Worth a Thousand Words

Sometimes a picture says it all. Or that’s what lawyers have often hoped. And beginning with the development of modern printing technologies, publishers have worked hard and well to oblige them.

The creation of lithography. Technical advances in etching and wood engraving. Anastatic printing. New iron presses. Steam-powered rotary cylinders. Photography. Starting in the nineteenth century, technological innovations such as these enabled law book publishers to depict places, objects, and events with greater accuracy than ever before—and lawyers soon perceived the value of images in crafting a winning argument.

Those images are the subject of the seventh case in our digital gallery tour, “Arguing the Law,” which features illustrations and photographs used as evidence in litigation. They are least symbolic, most literal, type of law book image.

They were used in intellectual property litigation (scroll over for links)

criminal prosecutions

and a range of civil suits.

They also were used to supplement “true crime” literature and to influence public opinion.

Forensic images reflect the rise of empiricism and science in the nineteenth century. With their precise rendering, these images lend themselves to the rigor of evidentiary rules in the courtroom—or do they? The subtleties of perspective and viewpoint demand a different sort of sophistication from the viewer. They sometimes hide as much as they reveal.

Here’s one of our favorites:

The sensational trial of Prof. John W. Webster involved an early use of forensic science to identify the remains of Dr. George Parkman, which were found hidden in the privy of Harvard Medical College.

From the text: “Here Dr. Wyman exhibited the bones taken, with the slugs, from the furnace, to the Jury, telling what part of what bone he exhibited—illustrating his remarks by the use of the diagram shown on the next page.”

Imago ipsa loquitur!


Trial of Professor John W. Webster, for the murder of Doctor George Parkman. New York: Stringer & Townsend … printed at the Globe office, 1850. “Reported exclusively for the N.Y. Daily Globe.” Gift of James Hillhouse (Yale 1875), 1931.

Mark S. Weiner & Mike Widener


Next up: “Stand, Sketch, and Deliver.”

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