Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reviewed: Burnett, Trying Leviathan: The 19th Century NY Case that put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

TRYING LEVIATHAN: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, by D. Graham Burnett (Princeton University Press), is reviewed in the New York Times by Blake Wilson. The book concerns the case of Maurice v. Judd. According to Blake, "in December 1818, lawyers, scientists and laymen convened to argue a proposition before a jury of their peers: is a whale a fish? The case centered on whether a New York statute mandating the inspection of fish oil applied to three casks of whale oil owned by the merchant Samuel Judd. Burnett, an associate professor of history at Princeton, argues that more was at stake: this was a referendum on the status of science in public life." Along the way, Burnett explores "larger questions about the place of science in American society." Blake finds the book "better reading for historians than for a general audience," but if you're reading the Legal History Blog, that means it's just right for you.