The Great Murdering-Heir Case

A Biography of Riggs v. Palmer

By William B. Meyer

Subjects: New York/regional, Law, American History, Philosophy Of Law
Hardcover : 9781438496344, 228 pages, February 2024
Paperback : 9781438496351, 228 pages, August 2024
Expected to ship: 2024-08-02

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Table of contents



1. Crime and Punishment

2. An Anomalous Decision

3. The Grounds for Rejection

4. Explaining an Anomaly

5. A Case Transformed

6. Riggs, Case Biography, and Legal Archaeology

Epilogue: Second Lives


Uncovers the facts behind the celebrated 1889 case of Riggs v. Palmer and shows how they transform our understanding of the decision.


In 1882, Elmer Palmer was convicted of poisoning his grandfather Francis in rural northern New York State. In a famous decision in 1889, the New York Court of Appeals denied Elmer the right to inherit from Francis, even though the statute governing wills seemed to entitle him to the legacy. Twentieth-century commentators have treated Riggs v. Palmer as a model of the judicial craft and a key to understanding the nature of law itself; however, the case’s history suggests that it is neither of these things. In its own time, the decision was radically at odds with legal doctrine as then understood by American judges. Rather than a quintessentially principled ruling, it was most likely ad hoc and ad hominem, concocted to thwart a particular individual thought to have been punished too lightly for his crime. The book illustrates the value of two approaches to interpreting decisions, those of "case biography" and "legal archaeology." Both draw upon historical sources neglected in conventional legal scholarship. In doing so, they may challenge—or confirm—the validity as precedent today of classic cases from the past.

William B. Meyer is Associate Professor of Geography at Colgate University. He is the author of Americans and Their Weather: A History, among other books.


"Meyer … explores the origins of the case and discovers a key fact that significantly alters what the judges who decided it faced. He convincingly shows why that case was an anomaly in the jurisprudence of its era and for some time after [and] how and why it was raised by later legal commentators into an example of ‘excellence in judicial reasoning.'" — Richard Hamm, University at Albany, State University of New York

"A major achievement of the book is the use of primary documents to supplement and explain the Riggs decision. The thorough research of primary documents corrects a frequently made assumption about the underlying facts." — Debora Threedy, Emerita Professor of Law, University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law