Law and History Review


The Borrower's Tale: A History of Poor Debtors in Lochner Era New York City

Anne Fleming 

When asked why he did not read over the loan documents before signing them, John Doherty explained: “I was anxious to get the money, I didn't bother about it.” In February 1910, the twenty-three-year-old railroad clerk walked into the offices of the Chesterkirk Company, a loan-sharking operation with offices in lower Manhattan. He was looking to borrow some money. Repayment was guaranteed by the only security Doherty had to offer: his prospective wages and, in his words, his “reputation.” After a brief investigation of Doherty's creditworthiness, the loan was approved. The office manager placed a cross in lead pencil at the bottom of a lengthy form and Doherty signed where indicated. He received $34.85 in exchange for his promise to repay the loan principal plus $10.15 in combined fees and interest in three months. The interest charged was significantly greater than the 6 percent per year allowed in New York State. Doherty's effective annualized interest rate, including fees, was over 100 percent.


Anne Fleming is a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Harvard Law School <>. She thanks Sarah Barringer Gordon, Michael Katz, Thomas Sugrue, Kathleen Brown, Walter Licht, and Sophia Lee for their insightful suggestions and critical guidance. Jeremy Dell, Sean Dempsey, Hope McGrath, and the other members of the author's research methods seminar offered perceptive critiques and invaluable support in the early stages of the project. For further assistance, she also thanks participants in the 2011 American Society for Legal History meeting and 2010 Institute for Constitutional History summer research seminar, especially Christine Desan, William Wiecek, Charles McCurdy, Maeva Marcus, Aviam Soifer and Risa Goluboff. David Tanenhaus, Robert Johnston, and two anonymous reviewers for Law and History Review provided generous and expert criticism that improved the article immensely.