Rare Books Blog

Law's Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection, by Michael Widener and Mark S. Weiner
May 13, 2019

A year and a half later the Law Library’s landmark exhibition, Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection, and its catalogue continue to reverberate, this time in Austria. My co-curator and co-author Mark S. Weiner had the opportunity to speak on the exhibition to a class at the University of Salzburg, and sent this report.

Law’s Picture Books in Austria—in Miniature

Earlier this month I visited Salzburg, Austria as part of the Fulbright Intercountry Lecturing Program. Fresh air, friendly people—and, yep, it really does look like “The Sound of Music”:

During my visit, I had the chance to speak about Law’s Picture Books in a class taught by Kristin Albrecht in the Department of Legal Philosophy at the University of Salzburg. The department is headed by Prof. Stephan Kirste, who had hosted me as a Fulbrighter in Salzburg back in 2015.

It was incredibly fun to talk with students, faculty, and community members about the exhibit, and to share the conceptual logic behind the work that Mike Widener and I produced. Best of all, Frau Albrecht arranged something truly special for the occasion: a visit by Renate Schönmayr, who heads up the law library. She brought a score of gorgeous treasures from her collection for everyone to hold, examine, and discuss—and, as always, books worked their magic. I mean, even in facsimile there’s nothing quite looking at the Sachsenspiegel:

Frau Schönmayr selected the books based on the conceptual organization of our exhibit: its functional division into ten separate purposes that law book illustrations serve. And Frau Alrecht helpfully printed out the names of those purposes on colorful sheets of paper and tacked them to a bulletin board at the front of the seminar room. The class was like visiting the exhibition in miniature!

There were so many delightful books for everyone to contemplate, and the room was abuzz with conversation, as well as oohs and ahhs. I was especially charmed by this image of Justicia from an ex libris plate, which Frau Schönmayr used to illustrate the exhibition case “Symbolizing the Law”:

Frau Schönmayr has built a basic search function within the Salzburg law library database that enables users to search for books by ex libris plates, making it even easier for students and scholars to pursue work in this growing field.

So here’s to one more successful collaboration between scholar and librarian, working together in the public legal humanities. With thanks to the Fulbright program.


Renate Schönmayr, director of the University of Salzburg Law Library, and Mark S. Weiner.

The "harboring case" and Negro History Week (1954?)
February 25, 2019


This year we mark African-American History Month by featuring recent acquisitions that document less well-remembered episodes in African-American history, most of them from the Red Scare that followed World War II.

The “harboring case” and Negro History Week (Los Angeles: Civil Rights Congress, 1954?) seeks support for five defendants accused of “harboring” leaders of the Communist Party USA, comparing them to the abolitionists who harbored Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. “They dared to associate with those whose only ‘crime’ has been to oppose the McCarthyite hysteria and witch-hunts,” says the pamphlet. “They never harbored anything but ideas of peace, democracy and full freedom for the Negro people.” The title recalls the origin of African-American History Month as Negro History Week, first celebrated in 1926 in the second week of February.


The Ingrams / by Harry Raymond, Mason Roberson. 1948

Harry Raymond & Mason Roberson, The Ingrams (San Francisco: Daily People’s World, 1948?).

The Ingrams shall not die! 1948.

Harry Raymond, The Ingrams shall not die!: story of Georgia’s new terror (New York: Daily Worker, 1948).

Two recent acquisitions concern the case of Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons, a case that generated nationwide press coverage in the post-war years. Rosa Lee Ingram was a widow sharecropper with twelve children in Ellaville, Georgia. She and two of her sons were sentenced to the electric chair, essentially for defending themselves from a brutal attack by a white neighbor. They were convicted by an all-white jury in a one-day trial, having met their attorney only the morning of the trial. The NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress pursued appeals of the convictions, but it was the efforts of African American women’s organizations that are credited with winning commutation of the sentences to life in prison in 1949, and the Ingrams’ release on parole in 1959. Our two pamphlets were produced by the Communist Party, which at that time often competed with the NAACP for leadership in the civil rights movement. For a detailed account of the Ingram case, see Charles H. Martin, “Race, Gender, and Southern Justice: The Rosa Lee Ingram Case,” American Journal of Legal History 29:3 (July 1985), 251-268; available in JSTOR or HeinOnline. For a brief account, see the article in BlackPast.org.


Defend the negro sailors on the U.S.S. Philadelphia. 1940.

Albert Parker, Defend the negro sailors on the U.S.S. Philadelphia (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1940?).

Defend the negro sailors on the U.S.S. Philadelphia (1940?) arose from a protest by fifteen African American sailors. In an open letter to the Pittsburgh Courier they wrote: “We sincerely hope to discourage any other colored boys who might have planned to join the Navy and make the same mistake we did. All they would become is seagoing bell hops, chambermaids and dishwashers.” The letter led to their dishonorable discharge, but also to protests from other Navy mess men and from the African American community, and to meetings of NAACP leaders with President Roosevelt. Doris Kearns Goodwin mentions the incident in No ordinary time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; the home front in World War II (2013).


These are a few of the resources on African American history in the Law Library’s Rare Book Collection. To explore the collection’s resources, search for the subject “African Americans” or a related subject heading in the library’s catalog, MORRIS. You can also browse the albums for African American History, the Amistad Case, or Law and Modern Social Movements in the Rare Book Collection’s Flickr site. Or, ask one of our librarians.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Scottish herringbone binding, early 18th century
February 12, 2019

The Rare Book Collection’s current exhibition, “Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library,” can now be viewed online in our Flickr site, in the Legally Binding album.

The album contains images of all 34 volumes displayed in the exhibition, plus three more that were cut from the physical exhibition for lack of space. The Flickr captions contain the text from the exhibition labels, as well as links to the catalog records for each book. For some of the books, the Flickr album contains images of both front and back covers, which were impossible to display in the exhibit cases.

This is an opportunity to point out two excellent online databases of historical bindings that include items from our Rare Book Collection.

“Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library” is on display through May 24 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery on Level L2 of the Yale Law School.

In closing, I and my co-curator, Michael Laird of Michael Laird Rare Books, wish to thank the following individuals for their contributions to the exhibition.

  • William E. Butler, Dickinson School of Law, Pennsylvania State University
  • Scott Husby, Princeton University Library (retired)
  • Shana Jackson, Lillian Goldman Law Library
  • Ryan Martins, Yale Law School
  • Pamela Rentz, Lillian Goldman Law Library
  • Yuksel Serindag, Lillian Goldman Law Library
  • Eric White, Princeton University Library
  • Benjamin Yousey-Hindes

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Binding with arms of Cardinal Francesco Ricci
February 4, 2019

Many of the historic volumes in the Lillian Goldman Law Library are significant not only for their texts, but for their extraordinary bindings. Over thirty of these are featured in the Rare Book Collection’s Spring 2019 exhibition, “Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library.”

The curators of the exhibition are Michael Laird, owner of Michael Laird Rare Books in Lockhart, Texas, and Michael Widener, the Law Library’s Rare Book Librarian. They selected bindings for their beauty, craftsmanship, functionality, and historical significance.

“These bookbindings tell stories about the people who owned them, read them, or sold them at some point in their long histories,” write Laird and Widener. “The bindings reflect the time and place of their creation, and reveal attitudes about the legal texts they continue to protect. They also illustrate chapters in the history of book binding.”

The examples date from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century, and from across Europe and the Americas. They include bindings prepared for students, lawyers, public officials, noblemen, wealthy magnates, a book collector, an Italian cardinal, a chained library in England, the tourist trade in China, the Queen Regent of Spain, the English diarist John Evelyn, and a palace of the Tsar of Russia.

“Legally Binding” is the latest in a series of exhibitions that examine law books as physical artifacts, and the relationships between their forms and content.

“Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library” is on display February 4 to May 30 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, located on Level L2 of the Yale Law School (127 Wall Street, New Haven CT). The exhibition is open to the general public 10am-6pm daily, and open to Yale affiliates until 10pm.

For more information, contact Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian, phone (203) 432-4494 and email <mike.widener@yale.edu>.

Batton Lash
January 26, 2019

Our Rare Book Collection aggressively collects the works of several authors. Most of them are English lawyers and judges from long ago, most notably Sir William Blackstone. The exception is the comics author Batton Lash, a Brooklyn native. Our collection of his Supernatural Law comics is the most complete of any library in the world. I am sad to report that Batton Lash passed away January 12, after a long battle with brain cancer.

Supernatural Law documents the exploits of Wolff & Byrd, “Counselors of the Macabre.” The duo made their debut in 1979 in a comic strip for The Brooklyn Paper, which also ran in The National Law Journal from 1983 to 1997. In 1994 Lash and his wife Jackie Estrada founded Exhibit A Press and published over 50 bimonthly issues of Supernatural Law, including several starring Wolff & Byrd’s legal secretary, Mavis. They have also issued 17 trade paperbacks, such as The Gods Must be Litigious (2010) and the most recent, Supernatural Law: Grandfathered In (2018). Three of the titles have been translated into French and Spanish. Estrada and Lash also authored an excellent bibliography, The Supernatural Law Companion: A Reader’s Guide to Wolff & Byrd (2015), complete with back stories and anecdotes. Lash relied on a lawyer friend, Mitch Berger, to vet the comic for legal accuracy.

Batton Lash was known as an innovator in the comics world. Exhibit A Press was a pioneering venture in self publishing. Lash was one of the first comics artists to publish online, at http://supernaturallaw.com/. His colleagues dubbed him the unofficial “Mayor of San Diego Comic-Con.”

The Yale Law Library’s collection grew out of my parallel interests in legal illustration and law & popular culture. Supernatural Law comics were included in our 2010 exhibition, “Superheroes in Court: Lawyers, Law and Comic Books,” and in our 2017 exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City, “Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection.”

Batton Lash’s death prompted an outpouring of eulogies in social media, where friends and colleagues remembered him as witty, unfailingly kind, and as a very sharp dresser. The Comics Reporter has compiled links to dozens of eulogies. See especially the obituaries in The Brooklyn Paper, The San Diego Reader, The Comics Journal, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

I regret that I never had the privilege of meeting Batton Lash in person. My deepest condolences to his widow, Jackie Estrada, and to all who knew and loved him.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Batton Lash, Zombie Wife, and Other Tales of Supernatural Law (San Diego: Exhibit A Press, 2014).

Printing and the Mind of Man
December 19, 2018

‘Tis the season for making lists. One popular way of taking stock of the past year is through lists of the year’s “greatest hits.” My colleague Fred Shapiro recently issued the 2018 edition of his annual list of most notable quotes, and lists of the year’s best (or worst) books and movies abound.

“All time greatest” lists are also popular and even useful pastimes. The book world is well supplied with such lists. Perhaps the most influential is Printing and the Mind of Man (2nd ed. 1983), which began as the catalogue of a 1963 exhibition in London. It has become a guide and yardstick for collectors.

For those who prefer round numbers for their lists, the Grolier Club has produced several “Grolier hundred” bibliographies, in conjunction with exhibitions, showcasing the 100 most famous books in fields including science, medicine, children’s literature, and English literature.

So what are legal literature’s greatest hits? We have a few lists to choose from. “Five books stand out pre-eminently in the history of English law,” wrote Sir William Holdsworth in Some Makers of English Law (1966):

  1. Ranulf de Glanvill, Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Anglie (late 12th century, first print edition 1554)
  2. Henry de Bracton, De legibus & consuetudinibus Angliae (13th century; first print edition 1569)
  3. Thomas Littleton’s Tenures (1st ed. 1482)
  4. Sir Edward Coke, The first part of the Institutes of the lawes of England (1st ed. 1628)
  5. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1st ed. 1765-69)

For American law, we have the list of ten greatest American law books compiled by legal historian Bernard Schwartz in A Book of Legal Lists (1997):

  1. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist (1788)
  2. James Kent, Commentaries on American Law (1826-30)
  3. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833)
  4. Thomas M. Cooley, A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations which Rest upon the Legislative Power of the American Union (1868)
  5. Christopher Columbus Langdell, A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts (1871)
  6. Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Common Law (1881)
  7. Benjamin N. Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process (1921)
  8. Jerome N. Frank, Law and the Modern Mind (1930)
  9. James C. Carter, Law: Its Origin, Growth and Function (1907)
  10. Richard A. Posner, Economic Analysis of Law (1973)

The 424 entries in Printing and the Mind of Man (PMM) include nine law books:

  1. Justinian’s Institutes (1468), PMM 4
  2. Littleton’s Tenures (1482), PMM 23
  3. Bracton’s De legibus & consuetudinibus Angliae (1569), PMM 89
  4. Grotius’ De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625), PMM 125
  5. Coke on Littleton (1628), PMM 126
  6. Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Loix (1748), PMM 197
  7. Beccaria’s Dei Delitti e delle Pene (1764), PMM 209
  8. Blackstone’s Commentaries (1765-69), PMM 212
  9. The Federalist (1788), PMM 234

The most wide ranging and comprehensive list I’ve seen is The Formation and Transmission of Western Legal Culture: 150 Books that Made the Law in the Age of Printing (Serge Dauchy et al. eds., 2016).

I find all of these lists interesting, useful (for teaching and for collection development), and unavoidably debatable. Their capacity for provoking debate is in fact one of their virtues. My primary objection to all these law lists is that they exclude tools such as law dictionaries and abridgments, practical literature such as form books, and legislative works such as the Code Napoleon, all of which have had enormous influence on the law, the law’s practitioners, and the law’s subjects. In addition, none of them venture outside the confines of western civilization.

In devising a new list, issues would include:

  • Chronological limits.
  • Geographic boundaries.
  • Size. (I’m partial to 100).
  • What constitutes a “book”? Does Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution qualify?
  • What constitutes a “law book”?
  • Do we include codes or other legislative works?
  • Do we include tools such as law dictionaries, abridgments, form books, or practice guides?
  • What constitutes “great” or “influential”?

Finally, there is the question of who does the selection. I’m in favor of a mixed group of librarians, historians, collectors, and practitioners. If the discussion doesn’t produce a bibliography or an exhibition, it would at least be fun.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Signature of Seth Staples on an early Connecticut law book
November 27, 2018

In this Thanksgiving season, one recent gift the Lillian Goldman Law Library is thankful for is a pair of books that were part of the Yale Law School’s original library. Sold by the law school as duplicates 145 years ago, they returned last year as a gift from the estate of John Edwin Ecklund (Yale ‘38, Yale Law ‘41) via his widow, Constance Ecklund.

The two volumes are intimately tied to the history and growth of the Yale Law School and its law library.

Acts and laws of His Majesty's English colony of Connecticut in New-England in America, 1750

Acts and Laws of His Majesty’s English Colony of Connecticut in New-England in America (New-London: Timothy Green, 1750) bears the bold signature of Seth P. Staples (1776-1861), the first instructor in the private law school that evolved into the Yale Law School. On the flyleaf Staples wrote “Bought at the Auction Room”.

Acts and laws of the state of Connecticut, 1784

Acts and Laws of the State of Connecticut, in America (New-London: Timothy Green, 1784) is inscribed on the title page by Samuel J. Hitchcock (1786-1845), Staples’ law partner and the school’s proprietor (along with David Daggett) after Staples departed for New York City in 1824. The title page also bears the crossed-out signature of the book’s first owner, Samuel Bishop (1723?-1803), who served as mayor of New Haven, chief judge of the county probate court, justice of the peace, town clerk, and Collector of the Port of New Haven.

These collections of Connecticut statutes would have been indispensable resources for Staples and Hitchcock in their law practice, for their students, and for the members of the New Haven bar who used their library. The library was the primary reason the school survived after the death of Hitchcock in 1845, when members of the bar convinced Yale to take over the school and helped raise the funds to purchase the library.

In 1869 the Yale Law School was again threatened with closure, due to the death of Professor Henry Dutton. Once again the New Haven bar was instrumental in the school’s survival, and for the same reason: access to the school’s law library. It was decided that the third floor of the new County Court House would be reserved for the Yale Law School and its library. The library began moving into its new quarters in January 1873. It was at this moment – January 30, 1873, to be exact – that these two books left the library. They bear identical inscriptions on their front pastedowns: “Yale Law School Library / Duplicate and sold to Johnson T. Platt / January 30, 1873 / Simeon E. Baldwin / Treas. Law Department”.

Yale Law School Library / Duplicate and sold to Johnson T. Platt / January 30, 1873 / Simeon E. Baldwin / Treas. Law Department

Simeon E. Baldwin (1840-1927) and Johnson T. Platt (1844-1890) were two of the three young New Haven attorneys (William C. Robinson was the third) enlisted as faculty in the rejuvenated Yale Law School. Baldwin remained on the faculty for a half century, during which he also served as chief justice and governor of Connecticut, and as president of the American Bar Association, which he helped found. Platt was a popular professor until his untimely death at the age of 47.

These two books contain the earliest evidence I have seen of weeding the collection. It wasn’t until years later that the library’s original collection became cherished as “the oldest extant mementos of the early history of the Yale Law School,” as Law Librarian Frederick Hicks wrote in 1935. It was Hicks who gathered the remnants to form the Founders Collection, now one of the crown jewels of our Rare Book Collection. By that time the original collection of 2,260 volumes had dwindled to only 386. Today, thanks to discoveries and the Ecklund gift, the Founders Collection stands at 430 volumes. As Hicks observed, “If henceforth we treat them with reverence, the contrast with their former experiences will be great. They bear the scars of use and misuse, and reflect the lean years through which the law library itself more than once has passed.”

For the early history of the Founders Collection, there is no better source than Frederick C. Hicks, Yale Law School: The Founders and the Founders’ Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), which is also available online. For the school’s 1873 move to the New Haven County Court House, see Frederick C. Hicks, Yale Law School: 1869-1894 Including the County Court House Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937). Both works also have thorough biographical sketches of the principal actors.

The Lillian Goldman is grateful to John Edwin Ecklund for acquiring these volumes and to his estate for sending them home.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian


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