Dutch legal history in two stories

The latest online issue of the Rechtshistorische Courant, the fine monthly news bulletin on Belgian and Dutch legal history edited with zest and much esprit at the Department of Legal History of Ghent University, alerted its readers to a new website created by the Westfries Archief and the Westfries Museum in Hoorn about the oldest share of the Dutch East Indian Company. Hat tip to Ghent! Yesterday I presented you a story from the province of South Holland, now it is the turn for North Holland. Looking at the website of the West Frisian Archive I literally bumped into another story touching Dutch legal history worth presenting and retelling here, if only because it forms also part of a new website presenting narrated history from the province of North Holland, Oneindig Noord-Holland, well worth looking at in some depth.

Logo Oneindig Noord-Holland

The oldest share of the VOC

Calling a website The Oldest Share is a nice start in itself to attract the general public, merchants, business men, lawyers and historians at the same time. The Dutch East Indian Company – abbreviated in Dutch VOC – was founded on March 20, 1602, by the Dutch States General, and endowed with a monopoly on transport to and merchant activities in the Indonesian archipelago. Shares were issued to finance this trade company. In 2010 Ruben Schalk, a history student at Utrecht University, traced the earliest existent share from 1606 at the West Frisian Archive in Hoorn. The share was bought by a Pieter Hermansz. who invested 150 Dutch guilders into the VOC. Hoorn was one of the towns at the former Zuiderzee, now the IJsselmeer lake, which formed a kamer, a chamber with a number of seats in the Heeren Zeventien, the “Lords Seventeen”, the governing body of the VOC. The Chamber of Amsterdam was undoubtedly the most powerful element in the governing body. The VOC was also granted sovereign authority to conclude treaties and to engage in acts of war against countries competing for hegemony on the high seas, including privateering.

The new website for which also an English version has been created tells you the story of the discovery. You can look at the share in depth, both in a viewing mode which enables you to flip through the pages, and in a so-called deciphering mode. By pointing to the lines of the list of notes on the payment of dividend, in this case between 1606 and 1650, a pop-up window opens with a transcription of and information about the notes. One of the more troubling stories about the finding of this oldest VOC share is that a slightly older share – just three weeks! – was apparently until 1980 at the municipal archives in Amsterdam but somehow ended in the hands of German collectors. The early shares bring new light on the financial position of the VOC in its early period. Things were financed less easily than historians had assumed.

Of course one can debate whether the Dutch East Indian Company was really the first modern company to issue shares and to loan money on the financial market, a paramount example of mercantile capitalism in Early Modern Europe. It surely was not the first company with shareholders. Medieval merchants developed a number of ways to spread the risks of their enterprises. Financial cooperation between merchants in Italy and Flanders and their bankers started already in the twelfth century, a story well retold in a chapter of Wim Blockmans’ beautiful book Metropolen aan de Noordzee. De geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 1100-1560 [Metropoles at the North Sea. A history of the Low Countries, 1100-1560] (Amsterdam 2010).

To my surprise the new narrative website gives only a short illustrated announcement without a link to the special website on the history of the oldest share. Let me conclude the fist part of this post with pointing to a nifty website presenting quick links to information about individual ships of the VOC and a lot of links in English, too, and to the digitized sources for the history of the VOC at the Institute for Dutch History.

The Hoorn Pie Verdict

Both the West Frisian Archive and a new website with stories about North Holland, Oneindig Noordholland, “Neverending North Holland”, present the next subject of my post. This second story is rather different, really a mix of the sweet and bitter. In 1910 a jealous man decided to send a poisoned pie to his enemy. Instead of killing his enemy the enemy’s wife died by poisoning, and a servant became seriously ill. The sender of the deadly present, Johannes Jacobus Beek, and Willem Markus, his intended victim, had been both market masters and city messengers of Hoorn since 1901. Beek had embezzled money he received as a market master from participants of a fair. Markus detected the loss of money and found out what had happened with a sum of 135 Dutch guilders. Before the First World War the Dutch guilder was a very strong currency, and this sum meant a substantial amount of money. Beek was fired from his municipal jobs in 1907.

Only in 1910 Beek saw a chance to revenge himself. His brother in law provided Beek with arsenic pretending he wanted to get rid of rats in his house. He went to a pastry baker in Haarlem, and ordered a large pastry pie with the instruction to leave a hole in it in order to add something to it. On the same day, September 28, 1910, the pie was sent after the fatal preparations from Amsterdam by a courier service to Markus. However, next day when the pie was delivered to Markus on his 84th birthday, Beek’s former colleague refused to eat from it, but his wife Maria Muisman and Grietje Appelman, a maid servant, did eat from the deadly present. The anonymous congratulatory card delivered with the pie, the very box and much more have been preserved in the dossier concerning this case.

On the North Holland story website you get an abbreviated version of story. This story website is integrated with social media and gives you the chance to get the story of a building in front of you on your mobile phone using the fashionable QR code. In cooperation with the Noordhollands Dagblad, the regional newspaper, the West Frisian Archive present a longer, more detailed and illustrated version of this murder story. In fact the story is told in five installments resembling the feuilleton of old newspapers which brought similar stories in a serialised fashion.

The Hoorn Pie trial in Dutch jurisprudence

Beek was soon arrested and confessed he had sent the pie. He told the police that only after sending he had considered the possibility that someone else might eat from the sweet but poisoned present. On trial the attorney pleaded for a conviction for murder of Maria Muisman and attempted murder of Grietje Appelman. However, the arrondisementsrechtbank in Alkmaar, the regional tribunal, condemned Beek on December 13, 1910 to 10 year imprisonment for manslaughter. In appeal this sentence was annulled. The appeal court of justice, the gerechtshof in Amsterdam, judged that Beek had acted with murderous intent because he had immediately realized that his act might possibly kill others as well, and sentenced him on March 9, 1911 to life long imprisonment for murder and attempted murder. The defense counsel used the right to appeal in cassatie, in cassation, in order to get the verdict annulled, to the Dutch supreme court. The Hoge Raad, the Dutch supreme court, confirmed the judgment of the Amsterdan court of justice on June 19, 1911. Beek died in the prison at Leeuwarden in 1918 at the age of seventy years.

The sentences of the Dutch supreme court are called arresten, a word clearly stemming from the French word arrêts. In Dutch jurisprudence cases are referred to by a summary indication of the matter of the case and the usual abbreviated reference to the court and the date of the judgment or the date of publication in one of the many Dutch legal journals. Our case is nowadays referred to as the Hoornse taartarrest, “The Hoorn Pie Verdict”, HR (Hoge Raad), 19-06-1911, W (Weekblad van het Recht) 9203. A salient feature of Dutch jurisprudence is the addition met noot, “with a note”, meaning a short commentary of a lawyer, usually a law professor. In the legal reviews the notes were only signed with initials. The quality of their annotations to arresten helped and helps today establishing the reputation of Dutch law professors. Incidentally, in the final sentence and in current publicity about trials only the initials of the accused and other persons involved are shown. After a century the need for discretion is clearly no longer present. From the start not the parties involved are the elements which give a case its name.

In Dutch jurisprudence this verdict introduced the legitimate use of the concept of “conditional intent” into Dutch legal practice. The Wetboek van Strafrecht, the Dutch criminal law book from 1886 is still in vigor, and obviously some of its effects and implications needed clarification around 1900, and in fact this continues in the present. On purpose I do no try here to give either the correct term in British, Scottish or American criminal law, because they undoubtedly contain neat differences with Dutch criminal law. At least one of the additional terms in Dutch jurisprudence when considering this doctrine is culpoos handelen, “acting culpose” or guilty acting. The Hoorn Pie Verdict is one of the leading cases in Dutch jurisprudence, even if the doctrine on this point has developed, as for instance in the Porsche Verdict (Porsche-arrest, HR 15-10-1996, NJ (Nederlandse Jurisprudentie) 1997, 199) about a case where this doctrine did not apply, and another case about a car driver who deliberatedly hit three bicyclists, also in the province North Holland, the Enkhuizen Manslaughter Verdict (Enkhuizer doodslag, HR 23-01-2001, NJ 2001, 327) where this doctrine was reaffirmed. In these online versions the notes are given without indication of the original author.

The main online source in open access for verdicts of Dutch courts is found at the official portal for the Dutch judiciary, Rechtspraak.nl. It is not so easy to find older verdicts online in open access. I confess to using sometimes articles in the Dutch Wikipedia where presumably law students have treated a generous number of older cases. These articles often point to a special website for arresten. In an earlier post I could point to the website Iure with some cases prior to 2000. At subscribing Dutch law libraries you can search in special databases for jurisprudence. Subscribers to the student law journal Ars Aequi get also access to a very useful database for Dutch case law, if you pardon me using this expression, because Dutch jurisprudence is not exactly to be equalled with Anglo-American case law.

More information about contemporary Dutch law and online access to documents and cases can be found at websites such as Globalex, at the University of Minnesota Law Library, in the summary guide created by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University College, London, or in the research guide of GLIN at the Library of Congress Law Library.

The centennial of the Hoorn Pie case

A century ago the case of the poisoned pie made headlines in the newspapers. In the website of the Dutch Royal Library for digitized Dutch newspapers you will find more than twenty articles from 1910 and 1911 about this case. One can applaud the retelling of this trial at the narrative history site for North Holland, but one has to point out that the juridical side of the matter does not get more attention. It would have been easy to add the text of the verdicts. October 28, 2011 was the day of the commemoration of the centennial at Hoorn with a re-enactment of the story, a guided tour through Hoorn and lectures by contemporary Dutch lawyers. Many spots are still visible, sometimes barely changed since a century. It is well worth leafing the pages of the online presentation at the website of the West Frisian Archive. This constitutes quite some effort in bringing an aspect of legal history, albeit the more appealing side, the perennial fatal attraction of crime and evil, to the attention of the public at large. For educational purposes this constellation of coverage in a newspaper, activities organized by an archive and a museum, and the use of special websites which even connect to social media, is surely worth considering. It is not by chance that both the narrative project and the website on the oldest VOC share have been partially sponsored.

What strikes me in the end when reflecting on the Hoorn Pie verdict is the rapid speed of the Dutch judiciary in the early twentieth century. The pie arrived late in September 1910, the first trial ended on December 13, 1910, the sentence at the appeal court dated from March 9, 1911, and the final verdict by the Hoge Raad was given on June 19, 1911, just nine months after the deadly birthday gift. For historians it might perhaps be the combination of seemingly completed stories with ever new questions and perspectives that give legal histories their plural form and coherence. This ambiguity is not a birth defect of this discipline but its fountain of life.

A postscript on early Dutch stocks

I am happy to add a postscript to this post and to point you to the Ph.D. thesis of Lodewijk Petram, The world’s first stock exchange (Ph.D. thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2011) which you can download from his website. Petram has written in Dutch a more popular version of his study, De bakermat van de beurs (Amsterdam 2011) on the early trade in shares of the VOC. It was the trade in these shares that contributed much to the early development of the stock trade and the role of Amsterdam in it. It is fascinating to compare the results of this study with the dividend notes on the earliest surviving share kept at Hoorn. You can find some historical documents at Petram website and also at the site of the Dutch Stock Exchange Foundation, which provides you with a history in a nutshell of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and its forerunners.

Online access to verdicts

Alas the website Arresten appears to defunct. Luckily you can now find the Hoorn Pie Arrest (WR 9203) online in the digital version of the Weekblad van het Regt (1839-1943) (Uinversity Maastricht) which provides a search functions for the abbreviated references to the verdicts of the Hoge Raad.

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