My First Washington Map Society Meeting

Last night, I went to my first Washington Map Society (WMS) meeting at the Jones Day office in Washington, D.C. Jones Day generously hosted the meeting because WMS wasn’t sure if the government shut-down would be over in time to host the event at the usual venue, the Library of Congress (LOC). Happily, researchers and employees alike have returned to the LOC!

Map collector, retired lawyer, and comedian (on the topic of lawyers) J.C. McElveen gave a talk entitled “Mayhem, Money, and Maps” — a title he credited to his wife — aka “The Use of Maps in Legal Proceedings.” Some of the topics that he covered  included maps that guide police to the shallow graves of murder victims, maps of Agent Orange use in Vietnam, the Beverly Hillbillies, map theft, gerrymandering, fig-leaf maps of sixteenth century Aztec land disputes, and Civil War piracy.

McElveen focussed on four types of cases involving maps: criminal, civil, entitlement, and “other.” These are some of the cases he discussed with links to further information:

* Trigger warning – some of these are about murder and death, so if you’d rather enjoy lighter reading with your morning coffee, it’s not too late to close your browser window! *

Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr. stole a bunch of maps! His thieving career is the topic of a book called The Island of Lost Maps.

E. Forbes Smiley III also stole a bunch of rare old maps using what wikipedia calls “charisma.”

– Around Christmas one year, police officers convinced a deeply religious defendant to draw them a map of where he had buried a body. Since they hadn’t read him his Miranda Rights and no lawyer was present, a judge deemed this to be coercion that played on a disabled man’s religiosity.

– In a case in Oklahoma, a defendant had been read his Miranda Rights (Miranda-d!) and had a lawyer present when he drew a map to the location where he had buried his ex-wife. As he handed the map to the sheriff, his lawyer said “You won’t use this against him in court, will you?” The sheriff replied “I’ll give it back to him.” Needless to say, the defendant was convicted thanks to his inadequate council.

– Maps can be thrown out as prejudicial (prejudiced?), as in one case where a bystander had drawn a very detailed map of an intersection after a traffic collision that included accurate street designations, flora and fauna of the area, as well as notations like “Body #1, Body #2, blood splatters.” Turned out that the bystander was the father of one of the people who died in the collision, and the judge threw out the map as overly biased evidence.

– Maps have been used to demonstrate groundwater contamination in Erin Brockovich-esque environmental cases, as in Woburn, Massachusetts.

– Neighbo(u)rs can sue each other over property lines, and states can sue the federal government over coastal and off-shore (oil!) rights. Both of these types of cases can involve historical maps. In the case of Texas, boundary disputes date back to at least 1736.

– Native American communities can use maps to defend their treaty rights, as in the case of Puget Sound fishing rights in Washington (state).

– The Union blockade of the Confederacy was a big problem for Abraham Lincoln, because to seize ships bound for New Orleans with supplies would mean to declare war on something that didn’t exist (yet) – another sovereign nation (namely, the Confederacy). But the Supreme Court basically kept ruling in favor of Union piracy, and ships en route to New Orleans that were seized in Havana remained war prizes.

– At the end of the talk, McElveen briefly mentioned the Oztoticpac Lands Map, which is well worth another look as an early (c. 1540) example of a map being used in land dispute litigation.

The talk included some of my favor(u)rite things: jokes, cartoons, maps, and pirates! Overall it was a great introduction to WMS and I’m looking forward to being more involved with the group.

As an aside, I met two folks in the elevator and two other folks on the Metro who were flaunting their new WMS mugs. If this describes you, do be in touch about future meetings. :-)

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