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Trying Leviathan

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

D. Graham Burnett
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Trying Leviathan
    Book Description:

    In Moby-Dick, Ishmael declares, "Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me." Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville's antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth century--one that ultimately had to be resolved in the courts of New York City. In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular--and biblically sanctioned--view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature--and how we know it--was at stake. Burnett vividly recreates the trial, during which a parade of experts--pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers--took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages. Falling in the middle of the century between Linnaeus and Darwin, the trial dramatized a revolutionary period that saw radical transformations in the understanding of the natural world. Out went comfortable biblical categories, and in came new sorting methods based on the minutiae of interior anatomy--and louche details about the sexual behaviors of God's creatures.

    When leviathan breached in New York in 1818, this strange beast churned both the natural and social orders--and not everyone would survive.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3398-6
    Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. [Illustration]
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    On the 9th of November, 1819 the distinguished New York physician-naturalist, Samuel Latham Mitchill, received at his Barclay Street chambers a malodorous packet containing an over-ripe orange file fish (Aluterus schoepfii, Walbaum, 1792) that had run afoul of a Long Island boating party several days earlier and had succumbed to “the stroke of an oar” on the beach near Bowery Cove. This rank offering arrived in the company of an explanatory letter from the Irish Jacobin lawyer William Sampson, the doctor’s fellow member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York, and his sometime adversary in the courts of the...

  6. TWO Common Sense
    (pp. 19-43)

    Several comments in the transcripts of Maurice v. Judd make it clear that the galleries of the Mayor’s Court were very crowded on the last days of the year in 1818. In his closing arguments, for instance, Sampson declared that “it needed no handbills to collect the crowd that has filled this court during the whole trial.” The simple rumor of such a “paradox,” to be debated by several of the most learned men of the city, “was enough, if the living had no curiosity, to bring the dead out of their graves.” That same “paradox” guaranteed the coverage of...

  7. THREE The Philosophical Whale
    (pp. 44-94)

    Samuel Latham Mitchill, who had published an American edition of Erasmus Darwin’s earthy Zoonomia, was not a man afraid to speak out loud about the loves of plants and animals; indeed, he was not a man afraid to speak out loud on most any topic. Almost thirty years after the doctor’s death, in an eloge entitled Reminiscences of Samuel Latham Mitchill, M.D., LL.D., Mitchill’s younger contemporary, the memoirist and man-about-town John W. Francis, would recall that “It was a common remark among our citizens—‘Tap the Doctor at any time, and he will flow.’”¹ If admiring, the comment captures something...

  8. FOUR Naturalists in the Crow’s Nest
    (pp. 95-144)

    For all the importance of Mitchill’s testimony, however, the jury had other witnesses to consider, several of whom could claim a very different but no less compelling expertise where the cetes were concerned: they had actually seen living whales up close on the high seas, had killed them there, and had cut deep into their still-quivering flesh. Two of the witnesses called in the trial—Captain Preserved Fish (whose name, predictably, attracted the mirth of several commentators) and the sailor James Reeves—had been on whaling voyages and were therefore the only participants in Maurice v. Judd who had confronted...

  9. Color Plates
    (pp. None)
  10. FIVE Men of Affairs
    (pp. 145-165)

    It would appear that Captain Preserved Fish was not in attendance that day at the New Bedford Lyceum to hear Charles W. Morgan hold forth on “the natural history of the whale,” since it seems likely that, had he been, Morgan would have made some gesture at the Captain’s involvement in the still notorious trial. But his absence is not really surprising. Though Fish came originally from New Bedford, sailed from that port as a whaleman, and retained family and business connections there, he had long since made New York his primary place of residence. In fact, by the time...

  11. SIX The Jury Steps Out
    (pp. 166-189)

    Reviewing the defendant’s case in his closing statement, William Price invoked again the testimony of his client’s star witness, Samuel Latham Mitchill, reminding the jury that this man—one of the “luminaries of the present age”—had brought his taxonomic élan to the fundamental problem before the court. But, surprisingly, Price then proceeded to draw his listeners’ attention not to Mitchill’s careful parsing of the creatures of the sea, but rather, first and foremost, to his taxonomy of the creatures of the court and its attendant institutions: “Doctor Mitchill,” Price explained, “has aptly classed the community, and described the composition...

  12. SEVEN Conclusion
    (pp. 190-222)

    Back in the introduction I gave three reasons for taking up a detailed study of Maurice v. Judd from the perspective of the history of science, and I want here by way of summary and conclusion to return to those three themes, reviewing them in the following order: first, Maurice v. Judd as an occasion to investigate cetaceans as “problems of knowledge” between 1750 and 1850; second, Maurice v. Judd as a window onto the contested terrain of zoological classification in this same period; and third, Maurice v. Judd as an opportunity to assess the broader place of natural history...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 223-224)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-246)
  15. Index
    (pp. 247-266)