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January 01, 2018

Book Review: The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity

Reviewed by Robert H. Edmunds Jr.

Author Judge Jon C. Blue needed a respite. He had been assigned to try one of the most disturbing criminal cases in recent memory. The allegations were grim. Two men were alleged to have broken into the Connecticut home of Dr. William Petit, an endocrinologist. They had beaten him with a baseball bat, tied him up, and thrown him into the basement. One of the assailants then raped and strangled his wife, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. The other sexually assaulted their younger daughter. The Petits’ two daughters were then tied to their beds while gasoline was splashed on them and around the home. When the assailants heard Dr. Petit break out of the basement and yell for help, one of them lit a match. Dr. Petit’s family perished.

The crime drew international attention, and press coverage was intense. The defendants, indicted for numerous capital murders and other offenses, were tried separately. Once Judge Blue was assigned to preside over one of them, he began receiving calls from reporters at his home at all hours. Maintaining control of the courtroom was a challenge. Film crews dogged him every day as he walked to lunch. Though this was hardly his first murder trial, the allegations gnawed at him.

So, on evenings and weekends during the trial, he turned to history, his first love. The result is The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity. L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Judge Blue proves it by taking us to the courts of the seventeenth-century New Haven Colony.

The New Haven Colony existed for 27 years, from 1638 until 1665, as six towns that were distinct from the larger Connecticut Colony. It was founded by citizens who agreed that Scripture provided “a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men.” Of the three levels of court that were established, Judge Blue focuses on the highest, called the General Court.

Members of the General Court included the governor, the deputy governor, and representatives from each town in the colony. They presided over a court that a modern judge or lawyer would barely recognize. No juries sat. Lawyers rarely appeared and were silent when they did. Self-representation was the rule. Those with an interest in or knowledge about the case at hand, including spectators, would interject comments into the proceedings. No one expected, or saw, neutrality on the part of the judges. Guilt was presumed in criminal cases. In the one case where the facts were sufficiently tangled that the General Court acquitted the defendant of murder, he was nevertheless found “guilty of suspicion.”

The applicable law was ecclesiastical, but the General Court found that it was hardly an infallible guide. In criminal cases, Leviticus often set out a crime or sin along with the punishment. However, in civil cases, where both sides presented plausible stories and the Bible offered no precedent, the General Court frequently struggled.

Judge Blue’s good fortune, and ours, is that detailed records were kept of the General Court’s proceedings. These records, though frustratingly incomplete in some respects, describe the questions asked, the parties’ responses, events in the courtroom, the General Court’s wrestling with knotty issues, and the outcome of the cases. When asked an awkward question, the recorder tells us that a witness “began to turn and wind, so as to evade the governor’s testimony.” These records, which are the next best thing to being there, were stored by local officials in a copper box after the New Haven Colony merged with the Connecticut Colony.

What kinds of cases did Judge Blue find when he combed these records? All kinds. For each that he chose to include in his book, Judge Blue relates in modern English the proceedings as found in the General Court’s records. He follows with a discussion and evaluation of the General Court’s actions in light of his own education, training, and experience.

In the eponymous Case of the Piglet’s Paternity, a sow in the colony gave birth to a severely deformed piglet. What people most noticed, however, was that the piglet had but one eye and that eye looked suspiciously like the eye of one George Spencer. Though Spencer initially denied having anything to do with the sow, he later admitted under severe pressure from the judges that he was the father. Following the commands in Leviticus, both the sow and Spencer were executed. Judge Blue finds this case a distressing example of the General Court at its near-medieval worst as the judges abandoned their judicial role to compel the confession.

The General Court fares considerably better in the Case of the Competing Claimants. The plaintiff argued that the defendant owed him 255 pounds for money that the plaintiff had spent on a ship that the defendant now owned. The defendant responded that the plaintiff had given a co-owner of the ship 255 pounds to carry cotton to Barbados. When the ship was unable to reach Barbados, it returned to Virginia, where a Virginia court awarded the ship to its crew in light of the owners’ inability to pay their wages. The defendant then purchased the ship from the crew. The General Court concluded that, in accordance with the result in Virginia, the crew owned the ship and the defendant had bought it from them free and clear. Judge Blue notes that this is the first example he can find of a court applying what we would call Full Faith and Credit to the decision of a court in another jurisdiction. He concludes that the General Court reached a sensible result that a modern court cannot easily criticize.

The book examines 33 cases in bite-sized chapters. The cases range from arson through bestiality (George Spencer wasn’t the only one so charged), adultery, statutory interpretation (does an ordinance that proscribes the sale of beer by the quart forbid the sale of three quarts?), commercial disputes, and religious quarrels. Judge Blue deplores some results, as when the General Court ordered a young girl to be whipped and sold into servitude. He endorses others, as where the General Court protected a youthful indentured servant who had been starved and forced to sign an even more onerous indenture.

The book is an interesting and entertaining read. Though best known as a trial judge, Judge Blue has sat by designation on the appellate courts of Connecticut. This book, gracefully written and accessible to lay as well as professional readers, shows why he gets the tough cases as well as the plum assignments. While this book might best be read one or two chapters at a time rather than as a chunk, it commands the reader’s attention throughout.

In opening these cases to contemporary readers, Judge Blue has done us all a great service. Those with an interest in history and the evolution of law and litigation will find much to chew on here. To conclude with Judge Blue’s own words, “The New Haven judges were persons of intelligence and learning, working in a differently constructed judicial system and holding a worldview quite different from our own. They, like we, had their professional failures and their professional successes. Modern readers can learn from both.”

What happened in the murder case that led Judge Blue to undertake his research? The defendant was convicted of all charges and Judge Blue imposed a sentence of death, in accordance with Connecticut law. The separate trial of the co-defendant ended in the same result. Connecticut’s General Assembly later abolished the death penalty and the Connecticut Supreme Court applied the abolition retroactively. Both defendants are serving life sentences.