Episode I. The Dentist and The Farmer
As a young boy I was fond of rummaging through my grandmother’s library. In doing so, I discovered a treasure trove of things to read. I found the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne and a whole host of other famous works including some by the infamous Balzac. One of my favorites and one that played a part in inspiring me to pursue a legal career was called Yankee Lawyer by an author named Ephraim Tutt. The book was billed as an autobiography but as was later discovered it was actually a work of fiction by a real Harvard educated lawyer by the name of Arthur Train. One puzzling detail is the question of why my grandmother, the very southern lady and quintessential daughter of the Confederacy, would have a book with such a title in her library. In those days, the nineteen forties, one did not speak the word Yankee in our household as it was considered to always be in the pejorative particularly in polite company. But be that as it may the book was very interesting but at the grand old age of ten I found it difficult to read and follow in some places. I was recently going through a box of books I had retrieved from my parents’ home after they died and discovered that Yankee Lawyer was in the box. I decided to re-read the book to see if was still as interesting as the first time I read it. And to my delight after four years of college, three years of law school and thirty years of law practice it was much better and I actually was able to understand all of it.
The book contains a number of really wonderful stories in which the fictional lawyer Tutt comes up with very clever solutions for his client’s legal problems. One of my favorites is a tale involving an altercation between a diminutive dentist and a gigantic farmer. The incident took place in a small New York town name Pottsville an actual village in upstate New York. Tutt had moved to Pottsville to set up his law practice and had moved into the offices of a retired judge thereby inheriting a very voluminous library. Across the street was a saloon (a bar in modern parlance) and over the bar was located a dentist office operated by Doc Pettibone who was described as “a sadistic old man with Chinese whiskers whose office was a dingy torture chamber.” Doc Pettibone much preferred to extract teeth than to try and repair them as he very much enjoyed his patients anguish during the extraction process. One day a Mr. Bostwick, a gigantic farmer, came to see Doc Pettibone with a face “swollen to the size of a wasp’s nest from the ulceration of a molar.” Well Docs eyes gleamed and tackling the job with forceps he and his patient were soon floundering around the office and eventually into the street. Shortly thereafter Doc realized he had pulled a perfectly good tooth. Well, Bostwick, who was capable of pulverizing the Doc with one hand, wanted revenge. He remembered something from Leviticus about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and he resolved to pull one of Docs teeth to obtain his justice. In terror Doc fled the scene and eventually took refuge in Tutt’s office who attempted to hide him in the coal closet. (in those days coal stoves and furnaces were the common method of heating) As it happens the “tooth for tooth” language is not only found in Leviticus but also in the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, in 2285 B.C. a copy of which just happened to be in Tutt’s library. So he picked up the book and went to find Bostick. He first tried to dissuade the farmer from using the doctrine altogether by informing him that it was three thousand years old and has no application today. “It’s good enough for me” said the farmer. “But you can sue Pettibone and get damages” Tutt exclaimed. To hell with damages it’s his tooth I want” “So you stand absolutely on Lex Talionis? “I don’t know what that is but I want the old you talked about.”
“All right, then” said Tutt producing the book, “I’ll read it to you” “If a man has made the tooth of a man that is his equal to fall out, one shall make his tooth fall out! If he has made the tooth of a poor man to fall out, he shall pay one-third of a mina of silver.” “Now you’re case falls under the last clause because you are a poor man. You are entitled to one-third of mina of silver, but not to a tooth.”
Bostwick felt he had won his point about the law, and so he agreed to accept Hammurabi’s rule of damages, and he and Tutt worked it out together, with the aid of Webster’s Dictionary. A mina was one sixth of a talent and a talent of Hebrew silver was worth the equivalent of $2,176 in United States money. Hence, a mina would be worth $136, and a third of a mina worth $45.35, which Doc Pettibone paid, gladly throwing in a rubber plate with a false tooth for good measure.
Lawyers are not known for their biblical knowledge or their ability to utilize biblical passages to resolve disputes. But, I have witnessed this being done on at least two occasions with very beneficial effect. Invoking Holy Scripture to a jury gets their immediate attention and respect. It also evokes a sense of credibility. In the next segment Tutt will find that a late night visit to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City brings about an acquittal in a case in which his client was surely going to be convicted and while the acquittal was against all odds is was a truly just result. PN