Historical & Special Collections • Et. Seq: The Harvard Law School Library Blog

New exhibit: What (Not) to Wear: Fashion and the Law

fashion triptych displays 2-hlslHistorical & Special Collections is pleased to announce that the new exhibit, What (Not) to Wear: Fashion and the Law is now on view in the Caspersen Room on the fourth floor of Langdell Hall.

Though law and fashion may not initially seem like overlapping domains, given the central nature of each of these fields to our lives, it is no surprise that they do have an impact on one another. Over the centuries, fashion has been important to decisions about how jurists visually demonstrate their expertise, and law has served to circumscribe how fashion is created, distributed, and consumed.

What Not to Wear: Fashion and the Law, guest curated by research library staff Mindy Kent, Meg Kribble, and Carli Spina (now of Boston College!), is on view in the HLS Library Caspersen Room daily 9am-5pm through August 12, 2016.

Can’t get to Cambridge? Our online exhibit is now available as well!

852 RARE: In Celebration of Pranksters and Practical Jokers: The Legend of Lady Ellesmere

April Fools’ day may have come and gone, but in the spirit of keeping the laughter going, let’s look back almost 70 years to a student prank involving the school’s portrait collection. As the story goes, two 3L students wanted to pull off a prank before graduation so they commissioned a young art student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to paint a semi-nude female judge. The portrait, now fondly referred to as “Lady Ellesmere” was painted by Mrs. Vera Chvany Hussey, now Vera Chvany Hussey-Forbes. She was referred to the two HLS students by a friend with strong Harvard connections; Sally Mallinckrodt, the granddaughter of Edward Mallinckrodt. Early in the morning of March 24, 1948, the students made arrangements with janitorial staff to hang the portrait, an oil painting on heavy craft paper, in the Langdell South Middle classroom in the frame normally reserved for the portrait of Sir Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere, who had supposedly been removed for cleaning. Dean Griswold’s 10:00am class experienced the portrait in situ, which is memorialized in the photograph below. The prank received front page coverage in the Law School’s student paper the following week. Sadly, by the time the article went to press no one knew of the painting’s whereabouts.

Langdell South Middle Classroom, 1948

Dean Griswold can be seen in the lower left corner of the photograph. 
Miscellaneous Groups and Events Collection, Box 2
Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library


The portrait of Baron Ellesmere is currently in storage but we know that it was eventually returned to its frame and remained on display in the Langdell South Middle classroom until at least the 1950s, thanks to this photograph. You can see the left side of the painting on the far right of the photograph. For those wondering what he looked like, we have other images of Egerton in the collection, including the engraving below.

Sir Thomas Egerton

Sir Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere and Viscount Brackley, 1615?
Record ID: olvwork177013

Mrs. Hussey-Forbes believes that Griswold confiscated the portrait and hopeful that it might have made it into our collection she has contacted the Law School and other Harvard sources for more than 60 years trying to get more information. Sadly, we have not found it but it seems the incident did make an impression on Griswold, who memorialized it in a scrapbook of clippings, pamphlets, and photographs now in our collection. Griswold wasn’t the only one interested in the prank; the story spread from coast to coast and reached newspapers in California, Colorado, Nebraska, and Indiana just to name a few places. Mrs. Hussey-Forbes has written a memoir that includes the story of the painting and more recently published a blog post on the incident. She was kind enough to speak with me and shared a few more details that didn’t make it into the original news coverage. Vera’s relationship with HLS started long before the prank; she grew up on Everett Street and has memories of running through Langdell Hall as a kid. After the prank, Look magazine contacted her about doing a story, which they hoped would include Griswold giving the painting back to her. But when Vera contacted Dean Griswold to see if this was a possibility his response was that he would only give the painting back if she gave him the names of the pranksters. Vera refused and that was the end of the Look piece.

It is important to note that this prank was pulled off two years before Harvard Law School admitted its first class of women. Thankfully times have changed and multiple portraits of actual female judges adorn the walls of the school and their presence is neither a joke, nor an anomaly like Lady Ellesmere’s brief appearance in 1948.

Correction: April 25, 2016
This post incorrectly stated that Mrs. Hussey-Forbes first contacted Historical & Special Collections eight years ago. In fact she had been contacting numerous Harvard sources for the last 68 years with no success. Thanks to Mrs. Hussey-Forbes’ persistence in bring the story to light and recent digitization efforts, I was able to locate the article published in the Law School student paper, which served as the starting point for further research.

In Ruhleben Camp: A magazine by any other name…

In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. Around the time that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story.

Cover. The Ruhleben Camp Magazine, No. 1, March 1916. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 608

Cover. The Ruhleben Camp Magazine, No. 1, March 1916. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 608

As March crept in, Ruhlebenites gratefully heralded the return of spring—and of their camp magazine along with it. Following a two-month hiatus, In Ruhleben Camp (IRC) returned under new editorial guidance, and freshly re-christened The Ruhleben Camp Magazine (RCM). As the slight shift towards formality suggests, a few things had changed, but not much.

The cover illustration gives the first hint that the same wry spirit prevails. As we discussed at the beginning of this series, the cover of In Ruhleben Camp’s inaugural issue back in June 1915 had sported a clever example of the “Droste effect,” a graphical technique popularized in advertising around the turn of the twentieth century. The cover had shown a man reading from an issue of IRC, on whose cover was visible a smaller image of the same man holding the same magazine, on whose cover one could imagine the same man…and so on ad infinitum.

The newly renamed Ruhleben Camp Magazine recreates this gambit for its own cover, except that the voluble Ruhlebenite is replaced by an unusually literate March hare, suggesting one thing that Ruhlebenites might be as mad as (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 608). The picture seems to shout: “Remember us? We’re back!”

Back with a familiar cast of characters, too. “The Mad Hatter” (now styling himself number “2”) continues gleefully mocking the antics of the Debating Society; the famous footballer Fred B. Pentland still reports sagely on the camp’s favorite game; a number of sketches bear the impress of a familiar hand, with chicken scratch signatures conjuring up the usual suspects.

Moreover, the new editor echoes his predecessor T. Arthur Barton in lamenting that the camp’s best writers are withholding their talent, forcing the editor to ply his pen to fill up pages. But just who is this new editor? A few former internees who were also the camp’s earliest historians, Israel Cohen, Francis Gribble, and the former “Captain of the Camp” Joseph Powell, identify the new editor as L.E. Filmore—perhaps the most beloved parodist in the camp, and a regular contributor to the magazine (Cohen, p. 156; Powell and Gribble, p. 212). Yet the man who signs off as editor in the Xmas 1916 issue is one C.G. Pemberton (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 799).

The reasons for the shake-up are also mysterious: the former editor T.A. Barton continues contributing to the magazine, which remains under the aegis of the Education Committee. If there had been any reshuffling of leadership or finances in the Education Committee, no chroniclers (that I have found) thought it worth mentioning, and the new editor diplomatically emphasizes continuity over difference. Moreover, in a “Publisher’s Notice,” the Education Committee chisels the magazine’s core commandments onto the first pages of RCM: that “as far as possible the magazine shall appear punctually, that it shall be produced by the co-operation of all those in the Camp who are able and willing to assist, and shall express the true sentiment of the interned,” in order to offer “diversion from the tedium of the prisoner’s life.” As part of a “fresh effort” to follow these commandments, and “in witness of the renewal of the paper’s original purpose,” the Committee announces that it “has made some changes which include that of its title” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 610).

Yet, as Powell and Gribble write in their joint history, “what differences of policy the editors may have been pursuing, I do not know; but the visible characteristics of the two papers do not seem widely opposed.” They share a sprightly resilience, it seems: “both were illustrated, and always light in tone and touch—always, one might say, modern. They took few things au grand sérieux” (Powell and Gribble, pp. 212-213).

Continuity of purpose was one of those few things taken with great seriousness, and at least one reader took this continuity seriously as well. A letter to the editor, published in this issue, renews the old protest against expensive theatre performances that boxed poorer internees out of warm indoor spaces. “Take up the cudgels once again in favour of” cheaper seats, the writer exhorts the editor, citing earlier issues of “your paper” that had championed this cause (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 648). And The Ruhleben Camp Magazine seems inclined to do just that. Already the first issue has taken up the satire and public debate once wielded by its predecessor, and sallied forth to do battle with boredom and camp grievances, trumpeting the Ruhleben motto: “Are we downhearted? No!”

Bibliography & Further Reading

Cohen, Israel. The Ruhleben Prison Camp: A Record of Nineteen Months’ Internment. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917.

Powell, Joseph and Francis Henry Gribble. The history of Ruhleben: the record of British organisation in a prison camp. London: W. Collins Sons & Company Ltd., 1919.

Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.

852 RARE: David Sewall: Lawyer, Federal Judge, Weather Aficionado

It’s spring break at Harvard, although March can bring decidedly un-springlike weather to New England. After an unusually mild winter (except for one weekend of record-breaking cold), the first weekend of spring break started off as mild and sunny as a fine day in late April, and is now, well, very March-like. Weather is a perennial topic of conversation in New England (and everywhere else?). It affects us all and is a topic of conversation anyone can participate in and on which everyone seems to have an opinion.

Of all seasons, winter is perhaps especially ripe for discussions, whether one is marveling at, cursing, or boasting about record snowstorms, record cold, unseasonable warmth, and everything in between. Not surprisingly there’s nothing new about the weather as a rich source of conversation. As we approach the vernal equinox on March 20th this year, here’s a glimpse into the meteorological musings of David Sewall (1735-1825). Sewall was a 1755 Harvard graduate (and classmate of John Adams), a lawyer, and a judge, appointed by George Washington to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine in 1789, a position he held until his resignation in 1818.

Historical & Special Collections has a letter from Sewall, written from his home in York, Maine (then part of Massachusetts) to an unidentified correspondent, on January 17, 1795.

HOLLIS 2204095_p1

Sewall begins with the acknowledgement of a small book, then talks of politics. But soon the topic of the weather slips in, when in the third or fourth line, he comments: “The month of December as to mildness and agreeableness of weather has surpassed any that the most ancient among us, can recollect. We have now scarcely enough for slaying [sleighing] ….” Shortly thereafter Sewall turns back to politics and government, pondering Alexander Hamilton’s intention to resign as Secretary of State at the end of the month. He mentions meeting and conversing with the Rev. David Osgood (1747-1822) in a public house in Woburn (Mass.) and discusses court and legislative issues. But the next day, a Sunday, when he picks up his pen to continue the correspondence, his opening line sets the tone for most of the rest of the letter.

HOLLIS 2204095_p2-3

“Last Evening we had a pretty fall of light snow … The cold increases and N.N.W. wind blows about the Snow considerably this Evening.” He asks “how comes it that we ever have snow?” and launches into a long, detailed, and thoughtful musing on trade winds, precipitation, temperatures, and weather patterns along the eastern coast of the United States. He marvels at having “known the thermometer to be at 6° below 0 and in less than 9 hours to be above the freezing point” and notes that “I have known the snow to dissolve faster toward the close of Winter with a Southerly Wind of 24 hours (or a little longer) continuance than with a moderate Rain, of the same duration.” Had he lived in our era, the good judge from Maine may have settled down at the end of a long day to watch the Weather Channel.

March 10: The Magna Carta Lectures … and lunch!

Help us celebrate the closing of the Harvard Law School Library’s exhibit, One Text, Sixteen Manuscripts: Magna Carta at the Harvard Law School Library, by joining us for a program on Magna Carta through the ages. A light lunch will be served, but due to space limitations attendance is limited to 45.

Thursday, March 10, 2016, Noon – 1:30 pm, Caspersen Room, HLS Library, Langdell Hall, 4th floor


Magna Carta in the Fourteenth Century: From Law to Myth? Charles Donahue, Paul A. Freund Professor of Law, HLS

The Interpretation of Magna Carta in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Stephen White, Visiting Professor of History, Harvard University

Moderator: Elizabeth Papp Kamali, Assistant Professor of Law, HLS

poster magna carta lectures-blog

Sponsored by the HLS Library and the Harvard Committee on Medieval Studies.

The Harvard Law School commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials (1945-1949)


Robert Jackson, Opening Statement, November 21, 1945 U. S. Army Signal Corps, photographer Nuremberg Trial photograph collection VIA Record ID: olvwork373967

Robert Jackson, Opening Statement, November 21, 1945
U. S. Army Signal Corps, photographer
Nuremberg Trial photograph collection
VIA Record ID: olvwork373967

The first Nuremberg trial began on November 20, 1945.  The final trial ended in April 1949.  In the intervening time approximately 200 high ranking Nazi leaders were prosecuted for crimes committed during the World War II. The military tribunals created to conduct the trials sought to carry out criminal charges unprecedented in scope and complexity.  As  U.S. chief of counsel Robert H. Jackson said in his opening statement, “The wrongs we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated”.   The Nuremberg trials provided the basis for the modern law of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and a model for recent international prosecutions for such crimes.

The Library has created a webpage, The Nuremberg Trials at 70, dedicated to the trials themselves and the Library’s extensive collection on trial related material. This site highlights both circulating and non-circulating material as well as additional resources located across the United States.  There is also a section that reviews Harvard’s connections to the trials (many Law School graduates served on the prosecution team) plus a timeline for the trials. A physical exhibit has also been installed in the case located just outside the Library’s Areeda Hall entrance. It features books and DVDs from the circulating collection, plus examples of manuscript material from various collections. The exhibit will be on display until the end of February.

Caselaw Access Project: What We’re Finding in the Case Reports

The HLS Library’s Caselaw Access Project aims to provide free online access to our Library’s entire collection of U.S. court decisions. Every day we’re transforming over 100,000 pages into digital images. Eventually those images will become machine-readable text that lawyers, citizens, researchers and developers of all stripes will be able to access and use.

But along the way we’re making some amazing discoveries in the centuries-old print material we’re digitizing. The latest?

Take a look at what Digital Projects Archivist Kerri Fleming found in this Reporter’s Note from Volume 32 of the Georgia Reports, which includes cases decided in 1861:


FTL GA Case Reporter 1861

Reporter’s Note from volume 32 of the Georgia Reports (1861). (click image to enlarge)

The anonymous Reporter of Decisions explained in striking detail why the volume’s publication was delayed until 1869: “Early in 1862, the Reporter entered the military service of the Confederate States, and continued therein until he was disabled. … During the war, the house of the Reporter was burned, and his books and papers, including many of the cases in original manuscript, were destroyed. The printed part of the volume was destroyed with the Printing House in the city of Atlanta. … The close of the war, found the Reporter, like thousands of his fellow-countrymen, poor and destitute …  Sixty-five cases in this volume were destroyed, and had to be gotten up anew … ”

This extraordinary note highlights not only the historical and geographical context in which these decisions were published but also the dedication and professionalism of Reporters of Decisions, who continue their important public service today.

The Harvard Law School Library’s collection of manuscript and printed case reports spans the centuries from 1268 to the present, and includes jurisdictions around the world. As our work on the Caselaw Access Project progresses and we continue to rediscover the print materials making this digital project possible, we hope to share more finds like this!

Post contributed by Kerri Fleming and Adam Ziegler. Post edited 8/30/2016 to update the name of the project.

852 Rare: Colorful Collections – Picture Books in Historical & Special Collections

Although Historical & Special Collections items may sometimes have… colorful… content, you might not expect our material to be terribly colorful at first glance. Recent re-shelving work in the HSC stacks turned up two cheery picture books—an illustrated printing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, illustrated by William Wilson, and Chickens May Not Cross the Road and Other Crazy (But True) Laws, written by Kathi Linz and illustrated by Tony Griego.

Two picture books that are part of Historical & Special Collections.

Two picture books that are part of Historical & Special Collections.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Illustrated by William Wilson.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Illustrated by William Wilson.

William Wilson’s illustrations that accompany the UDHR celebrate the 50th anniversary of the document’s adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948. The book’s introduction states that the “vision [of the book] was to portray this historic instrument with the colours of life and the power of art: an artist is ‘a political being,’ as Picasso said.”[1] Each of the articles of the Declaration is laid out alongside Wilson’s illustrations, one of which is shown here. The goal of the book is to disseminate the entirety of the UDHR with the belief that “there is a vital and urgent need for the Declaration to be understood and learned.”[2]

Shelved just alongside this book is another picture book—Chickens May Not Cross the Road and Other Crazy (But True) Laws. The pen and ink and water color illustrations depict characters acting out strange offenses with the accompanying law prohibiting such behavior alongside it. Further explanation of (crazy) laws are answered in a series of questions throughout the book, including “What is the Oldest Set of Laws Ever Written?” “How About Having No Laws?” “We, the People of the United States, Have Rights, Right?”[3]

Chickens May Not Cross the Road and Other Crazy (But True) Laws, Kathi Linz, Illustrated by Tony Griego

Chickens May Not Cross the Road and Other Crazy (But True) Laws, Kathi Linz, Illustrated by Tony Griego

These books are just two examples of educational material that can be found in Historical & Special Collections that isn’t just aimed at law students. Many more surprising and illuminating (and illuminated!) items pepper the stacks in HSC, waiting for someone to take a closer look!

[1 & 2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Illustrated by William Wilson. [New York]: United Nations, 1997, Title Page.

[3] Chickens May Not Cross the Road and Other Crazy (But True) Laws, Kathi Linz, illustrated by Tony Griego. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

In Ruhleben Camp: with goodwill for friend and foe alike

In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. Around the day that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story.

Detail of Xmas tree. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 596.

Detail of Xmas tree. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 596.

In December of 1915, Ruhleben held its own Christmas truce. As we saw in the previous post, the German authorities gave internees special permission to send copies of In Ruhleben Camp’s “Xmas Number” back Home, where family and friends would find a full-page note of thanks and holiday greetings.

Peace on earth seemed years away, but the editors wished to extend goodwill towards men in the enemy’s camp. They had come into possession of the September issue of a “bright little four page journal” created by German civilians interned at Stobs, a camp in Scotland with roughly 4,500 German civilian internees. Moved by the good humor and fortitude beneath its wry tone, IRC’s editors opened the Xmas Number by translating long passages from the newsletter for the benefit of their readers in Ruhleben and beyond (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 559). (The original newsletter can be viewed online, courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.)

Stobsiade plays on the title of an 18th century mock epic poem The Jobsiade by German physician Carl Arnold Kortum. This satirical poem relates the antics of Hieronymus Jobs, a “Bummelstudent” (“strolling-student”) who remains at university as long as possible not because he takes his studies seriously but because he takes his leisure seriously.

If the editors of IRC caught the joke, they would have enjoyed it. Ruhlebenites often complained of being treated like schoolboys with curfew, roll call, and rules abounding, and no doubt the internees at Stobs resented similar encroachments on their adult autonomy. Moreover, while non-commissioned military POWs could be forced to do labor under the 1907 Geneva Convention, civilians were generally exempt. And if Stobs was anything like Ruhleben, then internees on both sides used this “enforced leisure” (as the British Camps Library committee called it (qtd. in King, p. 256)) to become students once again, attend public lectures or take classes in the camp, and “swot”* languages.” In many cases, they did so not because they took their studies seriously, but because they took their distractions seriously.

The editors of IRC don’t mention the allusion, but their comparisons of the mud, snoring, and lousy conditions at the two camps place a seal of barbed wire brotherhood on the Stobsians. As the highest honor of all, the editors quote the Ruhleben “motto” when they remark approvingly that Stobsiade is “redolent of the “Are-we-downhearted? No!” spirit” and makes it “very apparent that life in a “Prisoner of War Camp” is very much like the life in a “Civil-Gefangenlager.””**

This was probably true, but it flatly contradicted the jingoistic British press, and it is curious to speculate how readers back Home responded. The popular press on both sides exaggerated the miseries of its own imprisoned civilians, while rebuking the home government for (fictional) indulgences lavished on interned enemies (e.g. Stibbe, pp. 83-84). Paul Cohen-Portheim, a German civilian interned in the “gentleman’s camp” at Wakefield, near Leeds, blamed the media titan Lord Northcliffe for propagating absurd reports that the “pampered Huns” at Wakefield supped at fabulous feasts, played on “golf courses that never existed,” and enjoyed “liaisons with women that would have been impossible” (Cohen-Portheim, p. 74). As Cohen-Portheim mused bitterly, “the real truth” was that “what happened to the prisoners on one side happened to those on the other,” based on “a system of mutual reprisals from which the authorities dreamt as little of abstaining as…the flying forces refrained from ‘punitive expeditions’” (Cohen-Portheim, p. 75).

Even if IRC did not intend to discredit propaganda, it could nonetheless do some good for German internees. The historian Matthew Stibbe confirms Cohen-Portheim’s description of “reprisals,” but also observes the potential for “reprisals of good” advocated by the Bishop of Winchester in 1916. For example, when the Swiss Quaker and peace activist Elisabeth Rotten solicited scientific instruments from German firms and individuals (including her friend Albert Einstein) for Ruhlebenites, the Friends Emergency Committee in Britain responded with similar donations for interned Germans (Stibbe, p. 145). Such exchanges were more frequent later in the war, especially as Germany began to see defeat engraved in the trenches across France, but the editors of IRC may have picked up the principle early.

Of course, In Ruhleben Camp remains staunchly patriotic. The editors bridle at Stobsiade’s description of the Stobs camp commander as “half pug, half terrier with bulldog legs which are ever atremble with fright,” an indignity to which IRC would never subject the “Ruhleben Löwe.”*** And they answer cries of “God bless Germany! God bless the Kaiser!” with cheers of “God bless England! God bless Georgie!” before concluding: “And then, reaching hands across the sea to you, we will both cry together: ‘Damn that barbed wire!’” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 560)

Detail. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 560.

Detail. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 560.

Postscript: the end of In Ruhleben Camp

As yet another generous gesture, the Xmas Number announced that donations collected to endow a “Ruhleben Bed” at a Red Cross Hospital would be sent Home around Christmastime. This spirit of charity and goodwill turned out to be the high note on which In Ruhleben Camp folded its pages and bid goodbye. Its rambunctious items give no hint that this issue would be the last, nor is it clear why the offices at Fleet Street closed their doors for three months. But so it was. Apart from a literary journal called Prisoners’ Pie that rang in the New Year, there was no substantial Ruhleben publication until March 1916, when the “Camp Rag” returned with the slightly less catchy title of The Ruhleben Camp Magazine, under new editorial direction but up to the same old tricks.

* British slang for “to learn”
** A misprint for Civil-Gefangenenlager, meaning “Civilian Prison Camp”
*** “Ruhleben lion,” most likely Commandant Count Schwerin or his deputy Baron von Taube

Bibliography & Further Reading

Cohen-Portheim, Paul. Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918. London: Duckworth, 1931.

King, Edmund (2013). ““Books are more to me than food”: British prisoners of war as readers, 1914-1918.” Book History 16. pp. 246-271.

Stibbe, Matthew. British civilian internees in Germany. The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.

In Ruhleben Camp: A belated Merry Xmas and Happy 1916 from Ruhleben Camp

In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. Around the day that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story.

Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 557.

Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 557.

He thought he saw the Lager “Rag” *
Appear when it was due.
He looked again, and saw it was,
Not a report, but true.
“Now, isn’t this top-hole” he said,
In time for Xmas too.”
(Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 580)

The final issue of In Ruhleben Camp for 1915 appeared around Christmas of that year, and it wears its holiday spirit with a difference. Peppered with humorously cynical cartoons depicting what might happen “If Santa Claus came to Ruhleben,” the Xmas Number also extends jovial greetings across the Channel to friend and foe alike. We will start with friends in this post, and look to foes in the next.

Having received special permission from the German censors to send the Christmas issue to Britain as a gift for loved ones, Ruhlebenites may have been both moved and amused by certain editorial choices. Between the handsomely printed covers, for instance, Ruhlebenites found a page thanking “the folks at home” for supporting “their Ruhlebenites,” as well as offering characteristically pragmatic advice: send butter, margarine, or dripping, please! (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 603) Meanwhile, the stiff back cover doubled as a pre-formatted card that could be filled out, detached, and sent separately, perhaps for those without the means to send the whole thing.

Cartoon. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 592.

Cartoon. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 592.

The editors may have had a bit of fun with their extended readership as well. In particular, a comic piece titled “The Ruhlebenite at Home” seems teasingly calculated to evoke the worst nightmare of a wife, mother, or sister who feared her Ruhlebenite would come home a changed man. The story is narrated by an internee who has been released early and has “arrived Home in time for Christmas” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 569). His convenient timing makes for a tongue-in-cheek homage to the disappointed hopes of the previous year, when men on both sides had assumed the war could only last a few months. A year later, it was harder to maintain that anyone would “be Home before Xmas” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 519) without being called a wishful thinker. By the end of 1915, no reader could avoid the cruel contrast between the narrator’s happy timing and the reality for most men, whether in camps or at the front.

Having finally arrived Home for Xmas—a year late and most likely declared “military unfit” for poor health—our Ruhlebenite soon finds himself in hot water with the women of the house. His crime? He does everything, including bathe himself, Ruhleben style. He bewilders his sister and her housemaid by complaining that “nothing is ever where it ought to be,” and is in turn baffled to discover that wash basins are not kept under the bed, but on the washstand, and that it would be more appropriate to bathe in his own room (and with less swearing) than out in the hall (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 569). At each turn, the story seems to guffaw: you can take an internee out of the camp, but you can’t take Ruhleben out of a Ruhlebenite.

The humor is darkened when one recalls the increased rate at which internees were hospitalized for mental breakdowns as the years dragged on, a danger which Ellis Loring Dresel of the U.S. embassy would observe in July of 1916 (Stibbe, p. 73). Has our protagonist been declared “military unfit” not due to physical illness, but because he has truly lost his “mental perspective” at Ruhleben? (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 513)

Still the story keeps a light tone, even as our hero’s Ruhleben habits enact a complete cultural inversion. The manners and customs of this respectable middle-class household are alien and barbarous to him, and he insists on “proper” behavior that only a Ruhlebenite would understand. Such a reversal of values offers the perfect formula for social satire, but the author doesn’t rise to the bait. There is no room for cultural relativism here: lampooning the sister’s shock would doubtless have struck too close to home. Instead, the jokes rely on the fact (or hope) that Ruhlebenite readers can still tell a hawk from a handsaw when in the presence of a lady, or at least know better than to toss bathwater down the corridor or to call one’s sister a “lazy beggar” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 570).

It is no accident that the author’s satire is entirely directed against the hapless Ruhlebenite. If the story plays on the apprehensions of womenfolk at home, it more pointedly reflects anxieties plaguing Ruhlebenites themselves. After so much time in a camp of 4,000 men, roughly a quarter of whom were sailors, many internees worried that they would never scrub the blue streak from their language, or remember how to comport themselves in mixed society. The Swiss physician Dr. Vischer’s research into “barbed wire disease” after the war suggests that these concerns were not unfounded, either.

As a kind of verbalized anxiety dream, then, waking up from this story may have been reassuring. After all, if readers laughed at its humor, understood that a free man need not carry around wire and nails for emergencies, and knew enough to reverse the protagonist’s complaint that his sister had “changed tremendously” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 572) during his internment, then hope was not lost.

What readers at Home thought—well, that too may have been part of the joke.


Portable Xmas Tree. N.D. VIA record number olvwork430260

Portable Xmas Tree owned by a Ruhleben internee. N.D. VIA record number olvwork430260

* Lager is the German word for “camp,” and was adopted by Ruhleben internees. Rag is English slang for a magazine or periodical.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Bing, M.D. and A.L. Vischer, M.D. “Some Remarks on the Psychology of Internment, Based on the Observation of Prisoners of War in Switzerland.” The Lancet. 26 April 1919. Pp. 696-7.

Stibbe, Matthew. British civilian internees in Germany. The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Vischer, Adolf Lucas. Barbed wire disease; a psychological study of the prisoner of war. Tr. from the German, with additions by the author. London: Bale & Danielsson, 1919.

Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.

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