The latest addition to our collection of works dating from mid-seventeenth century England is a compilation of laws by one John Wilkinson. Its title is A Treatise Collected Out of the Statutes of this Commonwealth, and According to Common Experience of the Lawes, Concerning the Office and Authorities of Coroners and Sheriffs. He published it via The Company of Stationers in 1657. By this time there had been no king on the throne since the execution of Charles I in 1649. Puritans and supporters of Oliver Cromwell’s “Protectorate” were very much in control of the nation. They expected sheriffs and other officials to enforce punitive laws based, more or less overtly, on Puritan notions of morality. Consider this passage, from page 174 of Wilkinson’s book:
“Also you shall enquire if any Ale-house keeper or other person do keep any unlawful games in his or their house or houses, or elsewhere, as cards, dice, tables, loggers, quoits, bowles, or such like. In this case the house-keeper loseth for every day forty shillings, and every player six shillings eight pence for every time. Also Constables ought to search monethly [sic] for such unlawful games and disorders in Ale-houses upon pain of forty shillings, and they may arrest such as they find playing unlawful games.”
In 1657 Englishmen still had three years to wait before the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and the resumption, in large part, of ordinary games of chance. It may be worth noting that the American essayist H.L. Mencken famously described Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
For Dr. Julie Griffith’s cataloging of Wilkinson’s Treatise, see below:
A treatise collected out of the statutes of this common-wealth, and according to common experience of the lawes, concerning the office and authorities of coroners and sherifes : together with an easie and plaine method for the keeping of a court-leet, court-baron, and hundred-court / by John Wilkinson of Bernards Inne, Gent. ; to which is added the return of writts, by John Kitchin Esquire, now all published in English
“Welcome to the party, we’re all just papers in the wind.” From “Run, Run, Run,” by Jo Jo Gunne, 1972. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS7pOaEEOTs]
Several decades into the digital revolution, it is clear that digital devices have had an enormous impact upon the routines of literacy. This effect is every bit as profound as that brought about by the print revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moreover, the digital universe is arguably much broader than the universe of moveable type. After all, the latter, in simplistic terms, was only a superior way to deal with a medium—parchment/paper—that had been around for millennia. In both cases, the “revolution” involved enhancements in the production, dissemination, and storage of information. But power over information has always meant power plain and simple for the persons in charge of society.
With that in mind, let us consider that persons of rank have had, for more than a millennium, access to documents attesting to their property, status, or worth. Consider the Anglo Saxon concept of “bookland,” which involved royal land grants by means of charters or diplomas, deposited for safety among the records of a monastery or abbey. Moving forward to the early modern world, well-connected travelers regularly carried with them letters of introduction—the ancestors of the recommendations (paper or electronic) eagerly sought by today’s applicants for jobs or college admissions. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the need for documentary endorsement had touched the lives of people who were in no sense exalted. For example, a slave in the American south was required to carry a pass signed by his master in order to set foot beyond the master’s property. Ironically, in the last stringent days of the Confederacy, southern white folks had to carry a stamped pass in order to take railroad journeys; such was the effect of wartime bureaucracy.
Soon after the turn of the last century, several forces came together in the United States—industrialization, immigration and population growth, urban planning and ever more far reaching bureaucracies—to produce a society whose members were defined, increasingly, by their paper documents. A standardized system of birth certificates was in place in the United States by about 1900. By the time children born in that year were well-grown, they needed documentation, identity cards, or printed licenses to live their lives. These pieces of paper determined how an individual could function as a citizen. It was necessary, for example, to present a voter registration certificate at the polls. Likewise, most states required persons wishing to live in legally married bliss to secure a marriage license. Speaking of ubiquitous documents, operators of motor vehicles were commonly required to carry driver’s licenses while operating cars or trucks. Paper money had been common in this country since the time of the American Revolution, but by the early twentieth century, the “personal check” had become the most convenient means of paying ordinary debts.
As this generation approached the age of high school they confronted a world at war. Some of the young men were drafted into America’s World War I armed forces—a path that carried with it an imposing battery of records and identity cards. The young men and women who went to college received student ID cards; those who completed college earned diplomas and membership cards from alumni associations. Graduates who wished to practice law or medicine displayed their diplomas on office walls next to licenses issued by professional organizations or state certifying boards.
Just as these “pieces of paper” confirmed what we were qualified to do, they also governed where we were allowed to go. Travel on such forms of commercial transportation as ships, railroads, airplanes and buses was available only to those who held printed tickets. To anyone who has ridden a passenger train, Cary Grant’s ability (in North by Northwest) to travel without a ticket from New York to Chicago is one of his more impressive achievements. Attendance at many important events (weddings, graduations, recitals) required a printed invitation. The right to attend an even larger number of events—movies, plays, concerts, operas, sporting competitions, conventions—required tickets for which one had to pay.
The Bounds Copy of J.W. Shepherd’s Digest of the Alabama Reports from the 17th to the 29th Volume, N.S. [New Series]. Montgomery: Barrett & Wimbush, Book and Job Printers, 1858.
Our “Preserved in Amber” series of posts seeks to celebrate unique and interesting objects, usually but not always a particular volume. The uniqueness typically comes from one striking feature—such as the correspondence between Hannis Taylor and J.B. Bury, pasted in Bounds’ copy of Taylor’s Science of Jurisprudence and featured in our October 12, 2016 post. To the law review spader or other casual user, there would be nothing particularly arresting about our Shepherd’s Digest. Further investigation, however, reveals a book that is interestingly signed and tantalizingly inscribed. Still more investigation reveals a mysterious blemish—quite unexpected. This latter, to be sure, was a feature that invoked this writer’s inner twelve-year-old, who arrived equipped with one of his favorite books.
First, the Book and Its Owners:
J.W. Shepherd, author of the Digest, was born in Madison County, Alabama, in 1826. He graduated
from Yale College in 1844 and returned home to practice law. By 1851 he was
practicing in Montgomery and was tapped as the reporter for the Alabama Supreme
Court, a post he would fill (with various interruptions) until the early 1890s. In line with regional
publishing practices of the time, Shepherd published his 1858 Digest close to home, with Barrett &
Wimbush of Montgomery.
The Bounds copy of the Digest is inscribed with three names on the front pastedown leaf.
The first, written in red pencil, is that of R.W. Walker. This signature could well
be that of Richard Wilde Walker, who in 1859 would be appointed to fill a
vacancy on the Alabama Supreme Court. Walker would go on to serve in the
Confederate Provisional Congress and (1863-1865) in the Confederate Senate. In 1859, Walker sold the Digest to one Thomas Alan Jones,
according to an inscription in Jones’ handwriting. At some point thereafter,
Jones “presented” the Digest to James
Irvine, quite likely the James Irvine who would represent Lauderdale County in
the Alabama constitutional convention of 1865.
The first indication that the Walker-Jones-Irvine Digest contains anything unusual can be
found on the verso of the rear free flyleaf. There can be seen the remains of an
inscription in pencil, almost wholly erased but beginning with the words
“Preposterous Monstrosity” and ending with the words “to take it back.” It is
written, apparently, in Walker’s hand; and its erasure probably represents
nothing more than a courtesy from one owner to the next. Or was there something
written that Walker or one of the book’s other owners didn’t want anyone to read?
Unless we can stage a highly specific question-and-answer séance, we’ll
probably never know.
Moving toward an examination of the exterior text
block, we see more proof that every printed book—mass-produced or otherwise—can
become a unique object in the hands of its readers. Part of this Digest’s individuality is inked on the
fore-edge of the text block in the form of a handy index. The categories are
broad, certain to have been applicable to the practice of the period: Criminal,
Probate, Chancery and Civil. Each of these words was accompanied by an arrow marking
its extent in the text, and also by a number from 1 (opposite Criminal) to 4
(opposite Civil). The intent—purely practical—is far removed from that of
fore-edge artists who have decorated books with symbolic, heraldic, or
Proceeding to the actual text of the Digest, we see that one reader (at
least) has resorted to marking places with often rather emphatic dog-ears. These
dog-ears are placed on or opposite to pages containing the following topics: Constitutional
Law (p. 30); Court and Jury (p. 37); Pleading (p. 95); Statute of Limitations
(p. 197); Assumpsit (p. 403); Evidence (pp. 626-627); and Execution (p. 630).Someone,
in addition, drew (in ink) brackets around three sections of “The Trial of the
Right of Property” (p. 761). Aside from these indications of research
interests, there are few ordinary alterations to this copy of the Digest; but the dog-ears and marks
suggest that its owners pursued the ordinary practice of law.
We encounter a much less ordinary set of marks
beginning on p. 417. What presents itself, in the middle of §50 of the article
on Attachment is a virtually circular mark 1.5 centimeters in diameter. It is a
consistent dark brown in color; it has moved through the paper to produce an
identical mark on p. 418. Each of these marks has stained its facing page (pp.
416, 419). The look of these dark marks suggests that they were burned—burned
with considerable care, possibly by means of a fair-sized lit cigar. For all the world, they
look strangely familiar, like something that resonates in memory.
Of course! What we’re seeing is like a black spot in
Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 classic Treasure
Island. All at once the air seems full of references to lubbers and
swabs—charged, too, with the likelihood that we’ll catch a glimpse of the
fearsome one-legged seafaring man, Long John Silver. Just outside my office,
surely, Billy Bones is explaining to young Jim Hawkins that the black spot is
“a summons, mate,” issued by a pirate crew to someone they wished to depose or
kill. I’m reminded of a scene late in Treasure
Island, where Jim Hawkins watches the pirates preparing a black spot. They
were clustering around a campfire; one was “on his knees in their midst.”
Hawkins saw “the blade of an open knife shine in his hand with varying colors”;
and “he had a book as well as a knife in his hand.”
After a few days’ thought and very little (to be
honest) further research, I am forced to admit that it is unlikely that our Digest ever fell into the hands of
pirates, or even lawyers’ children pretending to be pirates. For one thing, its spot[s]
do not conform to the rules laid down in Treasure
Island. Pirates of that book’s Caribbean cut their black spots out of
books, leaving one side unscorched. The unscorched side was supposed to be
blank, so the pirates could write on it some cryptic sentence of doom. The
Walker-Jones-Irvine spot, on the contrary, is burned on both sides, and there
is no evidence that anyone ever took a knife to the volume.
Moreover, the black spot made by firelight in Treasure Island (see above) still
carried s few words of text—a spookily burned fragment of the Book of Revelations,
namely: “Without are dogs and . . . murderers.”  The Bounds Digest also boasts darkened texts
surrounding its double spot, but the texts are all about regulations for the
attachment of property. One, for example, commences: “When a garnishee, against
whom a judgm[ent has] been rendered by a justice [of the pea]ce, removes the
case to the [unintelligible] [c]ourt . . .” To be sure, this passage
once provided a revealing look into legal maneuvers that preceded the carting
away of one’s possessions; but it is a bit lacking in dramatic pep.
Finally, there are doubts concerning whether pirates
ever used black spots at all. Perhaps, after all, it is
better to argue that the Digest’s
black spot[s] were caused by the carelessness of a smoker, piratical or
otherwise, who thought he was putting his cigar down into an ashtray.
 Thomas M. Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama
Biography, introduction by Milo B. Howard, Jr. (1921; Spartanburg, S.C.:
Reprint Company, 1978), IV: 1543-1544. Willis Brewer, in his Alabama: Her History, Resources, War Record, and Public Men from
1540 to 1872 (Montgomery: Barrett & Brown, 1872), 474-475, said that
Shepherd was “a gentleman of a retiring disposition, but esteemed for many
excellencies of head and heart.”
 Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, III: 885.
 See Roy Stokes, A Bibliographical Companion (Lanham, MD:
Scarecrow Press, 1989), 117-118.
 An alternate theory is that the
spots were formed by the application of ink. This seems less likely because the
marks on pp. 417-418 are each enclosed by a little halo of what appears to be
scorched paper. And ink, unless applied by a deft hand, would quite possibly
not have been so neat.
 Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883; Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University press, 2013), 22, 238.
 The latter possibility is still
open to speculation, of course.