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.


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