Harvard Law School Library News •

Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Library

As you may know, Suzanne Wones, Harvard Law School Library’s Executive Director, has accepted a new position as the Director of Library Digital Strategies and Innovations for the Harvard Library. We are sad to see her go, but excited for her as well and wish her all the best!

With her imminent departure, we are looking for an Executive Director for HLSL and we encourage qualified candidates to consider applying. The successful candidate will be responsible for working closely with the Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources to set service, collection, and budgetary priorities for the library. The Executive Director also directs all of the library’s day-to-day operations, including overseeing departments focused on research services, faculty support, academic technology, collection development, and empirical services. In partnership with the Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources and the Director of the Library Innovation Lab, this individual will also set the agenda for the new design and development projects undertaken by the Library Innovation Lab. This is an exciting position that is perfect for someone who is interested in working on a wide range of projects that have an impact on the HLS faculty, students, and staff as well as the world beyond our campus.

If you think that you would be a strong candidate for this position, you can read more about it in the official job description and apply online. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us for further information.

852 RARE: MASS(achusetts) Incarceration During the Nineteenth Century

Recently, an intriguing folder containing six broadsides came to light in Historical & Special Collections. These are very different from our largest collection of broadsides, which are English trial and execution broadsides (sometimes referred to as “dying speeches”) printed for popular consumption.

1827 & 1828

These are single sheet Annual report[s] of the convicts in the Massachusetts State Prison their employment, &c., with a correct view of the expenses and income of the Institution … for the years 1823-1828 and it turns out they’re very rare. According to WorldCat only the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society have some of the issues. For those whose libraries subscribe to Readex’s “America’s Historical Imprints”, five of the reports are available digitally as part of “American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series 1”.

The state prison, located in the Charlestown section of Boston was built in 1805. With the completion of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, in 1878, the prison population of the Charlestown prison declined. Among its later and better known inmates were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed there in August 1927.

1825 close up

Detail of the 1825 report

The reports, signed by wardens Gamaliel Bradford (1823) and Thomas Harris (1824-1828), are statistical in nature and models of succinctness. While at first glance they may seem a bit dry, one can glean a great deal of information from them, including all of the prison’s expenses and income; the crimes for which inmates were imprisoned, ages, and lengths of sentences; and their prison employment. During this many period prisoners were engaged in cutting and transporting stone, working in the prison hospital, and picking oakum. Others were let out to contractors as cabinet and brush makers, as well as other skilled labor. The north wing built in 1828, was probably the “new prison” referred to in the reports starting in 1826 when 26 of the 313 current prisoners were working on its construction.

1827 close up

Detail of the 1827 report

Penciled notes on the Library’s copies of these broadsides provide some evidence of their provenance, and the piecemeal fashion in which they were acquired. The 1823 issue was a gift to the Harvard College Library from “Arthur G. Sedgwick of Cambridge” in November 1875–most likely the lawyer and writer who graduated Harvard College in 1864 and earned his LL.B. at the Law School in 1866. Sedgwick moved to New York City in 1875 to continue practicing law after several years in Boston. Perhaps his donation to the College was the result of office-cleaning in preparation for his move?

The back of the 1824 issue bears the signature of “Hon. Levi Thaxter.”

This may be lawyer Levi Lincoln Thaxter (Harvard College 1843, Harvard Law School 1845) who was married to poet and writer Celia Thaxter. “Gratis” is penciled on the front, so it was evidently a gift, but it is unclear from whom.

52256954 Sanborn

Harvard University – Harvard University Archives / Class Album. Class of 1855. HUD 255.704.1, Harvard University Archives

The 1825 and 1826 annual reports were also gifts, in 1865, of Frank B. Sanborn, Harvard College 1855. Here he is pictured in his Class album (HOLLIS 7505074).

The source of the 1827 and 1828 issues remains a mystery. A penciled note reads simply “no date of reception.” All six were transferred from the College Library to the Law School Library in June 1924, possibly in a batch described in the Law Library’s accession book as merely “Miscellaneous material”. These broadsides and their miscellaneous collection of facts and figures offer an intriguing glimpse into the state of Massachusetts prisons in the early nineteenth century. We are thankful to the Harvard College alumni who thought to give these interesting documents to their alma mater and to the library professionals who over the years have sought to preserve them. And given recent interest and concern about prisons and mass incarceration, both nationally and locally, these nearly 200 year old reports are an especially timely find.

852 RARE – New Exhibit! One Text, Sixteen Manuscripts: Magna Carta at the Harvard Law School Library

Magna Carta posterFirst written in 1215, the ideas of liberty and human rights contained in and derived from England’s Magna Carta (the Great Charter) have persisted for 800 years. They have provided inspiration for developments in law now enshrined in constitutions and treaties across the world. The survival and resonance of those ideas is reflected in the manuscripts in this exhibit.

The Harvard Law School Library owns close to 30 manuscript copies of Magna Carta; a few of our favorites are presented here. Tangible items like these connect us with the past and allow us to approach the people who created, used and treasured these documents. Each manuscript tells a different story and raises many questions.

This exhibit was curated by Karen Beck and Mindy Kent, HLS Library. It is on view daily 9 to 5 in the Caspersen Room through March 11, 2016. An online companion to the exhibit is available. All our manuscript Magna Cartas have been digitized and may be viewed online.

Roof update for late August!

Langdell Hall roof, August 10, 2015

Langdell Hall roof, August 10, 2015

What’s the latest work going on up on the roof? Here’s what’s happening at the end of this month:

  • Parapet masonry work from the aerial lifts will continue on the west sides of Langdell Hall at Areeda Hall and will continue daily until the end of next week. The aerial lift will be moving to the east sides of Langdell Hall by Holmes field for the week of August 24. The current plan, weather permitting, is to be completed with aerial lift work by the last week in August.
  • Copper roofing is underway on Areeda Hall and on the Langdell Hall north and south lower roofs and will be completed by the end of next week.
  • Copper roofing is underway at Areeda Hall and will be completed by the end of next week.

Check out the photo in this post to view the progress and contrast the shiny new copper over the Langdell North classroom area with the older green copper still on the main portion of the roof.

Thanks, Heather!

heather betty rubble smart

Heather Pierce-Lopez (center) with Amelia Bingham “Seaweed” and her son

Librarians are used to getting thanks from patrons on a regular basis, but some thanks are extra special. Our own document delivery assistant and librarian extraordinaire Heather Pierce-Lopez recently reported the following meeting:

“Remember that 1665 Indian land deed I found a while back? Well a tribal elder and her son came by to thank me for finding this deed that no one has been able to locate for the last 40 years. I am honored to have met such an amazing woman. She even gave me a signed copy of her book.

“Thanks for letting me be a part of this adventure.”

852 RARE: A Controversial Execution in 1818 Edinburgh

In December 1818, Robert Johnston, age 24, was executed for robbing Mr. John Charles of some £600 in pounds and notes, plus a watch key and chain. This single crime, trial, and execution ignited a swarm of controversy – evidence of which can be found in our collections. We recently acquired a pamphlet, Letter to the Magistrates of Edinburgh … with Regard to the Execution of Robert Johnston, which joins several others in our collection that describe the trial and gruesome execution that followed.

Letter to magistrates

Letter to the magistrates of Edinburgh, 1819, HOLLIS 14401279

Opinion diverged about Johnston and the severity of his punishment. Some noted that Johnston, a 24-year-old carter, had repeatedly been in custody on various charges; in fact, he had only been out a few days before robbing Mr. Charles. Others noted that his parents were “honest and industrious,” and pointed out that Johnston had been thrown out of work due to economic distress in Scotland. These writers thought his only choice was to steal or starve.

All agreed that the punishment – execution by hanging – was severe. Other carters had recently committed crimes in Edinburgh; perhaps local magistrates wanted to make an example of Johnston. Citizens interceded on his behalf, to no avail.

On the day of the execution, a noose was slipped around Johnston’s neck, and he mounted a table, which was supposed to drop suddenly at Johnston’s signal. Unfortunately, the table did not drop completely, leaving him half standing and half suspended, struggling. As the crowd realized he was still alive, they urged the attending magistrate to halt the execution. Soon the crowd threw stones at the magistrate, overpowered the police, cut Johnston down, partially revived him and carried him off. The police eventually recaptured him, dragged him to the station, and continued their attempts to revive him before returning him to the gallows. During all this time Johnston appeared conscious but did not speak.

When the execution resumed and the table dropped once again, Johnston continued to struggle for about 20 minutes before finally expiring. The whole gruesome business lasted almost two hours.

Witnesses agreed on the sequence of events, and all were shocked at the inhumane and error-ridden execution. However, they vehemently disagreed about whether the magistrates exercised their duty to ensure a working scaffold and secure a competent executioner. Some blamed the magistrates; others blamed the crowd (which they called a mob) for cutting Johnston down and thereby prolonging his suffering.

Robert Johnston trial account

Authentic account of the trial … of Robert Johnston, 1819, HOLLIS 4390803

Letter to the citizens of Edinburgh

Letter to the citizens of Edinburgh; in which the cruel and malicious aspersions of an “eye-witness” are answered, 1819, HOLLIS 4388450












For historians of crime and punishment, it is useful to consult materials like the pamphlets here, which offer multiple perspectives, reminding us that there is often more than one “truth.” These pamphlets also shine a light on issues that concerned the populace and the police nearly two hundred years ago. They show that controversy over the death penalty was, and remains, a recurrent theme in other legal systems as well as our own.

Congrats to the Webby Award-winning Perma.cc!

perma logoWe’re thrilled to share the news that Perma.cc is the 2015 Webby award winner in the law category. Congratulations to all our colleagues who work on Perma.cc!

Perma.cc, created at the HLS Library and powered by libraries around the world, helps scholars, journals and courts create permanent links to the online sources cited in their work, saving them from link rot.

852 RARE: Medieval Manuscripts Online – Magna Carta & More

The HLS Library’s Historical & Special Collections is pleased to announce the release of two early manuscript digital collections of interest to students and scholars of medieval Anglo-American legal history. We are grateful to the Ames Foundation for contributing some of the funding for these projects.

To celebrate Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, we have digitized our entire manuscript collection of English statutory compilations, which include Magna Carta, dating from about 1300 to 1500. Many of the volumes have beautiful illustrations, like the one shown here.


Magna Carta cum Statutis, ca. 1325. HLS MS 12, fol. 27r.

One of our favorites is a Sheriff’s Magna Carta – a single-sheet copy of the statute which was read aloud in a town square four times a year.

HLS MS 172

Magna Carta, ca. 1327. HLS MS 172.

We have also digitized our entire manuscript collection of registers of English legal writs, which were used to initiate legal actions in a court. Our collection of registers dates from about 1275 to 1476. Most of our manuscript registers are fairly humble, but this one has a magnificent illuminated initial:

HLS MS 155

Registrum Brevium, 1384. HLS MS 155, fol. 34r (detail).

 Cataloging information for each manuscript may be found by searching HOLLIS and browsing by “other call number”: HLS MS XXX; XXX refers to the manuscript number.

The Ames Foundation has begun a project to fully describe the contents of these statutes and registers to make them even more useful to scholars. Read more about the project, see an example of a fully-described manuscript (HLS MS 184), and find out how you can help.

Together with our recently released English Manor Rolls digitization project, these materials open up a new realm of research possibilities to scholars around the world. We hope you enjoy them!

Congrats to the Webby-nominated Perma.cc!

Congratulations to our colleagues who work on the Webby Award-nominated Perma.cc! We’re delighted that it’s been nominated in the category of websites: law.

perma logoPerma.cc, powered by libraries, helps scholars, journals and courts create permanent links to the online sources cited in their work.

Love Perma.cc? Vote for it on the Webby Awards website.

Early English Manor Rolls Go Online

Historical & Special Collections is pleased to announce that we have begun a multi-year project to conserve and digitize our collection of English manor rolls. The rolls came to Harvard over a century ago, purchased in 1892 and 1893 by Harvard Professor William James Ashley (1860-1927) from London bookseller James Coleman. In 1925 the College Library transferred the collection to the Harvard Law School Library.

The manor roll collection consists of 170 court-rolls, account-rolls, and other documents from various manors, ranging in date from 1282 to 1770. The largest concentration comes from the manor of Moulton in Cheshire. Other manors represented are Odiham Hundred, Hampshire; Herstmonceaux, Sussex; Chartley, Staffordshire; and Onehouse, Suffolk. A limited number of materials in this collection are single-sheet charters and one item is a map of the manor of Shelly, Suffolk.

Manor roll 16A (2)

Detail of roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16)


For a complete description of the collection, see the finding aid, which will change and grow as digital images of the rolls become available, and links to them, along with improved descriptions of the rolls will be added. We expect this primary resource will be of particular interest to legal and local historians, students of early modern English history, and genealogists, all of whom have already used the rolls in their research. We also hope that by putting the rolls online, they will reach a broader audience who may pursue research questions that have not previously encompassed the manor rolls. We welcome your suggestions for improved descriptions; email specialc@law.harvard.edu with your feedback.