The Law As Storyteller

“Imaginative work … is like a spider’s web … attached to life at all four corners … one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things like health and money and the houses we live in …” Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

The Law can take itself too seriously, believing that its purpose, its most important task, is to put the papers in numbered order, or to bring down the gavel with an admonitory frown delivered from a pedestal.

Yet the law’s purpose among the many others – to redistribute wealth, to quiet claims to real estate, to tell people what their obligations are under a contract, to punish the wicked – the law’s purpose is to record what happened within the confines of a court, or other legally sanctified place, on a particular day, and to set out in an orderly way the reality of events and human behavior as structured by the artificiality of a specific legal proceeding, or case.

Between the covers of those forbidding brown and black bound compilations of cases and commentary are chronicles of lust and greed, reports of foolishness and the seemingly unchanging lust for power. Court cases have ever been rich in drama and narrative.

This website includes the records of several cases involving the life and work of Florence Kelley in Chicago: Ritchie v. People (Ritchie I) (1895), the case challenging the constitutionality of the Illinois Factory and Workshop Inspection statute; Muller v. Oregon (1908), the United States Supreme Court case upholding a state statute limiting the number of hours women could work in laundries, factories and mechanical establishments; and Ritchie v. Wayman (Ritchie II)(1910), the case brought to the Illinois Supreme Court after Muller v. Oregon.

These three high court opinions involve principles and statutory interpretation important to a specialized segment of constitutional legal history. The hearings before the lower court and the facts and arguments presented in the Factory Inspection Annual Reports and in the Briefs and transcripts for these cases are filled with details about how people lived and worked in the sweatshops and tenements of Chicago at this time.

The legal records are brimming with the stories of individual people: the young women working in the sweatshops who were directly effected by the new law; the working children and what their jobs were and what could be regulated regarding that; and then the various adults, the men and women, who had a job to do. This included the Illinois state factory inspectors; the four unnamed schedule men from the United States Bureau of Labor in Washington, D.C.; the Illinois legislators who came to investigate conditions in the Nineteenth Ward in preparation for passing the factory and workshop inspection law; the doctors and nurses who examined the children; the factory owners, the union organizers, the shop heads, the runners, the stitchers, the finishers, and the children coughing under the pile of unfinished cloaks in the single unheated room on the fourth floor which served as bedroom, kitchen, workroom and bathroom. Reading these records the curtain is pulled aside, and all are suddenly and immediately on stage.

Then there are the records from two days in March of 1892, transcripts and reports of the habeas corpus proceeding brought in a Cook County Chancery Court in Chicago by Florence Kelley’s husband, Dr. Lazare Wischnewetzky, when he sought custody of their three children. Readers in the twenty first century learn more about Florence Kelley’s marriage and domestic circumstances from this testimony than from all the biographies, or from her autobiography, or from the wonderfully expressive letters reverently preserved in libraries and archives in America and abroad.

The habeas corpus records and the transcript of Florence Kelley’s divorce hearing in 1899 are an example of how court records incidentally provide a perspective on a life, or a marriage, or a childhood. Those participating in those court proceedings did not think that what they were doing there was providing a snapshot of history, an odd and confusing jumble of words and reported words about matters mundane and personal – facts so painful that the principals probably never spoke directly of them again between themselves or to anyone else out of this context.

Yet the reports of behaviors reported in the transcripts and offered as ‘evidence’ to resolve the legal dispute – who should have custody of the three children, where should the children live, are there legal grounds for divorce – these reported behaviors, and the commentary upon them by others, speak to us directly, and are alive, vibrant, and fresh. It is as if we ourselves were present in the Honorable Frank Baker’s court room on a March day in 1892.

Then the divorce hearings seven years later, in the same court room, based upon the same evidence as presented in the habeas corpus action, raise as many questions as are resolved in the formal legal action to be decided by the court: the granting of an ex parte petition for divorce. Why didn’t Florence Kelley seek a divorce earlier? Why does she call herself Mrs. Florence Kelley, a name with no meaning, an illegal name? Was there any contact with Lazare Wischnewetzky in the intervening period? Did he ever visit or see his children?

In the personal letters and diaries, in the published papers, Florence Kelley as well as her friends and her publicly minded family members – her father, Frederich Engels, Jane Addams – are writing very self consciously in anticipation of future readers. The court records, the transcripts of what people did and what they said about it, are, if not unrehearsed, at least directed towards another purpose: the making of a factual record for the purpose of resolving a legal dispute, the establishment or proof of a fact or series of facts, which will form the basis for a ruling.

The legal outcome of the hearing or trial is a ruling this is abuse justifying a divorce, these are facts supporting a finding that this young girl was underage and not healthy enough to work in that factory on that specific day. And so the particularity of the facts breathe life into a time, a place, persons, and tell a tale. The stories from these records pick themselves up from their procedural confines and walk right into our consciousness. Major and minor characters stride on and off stage, as, with a sharp intake of breath, we become aware of the law’s role as preservationist, as curator of the culture of the past.

Of course, there are many lies and falsehoods in these ostensibly objective records, many representations which are untrue, in the trivial and profound sense. This makes the records all the more interesting, as we peer into the mysterious and endless labyrinth of human planning and ambition, the pride and foolishness of men and women, doing this and that, talking about it, making representations about it, and by definition probably doing the best they could under the circumstances. Just asking the question draws us further into the web.

The law itself becomes a character in this drama, as is the Nineteenth Ward, the political battleground for many of the fights involving these people, as is the City Council of Chicago, the Governor of Illinois, the Illinois State Legislature, the Supreme Court of Illinois – all play their parts. These august institutions are all inhabited by people, by individuals who have lives, a history of their own, as these same institutions do today.

The law is wonderfully temperamental, even tempestuous, and what it keeps, arbitrary. This piece of testimony is part of the record, becomes evidence, is put in a box, or placed in a volume, and then copied or microfilmed, and now digitalized, and that piece of paper, that which might have been evidence, won’t be saved, can’t be part of the record, is unavailable to us, gone forever. And so the law stamps its lilliputian foot, and the dust of one hundred years ago settles in one pattern, and not another.

This website, its legal records, the stories found here, the commentary and the events which were a part of the lives of the people who appear here, are placed on this site to be explored. One inquiry will lead to another, then another – or so it has been for us – and soon the reader has entered the tapestry. We hope you will join us in finding the journey interesting, amusing, curious, and challenging.

Next: The Factory Inspection Reports