J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Josiah Quincy for the Defense

Yesterday we left tobacconist John Willson on trial for the murder of a shoemaker named David Murray in 1771. That was on 6 September, slightly less than a month after Murray had turned up dead on the shore of Boston Neck.

The facts weren’t in Willson’s favor. People had seen the two men leave Castle William in a boat together, and Willson didn’t tell a coherent story of what happened. Though there were no witnesses, it seemed pretty clear that the two men had gotten into a fistfight.

The law was also not on Willson’s side. If the jury decided he killed Murray in a fight, British rules of the time didn’t offer much leeway in evaluating whether he deserved to die. He would have had to prove the circumstances of manslaughter or self-defense. There were no prisons as an alternative to the gallows.

Courtroom records from the 1770s are quite sparse, with the exception of the trials that followed the Boston Massacre. But we have Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s speech defending Willson. That appears in Joseph Hawley’s commonplace book, recently digitized by the New York Public Library.

After quoting from a couple of legal authorities, Quincy challenged the jury to live up to those standards since “our crown law is with justice supposed to be more nearly advanced to perfection.”

Finally he addressed the specifics of this case:
One doubt in this case is whether the dec[ease]d. was killed by any man.—another doubt there certainly will be, whether he was killed by the prisoner. But if he was so killed, will any one say that the prisoner was guilty of murder? a Crime at which human nature starts, and which is almost universally punished with death. . . .

It will be said, perhaps, if you are fully convinced, that the prisoner killed the decd[,] every circumstance to justify or excuse such killing must be proved by the prisoner. This no doubt is good law. But here it is impossible; none being present but the prisoner and the decd.

Can it be supposed to be law, reason, or christianity to oblige a prisoner to prove impossibilities, or lose his life? how astonishing to suppose reason so little to prevail at the formation of our laws, and under the formalities of justice, that weak equivocal evidence, nay surmise and suspicion, should ever be thought sufficient proof—for crimes, the most atrocious in their nature, the most deliberate in their commission, and therefore the most improbable, as if it were the interest of the laws and the judges, and for the good of society, not to enquire with charity and candor, but to prove the crimes: as if there was not greater risk of condemning any person when the probability of his guilt is less. . . .

If a man be found suddenly dead in a room, and another be found running out in hast with a bloody sword; the blood, the weapon, the hasty flight, are all the necessary concomitants of such horrid facts.—here are deficient the weapon—the blood on such weapon, and above all the hasty flight. Did the prisoner fly, did he ever attempt to secrete himself?

or In some cases presumptive evidences go far to prove a person guilty, tho there be no express proof of the fact to be committed by him, but then it must be warily pressed (and surely as cautiously believed) so as to convict em. For it is better that 10 guilty persons escape unpunished than one Innocent person should die. &c
The 12 Sept 1771 Boston News-Letter reported the outcome of Quincy’s argument:
At the Superior Court held here, on Friday last, John Willson was tried for the Murder of David Murray, who was found dead on the Neck, mentioned in this Paper of the 15th of August last: The Jury brought in their Verdict, Not Guilty.
Not simply not guilty of murder, but not guilty of all charges.

The fact that Hawley copied Quincy’s argument into his commonplace book suggests that the attorneys of Massachusetts thought it was a remarkable case.


Cornelia H. Dayton said...

Great twin posting, John. It's marvelous that we now have easy access to Hawley's commonplace book via NYHS, and many thanks go to you for transcribing his notes on Quincy's argument to the jury.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Nina! I didn't do a full transcript because Quincy used some legal terms or arguments I had trouble understanding or figuring out how to explain. I also put in extra paragraph breaks for online readability. But I hope that postings like this will draw more people to look at the original documents, now visible in one form without leaving our desks.