Case Closed

Another French trial is related of a beggar who being famished went to the door of a victualing house and inhaled the smell of the dinner until refreshed. He was sued by the proprietor for the price of a dinner. He declared he had taken nothing but the plaintiff declared that he had been refreshed at his expense. The justice gave this case a study that might well be imitated by our superior judges and finally decided that as the defendant had been refreshed by the smell of the dinner, the proprietor ought to be compensated by hearing the jingle of the coins.

— H.C. Shurtleff, “The Grotesque in Law,” American Law Review, January-February 1920

Land Rush

In 1955, the radio program Sergeant Preston of the Yukon promised that every child who bought a box of Quaker Oats cereal would receive a deed for one square inch of land in the Yukon. The company bought 19 acres on the Yukon River, divided it into square-inch plots, and packed the deeds into boxes of cereal.

In all 21 million plots were distributed this way, and then people, being people, began to explore the possibilities. According to Charles C. Geisler in Property and Values (2000), one deed owner declared independence for his tiny fiefdom; another offered to donate his to create the world’s smallest national park. One boy sent four toothpicks to the title office so they could fence his inch, though the deeds stipulated that each owner must acknowledge the right of every other owner to cross his plot at will. In Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984), John Robert Colombo reports that one wily collector amassed 10,000 deeds and asked to combine them; “his request was denied, as nowhere on the Deed of Land did it state that the square inches were adjacent.”

As it turned out, all this enterprise was moot — Quaker Oats never registered the subdivision or paid taxes on the land, so the whole thing reverted to the Canadian government a few years later.

Civic Minded

In 1979 Louisiana congressional candidate Luther Devine Knox tried to change his name to None of the Above so that the phrase could appear on the ballot.

His hope was that voters could then vote symbolically to reject the whole slate. “The people of this country have never had a free election,” he said in 1991. “We don’t have a right to reject candidates.”

The attorney general stopped him.

One World

In October 1915, at the height of World War I, the Berlin Goethe Society invited Albert Einstein to submit an essay for its journal. He did so but warned that he would not be surprised if they chose not to use his submission. The society reviewed it with some dismay and asked Einstein to strike this passage:

“When I look into the home of a good, normal citizen I see a softly lighted room. In one corner stands a well-cared-for shrine, of which the man of the house is very proud and to which the attention of every visitor is drawn in a loud voice. On it, in large letters, the word ‘Patriotism’ is inscribed.

“However, opening this shrine is normally forbidden. Yes, even the man of the house knows hardly, or not at all, that this shrine holds the moral requisites of animal hatred and mass murder that, in case of war, he obediently takes out for his service.

“This shrine, dear reader, you will not find in my room, and I would rejoice if you came to the viewpoint that in that corner of your room a piano or a small bookcase would be more appropriate than such a piece of furniture which you find tolerable because, from your youth, you have become used to it.”

Einstein eventually agreed to remove the passage, but his own views were steadfast. The state, he wrote, “does not play the least role in my spiritual life; I regard allegiance to a government as a business matter, somewhat like the relationship with a life insurance company.”

The Referendum Paradox

The island of Frobnitz is trying to decide whether to legalize left-handed quonkbats. Three million voters are represented by 200 members of parliament. In a referendum, a majority voice support for the measure, so it goes before parliament … which rejects it.

Why? Because most of the MPs’ constituencies oppose it:

referendum paradox

With this distribution, more than 55 percent (1,664,000/3,000,000) of the referendum votes are positive, but still more than 5/6 (167/200) of the MPs must vote no if they are to honor the preferences of their supporters.

In Voting Paradoxes and How to Deal With Them (1999), Hannu Nurmi writes, “The practical significance of the referendum paradox is in the shadow it casts on the institution of consultative referendum. Which should be decisive: the majority of the votes cast in a referendum or the majority of the votes of representatives who believe to represent the views of the majority of their supporters? If the former is considered more decisive, why then resort to the latter at all? If the latter is regarded as more important, then why bother with the former at all?”

The Nail House
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When developers planned a shopping mall in the southwestern Chinese municipality of Chongqing in 2004, they quickly bought out 280 local homeowners in order to clear the necessary land. They didn’t count on 49-year-old Wu Ping and her husband, Yang Wu, who declined to leave and clung to their two-story brick house even as the developers excavated the land around it and allegedly sent thugs to intimidate them.

The case became a symbol of the struggle between homeowners and property developers as China’s farmland gives way to office buildings and industrial parks. “I’m not stubborn or unruly,” Wu told the state-run Legal Daily. “I’m just trying to protect my personal rights as a citizen.”

Even after electricity and water were cut, Yang cut a makeshift stairway up from the 10-meter pit that surrounded the house and hung a Chinese flag from its roof. He guarded the edifice while Wu conducted press conferences and sent him food, water, and quilts using a rope and pulleys. When the couple turned down compensation offers, the Chongqing housing authority called their demands “unreasonable” and ordered the house demolished. But in the face of 85 percent public support for Wu and Yang, a local court declined to enforce the order.

Finally, after three years, China passed a landmark law protecting private property and the couple accepted an apartment of similar size downtown. “Let’s hope the new law reduces such disputes,” political scientist Zhao Wanyi told China Daily.

Rules are Rules

Indiana had a sumptuary law prohibiting the smoking of cigarettes, and a showman was exhibiting a trick chimpanzee in a country town in the vicinity of South Bend. One of the tricks of this animal was to smoke a cigarette, for which he was arrested and brought before a justice of the peace. His keeper pleaded that the animal did not know that he was violating the law, but the justice solemnly replied that ignorance of the law excuses no one, and the chimpanzee was fined five dollars which his keeper paid.

American Law Review, January-February 1920

Exceeding Fine

When Nathan M. Morse was trying the Tuckerman Will Case before Judge McKim, Dr. Jelley, the well-known expert on insanity, was one of the witnesses. One of the hypothetical questions asked of the witness by Mr. Morse contained no less than 20,000 words. The lawyer started this pithy question at the opening of court and closed only a few minutes prior to the noon adjournment. The point that Mr. Morse was endeavoring to bring out related to the mental condition of the testator when he made his will.

This is said to be the longest single interrogation ever made in a court of law, and the answer comprised just three words, ‘I do not.’

Boston Herald, quoted in The American Lawyer, December 1906


Plowden states a case that if a woman is warden of a prison and marries one of the prisoners, the prisoner has escaped and is at large; for he cannot be lawfully imprisoned but under a keeper, and he cannot be under the custody of his wife, she having no separate legal existence. Therefore the law necessarily adjudges him to be at large.

— H.C. Shurtleff, “The Grotesque in Law,” American Law Review, January-February 1920

The Unexpected Guest

“Sometimes the name chosen for the baby betrays only too clearly that it was not wanted,” reports onomastician Elsdon C. Smith in The Story of Our Names (1950). “The English General Registrar Office for the years 1861, 1870 and 1886 disclose the following un-Christian names: Not-Wanted-James, One-Too-Many and That’s-It-Who’d-Have-Thought-It. A woman once named her baby Alpha Omega with the explanation that it was her first and she fervently hoped that it would be her last.”

When one is asked to praise a homely infant, Lewis Carroll recommends saying, “That is a baby!” Presented with a squirming 6-month-old, William James said helplessly, “It seems a very competent baby.” “Might not Falconbridge have condoned such an evasion in an extreme case as being, at worst, a virtuous sin?” writes Lionel Tollemache. “To be frank would be a mortal offence; and to avert a mother’s wrath, one might be tempted to invoke a principle of limited application, ‘Salus amicitiae suprema lex [Let the good of the people be the supreme law].’ Better this than to set up the more widely applicable and therefore more abusable plea, ‘De minimis non curat moralitas [Morality does not concern itself with trifles].'”