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History: First “Apocalypse” in a Federal Court opinion

July 2, 2012

Zombie political legal news has largely calmed down. Zombies were strongly alive in economics and politics, particularly during the end of the Republican primary season, and then as regards the looming sequester deadline and Simpson-Bowles plan. But after the Miami craziness the meme changed and now that the student loan debt “crisis” was averted at the last possible minute, it seems likely that next term’s zombie congress will avert economic apocalypse in a similar last-minute way.

For the moment the summer of zombies seems slow, so I thought I’d look at some similar memes. I already told you about Justice Brennan’s “administrative apocalypse” (a term he borrowed from the lower court’s Judge Wright). As I mentioned in that post, “apocalypse” recurs in other opinions (though “administrative apocalypse” is only in those two), and though “apocalypse” is in only two Supreme Court opinions, it is present in nearly 50 opinions of other federal courts.

The first mention of the word “apocalypse” in a federal court opinion was in the case of Hentz v. Piedmont Cotton Co. (296 F. 14), a 1924 opinion written by Judge Rose of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was a transaction dispute based on dramatic changes in the price of cotton and the uncertainties caused by disturbances of international commodities trade at the outbreak of the Great War. Judge Rose’s opinion described the start of the First World War as the

“fatal period that the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were let loose upon mankind”


“the greatest catastrophe of recorded time had come upon an unsuspecting world.”

This usage of the Biblical characters to mean World War is identical to the meaning in Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s, best-selling 1919 novel “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Ibáñez also wrote political editorials in the New York Times. The book was made into a movie of the same name and premiered in New York in 1921. It starred Rudolph Valentino in his breakout role, forever marking him as the archetypal Latin lover. The story is about a family in Argentina and the effects of the Great War in Europe. The movie is considered one of the first anti-war movies ever made. It was the highest grossing movie of the year (beating Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid) and is still the sixth highest grossing silent picture of all time.

zombie rudolph valentino apocalypse

Though I have no evidence that Judge Rose knew about this Rudy Valentino movie or the Ibáñez book, it seems impossible that he had not at least heard of it when he penned the Hentz opinion; particularly because both refer to the same meaning.

Also about eight months later in 1924, sportswriter Grantland Rice branded the star players of Notre Dame’s football team as the “Four Horsemen“. He wrote, reporting the Notre Dame vs. Army football game:

“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again.”

four horsemen Notre dame skulls

He was referring to (Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, left halfback Jim Crowley, right halfback Don Miller and fullback Elmer Layden). And as a further coincidental connection, Don Miller (the Notre Dame right halfback) coached some football after college but then became a lawyer in Cleveland and was eventually appointed U.S. District Attorney for Northern Ohio by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Back in the Courts, I find no mention of the word “apocalypse” from 1924 to 1970, when a federal tax court mentions a “chateau in which there were tapestries of the Apocalypse” (Marlin v. Commissioner, 54 T.C. 560). And then the 1971 Judge Skelly Wright reference to “administrative apocalypse” already described in previous post.

Many more mentions of “apocalypse” and the “four horsemen” in future cases… more to come… meanwhile, recall also, the first mentions of zombie (1957); of zombies (1956); of zombi (1949); ofzombis (1942)

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