar; in it, Webster vouches for the credentials and character of Martin Whiting, an 1814 graduate of Harvard University. Webster states that Whiting had been working since 1814 in the Middlesex County law office of Isaac Fiske; he explains that Whiting began in Webster's own law office as a "Student at Law" in that very month, March 1817.  In the last line, Webster certifies to "regular attestations to the correctness of [Whiting's] moral character.

According to the William T. Davis's Bench and Bar of Massachusetts, Whiting was admitted to the Suffolk Bar in May 1818 and died quite young in 1823.

All four images of the letter are available on our Facebook page!

Friday, May 16, 2014

New acquisition: Cash Book of William Coombs Thompson

This beautifully bound cash book provides a glimpse into the daily activities of William Coombs Thompson (1802-1877). Thompson, who read law in Boston and then spent his later years in Worcester, practiced for the bulk of his career as a lawyer in Plymouth, New Hampshire. That's where he was working during the almost five-year period covered by this book (March 1833-December 1837).  Reading the entries feels like time-traveling back to the 19th century.  There's the expected income from clients for drafting and serving writs and preparing deeds, but there are also expenses for bushels of oats, loaves of sugar, and apples (for his horse?).  His entries in the debit column for March 30, 1833 include an expense for powder & shot!

As you can see from the attached image, the book is arranged with credits on the left side and debits on the right. If I'm correctly understanding his system (by no means a given), Thompson used the terms in way we think of them now when looking at a bank statement--credits are money received (left) and debits are payments made (right).  This seems unusual to me, as I believe the terms are used in the opposite way in traditional accounting/bookkeeping speak. Traditional bookkeeping also typically puts debits on the left and credits on the right.  Corrections and clarifications from those more knowledgeable than me are always welcome!


Thursday, May 1, 2014

New Exhibit: Recent Additions to the Collection (Spring 2014)

I’m pleased to announced that there is a new exhibit on display in the Rare Book Room, featuring exciting new additions to our collection over the past few years. Some of our most intriguing additions are documents that came directly out of legal practice in the colonies and early America, illuminating the real people practicing and affected by the law. Many would be the source of interesting research projects. Some of my favorites: a 1746 Hatfield, MA complaint against a man named Medad Negro, identified as a black manservant, for burning down a barn; a recognizance for a 14 year-old boy accused of murdering an American Indian woman; a 1819 partnership agreement between two Boston attorneys; a 1819 letter from Joseph Story asserting the need for new bankruptcy legislation; new additions to our fabulous Francis Bacon collection; and much, much more. 

The exhibit will be on display through mid-August, so please wander in as the semester wraps up or during the summer. Selected images, descriptions, and a brochure can be found on the exhibit webpage!

Cheers,

Laurel Davis
Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts

Monday, April 7, 2014

New acquisitions: Sir Matthew Hale

We've added a couple of new volumes to our collection, both with works by Matthew Hale (1609-1676). Hale was an English jurist and writer largely known today for his insights on criminal law and, perhaps most notoriously, for expounding the proposition that it was not possible for a husband to rape his wife under the system of coverture.  This position, outlined in his work Historia Placitorum Coronæ, or The History of the Pleas of the Crown, was finally rejected in England by the House of Lords in the case of R. v. R. in 1991. Hale served under Cromwell as Justice of the Common Pleas and then under Charles II as Chief Justice of the King's Bench.  

The most interesting volume here (title page on the right, above) was printed in London in 1707 and includes three of Hale's works: his Pleas of the Crown; Or, A Methodical Summary...; A Short Treatise Touching Sheriffs Accompts (London, 1683); and A Tryal of Witches at the Assizes...(London, 1682).  Pleas of the Crown was first printed in 1678, so this is a later edition of that title, but Sheriffs and Witches are first editions.  The latter work is a record of the witchcraft trials at Bury St. Edmonds in 1662, over which Hale presided. Two elderly widows were convicted by the jury on thirteen counts of witchcraft; Hale sentenced them to death, and they were hanged. These proceedings would greatly influence the Salem witchcraft prosecutions in 1692. 

A related acquisition is a 1676 printing of Hale's Comtemplations Moral and Divine, shown on the left above.  This title, though not specifically legal, caught my eye as it appeared (twice!) in a colonial American lawyer's library inventory that I recently ran across in a legal history textbook.  The inventory also included Coke's Commentaries and Dalton's Countrey Justice, among others. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Tired of people sitting in your pew?

Buy it!  This document reflects the sale of a pew in the Salem Meeting House in October 1769.  In September of that same year, Reverend Thomas Barnard and the proprietors of the church gave power to five committee members (Nathaniel Ropes, John Nutting, William Browne, Benjamin Pickman, and Deacon John Bickford) to make and sell four pews.  This was a common way for churches to raise money at the time.  For thirty-six pounds, Clark Gayton Pickman, a merchant and presumably a relative of committee member Benjamin Pickman, purchased pew number 60, the "Westermost Floor pew on the Front of the Men's long seats", with appurtenances.  I wonder if Mr. Pickman's heirs and assigns also got to enjoy the pew or if he sold it for a better view at some point.  The signatures and seals of all five committee members are included on the front of the document. 

This isn't the only pew deed in our collection either!  Our wonderful Brooker Collection contains at least two others: an 1812 deed for a pew in the New Meeting House of the First Parish of in Templeton, Massachusetts, and an 1837 deed for the sale of half a pew in the First Parish Meeting House in Natick, Massachusetts.