Friday, July 15, 2016

A look at the "crime of poverty" through a new acquisition

Title page and spine of Cutler's Insolvent Laws of Massachusetts
Our previous post shed light on the legal dilemma of debtors in the early United States. The book on hand today tracks the development of bankruptcy law in Massachusetts up to the eve of the Civil War.

This is the third edition of Joseph Cutler's The Insolvent Laws of Massachusetts (Boston, 1860), which includes relevant laws passed by the Massachusetts legislature through 1859. The fifth and final edition would be published in 1892. Few copies of any edition survive to the present day, and only ten third editions are known to exist. This particular copy, with its marbled covers and gilt fillets to the spine, belonged to W. S. Dexter, who wrote his name in pencil on the front flyleaf.

While the Greeks and Romans considered debtors’ prisons barbaric, the practice flourished in Europe and the English-speaking colonies of North America, beginning in the 1600s. For owing as little as 60 cents, even the rich and powerful, including two signers of the Declaration of Independence , might spend time in crowded communal cells. For the very poor, however, they might spend the rest of their lives imprisoned, unable to pay the debt and eventually felled by disease in the ghastly conditions of the gaol (The Marshall Project 2015).

By the time this book was published, the only writ that could be issued in relation to a debt was one allowing a sheriff to seize all of the debtor’s non-legally-excluded property for payment of the debt, as well as his account books (General Statutes, Ch. 118, Sec. 18, 1859). Federal law had banned debtors’ prisons in 1833, and in 1983 the Supreme Court would affirm their unconstitutionality. Despite this, since the Financial Crisis of 2008, the public has grown more and more aware of the practice of jailing poor people for being unable to pay debts. This occurs when private debtors fail to appear at civil proceedings and are jailed for contempt of court; jail can also be the result of debts incurred through involvement with the criminal justice system due to fines, a variety of evidence testing fees, or pretrial jail per-diems (The Marshall Project 2015).  While banned in law, it would appear debtors’ prisons live on in fact for unfortunate people whose only crime is being poor.

Thanks to the Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., for the background information on this item.

Sources:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Pay up or off to prison!

Promissory note and writ
This pair of documents recounts a trying period in the life of one Robert Taylor. The first, smaller piece of paper is a promissory note, signed on 18 February 1780, in Milton, Massachusetts. Taylor promises to deliver Isaac Davenport 300 “weight” of good merchantable flax by April 1 of the same year in exchange for £20.

The next document makes it clear that he did not deliver Davenport the flax. A forerunner of today’s fill-in- the-blanks legal forms, this is a writ, addressed to the sheriff of Worcester County, for the arrest of Taylor.

If the law caught up with Taylor, he would have been placed in debtors’ prison. Next week’s blog and selection from the Rare Book Room will examine the conditions Taylor would have faced in the prison, as well as a look at the history of debtors’ prisons in Massachusetts and the United States at large.

This post was written by BC Law Library intern, Allison Shely, Boston College Class of 2017. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"First" American edition of Vattel's seminal work on international law


Emer de Vattel's The Law of Nations, his seminal work on international law, was first published in 1758 in his native French. In 2014, we acquired this first edition in an original trade binding. Recently, we were happy to add a copy of a very early American edition to our collection. Indicated as the first edition on the title page, this is in fact the second American edition (the first was actually published in New York in 1787).

Vattel’s influential work was cited more frequently than any other work in the courts of the Early Republic and received high praise from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It continues to be cited today by courts across our country and beyond.

This unassuming but lovely copy clearly was well-used; there are pencil markings throughout the volume. The binding is sheepskin patterned to mimic tree calf, with gilt tooling and the original lettering piece on the spine.

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

For more on the Vattel’s influence in colonial and early America, see Willem Theo Oosterveld, The Law of Nations in Early American Foreign Policy (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2016), 26-35.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Look Back at a Recent Student Event: Legally Binding


Last month, I hosted our second annual student lunch and "behind the scenes" Rare Book Room event. This year, we were lucky to have Barbara Hebard, Burns Conservator, as a special guest. We enjoyed a great lunch, and then went into the Rare Book Room with our six student attendees, a fantastic mix of enthusiastic first, second, and third year law students.

For each book, I gave a brief overview of the content and its importance in our collection, and then Barbara talked about the binding and other physical characteristics. I never fail to learn something when Barbara comes over. In addition to explaining what one can tell about a book and its audience by certain binding features, she pointed out evidence of long-removed clasps on our 1559 Corpus Iuris Civilis; revealed how our 1496 edition of the Decretales of Gregory IX had been bound in vellum over an earlier paper binding; and explained how you can tell how certain owners had clearly planned (or not, depending on the book!) for the addition of copious annotations.

The students, as usual, were amazed at the condition of the paper in our 1475 Nuremberg printing of the Code of Justinian. They had excellent questions about the process of dual-color printing, the relationship between printers and bookbinders, and the importance of annotations and other marginalia for legal historians.

At the end of our session, Barbara showed us all how to sew a pamphlet, and we used our current exhibit catalogs to practice!




Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Student Event in the Rare Book Room: Lunch, Books, and Binding

RSVP quickly to snag one of ten slots on OrgSync!

In light of the success of last year’s student event in the Rare Book Room, on Monday 4/25 at noon, curator Laurel Davis is going to host another lunch, exhibit, and discussion about our beautiful collection of rare books and manuscripts.

This year, we will have a special guest: Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator at the Burns Library, the home of Boston College’s special collections. We will provide lunch from Panera in the law library conference room, and then move into the Rare Book Room to look at some highlights from our collection. After that, we’ll have a hands-on session with Barbara for those who would like to try their hand at binding a pamphlet!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Happy Leap Day and Year!

Apparently, there was an onslaught of Leap Year postcards in the early 20th century, particularly around 1908 and 1912. Most played on the idea that February 29th was a day in which women could take a leap, flip the old-fashioned tables, and propose to a man. The origins of the idea are murky, but perhaps are rooted in a 13th century Scottish law that supposedly penalized men for refusing a woman's proposal during a leap year.

Examples of these cards abound on the web, including a Leap Year postcard database from Monmouth University. Our own collection of legal postcards, gift of Michael H. Hoeflich and subject of a Fall 2014 exhibit, includes a legally-themed example. The woman is apparently on "the right side of the law" in proposing to the lawyer during a Leap Year.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Heavily Annotated First Edition of Burn's Justice of the Peace


Today’s featured acquisition is a first edition of Richard Burn’s The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer. First published in 1755, Burn’s work is the most popular ever written on justices of the peace. This particular copy can provide researchers with great insights into how manuals like this were actually used. Our copy contains some 75 additional blank pages, most of which have been used as an appendix, adding cases and statutes under the headings from the book. There are also extensive marginal notes. Some are additions that the owner found useful to supplement the original text, while others are updates that refer to laws enacted after the time of publication. Some of the owner’s very legible notes can be seen in the photo above.
                                     
The extensive notes were presumably written by Richard Hopton of Canon-Frome, Hereford, whose bookplate appears in the front of both volumes. The Hopton family occupied a country house in the county of Herefordshire for centuries. Hopton himself was a lawyer in the area and would have been practicing at the time of publication. Worth mentioning is a schedule of fees for Herefordshire court officers, which is copied into the handwritten appendix in the first volume. 

Richard Burn was born in England in 1709. He attended school at Oxford, where he was later awarded a Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.). Burn went on to become justice of the peace for Westmorland and Cumberland counties. The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer was his first book. What made the work particularly groundbreaking was its unique layout. Tired of the arbitrary organization that had plagued justices’ manuals in the past, Burn laid out a new plan in the preface of the first volume: “The author proposeth in this book to render the laws relating to the subjects it treats of, a little more intelligible than hath hitherto been done” (v). He was evidently successful. Even Blackstone praised Burn’s work, noting that it included “every thing relative to this subject, both in ancient and modern practice, collected with great care and accuracy, and disposed in a most clear and judicious method” (bk 1 c.9 iii [354 (1771)]). Burn went on to edit the ninth through eleventh editions of Blackstone’s Commentaries. The thirtieth and final edition of Justice was published in 1869, eighty-four years after Burn’s death.

Thanks to Joe Luttrell at Meyer Boswell Books for his helpful description.


Sources:
Norma Landau, “Burn, Richard (1709-1785),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
The Hopton Family and Their Book-Plates,” Journal of the Ex Libris Society, 1904.