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Russian Capitalism on Trial: The Case of the Jacks of Hearts

  • Sergei Antonov

For almost a month in 1877, the Russian public was engrossed in one of the largest nonpolitical trials in the history of Russian law. An alleged criminal organization dubbed the “Jacks of Hearts Club” (Klub chervonnykh valetov) involved 48 defendants in addition to several who had died or managed to escape, as well as more than 300 witnesses. The charges included dozens of episodes of fraud and forgery committed between 1866 and 1875, in addition to one murder and one count of sacrilege. Even more sensational was the fact that the group of defendants belonged to “respectable” society, among them wealthy merchants, landowning nobles, and even a member of the aristocratic Dolgorukov family. In the Russian popular lexicon, a “Jack of Hearts” became enduring shorthand for a personable young swindler of upper-class origins. Over the years, the story grew in the telling, with some of the legends travelling from author to author, such as the story of Pavel Speier, the alleged leader of the club who supposedly tricked a naïve English tourist into “buying” the official residence of the Moscow governor general on Tverskaia Street.

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He presented earlier versions of this article at the workshop “Engaging the Law in Eurasia and Eastern Europe” at the Kennan Institute, at the Harriman Institute's Working Paper Seminar and Russian Studies Workshop, and at the meeting of the New York City Bar Association's European Affairs Committee. He is grateful to all the participants in these events, as well as to Alexander Martin and to the reviewers for Law and History Review for their perceptive and helpful comments and for their support of this project. He also thanks Elizabeth Dale for her encouragement and for overseeing the review process.

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1. The most detailed version of this legend is found in Giliarovsky, V.A., Moskva i moskvichi (Moscow: Pravda, 1989); for a fictionalized version, see Antropov, Roman, “Klub chervonnykh valetov” in Shef sysknoi politsii Sankt-Peterburga I.D. Putilin, vol. 2 (Moscow: EKSMO, 2003), 140–41; another famous Russian swindler credited with this exploit in popular literature is Lieutenant Nikolai Savin. See Shumikhin, S.V., ed. Sud'ba avantiurista: Zapiski korneta Savina (Novosibirsk: Svin'in i synovia, 2012), 377–78. Western variations of this story include George Parker (who sold the Brooklyn Bridge and other New York landmarks), and Victor Lustig who sold the Eiffel Tower.

2. Key works on white-collar crime in Victorian Britain include Robb, George, White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845–1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Taylor, James, Boardroom Scandal: The Criminalization of Company Fraud in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Klaus, Ian, Forging Capitalism: Rogues, Swindlers, Frauds, and the Rise of Modern Finance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); on the legalism of the English upper classes, see Kostal, R.W., A Jurisprudence of Power: Victorian Empire and the Rule of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

3. For a detailed historiographical review of the works that are critical of the rule of law in Russia, see Wortman, Richard, “Russian Monarchy and the Rule of Law,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6 (2005): 145–70; see also Owen, Thomas, The Corporation under Russian Law, 1800–1917: A Study in Tsarist Economic Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); an influential critical account of Russia's capitalist development is Rieber, Alfred, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Post-reform Russian law as a disciplinary project is discussed in Engelstein, Laura, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); and Burbank, Jane, “Discipline and Punish in the Moscow Bar Association,” Russian Review 54 (1995): 4464 .

4. For an argument about the comparative mildness of the penal law in imperial Russia, see Daly, Jonathan, “Criminal Punishment and Europeanization in Late Imperial Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge 48 (2000): 341–62.

5. Post-1864 courts are examined in Baberowski, Jörg, Autokratie und Justiz: Zum Verhältnis von Rechtsstaatlichkeit und Rückständigkeit im ausgehenden Zarenreich 1864–1914 (Frankfurt am Main, 1996); Kaiser, Friedhelm Berthold, Die Russische Justizreform von 1864: Zur Geschichte der Russischen Justiz von Katharina II bis 1917 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972); McReynolds, Louise, Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012); and Girish N. Bhat, “Trial by Jury in the Reign of Alexander II: A Study in the Legal Culture of Late Imperial Russia, 1864–1881.” (PhD diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1995). For post-reform peasant courts, see Burbank, Jane, Russian Peasants Go to Court (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

6. Perhaps the most helpful recent contribution is a collection of essays on bribery and the unofficial exchange of favors (known in the Soviet period as blat) in imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia, which helpfully separates these phenomena from any moralizing context, and establishes them within a complex and dynamic cultural, political, and legal context. Lovell, Stephen, Ledeneva, Alena, and Rogachevskii, Andrei, eds. Bribery and Blat in Russia: Negotiating Reciprocity from the Middle Ages to the 1990s (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000). See also Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). However, the several fine existing studies of imperial era crime and criminal justice only address lower-class, mostly violent criminality, although sometimes through the prism of middle-class perceptions and anxieties. Frank, Stephen, Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856–1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); McReynolds, Murder Most Russian; and Neuberger, Joan, Hooliganism: Crime, Culture, and Power in St. Petersburg, 1900–1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Swindlers and tricksters are occasionally mentioned in the literature, but are hardly ever recognized as a discrete legal and historical problem, and are not treated as substantively different from pickpockets and burglars, with the exception of Harriet Murav's fine study of Avraam Uri Kovner, a Jewish nihilist and sometime bank embezzler, who also spent time in prison alongside the Jacks of Hearts before their trial. Murav, Harriet, Identity Theft: The Jew in Imperial Russia and the Case of Avraam Uri Kovner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). Roshanna Sylvester examines the criminal underworld in the southern port city of Odessa through the lens of the middle-class popular press; assuming the existence of a “legitimate world” distinct from a criminal one. Her discussion of “con artists,” therefore, represents them as lower-class criminals who deployed middle-class “conventions of fashion, manners, and speech,” which they did not legitimately possess. See Sylvester, , Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2005), esp. 5557 ; see also Tanny, Jarrod, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

7. On the Mitrofania trial, see Dahlke, Sandra, “Old Russia in the Dock: The Trial against Mother Superior Mitrofaniia before the Moscow district court (1874),” Cahiers du Monde russe 53 (2012): 95120 . On the Moscow bank crash of 1876, see Karabchevskii, N.P., Okolo pravosudiia (St. Petersburg, 1902), 109–60; Kozlinina, Ye.I., Za polveka, 1862–1912 (Moscow, 1913), 221–40; Obninsky, P.N., “Pervyi bankovskii krakh,” in Pomoshch’ postradavshim ot neurozhaia (Moscow, 1899), 2126 ; and Lizunov, P.V., “Krakhi chastnykh kommercheskikh bankov v Rossii: ikh prichiny i posledstviia (vtoraia polovina XIX – nachalo XX v.),” in XII mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsiia po problemam razvitiia ekonomiki i obshchestva, vol. 4, ed. Yasin, Ye.G., (Moscow: Izdatel'skii dom Vysshei shkoly ekonomiki, 2012), 243–50; on the Gartung trial, see Lipskerov, A.Ya., Stenograficheskii otchet po delu generala Gartunga (Moscow, 1878).

8. Kozlinina, Za polveka, 249. The prosecutor explicitly mentioned them in the beginning of his speech. N.N.Z. Klub chervonnykh valetov: ugolovnyi protsess (Moscow: N.N.Z., 1877), 183 . This anonymous publication, combining an abbreviated but still very detailed transcript of the month-long trial with personal observations contains the most complete account I was able to identify. Another version of the transcript was issued by the legal publisher A.F. Skorov in a collection of famous post-reform courtroom speeches: Russkie sudebnye oratory v izvestnykh ugolovnykh protsessakh, vol. 3 (Moscow, 1898), 114353 . This version is shorter and contains occasional differences in wording that are not material for the purposes of this article. A helpful short sketch of the case is found in Kozlinina, Za polveka, 250–76.

9. Klub, 183.

10. On the stock market in late imperial Russia, see Moshenskii, S.Z., Rynok tsennykh bumag Rossiiskoi imperii (Moscow: Ekonomika, 2014).

11. Examples of large-scale embezzlers under Tsar Nicholas I include his friend Count Petr Kleinmichel, who stole the money earmarked for buying new furniture for the Winter Palace. See Tarle, Ye.V., Krymskaia voina, vol. 1 (Moscow–Leningrad, 1944), 4849 . Another courtier, A.G. Politkovsky, stole a million rubles from the war invalid fund. Zaionchkovsky, P.A., Pravitel'stvennyi apparat samoderzhavnoi Rossii v xix v. (Moscow, 1978), 113 .

12. On the culture of debt and property transactions in imperial Russia, see Antonov, Sergei, Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in Russia in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

13. Pravilova, Ekaterina, A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

14. Klub, 1–5.

15. Ibid., 118 ff.

16. Kozlinina, Za polveka 262–63. But there was at least an occasional laughter during the trial. Klub, 78.

17. Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti (hereafter SPV), No. 44 (1877).

18. Dzhanshiev, G. A., Osnovy sudebnoi reformy (k 25ti-letiu novogo suda) (Moscow, 1891), 209 .

19. Moskovskie vedomosti (hereafter MV), No. 60 (1877).

20. Klub, 245.

21. See David Sunderland's discussion of the markers of respectability in Britain in his Social Capital, Trust and the Industrial Revolution: 1780–1880 (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

22. Klub, 45.

23. Ibid., 110.

24. Ibid., 214.

25. Ibid., 19–21, 48.

26. Meltsin, M.O., “ Avtor odnogo iz pervykh putevoditelei po Novgorodu ,” in Novgorodika-2006: materialy nauchnoi konferentsii (Novgorod: np, 2007), 257–64 (I am grateful to Maksim Olegovich Meltsin for providing me with a copy of his article); and Klub, 39–40.

27. Malton, Sara, Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture: Fictions of Finance from Dickens to Wilde (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 69 ; for Russia, see Antonov, Bankrupts and Usurers, 169–76.

28. Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii, f. 123, op. 2, d. 606, ll. 3 ob. and 12. There were 55 nobles out of 2704 individuals detained for begging in Moscow in 1850; that is, long before many nobles lost their income as the result of the 1861 serf emancipation.

29. Klub, 207.

30. Ibid., 6–10. See Sunderland, Social Capital, for the significance of each detail of home and office decoration in promoting respectability.

31. Klub, 46, 141.

32. On sociability in imperial Russia, see Martin, Alexander, Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762–1855 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Antonova, Katherine Pickering, An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Evtuhov, Catherine, Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Ransel, David, A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov, Based on His Diary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); and Cavender, Mary, Nests of the Gentry: Family, Estate, and Local Loyalties in Provincial Russia (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

33. Antonov, Bankrupts and Usurers, 149–58.

34. Indeed, she was a minor defendant in the Jacks of Hearts case—for whom sociability was everything—and eventually was acquitted by the jury.

35. Klub, 125–28.

36. Ibid., 71.

37. Ibid., 145.

38. Ibid., 212. For a later case in which a notary was employed to “forge” documents, see Kozlinina, Za polveka, 343–44.

39. Klub, 223.

40. Ibid., 99.

41. On the role of notaries as information and credit brokers, see Hoffman, Philip, Postel-Vinay, Gilles, and Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent, “Private Credit Markets in Paris, 1690–1840,” The Journal of Economic History 52 (1992): 293306 .

42. Klub, 219.

43. Ibid.,15–16.

44. Ibid., 37–39.

45. Ibid., 107–10.

46. Ibid., 45.

47. Antonov, Bankrupts and Usurers, 24–27.

48. Klub, 36–37.

49. Ibid., 17.

50. Ibid., 17 ff.

51. Ibid., 5–15.

52. Meltsin, “Avtor.”

53. Klub, 59.

54. Ibid., 70–71.

55. Ibid., 79–80.

56. Ibid., 76.

57. Ibid., 49.

58. Ibid., 51.

59. Ibid., 144–45.

60. Ibid., 38

61. Ibid., 40.

62. See Note 2 above.

63. Klub, 164.

64. Ibid., 47.

65. Ibid., 39.

66. Ibid., 47.

67. Ibid., 43.

68. For other similar claims, see Ibid., 7 and 217.

69. This “essentialist” explanation is championed by Baberowski in Autokratie und Justiz and is followed by McReynolds in Murder Most Russian and by Dahlke in “Old Russia in the Dock.”

70. Harling, Philip, The Waning of “Old Corruption”: the Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779–1846 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

71. Robb, White-Collar Crime; Handler, Phil, “Forgery and the End of the ‘Bloody Code’ in Early Nineteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 48 (2005): 683702 ; and Locker, John, “‘Quiet Thieves, Quiet Punishment’: Private Responses to the ‘Respectable’ Offender, c. 1850–1930,” Crime, histoire & societes 9 (2005): 931 . The term “white-collar crime” only appeared in the twentieth century, defined by the American sociologist Sutherland, Edwin H. as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” See White Collar Crime (New York: Dryden Press, 1949), 7 . This definition appears today as too restrictive because it leaves out frauds and forgeries committed by “respectable” individuals who do not have a position of power and responsibility within commercial organizations. It also leaves out swindlers who merely pose as “respectable.” See, for example, Meier, William M., “Aristocrats of Crime: Confidence Men in the Interwar Years,” in Property Crime in London, 1850-Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 85108 . On Victorian era corporate fraud trials, see Wilson, Sarah, “Law, Morality and Regulation: Victorian Experiences of Financial Crime,” British Journal of Criminology 46 (2006): 1073–90.

72. Klub, 161.

73. Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii (hereafter PSZ) I, vol. XXI, no. 15147.

74. Svod zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii (hereafter SZ), vol. 15/1 (1833), art. 702.

75. Ulozhenie o nakazaniiakh ugolovnykh i ispravitel'nykh, Art. 1665 (1866 ed.).

76. SZ, vol. 15/1 (1857), art. 1693–711, esp. 1707.

77. Ibid. (1842), art. 847–48. Podlog also encompassed buying or selling stolen property. See also Foinitskii, I. V., Moshennichestvo po russkomu pravu (St. Petersburg, 1871), part 1, 79.

78. Russia's criminal law contained a special provision against fraud committed by claiming to be another's agent or servant or by appropriating a false name (all punishable by 6 months to a year in prison and possibly by penal exile). The punishment was more severe if the criminal claimed to be a government official or used any kind of uniform or decoration to which he or she was not entitled. See SZ, vol. 15/1 (1857), art. 2253–54.

79. Foinitskii, Moshennichestvo, part 2, 2–5.

80. Ibid., 66–67. Foinitskii was only a law professor and not a judge, and he noted that some of the post-reform courts did not agree with his interpretation, as in a decision in which the appellate court in St. Petersburg ruled that borrowing money and then denying having done so and refusing to pay constituted criminal fraud.

81. Kozlinina, Za polveka, 146–49.

82. Lokhvitskii, A.V., Kurs ugolovnogo prava (St. Petersburg, 1871), 679 .

83. Klub, 406–9.

84. Ibid., 406–408.

85. Ibid., 411.

86. Ibid., 44–45.

87. Ibid., 40.

88. Ibid., 114–16.

89. For a similar argument about the nineteenth-century United States, see Mihm, Stephen, A Nation of Counterfeiters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

90. Klub, 214.

91. Ibid., 171.

92. Ibid., 41 and 7–15.

93. Ibid., 169–170.

94. Ibid., 253–55.

95. Tsentral'nyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv Moskvy, f. 142, op. 3, d. 242,  l. 4 ob.–5.

96. Klub, 185, 187.

97. Ibid., 238.

98. Ibid., 186.

99. Ibid., 204–5, 231.

100. Ibid., 207–8.

101. Ibid., 212.

102. Ibid., 207–8, 217.

103. Ibid., 160.

104. Ibid., 164.

105. Skliar, L. A., “Moshenniki,” in Prestupnyi mir Moskvy, ed. Gernet, M.N. (Moscow, 1924), 164 .

106. Locker, “Quiet Thieves.”

107. Klub, 161.

108. Kozlinina, Za polveka, 180.

109. Koni, Anatolii F., Vospominaniia o dele Zasulich (Moscow and Leningrad, 1933); Troitskii, Nikolai Alekseevich, Tsarskie sudy protiv revoliutsionnoi Rossii: Politicheskie protsessy 1871–1880 gg (Saratov: Izdatel'stvo Saratovskogo universiteta, 1976).

110. Frank, Crime; for interpretations of crime as an aspect of Russia's modernity, see McReynolds, Murder Most Russian; and Neuberger, Hooliganism.

111. Halttunen, Karen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class America, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

112. Staniukovich, K.M., “Chervonnyi valet,” in Sobraniie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, vol. 1 (Moscow: Pravda, 1977), 4478 .

113. On Speier, see Kozlinina, Za polveka, 250–53.

114. Troitskii, Tsarskie sudy, 60.

115. See Note 32.

116. Dahlke, “Old Russia.”

117. Zhukov also prosecuted the failed “trial of the Fifty” that almost coincided with that of the Jacks of Hearts.

118. Karabchevskii, Okolo pravosudiia.

119. Lipskerov, Stenograficheskii otchet, 140.

120. Kozlinina, Za polveka 240–41.

121. Klub, 201 and 232.

122. SPV, No. 67 (1877).

123. Klub, 249.

124. Ibid., 570–71.

125. Ibid., 330–31.

126. Ibid., 355–58.

127. TsIAM, f. 142, op. 3, d. 242 (Predvaritel'noe sledstvie…).

128. Klub, 402.

129. Ibid., 186.

130. SPV, No. 44 (1877).

131. Klub, 174.

132. Ibid., 434–35.

133. On fraud in pre-reform Russia, see Antonov, Bankrupts and Usurers, 133–58.

134. Klub, 206.

135. Ibid., 48.

136. Ibid., 36.

137. Ibid., 214, 227–28, 343.

138. Ibid., 58–59, 228.

139. Ibid., 8–12.

140. Ibid., 246, 261–62, 341.

141. Ibid., 335.

142. See feuilletons in SPV, Nos. 13 and 44 (1877).

143. Klub 1, 173.

144. On the interpretation of the case of Mother Mitrofaniia as a form of “show trial,” see Dahlke, “Old Russia.” Dahlke focuses on the political impact, rather than on the legal aspects of the Mitrofaniia trial, and does not consider the possibility that the evidence against her was at least in part fabricated.

145. See Zabelina, Ye.P., Delo Igumenii Mitrofanii (Moscow, 1874), 270 .

146. Klub, 43, 106, 165.

147. Ulozhenie o nakazaniakh ugolovnykh i ispravitelnykh, sec. 922–31 (1866 ed.).

148. Ingraham, Barton L., Political Crime in Europe: A Comparative Study of France, Germany, and England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 133–34. Jonathan Daly notes that proving conspiracy was often the only way the prosecution could succeed in political trials throughout nineteenth century Europe. See Political Crime in Late Imperial Russia,” The Journal of Modern History 74 (2000): 62100 .

149. Conspiracy charges were also important in the earlier political trials: for example, even before the court reform was implemented in 1866, the government alleged the existence of an organization known as “Hell” (Ad) that was supposedly responsible for Dmitrii Karakozov's attempt to shoot Alexander II. Conspiracy charges were also central to Russia's first public political trial—that of Sergei Nechaev's followers—in 1871. See Verhoeven, Claudia, The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

150. MV No. 58 (1877).

151. Knizhnik-Vetrov, Ivan S., Russkie deiatel'nitsy I Internatsionala i Parizhskoi Kommuny (Moscow: Nauka, 1964), 119 ff.

152. Klub, 168–69; also noted in Knizhnik-Vetrov, Russkie deiatel'nitsy.

153. Eichner, Carolyn Jeanne, Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 157–61, at 158.

154. Koni, Anatolii F., Sobranie sochinenii v 8 tomakh, vol. 2 (Moscow: Iuridicheskaia literatura, 1966), 33 .

155. Dzhanshiev, Osnovy, 209.

156. Klub, 357–58.

157. Zabelina, Delo igumenii Mitrofanii, 2 (179) (pagination fragmented).

158. Karabchevskii, Okolo pravosudiia, 154.

159. Lipskerov, Stenograficheskii otchet, 238, 306.

160. Klub, 216.

161. Ibid.,122.

162. MV no. 60 (1877). See also Koni, Sobranie, vol. 2, 33; Kozlinina, Za polveka, 242, and Dzhanshiev, Osnovy, 209.

163. “Shaika Chervonnykh Valetov,” Nedelia, No 9 (1877), 300.

164. Quoted in Troitskii, Tsarskie sudy, 197.

165. Klub, 201.

166. Ibid., 192 ff.

167. Ibid., 183–84.

168. Ibid., 154–55.

169. Ibid., 19–25. See also Nikolai Nadezhdin, Son'ka zolotaia ruchka – koroleva vorov (Rostov-na-Donu: Feniks, 2012); for the popular culture account, see the novel by Merezhko, Viktor, Son'ka Zolotaia Ruchka: istoriia liubvi i predatel'stva korolevy vorov (St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2006).

170. Klub, 76–79.

171. Ibid., 56–69.

172. Ibid., 223.

173. See also Katkov's editorial in MV,  No. 60 (1877).

He presented earlier versions of this article at the workshop “Engaging the Law in Eurasia and Eastern Europe” at the Kennan Institute, at the Harriman Institute's Working Paper Seminar and Russian Studies Workshop, and at the meeting of the New York City Bar Association's European Affairs Committee. He is grateful to all the participants in these events, as well as to Alexander Martin and to the reviewers for Law and History Review for their perceptive and helpful comments and for their support of this project. He also thanks Elizabeth Dale for her encouragement and for overseeing the review process.

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