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farmer, and a friend and former client of Gov. Seward's, whose house stood in a secluded grove, near the suburbs of Auburn, on the shores of the Owasco Lake. Having armed himself with carefully prepared weapons, Freeman entered the dwelling at ten o'clock at night, and slew Mr. Van Nest, his wife, then pregnant, a child sleeping in its bed, and the mother-in-law of Van Nest, Mrs. Wyckoff, an aged woman of seventy. The hired man, who came to the defence of the family, was severely injured and left for dead. The murderer, being disabled by a wound from old Mrs. Wyckoff, desisted from further violence, and made his escape. Taking a horse from the stable, he rode him a few miles, when he stabbed the animal, which had become incapable of travelling. He then stole another horse, which proved to be more fleet, and pursuing his flight, rode to the house of a relative about thirty miles from Auburn. There he offered the horse for sale, and proposed to take up his residence, until he should recover from his wound. He was traced and arrested, in a few hours, and brought back to the scene of butchery, and into the presence of the surviving witnesses. On being questioned, he at once confessed the crime, not only without apparent remorse or horror, but with frequent and irrepressible fits of laughter. The public indignation was so excited at this awful tragedy, that it required all the dexterity of the police to keep Freeman from being torn to pieces on the spot. He was at length committed to the jail, by a successful stratagem, but the crowd could with difficulty be prevented from forcing the doors. They were appeased only by the assurance of one of the judges of the county, that Freeman should be tried and executed, and that there should be no plea of insanity and "no Governor Seward to defend him.”
None of the usual motives appearing on the part of Freeman for the commission of such a desperate act, it was rumored that he had been present during Wyatt's trial, and had learned from the argument of Gov. Seward that responsibleness for crime might be avoided on the ground of insanity. This became the popular explanation of the horrible catastrophe. The public feeling ran high against Gov. Seward. Even threats of personal violence were openly made. The excitement became so intense, that when he returned from the south, his family and friends were surprised that on reaching the depot at Auburn, he was permitted to pass to his residence without outrage.
In this state of affairs, the governor, Silas Wright, was induced to issue an order for a special term of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, to be held at an early day, by Judge Whiting, to dispose of the cases both of Wyatt and Freeman. During the interval, public tranquillity was restored, by the assurance of Gov. Seward's law-partners, while he was absent, that he would not engage in the defence, it being well understood that no other advocate would consent to give his services to so odious a cause.
Gov. Seward was unmoved by the tempest of excitement around him. With characteristic courage and calmness, he proceeded to examine the subject, as a philanthropist and lawyer. He felt as keenly as any one, the enormity of the deed. But impelled by a strong sense of duty, he was determined to look thoroughly into the case of the wretched negro. At his solicitation, accordingly, three intelligent and humane citizens of Auburn made several visits to Freeman in jail. They reduced their conversations with him to writing, and submitted them to Gov. Seward's inspection. The result of the investigation, together with other facts which had become known to him, convinced him that whatever was the condition of Freeman's mind prior to the homicide, he was then sunk into a state of dementia, approaching idiocy.
The court began with the trial of Wyatt. Gov. Seward, aware of the intense and aggravated excitement which prevailed, applied for a postponement of the case, but without effect. A week was consumed without finding a single impartial juror. The attorney general, John Van Buren, was sent for, with haste. On his arrival, the court reversed the principles by which the trial of jurors had ever been conducted, as laid down by Chief Justice Marshall, and adopted a standard that permitted jurors to be sworn although they confessed to a bias, or an opinion formed of the prisoner's guilt. The obtaining of a juror, even under this unprecedented decision, was regarded as a triumph, in a controversy in which not only the people of Auburn and its vicinity, but of the whole state took sides for or against Gov. Seward.
A trial conducted under such circumstances, could have but one result. At the expiration of a month, Wyatt was convicted and sentenced to be executed. Moral insanity was thus, so far as the verdict of a jury could go, judicially abolished. Gov. Seward devoted four weeks of uninterrupted labor to this case, without
the slightest pecuniary compensation, and at an outlay of no small sum from his own pocket.*
The Freeman case still remained to be disposed of. It came on immediately after the conclusion of Wyatt's trial. An immense assemblage had convened in the court-house at Auburn, to witness the opening of the case. Until that moment, it was not known whether Freeman would have any counsel. It was supposed the court would assign him some junior member of the bar; but it was considered doubtful if one could be found of sufficient nerve to accept the appointment, and attempt even a formal and weak defence. The excited multitude were not backward in loudly propounding the inquiry, "Who will now dare come forward to the defence of this negro?" "Let us see the man who will attempt to raise his voice in his behalf!" Nor did they hesitate in uttering threats of vengeance against any member of the bar who would plead the case of so vile a wretch. But there was one seated within the bar in that crowded court-room, who heeded not these menaces. A being in human form was in distress, and peril before him. He asked himself, what does humanity and duty require at my hands, in this case? And having received from conscience a prompt and decisive reply, he unhesitatingly proceeded to the labor thus enjoined upon him, without delaying to consult interest, or popular favor, or any of the consequences that might ensue. In vain family, personal and political friends, influential citizens, and members of the bar, besought him not to interfere, and call down upon himself the indignation of the populace. In vain was he reminded of the long, weary, and expensive trial to which he had just devoted himself, to the neglect of professional engagements, and the peril of health-in vain was he forewarned of the still more tedious, costly, and exhausting nature of the present case, should he engage in it. A higher law and a louder voice called him to the defence of the demented, forsaken wretch, who stood insensible of the vengeful gaze of a thousand eyes, and he felt that he had no alternative.
* Wyatt, after receiving his sentence, anxious to afford Gov. Seward some compensation, offered to narrate his "life" for publication, the profits of which should go to Gov. S., and it was taken down for that purpose. But on examination it was found to be of doubtful moral bearing and influence, and on that account, Gov. Seward refused to permit its publication, or participate in any profits arising therefrom. A spurious copy, however, was afterwards surreptitiously obtained, and brought out in a pamphlet, which yielded a net profit of $600 to the publisher.
Freeman was arraigned on four indictments for murder. When asked whether he pleaded guilty to the first indictment, he replied, "Yes!" "No!" "I don't know!" "Have you counsel?" was the next inquiry. "I don't know," responded the prisoner, with a stupidity which astonished even those who were most eager for his death. "Will any one defend this man?" inquired the court. A death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room. Pale with emotion, yet firm and unflinching as steel, Gov. Seward, to the amazement of every person present, arose and said, "May it please the court, I appear as counsel for the prisoner!" It would be impossible to describe the excitement which followed this announcement, or the threatening demonstrations which it called forth. David Wright, Esq., of Auburn, a well known lawyer and philanthropist, volunteered as associate counsel in defence of Freeman. The attorney general, John Van Buren, conducted the prosecution.
Gov. Seward presented to the court in bar of a trial, that the prisoner was then insane. Issue was taken on this plea, and a trial was directed by the court, on the question of Freeman's sanity at that time. After protracted efforts similar to those which took place in Wyatt's case, a jury was impanneled to try this preliminary question, but they were already evidently fixed in their convictions of the sanity and guilt of the prisoner.
Gov. Seward's political party, throughout the state, shrinking from the unpopularity in which he had involved himself, in a proceeding universally denounced by the press, abandoned him. While these proceedings were pending, the delegates to the convention called to revise the constitution of the state of New York, assembled at Albany. The whig party was supposed to be compromised by Gov. Seward's known bias in favor of extending the right of suffrage to the colored population. The result of the election of delegates had been an overwhelming defeat of the whigs. The exclamation was universal, that whatever might be the fate of the whig party hereafter, Gov. Seward was effectually lost.
Still he did not falter, but sternly persevered in what he conscientiously believed to be the line of his duty, and was the only person engaged in these transactions, except his client, who was calm and unmoved. The trial, on the question of the prisoner's sanity, continued two weeks, and was contested by Gov. Seward
with an energy, perseverance and skill, that drew plaudits from his most violent opposers, and that could not have been exceeded had millions of dollars depended on the issue. His argument at the summing up, for eloquence, pathos, sound legal views, and thorough knowledge of human character, has rarely been excelled at the American bar. At length, when the jury retired, it was at once found that eleven were agreed that the prisoner was sane. The twelfth declared his unchangeable opinion that Freeman, although sane enough to know right from wrong, was yet so unsound in mind as not to be responsible for his actions. The disagreement and discussion in the jury-room being privately communicated to the court, information was returned to the jurors that the verdict would be accepted, although it gave no direct response to the question at issue, and was couched in equivocal language. They accordingly brought in the following verdict-"We find the prisoner at the bar sufficiently sane to distinguish between right and wrong." In an earnest and elaborate argument, Gov. Seward protested against the reception of this verdict, as it was illegal, pointless, and irrelevant. But it was pronounced by the court to be sound and satisfactory, and Freeman was forthwith put upon his trial for the murders charged against him.
He was directed to stand up and plead to the indictment. But it was evident to every spectator that the wretched imbecile had not the faintest conception of the nature of an indictment, or of the object of the scenes around him, in which he unconsciously bore so conspicuous a part.
We shall be pardoned for introducing here the following extract from a vivid description of the scene which transpired at the reading of the indictment, by a clergyman of Auburn, who attended the trial, and was an eye-witness of the proceedings:
The District Attorney, (Luman Sherwood, Esq.,) with the bill of indictment in his hand, called out-" William Freeman, stand up." He then approached quite near the negro, for he was very deaf, and read the indictment. At the conclusion, the following dialogue ensued:
Dist. Att. Do you plead guilty, or not guilty, to these indictments?
D. A.-(Repeating the question.)
F-I don't know.
D. A.-Are you able to employ counsel?
D. A. Are you ready for trial?
F-I don't know.