A detective story about Holmes’ famous line.
(Illustration credit: Strand Magazine, Dec. 1892, now in the public domain.)

A very interesting recent paper by Professor Carlton Larson; here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced the specter of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater into First Amendment law. Nearly one hundred years later, this analogy remains the most enduring analogy in constitutional law. It has been relied on in hundreds of constitutional cases and it has permeated popular discourse on the scope of individual rights….

Part One [of this Essay] is a detective story, seeking to solve the mystery of how Holmes came up with this particular example. This story takes us to the forgotten world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when false shouts of fire in theaters were a pervasive problem that killed hundreds of people both in the United States and Great Britain. The person who shouted “fire” in a crowded theater was a recognizable stock villain of popular culture, condemned in newspapers, magazines and books from coast to coast. The analogy, lifted by Holmes from a federal prosecutor in Cleveland, was rooted in this larger world of popular culture….