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Friday, June 17, 2016

The Reister Collection: Description and Highlights

Hale, The Law of Hereditary Descents
(London, 1700)
The Law Library and Riesenfeld Center's recent acquisition of the Reister collection on wills, trusts and estates in Anglo-American law contains a rich range of titles, useful for students of the history of inheritance laws, testamentary practice and estate management. The titles may also be of interest to historians of family law, women's history, and those studying the divergence of American legal doctrines from their English sources.

In England, feudal customs on the division of property, including practices like primogeniture, arose and were reinforced in the medieval period. The first great treatise of English law, Glanvill's 12th-century work on the laws and customs of England, discusses inheritance and importantly records the priority of heirs, from closest kin to most remote.  

The earliest work in the Reister collection, a first edition of Henry Swinburne's A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Last Willes (London, 1590), treats testaments in church law and is informed by the civil law in which Swinburne was trained. The popular and useful treatise was reprinted into the early 19th century. Works by important English jurists, including Matthew Hale's Law of Hereditary Descents (London, 1700), Francis Bacon's Reading upon the Statute of Uses (London, 1642), and William Blackstone's Treatise on the Law of Descents in Fee Simple (London, 1759), are also represented in the collection.

American material, like Robert McClellan's The Executor's Guide (Albany, 1862), for New York, and Noah Cheever's Law and Practice of Probate Courts (Detroit, 1884), for Michigan, treats local probate laws. Influential 19th-century treatises, by authorities like Jarman, are similarly included, with subjects ranging from excluded persons, to repugnancy, to fraud and undue influence, as invalidating the provisions of wills. One interesting case of inheritance fraud is on our Tumblr site. Amidst the trove are also contemporary works on humorous last wills.

Menchin, The Last Caprice (New York, 1963)
A particularly unique treasure in the collection is an 18th-century manuscript, a copy of part of a work on wills and testaments, in the hand of lawyer Richard Sheridan. Interestingly, his notes were passed to another student or lawyer, John Smyly, before the end of the century. 

For more on historical laws of inheritance, see the Library of Congress website.  

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections


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