Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Leo Hershkowitz: Dumpster Diver for Legal History

Today's New York Times brings word of the death of Leo Hershkowitz. That might not be a familiar name to legal historians today, even though he taught history at Queens College "for about 50 years."  The obituary's reference to his many heroic efforts to save New York City documents, including coroner’s records from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, reminded me of a story Stanley Katz once told me about Professor Hershkowitz and one such batch of documents. When I checked with Professor Katz, he replied:
He was one of the early non-lawyers legal historians, entirely focused on the city and state of New York. Back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when I was trying to write a history of the chancery courts in New York, many of the records were hard to find. But I knew that many of them were in a court in Albany. Leo knew too, and discovered that the court was going to destroy the 18th-century records as of no current value. He got the court to agree to release the records to him, hired a truck, and drove to Albany to collect the records--which I think he then gave [to the New-York Historical Society or the Hall of Records in New York City]. He literally, and by his lonesome, saved the New York 18th-century chancery court records. Blessings on him. He wrote a good book on Boss Tweed, too.