Three Unfortunate Names

John Train’s Most Remarkable Names reports that Chazy Lake, N.Y., has a resident named Constant Agony.

In Stories on Stone, Charles L. Wallis notes that a tombstone in Hood River, Ore., reads:

hood river tombstone

In The American Language, H.L. Mencken mentions an Indian chief in the northwestern U.S. named Unable-to-Fornicate. “And I once knew a Siletz who insisted with firm complacency that his name, no matter what anybody thought it, was Holy Catfish.”

Legal Standing

The Supreme Court of Justice of Belgium has just been called upon to decide a novel and extraordinary question. One of the leading surgeons of Brussels had occasion, about a year ago, to amputate the right leg of a young married lady belonging to the highest circles of the aristocracy. The operator was so pleased with his job that he preserved the leg in a jar of spirits of wine and placed it on exhibition in his consulting room, a card being affixed to the jar giving the patient’s name and the details concerning the circumstance which had rendered the operation necessary. On hearing this, the husband of the lady demanded the immediate discontinuance of the exhibition and the return of the severed member, as being his property. To this the surgeon demurred. He admitted that the plaintiff had property rights in the leg while it formed part his wife, but argued that the leg in its present condition was the result of his (defendant’s) skill and the work of his own hands, and that he was clearly entitled to keep it. The Court seemed rather staggered by this line of argument, and after taking a fortnight to consider the question, has finally decided against the doctor and in favor of the husband’s claim to the possession of the amputated leg of his better half.

Lancaster Law Review, March 18, 1895

Out of Order

John and Margaret Vivian declared bankruptcy in 1992, so they weren’t pleased when NationsBank sent them a dunning notice on a debt that had been discharged. The bank apologized, saying that a computer had generated the notice, but the Vivians received a second notice, then a third.

So Florida bankruptcy judge A. Jay Cristol held the computer in contempt of court:

ORDERED that the NationsBank computer, having been determined in civil contempt, is fined 50 megabytes of hard drive memory and 10 megabytes random access memory. The computer may purge itself of this contempt by ceasing the production and mailing of documents to Mr. and Mrs. Vivian.

The computer had no comment.

The Hard Stuff

For the really determined alcoholic, in 1885 Herbert Jenner patented a liquor flask hidden in a book:

The ornamental covering [has] been made so as to entirely cover and conceal the flask from observation, and at the same time admit of ready access to its contents. … That portion of the covering representing the edges of the leaves of the book is covered with marbled paper or otherwise treated, so as to give a natural appearance.

Charmingly, the book is titled Legal Decisions.

High Places

An admirer once asked Winston Churchill, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech the hall is packed to overflowing?”

Churchill replied, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”

Signs and Wonders

Morris Garstenfeld repeatedly greeted a Brooklyn neighbor “by placing the end of his thumb against the tip of his nose, at the same time extending and wiggling the fingers of his hand.” Is this disorderly conduct? That question fell to Kings County Judge J. Roy in 1915.

“What meaning is intended to be conveyed by the above-described pantomime?” Roy mused. “Is it a friendly or an unfriendly action; a compliment or an insult? Is it a direct invitation to fight, or is it likely to provoke a fight?”

He declared that the gesture is well known among boys, and that it should be abandoned by men. In Garstenfeld’s case, the “nasal and digit drama” tended “to show a design to engender strife,” and the fact that Garstenfeld had done it repeatedly showed that he meant to annoy his victim “to the limit of patient endurance.” He affirmed Garstenfeld’s conviction.

A Man’s World

When Long Island filmmaker Ellen Cooperman divorced her husband in 1975, she changed her last name to Cooperperson because it “more properly reflects [my] sense of human equality than does the name Cooperman.”

State Supreme Court Justice John Scileppi refused to ratify the change, saying that it “would have serious and undesirable repercussions, perhaps throughout the entire country.” He cited “virtually endless and increasingly inane” possibilities: A person named “Jackson” might seek to become “Jackchild,” a “Manning” might prefer “Peopling,” or a woman named “Carmen” might want to be “Carperson.” “This would truly be in the realm of nonsense,” he said.

Undaunted, she appealed Scileppi’s decision and won in 1978. She’s still using Cooperperson today.

Warm Words

A German-born resident of Portland, Oregon named Otto Hell was permitted by a local judge to take the name Hall when he pointed out how his neighbors and associates took pleasure in calling him by his surname and the initial of his given name. Another Otto Hell was an optometrist who complained that persons in need of glasses were always being told to ‘go to Hell and see.’

— Robert M. Rennick, “Obscene Names and Naming in Folk Tradition,” in Names and Their Varieties, 1986

The Case of the Self-Stealing Store

In 1983, Jacob Henderson was convicted of burglarizing a Maaco paint shop in Jackson, Miss. He appealed on the ground that the indictment was illiterate:

The Grand Jurors for the State of Mississippi, … upon their oaths present: That Jacob Henderson … on the 15th day of May, A.D., 1982.

The store building there situated, the property of Metro Auto Painting, Inc., … in which store building was kept for sale or use valuable things, to-wit: goods, ware and merchandise unlawfully, feloniously and burglariously did break and enter, with intent the goods, wares and merchandise of said Metro Auto Painting then and there being in said store building unlawfully, feloniously and then and there being in said store building burglariously to take, steal and carry away; And
One (1) Polaroid Land Camera,
One (1) Realistic AM/FM Stereo Tuner
One (1) Westminster AM/FM radio
One (1) Metal Box and contents thereof,

… the property of the said Metro Auto Painting then and there being in said store building did then and there unlawfully, feloniously and burglariously take, steal and carry away the aforesaid property, he, the said Jacob Henderson, having been twice previously convicted of felonies, to-wit: … .

Henderson called an English teacher as an expert witness. She pointed out that the district attorney’s indictment doesn’t charge Henderson with any wrongdoing; instead it charges the merchandise itself with breaking into the paint store.

“This case presents the question whether the rules of English grammar are a part of the positive law of this state,” wrote Justice Robertson for the court. “If they are, Jacob Henderson’s burglary conviction must surely be reversed, for the indictment in which he has been charged would receive an ‘F’ from every English teacher in the land.”

“Though grammatically unintelligible, we find that the indictment is legally sufficient and affirm, knowing full well that our decision will receive of literate persons everywhere opprobrium as intense and widespread as it will be deserved.”

Legal Brief

Full text of the opinion of Michigan appeals court judge J.H. Gillis in Denny v. Radar Industries Inc., 1970:

The appellant has attempted to distinguish the factual situation in this case from that in Renfroe v. Higgins Rack Coating and Manufacturing Co., Inc. (1969), 17 Mich.App. 259, 169 N.W.2d 326. He didn’t. We couldn’t. Affirmed. Costs to appellee.

“It is truly a model of brevity,” wrote an Arizona state court justice. “If more judicial opinions were like this one, lawyers and judges who have to read them would be much happier, and the forests would be much safer.”