Tag Archives: Legal History

Aaron Burr Revised: Conspiracy, Treason and Justice


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Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn in 1809. Courtesy of New-York Historical SocietyWho remembers Aaron Burr as anything more than Quick Draw McGraw shooting down the near-sighted Alexander Hamilton at dawn in 1804? But there is much more to the man, as Gore Vidal revealed in his intriguing 1973 historical novel, and other subsequent scholarship.

Two aspects of Burr’s varied career stand out in today’s world. First, his treason trial that closely examined issues of what counts as an act of war against one’s own government. And second, his relationships with a series of highly intelligent and accomplished women, reflecting his high opinion of the female sex and its potential. Continue reading

The Albany Connections of Burr, Hamilton, and Schuyler


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Hamilton-burr-duelDuring the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton served as an artillery captain and later a colonel and trusted aid to General George Washington. Colonel Aaron Burr also served in the Colonial Army and accompanied Benedict Arnold on his march through the Maine wilderness and his failed attempt to capture Quebec. Burr had been with General Richard Montgomery when Montgomery was shot and killed in Quebec. Later in the war, Burr was placed in charge of a regiment and his troops were stationed in Westchester County, New York. Continue reading

Three Graces Of Raymond Street, Brooklyn


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Three GRaces of Raymond StreetA compelling story about three murders in Brooklyn between 1872 and 1873 and the young women charged with the crimes is told in a new book by Robert E. Murphy, Three Graces Of Raymond Street: Murder, Madness, Sex, and Politics in 1870s Brooklyn (SUNY Press, 2015).

Between January 1872 and September 1873, the city of Brooklyn was gripped by accounts of three murders allegedly committed by young women: a factory girl shot her employer and seducer, an evidently peculiar woman shot a philandering member of a prominent Brooklyn family, and a former nun was arrested on suspicion of having hanged her best friend and onetime convent mate. Continue reading

Trial Over True ‘Night Before Christmas’ Authorship


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ChristmasTrialArt-webA jury trial in a real courtroom in Troy on Sunday, December 7th at 2 pm aims to solve a centuries-old controversy over who really wrote one of the most beloved holiday poems in the world: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Last year “The Trial Before Christmas” was a surprise holiday spectacle that gained national media attention and attracted more than 500 spectators to the Rensselaer County Courthouse – a standing-room-only crowd. But the jury was unable to reach a verdict, so the case will be heard again. Continue reading

Chaos On An Adirondack Train: The Case Against Pullman Porter Smith


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Pullman Porter Helping Woman circa 1880sWhen the night train to Montreal set out from Utica on April 29, 1931, James E. Smith had already been toiling over the needs and wants of his passengers for many hours.  At 29 years old, Smith had been a Pullman porter for about three years.  He had done a stint in Pennsylvania and now was employed on the New York Central line of the Pullman Company.

The experience of the Pullman porter was both uncommon yet ordinary.  The Pullman Palace Car company hired black men almost exclusively as porters. This practice began under the direction of the founder of the company, George Pullman, after the Civil War. On board a luxurious and comfortable Pullman Car, Pullman porters were expected to be the ideal servants to their well off white passengers.   Continue reading

Newly Discovered Livingston Manuscript Being Exhibited


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12UnitedColonies_Livingston_p01The New-York Historical Society is displaying an important, recently discovered handwritten document that sheds new light on the period leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the final break with Great Britain.

The manuscript was discovered last summer in the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City, which served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and was recently acquired by Brian Hendelson, a noted New Jersey-based Americana collector. Hitherto unknown and unstudied, the manuscript is on view at New-York Historical in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library through November 7, 2014 and will remain on loan to New-York Historical for purposes of study and display for two years. Continue reading

Rockland County:
Thurgood Marshall’s 1940s Desegregation Case


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Brook students being turned away from the Hillburn SchoolDr. Travis Jackson often quotes this African proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

As one of the 49 children at the center of a successful desegregation case in Rockland County in 1943, Dr. Jackson will be a special guest at a ceremony in Hillburn, New York on Saturday, May 17. The event commemorates the 60th anniversary of a subsequent legal decision, the landmark Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The program will also remember the lawyer who was on the winning side in both cases, Thurgood Marshall. As an eyewitness to this epic hunt for equality, Jackson has become the historian for the lions. Continue reading

The Law That Saved Solomon Northup, And Others


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12 years a slaveThe amazing, and fortuitous, rescue of Solomon Northup was made possible by a New York statute that was signed into law, and became effective, on May 14, 1840.

Following the 1808 ban on importation of slaves into the U.S., enacted by Congress, the kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves became a larger problem. The ban reduced the “supply” of slaves, and with “demand” unchanged, prices rose, along with the potential profit for kidnappers. In 1817, in a description of a kidnapping case, the City Hall Recorder noted that, after 1808: “the practice of kidnapping was commenced, and has been carried to an alarming height.” Continue reading

John Jay Manhattan Walking Tour May 3rd


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John Jay (Gilbert Stuart portrait)On May 3, 2014, John Jay Homestead State Historic Site in Katonah, N.Y. will sponsor a walk through lower Manhattan titled John Jay’s Not-So-Big City.  The walking tour will trace John Jay’s haunts in New York in the late 18th century.

Founding Father John Jay, New York’s second Governor and America’s first Chief Justice, was born and educated in New York City, and spent much of his life there. The walking tour will trace his haunts, visiting the locations of the places where he lived and worked as one of New York’s leading lawyers and politicians, as well as U.S. Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Chief Justice of the United States, and Governor of New York. The tour will recall the time when New York was the capitol city of a young republic, and present a reminder of how the geography and architecture of Manhattan Island have changed since the arrival of the first European settlers in the 17th century. Continue reading

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Civil Rights Act of 1964


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Civil Rights Act of 1964 AnniversaryIn this 50th anniversary year of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a new book by Vanity Fair editor and Politico senior writer Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come (Henry Holt & Co., 2014) recounts the dramatic political battle to pass this important law that in many ways helped create modern America.

Pardum’s book revisits a turbulent time in America, a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, and the March on Washington. During this time, John F. Kennedy sent Congress a bill to bar racial discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations. Continue reading

Chicken Theives: History’s Low-Down Dirty Crooks


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NYH ChickThief 01 1931Among the several dozen correctional institutions in New York State, Dannemora (officially Clinton Correctional Facility) is the largest maximum-security prison. It is located in northern Clinton County, where the cold winter weather led to a variety of nicknames incorporating the word “Siberia.” It is also known as home to the worst of the worst, housing many of our most dangerous criminals.

For more than 160 years, the North Country’s famous lockup has confined inmates guilty of the most heinous crimes: murder, rape, arson, assault, bank robbery, serial killing … and chicken theft.

Chicken theft? About now, you might find that cool Sesame Street song going through your head: “One of these things is not like the others ….” But any crime is serious, especially if you’re the victim, and the seriousness of stealing chickens was once elevated in stature for a few reasons. Continue reading

45 Years a Slave:
Westchester Case Confirmed Story of Enslaved Man


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Westchester Slave Case 1857 (New York Times)On the 12th day of August in 1857, a young girl was brought before Judge William H. Robertson in his chambers at Katonah in Westchester County, New York. Over 30 years after slavery had been legally banned in the state, the matter before the judge was whether she should be set at liberty.

Local constable Zeno Hoyt had found the 5-year-old girl, named Ellen, at the home of David A. Griffin in Ossining, where she was in the charge of two ladies. One of them, Louisa Kerr, was present at the hearing, which came about because Ellen’s grandfather, with the assistance of attorney John Jay, had instituted proceedings to have her placed in his custody. Continue reading

1860: Married Women As Wage Slaves


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cotton-mill-workers1As the national debate over the extension of chattel slavery into the territories heated up in February and March of 1860, women’s rights advocates were storming the capitol in Albany demanding an end to what they felt was another form of slavery—wage slavery for married women.

Under the law in effect until March 20, 1860 in New York State, married women did not have legal control over any money they earned working for themselves or others. All of it belonged to their husbands! As Lucy Stone explained it to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1853, “unless by cunning she can keep her earnings away from him, he can and does take them to pay the drunkard’s bill, and to squander upon abandoned women.”

According to women’s rights supporters, there were tens of thousands of these kinds of ne’er-do-well husbands, most of whom were cigar-smoking drunkards and/or womanizers, who paid their bills with money they took from their wives’ bank accounts without their permission. Continue reading

Saratoga County:
A Future Black Congressman Faces Discrimination


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langstonportraitJohn W. Fowler’s law school, called the State and National Law School, was ahead of its time in the field of legal education in the 19th Century. He founded the school in Cherry Valley, New York, in 1847, and moved it to Ballston Spa a few years later, where it was housed in the former Sans Souci Hotel.

Contrary to the normal practice, at that time, of lawyers being trained by “reading law,” Fowler’s school offered courses in extemporaneous speaking and debating, and utilized mock trials to allow students to hone their courtroom skills. The school received much positive attention from the legal community, including South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Continue reading

Joan of Arc’s Birthday: Reflections On NY Suffrage History


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Inez MilhollandPosterJanuary 6 is Joan of Arc’s 602nd birthday. Not many historical figures, very few of them women, are celebrated 600 years after their birth. But the French teenager who led her country to victory after a century of war, changed its history, and was captured and killed by her enemies is an exception. Inspired by angels and saints, she has become an inspiration to many others, and New Yorkers are no exception.

When New York suffragist Inez Milholland, for example, led the women’s March for the Vote in Washington, DC in March 1913, clad all in white and astride a white horse, she didn’t overtly claim to be impersonating Joan of Arc. The electrifying figure she presented was called “the Herald” or simply “the Woman on a Horse,” an evocation of women in the West who already had the vote or a nod to the moral purity of American temperance leaders who frequently dressed in white. But everyone knew who she really was.  Continue reading

Book: Dutch Law and Jurisprudence in Colonial America


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Rosenblatt_Opening_9781438446578.inddNo society can function without laws, that set of established practices and expectations that guide the way people get along with one another and relate to ruling authorities. Although much has been written about the English roots of American law and jurisprudence, little attention has been paid until recently to the legacy left by the Dutch.

The influence of the New Netherland settlement has created enduring characteristics of New York. In Albert and Julia Rosenblatt’s Opening Statements: Law, Jurisprudence, and the Legacy of Dutch New York (2013, SUNY Press), a broad spectrum of eminent scholars examine the legal heritage that the Dutch bequeathed to New York in the seventeenth century. Continue reading

Westchester: The Prophet Matthias and Elijah the Tishbite


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MatthiasLong before the fictional and shocking “Peyton Place” of TV and film fame came along in the late 1950s, and early 1960s there was an actual suburban community where its residents were roiled by rampant scandal, moral and religious hypocrisy and a sensational a murder in their midst.

The year was 1834 and the place was the normally tranquil and bucolic Village of Sing Sing, now called Ossining. Actually, the extremely bad behavior took place just outside of the Village, on nearby farmland where a high-end condominium called “Beechwood” now stands in the Village of Briarcliff Manor, on the southwest intersection of Route 9 and Scarborough Station Road. Nonetheless, due to its proximity, it was the Village of Sing Sing that got the headlines in the “penny press,” and crowds of curious and outraged Villagers flocked to the “New York Road” in front of the farm hoping for a glimpse of the sequestered souls residing in the house. Continue reading

A Hamilton County Murder (Part 2)


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Though Ernest Duane had eventually admitted killing popular Lake Pleasant guide Eula Davis, there was no guarantee he would be found guilty in court. The defense focused on proving Duane’s supposed mental abnormalities, which they claimed had been exacerbated by the lonely life of a woodsman who often spent long months alone. It seemed a weak argument at best, but then came the kicker: Duane’s epilepsy, seized upon by his attorneys in a strategy described as the “dream defense.” Continue reading

Supreme Court: The Age of Holmes and Brandeis


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The influence of two men—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Dembitz Brandeis— will be examined in this seminar on American constitutional development from 1902 to 1939. Although the phrase “Holmes and Brandeis dissenting” led many people to believe that they shared a common jurisprudential philosophy, the differences between them are as important as the areas in which they agreed. Continue reading