Skip to main content

Death of a Salesman: 1890s Version

Image result for death of a salesman poster

If you've actually looked down here at the body of this blog entry after that headline, congratulations on possessing a baroque sense of curiosity.

In 1898 the U.S. Supreme Court considered Ritter v. Mutual Life Ins. Co.  The case arose because a fellow named William M. Runk, a Philadelphia businessman, and an insured of the respondent, had shot and killed himself six years before.

Runk was a partner in a dry-goods firm. Not perhaps directly involved in sales, but what little I know of his death reminds me of Arthur Miller's character.  Also, a minor character in the Miller play was about to argue a case of indefinite nature before the Supreme Court, so perhaps Miller was shyly suggesting he knew about Ritter.

In this case, and usually in the 1890s, the insured's insurance policy contained no express exclusion for cases of suicide. The law as interpreted by a trial judge held that a sane man's suicide does not warrant an insurance company pay-out, but an insane man's suicide does. The idea, presumably, was that the sane fellow might be tempted into suicide by a businesslike calculation of his family's coming gain from the proceeds versus their continued troubles in the event of this sane-but-hard-pressed fellow's continued living presence among them. The insane are neither tempted into suicide in this way nor deterred from it by a contrary rule of law, so their suicide can occasion pay-outs without offense to a pro-life public policy.

Runk's suicide was of the death-of-a-salesman sort. He owed a lot of money, had speculated using embezzled funds and lost those funds in the market, etc. He left a suicide note asking that the insurance funds be employed to pay those whom he had cheated. Of course that suicide note has no consequences for his beneficiary, but the question was: should the beneficiary get anything? Was Runk sane or insane?

The jury found that he was sane and that the insurance company was not liable. The matter was appealed to the US Supreme Court. This was in the era before ERIE v. TOMPKINS, when the federal courts including the Supreme Court decided a lot of "common law" questions such as matters of contract interpretation that they and it would later forfeit.

Anyway, the matter went to the Supreme Court and the court, in an opinion by the first Justice Harlan, upheld the trial court judgment. It explicitly affirmed the principle that in the absence of explicit mention in the contract, the rule is that a sane suicide is a defense against insurance company liability.

Harlan wrote that insurance premiums are typically determined by actuarial tables, and that those tables show at any time the probable duration of life. This arrangement suggests, then, that the insured "will leave the event of his death to depend upon some other cause than willful, deliberate self-destruction."

Okay, that phrase isn't as resonant as "the Constitution is color-blind." But it is clear and emphatic. Harlan knew how to be so.    


Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

Philippa Gregory

My recent reading includes large helpings of Philippa Gregory's latest, THREE SISTERS, THREE QUEENS (2016), another of her fictionalized takes on love and betrayal among the royals of Renaissance Europe.

In this book, the focus is on the early Tudor dynasty, and especially on Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, founder thereof, and the older sister of the future Henry VIII. Margaret became Queen of Scotland with an arranged marriage to James IV. She reigned and ruled under the title of Dowager Queen after James' death at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

So who, you ask, were the other two sisters of the novel's title? One is Margaret's blood sister, Mary Tudor, who was known as one of the great beauties of the age. Mary was the inspiration for the name her brother Henry gave to his older daughter. More important for Gregory's story, she wed the King of France (Louis XII) in 1514, and Anne Boleyn served as her maid of honor at that ceremony.

The third &…