Thursday, February 14, 2013

The case of the Libelous Valentine and the Prosecutor with too much time on his hands

In honor of today, I’m going to write about the oldest U.S. case I could find referencing Valentine’s Day.   Commonwealth v. Applegate, 33 Pa. C.C. 587 (1906) is a criminal libel case involving two women, a hate poem, and a prosecutor lacking common sense.
On Valentine’s Day, Anna Applegate mailed a card to her sister-in-law, Laura Mitchell. The card had a picture of a scroll, a pair of scales and a woman.  It contained a poem:

            To My Valentine.

Trouble maker. Scandal. Lies. Other Peoples Business. Slander. The Woman with a Mischievous Tongue.

To stir up a row is to you such a joy,

That the whole of your time in such work you employ.

If some one had courage to muzzle your jaws,

The neighbors would hail the good deed with applause.

How to Lie to beat the Law:

“License: This is to certify that I may lie at any time I think there is money in it.”

John M. Patterson, the local prosecutor, didn’t appreciate Applegate’s artistic contribution and charged her with criminal libel.  Applegate argued that the indictment should be dismissed because the card was sent directly to Mitchell (the libeled party) so there was no defamation of Mitchell to a third party.  The judge, Judge Staake (whose name, I learned though another poem, is pronounced Stah-Key[1]), upheld the indictment.  He distinguished between civil libel in which the libeled party would have to prove actual damages and criminal libel, which only requires alleging that the words would “tend to provoke a breach of the peace.” 

So according to Judge Staake, Mitchell could not sue Applegate directly because there were no damages, but a prosecutor could charge Applegate criminally (subjecting her to up to one year’s imprisonment) by including in the indictment that Applegate’s hate poem would provoke Mitchell to commit a public disturbance.   I guess crime was pretty low around Philadelphia and the prosecutor needed something to do that day. 

There is no published appeal to this case and, in over 100 years, this case has never been cited to.  I would assume that either the charges were dropped or the jury acquitted Applegate. 

Happy Valentine’s Day! 

[1] History of the Five o'clock club of Philadelphia: its guests and methods of entertainment, with sketches and portraits of its members, on page 209, Staake is introduced in verse explaining how to pronounce his name:  
                If you would be wrong
                In pronouncing this name,
                Say Staykie, or stackie, or stake,
                Or Starkie, or Staukie, or Stack;
                They are each alike a mistake.
                But if you’d be right
                As you always should be,
                And find your delivery rocky,
                Accentuate “ah” in the syllable “Sta,”
                Add “key,” and then you have Staake.