Real quick now – can you name the hallmarks of a vampire? Pointed fangs, red eyes, a thirst for blood, and a fear of crucifixes? Did you think of the hairy hand, too? Hair on the palm of the hand is one of the lesser-known signs in vampire folklore. But it might explain some of the hype surrounding the most famous case in the U.S. law school curriculum: Hawkins v. McGee, better known as the “Hairy Hand case.”
The Hairy Hand case in the Law School Curriculum
Students dissect Hawkins v. McGee on their first day of law school. Even if you’ve never been to an American law school, you’re still likely to know the case. In the book and film “Paper Chase,” a Harvard Law School professor grills the students about the Hairy Hand case. You can watch that scene online.
Hawkins v. McGee is a contract case masquerading as medical malpractice. One of the things that makes it so delightfully squirrelly is that law school students have to examine a malpractice slide through a contracts microscope.
In 1922, in the early days of plastic surgery, a boy burnt the palm his hand by handling an electrical wire. When his physician promised to restore the hand 100%, the boy underwent an operation. The doctor grafted skin from the boy’s chest to his palm. Not only did the operation make functional use of the boy’s hand worse, when the boy entered puberty, his palm sprouted ungainly chest hair.
George Hawkins sued Dr. McGee in 1926 and was rewarded $3,000 in damages – a hefty sum for that time. Both parties appealed. In 1929, the appellate court found Dr. McGee’s promise rose to a contract. By failing to deliver the 100% good hand, Dr. McGee had breached the contract.
But the real issue in the Hairy Hand case was how to measure damages. George Hawkins, the court held, was entitled to expectation damages – the difference between the value of the promised hand Hawkins expected and the value of the non-functional hairy hand he actually received. The court remanded the case back for a new trial, and just before the new trial, the parties settled for $1,400.
Functionality is one thing. But a hairy hand? Isn’t that a just cosmetic issue? I always wondered why anyone would make such a fuss about a problem they could manage on their own with a pair of tweezers.
What we never learned in law school was the vampire folklore flooding the popular period literature and budding on poor George’s palm. That could have explained Hawkin’s – and the jury’s – overreaction to a hirsute palm.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a Backdrop to the Hairy Hand case
A hairy hand appears in Stoker’s gothic novel, too. In chapter 2, Jonathan Harker describes Count Dracula when they first meet in Dracula’s castle. The count has massive eyebrows meeting in the center, pointed ears, and sallow skin. His breath was rank and nauseating. The fingers were squat, and “strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm.”
Although Stoker’s novel eventually came to define the vampire, the book’s success wasn’t overwhelming when Stoker first published it in 1897. It got good reviews (Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, loved it), but Stoker died poor.
Sales didn’t pick up until another case came sailing through the courtroom. In 1922, the same year George Hawkins burnt his hand, F. W. Murneau produced a film version of Dracula called Nosferatu and released it in the theaters. Because he had neglected to ask Stoker’s widow for the rights, she sued him for copyright infringement and won. The legal battle sparked new interest in Dracula and book sales soared. A stage version, approved by Stoker’s widow, opened on Broadway in 1927, starring a then little-known actor named Bela Lugosi.
In the middle of this came George Hawkin’s operation, law suit, and appeal. It is quite likely that while the jury was devouring witness testimony in the Hairy Hand case, it was devouring another Hairy Hand case in the literature and theater. With the sign of the hirsute palm so plainly on the public’s mind, Dr. McGee’s failed surgery had about the same effect as an oral surgeon sending a patient home with fangs. For all appearances, Dr. McGee had sent home a vampire.
Yikes! That has me wondering if poor George shouldn’t have gotten more than $3,000. We never discussed vampire damages in law school. But the strange timing of the Hairy Hand case, parallel to Dracula’s surge in popularity, makes me feel more sorry for George than anything in law school ever did.
George Hawkins originally wanted much higher damages ($10,000, I think), and now I know why. A page of history is worth a volume of logic.
Do you think the court should award extra damages if a doctor leaves a patient looking like a gothic monster?
Literature on point:
Hawkins v. McGee, 84 N.H. 114, 146 A. 641 (1929) http://danfingerman.com/law/cases/Hawkins.html
McGee v. U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 53 F. 2d 953 (1st Cir. 1931) http://danfingerman.com/law/cases/McGee.html
Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)Read More
It’s impossible to read a history book covering the two decades preceding the Civil War without encountering this phrase. And for good reason: Manifest Destiny shaped American politics in the 1840s and propelled the United States into the Mexican-American War, the results of which led to the Civil War.
Manifest Destiny is the belief that the United States had a divine mandate to occupy the continent from coast to coast. But who coined the term? That’s the subject of an academic debate.
In 1927, a historian names Julias Pratt decided to track that question down. He traced the first use of the phrase back to an article in the August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review. The piece, called Annexation, discussed the annexation of Texas and maintained that England and France were The United States’ true enemies, “thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence….” Because the article was unsigned, Pratt assumed John L. O’Sullivan, the editor, had written it.
Who was John L. O’Sullivan?
O’Sullivan (1813-1895) was a lawyer and political journalist who founded the Democratic Review. As editor, he published political essays by prominent authors. O’Sullivan was at the peak of his career when the article containing “manifest destiny” appeared. One month later, he hired editors to take over his position while he travelled to Europe. He returned in late December, and a month later, in January 1846, the paper’s investors fired him.
Later in 1846, O’Sullivan moved to Cuba, from where he agitated for Cuban independence. That landed him in front of an American jury on charges of violation of the Neutrality Act, but the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous decision. President Pierce later appointed John L. O’Sullivan as a diplomat to Portugal. Thereafter he had trouble finding a job. He died in poverty in New York from a bout of influenza.
In 1999, Linda S. Hudson advanced a new theory in her Ph.D. dissertation: It wasn’t John L. O’Sullivan who coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” but a female journalist, Jane McManus Storms. Hudson conducted a computer-assisted textual analysis of material known to have been written by O’Sullivan and Storms and compared them to the anonymous Annexation article in which the term “manifest destiny” first appeared.
The results were statistically significant. O’Sullivan’s writing had a 41.5% similarity to Annexation, whereas Storm’s 79.6%. Women writers of the era typically published anonymously. That’s why the article was unsigned, explains Hudson. Hudson also points out Storm’s intense interest in the Texas question – she had lived in Texas and purchased land there. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, was preparing to chase the woman he eventually married to Europe, and in August 1845, his mind probably wasn’t on politics, but on love.
Hudson went on to become a professor of history and published a biography of Storms called Mistress of Manifest Destiny. Her conclusions have found some acceptance. The recently published Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War also credits Jane McManus Storms with coining the phrase “manifest destiny.”
But acceptance is not universal. Robert D. Sampson, a John L. O’Sullivan biographer, points to the pitfalls in computer-aided textual analysis and questions whether a program designed to analyze late 20th century texts can validly be used to assess mid-19th century texts, especially since rules of grammar hadn’t then been formally established. Most importantly, Sampson contends Hudson used a text as a basis for O’Sullivan’s writing that his mother had written.
Sampson’s concerns are valid. They are signposts for further research on the question of authorship. At the very least, the academic debate introduces us to a little-known American journalist whose life was so adventurous, it’s interesting to read about her whether she wrote Annexation or not.
Jane McManus Storms
Jane McManus Storms (1807-1878) was an editor and journalist who publised 100 columns in various American papers, along with 20 journal articles and book reviews, and 15 books. She usually published anonymously or under the name “Montgomery.”
But her life gets really interesting in the Mexican-American War. Think Bond.
Storms’s knowledge of Spanish and Latin America convinced President Polk to send her along with a New York editor and a Catholic bishop to Mexico City in January 1847 on a secret mission to negotiate a peace treaty. They entered Mexico from Cuba to arouse less suspicion. From Veracruz they traveled to the capital, only to find it on the cusp of civil war. During this period, Storms wrote reports for the editor’s newspaper in New York. She was the only American war correspondent working from behind the Mexican lines.
When fighting broke out in Mexico City, the secret agents fled. Jane McManus Storms left before the men did, taking a hazardous 200-mile trip to Veracruz, where General Winfield Scott of had started a siege. Storms met with Scott, advised him of the political turmoil in the capital, and suggested a route the U.S. Army could take there. Scott ended up following her route in his conquest of Mexico City.
Storms later married and lived in both Texas and the Dominican Republic. Her death was spectacular as her life. She drowned when the steamer she was taking to San Domingo sunk in a storm. Two sailors who survived later spoke of Storms facing her death with resignation.
There are no known images of Jane McManus Storms. Someone with the same last name has her husband (Cazneau), however, had posted an image on the Find a Grave Site. Storms was known to have a dark complexion and violet eyes.
What do you think of the two theories about who coined “manifest destiny?”
Literature on point:
Linda S. Hudson, “Jane McManus Storm Cazneau (1807-1878): A Biography,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. of North Texas, 1999
The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013)
Tom Reilly, War with Mexico! America’s Reporters Cover the Battlefront (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010)
Robert D. Sampson, John O’Sullivan and His Times (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 2003)Read More
True crime has been a vibrant American genre for decades, and within the past few years, it has given birth to a subgenre. Historical true crime books are up and coming.
Historical True Crime in the Publishing Industry
How do you measure the pulse of a new subgenre? One artery to feel is the publishing industry. Both Kent State University Press and the History Press in South Carolina now feature true crime history series. Sutton Publishing (United Kingdom) does as well. Sutton offers not only an English series, called Sutton True Crime History, but a German one, Historische Kriminalfälle, through its German subsidiary, the Suttonverlag.
If you’d like meet a couple of the authors with those publishing houses, here’s your chance! I previously introduced one of Sutton’s German authors, Corinna Müller, in an interview about a boy who was buried alive. I’ve also blogged about Kent State University Press author Richard Cahill and his book on the Lindbergh kidnapping.
There are a number of independently published historical true crime books, and two series are worthy of mention. Jason Scott Morrow founded Historical Crime Detective, through which he’s published three historical true crime books. I’ve read one of them and found it quite well written.
Richard O. Jones, a seasoned journalist who claims to have found evidence in the archives that one of his ancestors was a murderer, started a delightful series of regional historical true crime short stories called Two Dollar Terrors. Each costs two bucks and details an Ohio crime. Even if you’re not from Ohio, Jones’ stories are worth reading for his exquisite writing.
Historical True Crime Blogs
Blogs are another great place to press your two fingers and feel the genre’s pulse. My blog focuses on historical true crime in both the United States and Germany, with occasional splashes of Civil War stories and Mark Twain’s travel experiences in Germany. There are several other great historical true crime blogs you can check out. One of the most popular is Laura James’ CLEWS, with a draw-your-pistols old Western flavor. Her site has been dormant for several months, but Laura emailed me this week to say she had technical problems and his planning to kick the site back into the playing field.
Jason Scott Morrow also blogs about historical true crime at Historical Crime Detective. A great blog for 19th century murder in the United States is Robert Wilhelm’s Murder by Gaslight. It has a delicious Victorian flair. Wilhelm has also published books on historical true crime, one of which is currently waiting in my “to read” pile. The online Crime Magazine also offers a series on historical crime.
Crime vs. History
So why is the subgenre gaining popularity? Might it be the crossover into the history genre, which picks up additional readers? It’s quite possible that a reader who eschews true crime might read a historical true crime book due to an interest in the particular time period. And for some, true crime might be the fun-to-read packaging for a history lesson.
Another reason might be because the blood has long dried. The genre breathes the dust of the archives more than the scent of gunpowder. Historical true crime offers a softer alternative to the sometimes sensationalist, gory, modern true crime books. Readers might have more emotional distance because of the passage of time, giving them a different reading experience. The appeal of historical true crime might be something more than just emotional shock.
One highlight of any true crime book is sleuthing along with the detective while you’re reading. Historical investigations might be easier to understand than modern investigative techniques. Who can understand two expert witnesses arguing about the validity of the new generation of DNA tests, for instance? Historical, easy-to-follow criminal investigations might shift the book’s appeal to the intellectual puzzle of solving the crime with traditional techniques.
What do you think attracts readers to historical true crime?
Coming up next: my favorite historical true crime stories. Some might surprise you.Read More
I recently helped solve a crime. All because I knew when to call the police.
On the bus, several passengers — about 10 of us — overheard another passenger talking on her cell phone. She mentioned a theft one of her companions had just committed. She even dropped the thief’s name. I surreptitiously observed her group to memorize their physicial features and clothing. As soon as I got home, I reported the conversation to the police and gave a description. I didn’t think anything more about it until I went to orchestra practice several days later. The trombone player who sits behind me works for the police. He told me that on behalf of the entire department, he wanted to thank me for an extremely helpful tip. He couldn’t say more about the case because it is still in investigation, but I learnt that the detective was able to identify the group on the bus.
But that is not my main point. I asked the trombone player how many of the other bus passengers had called the police and was shocked to hear that I was the only one. That is almost upsetting as the original crime.
Why is it, do you think, that people don’t bother to report?
This post is a departure from my usual historical true crime topics, but I feel strongly enough about it to make an exception. It’s my plea to everyone out there to report anything suspicious. Law enforcement would rather have too much information than too little. For everyone out there that ever thought it would be fun to be a detective, please remember that you already are one. The police can’t be everywhere, and we are their eyes and ears in places where they are not present.
Here’s a recent and dramatic example. An observant visitor to an indoor swimming pool in Germany didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone when he observed a man ogling children at the pool. That act that helped solve a murder case. Police searched the voyeur’s apartment and uncovered evidence linking him to a horrible crime. He had abducted a six-year-old on her way to day care, murdered her, and burnt her body. But the police hadn’t yet been able to solve the case. The voyeur was convicted and sentenced to a life term. Who knows if that case would have been solved without that tip from the swimming pool?
When in doubt, please pick up the phone. The Amityville, New York Police Department offers excellent advice on when to call the police. Its website discusses suspicious behavior and the importance of making that call. It’s worth familiarizing yourself a list of behavior that could indicate criminal activity and what details police need most when you report it. http://amityville.com/when-to-call-the-police/
Literature on point:
Lebenslange Haft für Alexandras Mörder, http://www.internetcologne.de/cms//artikel.php/8/2306/uebersicht.html/10992/30/uebersicht.html
Text (c) Ann Marie Ackermann 2014; all photos from morguefile photos.Read More