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Trials of the Century: 1800-1899

From time to time, the media picks up on a particularly sensational trial which they know will attract interest from the public and may be come part of legal history. We see it all the time today and it was no different in the 19th century. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his 1835 book, Democracy in America, that he was intrigued by the importance of courts in American life. The courts, he thought, were "the most obvious organs through which the legal body influences democracy." Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey once commented that nearly every juicy tabloid trial in American history has been called the "trial of the century" by somebody. The City Bar has a fascinating collection of 19 th century trial pamphlets depicting sensationalized accounts of courtroom dramas. These colorful monographs were cheaply produced and sold to a public eager to read about the scandalous trials of the day. The cases on display depict trials involving slave stealing, rape, pastoral misconduct, gambling, molestation, illegal abortion, kidnaping, divorce, forensic science, adultery and murder.

John A. Murel

A history of the detection, conviction, life and designs of John A. Murel, the great western land pirate : together with his system of villany, and plan of exciting a Negro rebellion ; Also, a catalogue of the names of four hundred and fifty-five of his mystic clan, fellows and followers, and their efforts for the destruction of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart, the young man who detected him, to which is added a biographical sketch of V.A. Stewart , by Augustus Q. Walton. Cincinnati: circa 1850.

John Murel was one of the most notorious and ruthless outlaws. He developed a network of thieves that committed highway robberies from New Orleans to Tennessee. Murel's clan operated throughout the old Southwest and their specialty became slave stealing. A slave would be enticed from captivity by offers of freedom and once secured, he would be sold and stolen repeatedly until the slave became so well known through wanted posters that he could no longer be sold. Murel’s men would then murder the slave . He was turned in by Virgil Stewart, a member of the gang, and tried in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1835. Murel was sentenced to confinement and labor for ten years.

Forrest Divorce Case

The Forrest divorce case. Catharine N. Forrest against Edwin Forrest. Fully and correctly reported by the reporter of the National police gazette; with opening and concluding arguments of counsel, charge of the court, letters from Mr. and Mrs.Forrest, and other persons of standing and influence, togetherwith the Consuelo letter, and other interesting details, leading to this controversy ... New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1852.

In 1826 actor Edwin Forrest rose to prominence playing Othello at the Bowery Theater in New York and become one of the most well-known and popular performers of the first half of the nineteenth century. He married Catherine Norton Sinclair, a singer and the daughter of John Sinclair in 1837 but by 1850 the marriage crumbled with charges of infidelity on both sides. This pamphlet is the sensational trial of their divorce. The trial lasted six weeks, and garnered fanatic attention from the public and the media. Forrest believed that his wife had become romantically involved with another actor and sued for divorce in Philadelphia. Catherine Forrest counter-sued in New York. Edwin’s coarseness of speech and irascibility of temper during the trials lost him friends and hundreds of admirers. A jury found him guilty of adultery and awarded alimony to Mrs. Forrest. The ruling in the New York courts and the events of the trial embittered Forrest for the remainder of his life.

John W. Webster

The Parkman murder : trial of Prof. John W. Webster, for the murder of Dr. George Parkman, November 23, 1849 : before the Supreme Judicial Court, in the City of Boston ... Boston : Printed at the Daily Mail Office, 1850.

This is one of the first great forensic trials in the United States where dental evidence and scientific testimony were accepted in a murder trial. Dr. George Parkman, was from one of Boston's richest families and one of the most prominent doctors in Boston. One day he suddenly vanished without a trace. A week later, the janitor of the Harvard Medical School discovered body parts hidden in the laboratory of a mild- mannered professor of chemistry named John Webster. A panel of Harvard forensic experts linked the remains to Dr. Parkman. Webster was arrested after it was discovered that he was heavily in debt to Dr. Parkman. Despite mostly circumstantial evidence, the jury took only three hours to find Webster guilty. After an unsuccessful appeal Webster confessed hoping for leniency but he was still sentenced to hang. The trial was also historic in the manner that Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw handled the case. In 1850 it was standard procedure that proof to “an absolute certainty” was needed for a conviction in a capital murder case. Judge Shaw, in his precedent setting instructions to the jury, stated that the prosecution only needed to prove corpus delecti “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Shaw’s actions become known as the “Webster’s Charge.”

Mason Locke Weems

God's revenge against gambling : Exemplified in the miserable lives and untimely deaths of a number of persons of both sexes, who had sacrificed their health, wealth, and honor at gaming tables / With curious anecdotes of the following unfortunate gamblers:--I. Miss Fanny Braddock ... II. Drisden Harwood ... III. Jack Gilmore ... IV. T. Alston ... V. Maria Antoinete ... VI. Other awful cases of young gamblers, and their untimely ends / By M.L. Weems...Philadelphia : Printed for the author, 1812.

Parson Mason Weems was an Episcopal clergyman, a traveling bookseller and an agent for Mathew Carey, the famous Philadelphia printer. He wrote several very popular patriotic biographies, including Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington and Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays. His book on George Washington originated many of the Washington myths, including the cherry-tree story, which first appeared in the fifth edition. Between 1807 and 1823, he wrote several moral tracts against adultery , dueling, drunkenness, gambling and murder. These were based on cases, real or fictitious, from Delaware and North Carolina.

John Hanlon

Life, trial, confession and conviction of John Hanlon, for the murder of little Mary Mohrman, containing Judge Ludlow's charge to the Jury, and the speeches of the learned counsel on both sides. Philadelphia: Published by Barclay & Co. 1870.

Hanlon was involved in the murder and sexual abuse of six-year old, Mary Mohrman. Picked up for questioning Hanlon had to be released due to lack of evidence. Hanlon continued to seduce young girls and was finally convicted of molesting a ten-year old. While in prison he unknowingly confessed to another convict and cell-mate, Michael Dunn, who was planted by police. Despite the conflicting testimony of friends and relatives a jury found him guilty of Mary Mohrman’s murder. Hanlon was executed on February 1, 1871.

Madame Restell

Wonderful trial of Caroline Lohman, alias Restell, : with speeches of counsel, charge of Court, and verdict of jury. New York : Burgess Stringer & Co. 1847.

Despite the fact that Restell was not a physician she openly advertised abortion services. Between 1839 and 1845 Restell was indicted six times for procuring abortions. In only one of the six cases, was she brought to trial, and that case was dropped. In 1845 a new comprehensive law was passed that for the first time made the woman herself liable. It wasn't until 1847 that Restell was actually convicted of abortion. Maria Bodine was a housekeeper who had gotten pregnant by her employer, Joseph Cook. Restell had advised her not to have an abortion, as she was already seven months pregnant, but to board with her until the baby was born. Bodine was pressured by the police to file charges against Restell. This was one of the longest trials in pre-Civil War America, and its details were broadcast in newspapers and scandal-mongering pamphlets. At first the public pitied Bodine, who was portrayed as a victim but as the trial progressed she was branded a prostitute and that her poor health was a natural consequence "not of Madame Restell, but of habitual and promiscuous intercourse as a harlot - not with Mr. Cook, but with every man every hour, or every five minutes of her life!" The jury returned a verdict of “a misdemeanor of procuring a miscarriage.” Restell was sentenced to a year in prison on Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosvelt Island.

Mary Pomeroy

Poor Mary Pomeroy! The Jersey City music teacher, Also, a full and authethic account of the trial of Rev. John S. Glendenning before the authorities of Prospect Avenue Church. Startling details and curious statements. What a lady saw one night. Philadelphia: Old Franklin Publishing House, 1874.pomeroy-1

John Glendenning was a pastor at the Prospect Ave. Church in Jersey City.  It was rumored that he had an illicit affair with Mary Pomeroy, and was the father of her unborn child.  Shortly before her death Mary condided to her aunt that Glendenning assured her that "he would make things right," implying marraige.  The charges against the pastor were dropped due to lack of evidence, but he was made to endure a twenty-two day trial before the Presbytery for immoral conduct.  The Presbytery passed a resolution severing ties with Glendenning but his status at the church was left unchanged and he continued to preach.



Kate Southern

The sad case of Mrs. Kate Southern! The beautiful, virtuous Georgia wife, who, being maddened to insanity by the outrageous taunts of a bad woman who had enticed her husband away, killed her ... Philadelphia, Pa.: Old Franklin Publishing House, 1878.

The media's obsession with the murder trial of Kate Southern captivated Georgia in 1878. Kate, newly pregnant, had heard scandalous rumors that Narcissa Canart was having an illicit affair with her husband, Bob. At a party at Kate’s father’s house she got into a heated argument with Narcissa and proceeded to furiously stab her repeatedly with a pen knife. Kate and her husband fled only to be captured in North Carolina. Kate was convicted after three days of testimony and sentenced to death by hanging Her case sparked debate throughout the South about how to treat women in the criminal justice system. After her sentencing there was a public outcry that if a man had committed the same crime he probably would have been acquitted under the theory that it was justifiable homicide to kill the seducer of an adulterous wife. Kate Southern's death sentence was eventually commuted by the Governor Colquitt to ten years imprisonment and she was later pardoned under pressure from the State Legislature.

William H. Westervelt

Life, trial and conviction for abduction of Charley Ross, the tragic death of the burglars Mosher and Douglass who were implicated in abducting the poor little fellow. The confession, the whole case, the trial in full. Philadelphia, Barclay & co. 1876.

The first kidnaping in the United States to become a media sensation was the abduction of Charles Brewster Ross in 1874. Charley and his six- year-old brother were taken by two men and driven from their home in Philadelphia to a place about two hours to the north, where the brother was let go. The kidnappers demanded $20,000 and threatened to kill Charlie if their demands were not met. The father, Christian Ross tried to pay the ransom several times, but each time the kidnappers failed to show up. Two weeks after the kidnapping, the New York Police received word from an informer that the kidnappers were William Mosher and Joseph Douglass. Mosher and Douglass were soon apprehended trying to burglarize a home on Long Island. Mosher was shot and killed; Douglass was mortally wounded but lived long enough to admit to the kidnaping, though not long enough to reveal the fate of Charlie. Reported sightings of Charlie Ross came in from all over the country but none proved true. The only person ever tried for the crime was William Westervelt, Mosher's brother-in-law, who was charged with aiding in the kidnaping and writing the ransom note. He was convicted of the lesser charge of conspiracy and sentenced to a prison term of seven years and a fine of $1.

Captain James Dunn

The Trial of Captain James Dunn, for an assault, with an attempt to seduce Sylvia Patterson. A Black Woman, the Wife of James Patterson: held at Martling’s long room, before referees, appointed by consent of parties, December 15, 1808. New York: Printed for the reporter, 1809.

In a male-dominated early 19 th century New York, rape was a crime that largely went unreported. Private settlements often served as their own version of justice, with many attackers avoiding legal prosecution by making their own amends. . In 1808 James Dunn was accused of raping a free black woman, Sylvia Patterson, the wife of a wood sawyer, James Patterson. Dunn is depicted on the cover of this pamphlet as trying to give Mrs. Patterson a watch as a down payment on a future monetary settlement. The prosecutor in the case accused Dunn of being a serial rapist mostly with black women. The defense called witnesses that stated that Dunn visited the Patterson house to retrieve a watch and was seduced by Sylvia. The defense also tried to attack the morality of Sylvia as a “woman of bad character” who was recently hospitalized with “venereal rheumatism.” Dunn was found guilty as charged but as was typical of the times was fined one dollar and ordered to pay court costs to the Pattersons

Charles Marlow

The Most Horrible Crime of the Age! The Marlow Murder! A History of the Arrest, Trial , Conviction and Sentence of Charles Marlow for the murder of Wm. Bachmann, August 16, 1871. Jamestown: New York: Daily and Weekly Journal, [1871]

William Bachman, a businessman, arrived in Jamestown and claimed to have large amounts of money to invest. He approached Charles Marlow about purchasing his brewery. With $6,000 in hand, Bachman was lured to the cellar vault of Marlow’s brewery where he was shot and his body thrown in the furnace. It took two trials to convict Marlow. While he was in jail waiting to be hanged, Marlow professed his innocence, but then tried to kill his jailor and make an escape. The night before his hanging Marlow confessed that he administered strychnine to Bachman in a glass of beer and then struck him on the head with a hammer.

Richard Tuske, Director of the Library