Page images

sickness has befallen a juror, and when disease has prostrated a defendant in his cell, the prosecution have complained of the cost of delay, and have vehemently reproached the prisoners, because they would not surrender almost the only constitutional rights left them of being tried by twelve jurors and by no less, and of being present in person during their trial. But I mistake. This is not the act of citizens of Detroit, for they are a humane people. It is not the act of Michigan, for it is a just and benignant commonwealth. It is not the act even of the Michigan Central Railroad Company. It is the act of agents of that corporation, who have dared to misuse their powers and to assume the police authority of the state. I know, and I feel well assured that the acquittal of these defendants will be received with satisfaction by the citizens of the metropolis, and will be approved even by the corporation itself; while it will go abroad with healing on its wings for public discontents pervading the state.

[Mr. Seward reviews the character of the principal (Abel F. Fitch) among the accused, and also the chief witnesses against him, in the following passages :]

Who believes Abel F. Fitch to have been insane? No one. Who believes that a sane, educated man, living in such a country as this, could conceive a purpose so atrocious, or that, conceiving it, he would impart it to another? Abel F. Fitch was a man of education, position and fortune-in all these respects surpassed by few in Michigan. He was a public officer, respected and honored at home, with troops of friends bound to him by clasps of steel, in various parts of the state. Is there no truth in the ancient maxim: "Nemo repente fuit turpissimus !"* Is there any height of crime towering above what is here alleged to have been reconnoitered? Four months ago Abel F. Fitch came here an object of public fear and hatred, borne down by the scorn of his country, and of mankind. He went in and out before you. You saw him every day harassed, insulted, reviled, by such testimony as this-you saw him meek, gentle, confiding, cheerful, and enduring. You know his death. It was peaceful, tranquil, -the death of a man loving all good things on earth, yet resigning them cheerfully in hopes of better things in heaven.

*"No man reaches the heights of crime at once."

He died in prison during the trial.

Who was George W. Gay ?* A man of fifty years or upwards, who had been convicted of more than twenty crimes, ranging from petit larceny to murder, who had been more than once a tenant of state prisons in several states, a man who lived in daily association with culprits, and who at the time kept a house of illfame, and thus subsisted by the debasement of one sex, while he harbored the most depraved of the other. He eagerly accepted Phelps' proposition to burn the new depot in Detroit, and to charge the commission of the crime upon his recreant associate Boyce, and to suborn witnesses to fasten it upon him, and thereby procure the discharge of Van Sickle, while he would at the same time secure, as he alleged, a double reward of two hundred dollors from supposed enemies of the railroad company for burning the depot, and one thousand dollars from the railroad company, for false information concerning the incendiary. Need I say more to show that Gay's character was so infamous as to deprive his unsworn, uncorroborated testimony of all claims to credit?

Henry Phelps was convicted, and underwent nearly in its whole extent, the penalty of the crime of stealing horses. He says he was unjustly convicted. That was his plea when on trial, but it was proved to be false.

Heman Lake was convicted of aiding a thief in his escape from prison, and suffered the full penalty of the law. Counsel deny that the crime of which he was thus convicted has rendered him infamous. The distinction is a technical one, not worthy of an argument. Larceny is an infamous crime. He who assists a thief to escape from punishment was probably himself an accomplice in the crime of the thief, at least he must be moved by sympathies as immoral and criminal as the act of larceny itself. Thus these two witnesses stand before you as men convicted of infamous crimes; men, "the credit of whose oaths, although it should be without any contradiction or impeachment, is overbalanced by the stain of their iniquity."

It is certainly a work of supererogation to prove that a person convicted of an infamous crime is esteemed in the community in which he lives unworthy of credit, for that is only to prove, in an individual case, the soundness of the legal maxim, "that infamous crimes indicate a mind insensible to the obligations of an oath." I think this is the first case in which the prejudiced state * Gay's confessions were proved by Phelps and Lake, the chief witnesses of the prosecution.

of the public mind has required, that a witness who had been thus convicted, should be impeached by his general bad reputation in regard to truth and veracity. That proceeding has been adopted in this case in regard to Phelps. But who is Henry Phelps? He is the prosecutor on whose naked oath fifty citizens were arrested, and upon whose oath, chiefly, if not altogether, the indictment in this case was found. Upon his oath, sustained by his confederate Lake, this prosecution is suspended. He was born in Bloomfield, Ontario County, N. Y., in 1841, a son of respectable parents, who lived in easy circumstances. He removed with them to Wheatland, Monroe County, during his childhood. He received an education, which, although not a liberal one, surpassed what was ordinarily obtained in country schools and academies, and which qualified a vigorous and shrewd mind sufficiently for any kind of business, in any department of private or of public life. He came to Michigan with his parents, and settled in Highland, Oakland County, in 1835. He pursued no regular occupation there, but was forward and active. He conducted litigation in justices' courts, and was at that time called, (according to the testimony of. one of his friends,) "a fine fellow." He was elected town clerk, and commissioned as captain in the dragoons of the militia. But nothing that he began was ever finished, nothing that he planted ever ripened. Political preferment ceased, when rumors of falsehoods and frauds gained circulation. The dragoons who enlisted under his command never equipped, and they were ultimately disbanded. After five years thus spent, he went to Michigan Centre, where Abel F. Fitch resided, and there Phelps bought a distillery and its stock, with drafts on a person in New York, who could never be found. After six months the distillery reverted, with losses, (never yet reimbursed,) to its former owner, and Phelps immediately thereafter became a merchant at Milford, near Highland, his former residence. A month or six weeks passed away, and the stock of goods was suddenly and mysteriously surrendered to the merchants at Buffalo, from whom it had been purchased, and Phelps resumed his business as an advocate in justices' courts. He married about this time, and the counsel who defend him here say he has children. His affidavits were questioned, his arts in conducting trials suspected, his reputation waned, and after three or four years he was convicted of the infamous crime which has been mentioned. He was subject to

He feigned them during his

occasional epileptic convulsions. trial, and affected sickness to avoid judgment, but without success. He feigned illness to excuse himself from labor in the prison. Suspected and closely watched there, he failed to propitiate the police until the sixth month in the fifth year of his term haa elapsed, and then he was pardoned. On coming out of prison he gathered his family in his ancient home; but habits of regular industry and domestic occupation disgusted him. He invited his associate Lake, who had just been discharged from prison, to join him, but at first without success. After the lapse of about a year, he hired himself to the District Attorney of the United States, in the occupation of what is called a stool pigeon, that is, one who for hire joins and leads villains in crime to betray them to justice; or, as it was described by the counsel for the prosecution, the business of "a rogue set to catch rogues." While in that capacity, he renewed the acquaintance which before his imprisonment he had maintained with Gay, and in the very first interview opened to him the plot, if he is to be believed, to screen a culprit from punishment, by a false charge of the crime of burning a depot, upon an unoffending person. Having drawn Gay into that scheme, he offered himself to the railroad company to be enrolled, and was accepted, at a regular salary of forty dollars a month, as a member of their band of spies and informers. His engagement was to furnish sufficient evidence to bring Abel F. Fitch and his supposed associates to trial, for some felony against the railroad, out of Jackson County. He is cunning, plausible, bold and per severing. There he sits. Men imagine that they see his history written in his form and features. They say that he looks lean and malicious,

"hollow as a ghost,

As dim and meagre as an ague's fits."

They say, (superstitiously, perhaps,) that

"So he'll die,

And rising so again,

His mother, when she shall meet him in the court of Heaven,

She shall not know him."

He is impeached by one hundred and twenty-one witnesses, all of whom say his reputation for truth and veracity is bad, many say very bad, all say it is so bad they would not give him credit on oath. He has lived in Sylvan, since he came out of prison. Syl

van, Grass Lake and Sharon are contiguous. These three towns send one hundred and eleven of the witnesses. Twenty-five omitted to state the distances of their homes from Phelps' residence. The average distance of the remaining eighty-six is two miles and a third. One of these, an honest and sensible German, persisted in declaring that his reason for discrediting Phelps was, that his heart told him not to believe a man who had been in state prison. All the others testified from a knowledge of Phelps' reputation, before he went to prison, or before or after this prosecution began; twenty-seven of reputation since he came from the prison, and before as well as after the prosecution commenced; eight spoke of his character before he went to prison, and not afterwards; six, of his character while in the state prison, and seventy-seven of his fame, all the way through from 1840 until now. Enough then of Henry Phelps.

"Room for the Leper! Room !"

Few words will suffice for Heman Lake. His part is subordinate. He is only a shadow of Phelps. His testimony an echo. His history, therefore, need not be recited at length. On arriving at manhood, he learned something of engineering, and did nobody knows what till his depraved proclivities bore him into the state prison. There he was a friend and an enemy of Phelps by turns. In the summer of 1849, Lake declined Phelps' invitation to join him, but in the winter following, he accepted his proposition, to work, at he knew not what, for the railroad company, under his direction. He is a "gay Lothario," and having been introduced into Gay's house as a spy for the railroad company, he atones for the unkindness of betraying Gay, by taking the vacant place in the bed of his wife immediately after the husband's arrest, a place which he retains with touching fidelity, when by Gay's death in prison, that wife becomes a widow. Provided with free tickets for himself and paramour, Lake openly traverses the state with her in the railroad cars-while your wives and daughters, pay full charges on the great public thoroughfare. He is well looking, and his fingers and bosom are adorned with rings and golden charms, tokens of manifold and meretricious favor. But he is a man of feeble mind, and executes only indifferently well the plots of Phelps. He testifies from a diary, in which even the facts observed by himself are recorded by his master. In short

« PreviousContinue »