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Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

By: D Graham Burnett(Author)

266 pages, illustrations

Princeton University Press

Paperback | Feb 2010 | #184094 | ISBN-13: 9780691146157
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £23.99 $32/€27 approx
Hardback | Nov 2007 | #172103 | ISBN-13: 9780691129501
Out of Print Details

About this book

In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular – and biblically sanctioned – view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature – and how we know it – was at stake.

Burnett vividly re-creates the trial, during which a parade of experts – pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers – took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages.


List of Figures xi

Chapter One: Introduction 1
The Peace Offering That Stank 1
Maurice v. Judd and the History of Science 5
From Dock to Docket 14

Chapter Two: Common Sense 19
Manhattan and Its Whales 19

Chapter Three: The Philosophical Whale 44
Samuel Latham Mitchill and Natural History in New York City 44
"No More a Fish than a Man" 61
Taxonomy at the Bar 72

Chapter Four: Naturalists in the Crow's Nest 95
What the Whalemen Knew 95

Chapter Five: Men of Affairs 145
The Whale in the Swamp ?145

Chapter Six: The Jury Steps Out 166
The Knickerbockers Slay a Yankee Whale 166
Who Decides Who Decides? 167
Picking Up the Pisces 178

Chapter Seven: Conclusion 190
New Science, New York, New Nation 190

Epilogue:Whales and Fish, Philosophers and Historians, Science and Society 210

Acknowledgments 223
Bibliography 225
Index 247

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D. Graham Burnett is associate professor of history at Princeton University and an editor at Cabinet magazine. His books include Masters of All They Surveyed and A Trial by Jury.

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