Odd Rents

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In 1910, Flint, Mich., landowner Neil Boyston provided a lot for the Flint Union School in return for “one clover blossom a year.”

In exchange for an acre of land in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill Fishing Company used to pay landowner William Warner an annual tribute of three perch on a pewter platter.

In 1772, a Manheim, Pa., congregation rented the site for its church from Henry William Stiegel in return for “one red rose, payable in June, when the same shall be lawfully demanded.”

When Henry VIII granted an estate to the Lord of Worksop Manor in 1542, he received it on the condition that he and his heirs should provide a right-hand glove for the king and support his arm on the day of his coronation.

“Once a year a Lord of the Manor of Essington was compelled to bring a goose to Hilton,” noted the New York Times in 1910. “He was called upon to drive the bird around the room. In the meantime a kettle of water was placed over a wood fire, and the unfortunate tenant was required to drive the goose around the room until the water was boiled and began sending steam out of the spout of the pot. It does not take a very great stretch of the imagination to conjure up the chaos that must have ensued on rent day at Hilton.”

A Good Man

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Should other species be regarded as human? In 1779 Lord Monboddo proposed that orangutans should: They walk upright, use weapons, form societies, build shelters, and behave with “dignity and composure.” “If … such an Animal be not a Man, I should desire to know in what the essence of a Man consists, and what it is that distinguishes a Natural Man from the Man of Art?”

Thomas Love Peacock mocked this view in his 1817 novel Melincourt, in which a civilized orangutan (“Sir Oran Hout-ton”) is elected to Parliament. And an anonymous wag objected even to the satire:

The author of a novel lately written,
Entitled “Melincourt,”
(‘Tis very sweet and short),
Seems indeed by some wondrous madness bitten,
Thinking it good
To take his hero from the wood:
And though I own there’s nothing treasonable
In making ouran-outangs reasonable,
I really do not think he should
Go quite the length that he has done,
Whether for satire or for fun,
To make this creature an M.P.
As if mankind no wiser were than he.
However, those who’ve read it
Must give the author credit
For skill and ingenuity,
Although it have this monstrous incongruity.

But today Monboddo’s view is on the ascendancy. Harvard legal scholar Steven M. Wise argues that orangutans — as well as chimpanzees, bonobos, elephants, parrots, dolphins, and gorillas — deserve legal personhood. “Ancient philosophers claimed that all nonhuman animals had been designed and placed on this earth just for human beings,” he writes. “Ancient jurists declared that law had been created just for human beings. Although philosophy and science have long since recanted, the law has not.”

Since You Asked

In 1956, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the city of Williamsport could legally tax a Williamsport bar owner’s jukebox. One justice, Michael Musmanno, thought the machine shouldn’t be taxed — but:

In the eyes and ears of many people, including the writer of this opinion, a juke box confined to ‘jazz’ records may be a nuisance. It robs the air of sweet silence, it substitutes for the gentle concord of stillness the wailings of the so-called ‘blues singer,’ the whinings of foggy saxophones, the screeching of untuned fiddles, the blasts of head-splitting horns, and the battering of earshattering drums. It makes a mockery of music, it replaces harmony with cacophony, tonality with discord, and peace with annoyance.

Musmanno’s dissents could run to 20 pages — in another he called Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer “a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

His reputation may have cost him — when asked whether he read Musmanno’s dissents, Chief Justice Horace Stern said he was not “interested in current fiction.”

Noted

For Old-Time Schools and School-Books (1904), Clifton Johnson scanned the flyleaves of old textbooks for notes scribbled by bygone students.

From Murray’s English Reader, 1822:

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In a schoolbook of 1844:

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And in a history book:

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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.