The Devil on Trial (2008)

Margulies&RosalerDevilOnTrialThe subtitle is “Witches, Anarchists, Atheists, Communists, and Terrorists in America’s Courtrooms.”  My copy doesn’t look quite like this. Across the top it says “Advance Reading Copy – Not for Sale.” Nonetheless, it was donated to the Ethical Society Book Fair, and I bought it there.

This was designed to be a high school or perhaps middle school textbook. I’d be curious to know if it got a lot of use in that capacity. I doubt if it got much attention in Missouri, but I could be underestimating our public schools. Anyway, aside from defining some terms the authors felt teens might not know, such as “jurisdiction” and “anarchist,” it reads very much like a typical magazine article. Well, I am told most publications write to the reading abilities of a twelve-year-old.

The trials covered are the Salem witch trials, the Haymarket bomb trial, the Scopes “monkey” trial, the trials of Alger Hiss, and the trials of Zacarias Moussaoui. (Unfortunately, we did not get a pronunciation guide for the latter’s name.) The sum total is to show the development of defendants’ rights in criminal cases, from the horrendously unfair Salem procedures to the “best we could do” attempts at fairness for a man accused — and indeed proudly self-proclaimed — of conspiracy in the 9/11 terror events. He seems to illustrate how hard it really is to be fair when the defendant is proud of his crimes.

I actually learned a lot, as old as I am and as fond of history, especially legal history, as I am. I had heard the name Alger Hiss, of course, and his famous pumpkin patch, and I had heard the name Whittaker Chambers before, too. But I don’t know that I ever connected the two names before, or knew anything other than Hiss was accused of being a communist spy and passing secrets to the Soviet Union. This chapter not only tells the story in some detail, but provides a good background of the political climate of the time for people two young to have lived through it.

Similarly, the Haymarket story was a lot more than I had known before, and again is put in context quite effectively. In fact, the one thing that stands out here is that the authors, despite writing for Houghton Mifflin Children’s Book Department, do not condescend in their straightforward style. It’s a very useful skill to be able to write like that, and refreshing even for adult readers.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.