Ask the Archivist

Professorial Hi-jinx

Q. Boalt students love to pull pranks on fellow student—has a professor ever pulled a good one? - GC, Berkeley

A. Certainly one of the best hoaxes involved the courtly, sometimes irascible, always brilliant Stefan Albrecht Riesenfeld.  His 1956 counter-jape proved the old adage, “You can’t outfox a fox.” 

Professor Riesenfeld’s attempts to explicate the arcana of secured transactions sometimes resulted in puzzled students at a loss to understand the difference between a mortgage and a deed of trust, particularly since he delivered his lectures in a thick German accent that some found challenging.  After a series of particularly abstruse disquisitions that left his students despairing that they would ever master the complex topic, two of Riesenfeld’s students plotted an elaborate hoax.  

Simon Katzen, ‘58, and Marvin Starr, ‘58, both worked part time in the Law Library.  They decided to invent a mythical text, California Law of Mortgages (dba Needlemann on Mortgages) by Sol H. Needlemann.  They produced a set of bibliographic cards for the title, and filed them in the card catalog.  To suggest that the book was currently in use, they created a check-out card for the library’s circulation files, but added a signature so illegible it was impossible to tell who had removed the book. They then leaked to a select few students the enviable news that they had discovered the perfect hornbook for Riesenfeld’s class, one that explained everything clearly and succinctly, one that would assure a top grade to anyone who possessed the amazing tome. Skeptical, the students checked the card catalog — and found indisputable proof of the book’s existence.  

Then Katzen and Starr sat back and smiled as word of the study aid raced through the desperate classroom. Frustration and anger were quickly inflamed against the unknown, selfish blackguard who was keeping academic salvation entirely to himself. The library’s circulation desk was besieged by students, like torch-bearing villagers, demanding immediate access to Needlemann. Katzen and Starr in turn meekly assured them that a replacement copy was on order, and apologized profusely for the inexplicable delay in hearing from the West Publishing Co.  

At an emergency meeting of 2Ls, the class president exhorted the culprit to play fair with his fellow students by returning the sequestered copy so that everyone could have a crack at it. Alternative paths were pursued.  When copies of Needlemann could not be located in other Bay Area law libraries, Katzen and Starr helpfully suggested that the author was perhaps the eminent scholar Father Sol H. Needlemann, recently retired after a long and distinguished teaching career at Loyola University Law School. Phone calls to L.A. proved unenlightening.  
Finally, Riesenfeld himself was approached.  The cagey professor had had enough experience with law students to smell a rat.  He at first denied any knowledge of such a helpful hornbook.  But at a subsequent meeting of the class, after expatiating Germanically on an obscure aspect of the law, he dismissed the bewildered expressions of his students with an off-hand comment that since this point was explained in full in Needlemann on Mortages he had no intention of wasting any more class time trying to get them to understand it. 

Outrage exploded, the dean of students threatened a full investigation with dire consequences for the miscreant — and Katzen and Starr felt they had perhaps pushed the prank as far as it should go.  Full confessions — and legendary status — were forthcoming.