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Major John Henry Wigmore
Major John Henry Wigmore. Photoprint by Harris & Ewing.

Expanding Wigmore’s List of 100 Legal Novels

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The following is a guest post by Tristen Wallace, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is an undergraduate student studying English and cinema and media studies at Wellesley College.

If you received a public education in the United States in the last century, chances are you recognize at least one of these written works: To Kill A Mockingbird, Native Son, Hamlet, and Les Misérables. What do these pieces of fiction have in common, other than their residency on school reading lists? Each deals with the law in some way, whether that be from the perspective of a young protagonist witnessing her father’s defense in a trial similar to the Scottsboro Trial, or from 19th century France in the wake of rebellion. In these widely-taught works of fiction, American lawyer and legal scholar John Henry Wigmore recognized their potential to increase civic knowledge and act as valuable resources for lawyers.

Throughout his career, Wigmore’s influence on legal education, evidence law, and the American judicial system cannot be overstated. One of Wigmore’s most significant contributions lies in the field of evidence law. He authored the monumental treatise Wigmore on Evidence, which is regarded as a preeminent resource for U.S. courts, and still stands as a cornerstone of legal education and practice. Published in multiple volumes, this comprehensive work provides an authoritative analysis of evidentiary principles, rules, and their application in both federal and state courtrooms. This treatise delves into common law, the historical evolution of evidence rules, the Federal Rules of Evidence, as well as state evidence rules and codes. Trusted by both state and federal courts, Wigmore’s treatise serves as an essential resource for crucial evidence-related inquiries.

Wigmore graduated from Harvard Law School in 1887 and was a founding member of the Harvard Law Review. He spent time teaching in Japan before becoming a professor at Northwestern Law School in 1893. He served as dean from 1901 to 1929, but took a leave of absence to serve as a major in the office of the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army during World War I. He was promoted to colonel and left his mark on history by helping to draft the Selective Service Act and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1918. He returned to Northwestern Law School in 1919 and served as dean for another ten years before stepping down. He stayed dedicated to Northwestern as a professor of law and then professor emeritus until his death in 1943.

Like Oliver Wendell Holmes and other lawyers and judges of his time, Wigmore had a penchant for lyricism and often turned to creative writing outside of his prolific legal writings. He often looked to literature in the form of poetry and novels for self-expression and even published a volume of musical compositions called Lyrics of a Lawyer’s Leisure and the marching song, “We’ll See Them Through!”.

It is unsurprising, then, that Wigmore’s love for literature drove him to produce the most extensive list of legal literature of his time: Wigmore’s List of Legal Novels, published first in the Illinois Law Review in 1908. These 100 novels explored various legal themes and dilemmas, offering readers a glimpse into the intricacies of the legal profession. Through compiling this list of stories, the legal system becomes demystified and more accessible to a wider audience. The novels chosen by Wigmore shed light on the ethical challenges faced by lawyers, the complexities of legal reasoning, and the human drama that unfolds within courtrooms. By combining legal knowledge with literary skill, these novels engage and educate readers about the intricacies of the law.

Wigmore made sure that his selected novels fell into one, or more, of these categories:

(A) Novels in which some trial scene is described – perhaps including a skillful cross-examination;

(B) Novels in which the typical traits of a lawyer or judge, or the ways of professional life, are portrayed;

(C) Novels in which the methods of law in the prosecution and punishment of crime are delineated; and

(D) Novels in which some point of law, affecting the rights or the conduct of the personages, enters into the plot.

-Wigmore, page 574; list of novels begins on page 587

This list was later reexamined by Richard Weisberg in 1976, when he published Wigmore’s Legal Novels Revisited: New Resources for the Expansive Lawyer in the Northwestern University Law Review, 71 Nw. U. L. Rev. 17 (1976). Weisberg restated Wigmore’s categorization in his 1976 update as follows:

(A) Works in which a full legal procedure is depicted, sometimes exclusively a “trial scene,” but just as frequently the preliminary investigations leading to the trial.

(B) Works in which, even in the absence of a formal legal process, a lawyer is a central figure in the plot or story, frequently but not always acting as the actual protagonist.

(C) Works in which a specific body of laws, often a single statute or system of procedures, becomes an organizing structural principle.

(D) Works in which, in an otherwise essentially nonlegal framework, the relationship of law, justice and the individual becomes a central thematic issue.

-Weisberg, page 18, italics in original.

If you are interested in some of the titles on Wigmore and Weisberg’s lists, here is an abridged list of some of the more popular novels:

As many works of legal fiction have missed both Wigmore and Weisberg’s lists, I hope to offer my own suggestions for revitalization, including those from underrepresented authors and genres. Please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive.

Wigmore’s tireless efforts to advance legal education, his meticulous scholarship, groundbreaking work on evidence law, and his unique contribution through legal novels have shaped legal practice and scholarship for decades. As we continue to navigate the intricacies of the legal world, it is important to recognize and appreciate the multifaceted contributions of those like John Henry Wigmore, whose legacy continues to illuminate the path forward for legal professionals and captivate the imagination of legal enthusiasts. And maybe several of these will make your reading list for the new year!

Do you have a book that you think should be included in the list of legal novels? Please let us know in the comments.

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Comments (2)

  1. The Just and the Unjust by James Gould Cozzens. Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1942

  2. The Floating Opera by John Barth

    falls into the category of:
    (B) Works in which, even in the absence of a formal legal process, a lawyer is a central figure in the plot or story, frequently but not always acting as the actual protagonist.

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