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DEFENCE t)F THE KENNISTON8.*



INTRODUCTORY NOTE.f

THE trial of Levi and Laban Kcnniston for highway robbery on the
person of Major Elijah Putnam Goodridge, in Ncwbury, in the county
of Essex, on the 19th of December, 1816, was one of the most remarka
ble trials ever had in Massachusetts. It was remarkable not so much for
the dramatic character of its incidents, as for the unwearied pertinacity
of the principal actor in the grossest falsehood and perjury. It was a
trial awful in its instructions, and painfully interesting in the mystery
which still hangs like a shroud around the motives of Mr. Goodridge.

A brief statement of the facts will fully exhibit the remarkable power
of Mr. Webster in unmasking the hypocrisy which, for a long time, nor
only imposed upon the whole community, but misled by its subtlety the
entire body of the Essex Bar.

Major Goodridge was a young man of good education and respectable
connections ; of fine personal appearance, gentlemanly deportment, and
good character. His place of business was Bangor, Maine, and at thr
time of the alleged robbery he was on his way to Boston, travelling in ;i
one-horse sleigh, alone, with a considerable sum of money. Before
leaving home he procured a pair of pistols, which he discharged and
loaded daily, as he said, in some unfrequented piece of woods, for he;
did not wish it to be known that he was armed. He said, moreover,
that he took the precaution to put a private mark upon every piece of
money in his possession, so as to be able to identify it if he should be
robbed. His somewhat singular reason for these preliminary meas
ures was, that he had heard of a robbery in Maine, not long before.

* An Argument addressed to the Jury, at the Term of the Supreme Judicial
Court of Massachusetts held at Ipswich in April, 1817.

f The following account of this celebrated case was furnished by Stephen W.
Marston, Esq., of Newburyport, who, together with Samuel L. Knapp, Esq., of the
same place, was associated with Mr. Webster in the defence of the Kennistons.



442 DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS.

When he arrived at Exeter, New Hampshire, he procured nine balls,
and then, for the first time, made no secret of having pistols. At this
place he left his sleigh, obtained a saddle, and started for Newburyport
on horseback, late in the afternoon of the 19th of December, passing
the Essex Merrimack Bridge a few minutes before nine o clock. On
the brow of the hill, a short distance from the bridge, is the place of the
robbery, in full view of several houses, on a great thoroughfare, where
people are constantly passing, and where the mail-coach and two wagons
were known to have passed within a few minutes of the time of the al
leged robbery.

The Major s story was as follows. Three men suddenly appeared
before him, one of whom seized the bridle of his horse, presented a pis-
tol, and demanded his money. The Major, pretending to be getting his
money, seized a pistol from his portmanteau with his right hand, grasped
the ruffian at his horse s head with his left, and both discharged their
pistols at the same instant, the ball of his adversary passing through the
Major s hand. The three robbers then pulled him from his horse,
dragged him over the frozen ground and over the fence, beating him till
he was senseless, and robbed him of about seventeen hundred dollars
in gold and paper money, and left him with his gold watch and all his
papers in the field. Recovering in about half an hour, he went back to
the bridge, passed several houses without calling, and, at the toll-house,
accused the first person he met with, a female, of robbing him ; and so
continued charging various people about him with the robbery. After
some time a lantern was procured, and himself with others started for
the place of the robbery, where were found his watch, papers, penknife,
and other articles. He represented to them that the robbers had bruised
his head, stamped upon his breast, and stabbed him in several places.
Physicians were called, and he appeared to be insane. The next day
he went to Newburyport, and was confined to his bed for several weeks.
A reward of three hundred dollars, soon increased by voluntary sub
scription to one thousand, was oiFcred for the detection of the robbers
and the recovery of the money. As soon as the Major was able t<
leave his bed, he went to Danvcrs, consulted his friends there, and the
result of his deliberations and inquiries was the arrest of the Kennistous,
who were found in an obscure part of the town of Newmarket, New
Hampshire, their place of residence. In their house the Major found
some pieces of his marked gold, deposited under a pork-barrel in the cel
lar; he also found there a ten-dollar note, which he identified as his own.

This was proof indeed of the fact, of the robbery, which seemed
for a time effectually fastened upon the Kennistons. But one circum
stance after another came to light in regard to the transaction, until some
people felt doubts creeping over their minds as to the truthfulness of the



DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS. 443

Major s story. These were few in number, it is true, but such an inti
mation, coming from any respectable source, was enough to startle the
\fnjor and his friends from their apathy, and incited them to renewed
efforts to probe this dark and mysterious transaction to its depths. The
result was a determination to search the house of Mr. Pearson, the toll-
gatherer at the bridge ; but here nothing was found. They then pro
cured the services of an old conjurer of Danvers, Swimmington by name,
and under his direction, with witch-hazel and metallic rods, renewed their
search upon Mr. Pearson s premises, this time discovering the Major s
gold and paper wrappers. Mr. Pearson was arrested, carried to New-
buryport, examined before two magistrates, and discharged at once.
This operation proved most unpropitious to the Major s plans. So great
was the indignation of Mr. Pearson s friends, for he was a respectable
man, that they lost all control over themselves, and after the examina
tion, detaching the hordes from his sleigh, they drew him home them
selves.

It now became more necessary than ever that some one should be
found who might be connected with the Kennistons in the robbery, for
the circumstances in relation to these men were such, that the public
could not believe that they had committed the daring deed, though the
evidence was incontestable that they had received a portion of the spoils.
The next step, therefore, was to arrest one Taber of Boston, who had
formerly lived in Portland, and whom Goodridgc said he had seen in
Alfred on his way up, and from whom he pretended to have obtained
information in regard to the Kennistons. In Taber s house were found a
number of the marked wrappers which the Major had put round his
gold before leaving home. Taber was likewise brought to Newbury-
port, examined, and bound over for trial with the Kennistons.

Notwithstanding all this accumulation of evidence, the public were not
satisfied. It seemed to be necessary that somebody living near the bridge
should be connected with the transaction, and Mr. Joseph Jackman was
fastened upon as that unfortunate man, he having left Newbury for New
York very soon after the alleged robbery. Thither Goodridge imme
diately proceeded, found Jackman, who \vas living there with his
brother, searched the house, and in the garret, among some old rubbish,
found a large number of his marked wrappers ! The Major s touch was
magical, and underneath his fingers gold and bank-notes grew in plen-
iv. Jackman was arrested and lodged in " the Tombs," while Good-
ridge returned to Boston, got a requisition from the Governor, and had
him brought in irons to Ipswich, where the Supreme Judicial Court was
then in session. The grand jury had risen, but he was examined be
fore a magistrate, and ordered to recognize to appear at the next term ;
which he did, and was discharged. An indictment had been found



444 DEFElsCE OF HIV, KENNISTONS.

against the Kcnnistons and Tahcr, and the time of trial had arrived.
Notwithstanding the doubts and suspicions which had been excited by
the conduct of Goodridge, yet tlie evidence against the Kennistons,
Taber, and Jackman was so overwhelming, that almost every one felt
sure of their conviction. To such an extent did this opinion prevail,
that no eminent member of the Essex Bar was willing to undertake their
defence. Under these circumstances, two or three individuals, who had
been early convinced that the Major s stories were false from beginning
to end, determined, the day before the trial, to send to Suffolk for coun
sel. Mr. Webster had just then removed to Boston from Portsmouth ;
his services were engaged, and late in the night preceding the day of
trial he arrived at Ipswich, having had no opportunity to examine the
witnesses, and but little time for consultation. The indictment against
Tabcr was nol prosscd, and the trial of the Kennistons commenced.
Mr. Webster, as senior counsel, conducted the defence with a degree
of ability, boldness, tact, and legal learning which had rarely been wit
nessed in Essex County, and, notwithstanding the accumulated mass of
evidence against the Kennistons, they were acquitted.

At the next term of the Supreme Judicial Court, Jackman was in.
dieted and tried, but the jury did not agree, though the Hon. William
Prcscott had been employed to assist the prosecuting officer. Jackman
was again tried at the next term of the court, at this time defended by
Mr. Webster, and acquitted.

The criminal prosecutions growing out of this affair being thus ended,
Mr. Pearson commenced an action against Goodridge for malicious pros
ecution, laying his damages at $ .2,000, which sum the jury awarded
him without leaving their seats. In this case, also, Mr. Webster was
counsel for the plaintiff; and time had brought forth so many new
facts, and the evidence was so clear and overwhelming against Good
ridge, that the public became satisfied that lie was Ids own robber !
He was surrendered by his bail, committed to jail, took the poor debtors
oath, and soon after left the Commonwealth, and has not resided here
since. It is understood that he finally settled in Norfolk, Virginia,
where he still lives. The public rarely stop to consider how much they
arc indebted to men like Mr. Webster for laying bare the villany of
such a deep-laid and diabolical plot, But for him there is no doubt the
Kennistons and Jackman would have been convicted of highway rob
bery, though innocent.

The following report of Mr. Webster s speech is quite imperfect ; a
mere skeleton, affording but a very inadequate idea of the argument
which was actually addressed by him to the jury.



DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTOXS. 445

GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY, It is true that the offence charged
in the indictment in this case is not capital; but perhaps this
can hardly be considered as favorable to the defendants. To
those who are guilty, and without hope of escape, no doubt the
lightness of the penalty of transgression gives consolation. But
if the defendants are innocent, it is more natural for them to be
thinking upon what they have lost by that alteration of the law
which has left highway robbery no longer capital, than upon
what the guilty might gain by it. They have lost those great
privileges in their trial, which the law allows, in capital cases,
for the protection of innocence against unfounded accusation.
They have lost the right of being previously furnished with a
copy of the indictment, and a list of the government witnesses.
They have lost the right of peremptory challenge ; and, notwith
standing the prejudices which they know have been excited
against them, they must show legal cause of challenge, in each
individual case, or else take the jury as they find it. They have
lost the benefit of assignment of counsel by the court. They
have lost the benefit of the Commonwealth s process to bring in
witnesses in their behalf. When to these circumstances it is
added that they are strangers, almost wholly without friends,
and without the means for preparing their defence, it is evident
they must take their trial under great disadvantages.

But without dwelling on these considerations, I proceed, Gen
tlemen of the Jury, to ask your attention to those circumstances
which cannot but cast doubts on the story of the prosecutor.

In the first place, it is impossible to believe that a robbery of
this sort could have been committed by three or four men with
out previous arrangement and concert, and of course without the
knowledge of the fact that Goodridge would be there, and that
he had money. They did not go on the highway, in such a place,
in a cold Decembers night, for the general purpose of attacking
the first passenger, running the chance of his being somebody
who had money. It is not easy to believe that a gang of robbers
existed, that they acted systematically, communicating intelli
gence to one another, and meeting and dispersing as occasion
required, and that this gang had their head-quarters in such
a place as Newburyport. No town is more distinguished for
the general correctness of the habits of its citizens; and it is of
such a size that every man in it may be known to all the rest

VOL. v. 38



446 DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS.

The pursuits, occupations, and habits of every person within it
are within the observation of his neighbors. A suspicious
stranger would be instantly observed, and all his movements
could be easily traced. This is not the place to be the general
rendezvous of a gang of robbers. Offenders of this sort hang on
the skirts of large towns. From the commission of their crimes
they hasten into the crowd, and hide themselves in the popu-
lousness of great cities.

If it be wholly improbable that a gang existed in such a place
for the purpose of general plunder, the next inquiry is, Is there
any reason to think that there was a special or particular com
bination, for the single purpose of robbing the prosecutor? Now
it is material to observe, that not only is there no evidence of
any such combination, but also, that circumstances existed which
render it next to impossible that the defendants could have
been parties to such a combination, or even that they could have
any knowledge of the existence of any such man as Goodridge,
or that any person, with money, was expected to come from the
eastward, and to be near Essex Bridge, at or about nine o clock,
the evening when the robbery is said to have been committed.

One of the defendants had been for some weeks in New-
buryport, the other passed the bridge from New Hampshire at
twelve o clock on the 19th of December, 1816. At this time,
Goodridge had not yet arrived at Exeter, twelve or fourteen
miles from the bridge. How, then, could either of the defendants
know that he was coming ? Besides, he says that nobody, as far
as he is aware, knew on the road that he had money, and noth
ing happened till he reached Exeter, according to his account,
from which it might be conjectured that such was the case.
Here, as he relates it, it became known that he had pistols ;
and he must wish you to infer that the plan to rob him was
laid here, at Exeter, by some of the persons who inferred
that he had money from his being armed. Who were these
persons? Certainly not the defendants, or either of them.
Certainly not Taber. Certainly not Jackman. Were they
persons of suspicious characters? Was he in a house of a
suspicious character ? On this point he gives us no informa
tion. He has either not taken the pains to inquire, or he
chooses not to communicate the result of his inquiries. Yet
nothing could be more important, since he seems compelled



DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS. 447

to lay the scene of the plot against him at Exeter, than to
know who the persons were that he saw, or who saw him, at
that place. On the face of the facts now proved, nothing
could be more improbable than that the plan of robbery was
concerted at Exeter. If so, why should those who concerted it
send forward to Newburyport to engage the defendants, espe
cially as they did not know that they were there? What
should induce any persons so suddenly to apply to the defend
ants to assist in a robbery ? There was nothing in their per
sonal character or previous history that should induce this.

Nor was there time for all this. If the prosecutor had not
lingered on the road, for reasons not yet discovered, he must
have been in Newburyport long before the time at which he
states the robbery to have been committed. How, then, could
any one expect to leave Exeter, come to Newburyport, fifteen
miles, there look out for and find out assistants for a highway
robbery, and get back two miles to a convenient place for the
commission of the crime ? That any body should have under
taken to act thus is wholly improbable ; and, in point of fact,
there is not the least proof of any body s travelling, that after
noon, from Exeter to Newburyport, or of any person who was
at the tavern at Exeter having left it that afternoon. In all
probability, nothing of this sort could have taken place without
being capable of detection and proof. In every particular, the
prosecutor has wholly failed to show the least probability of a
plan to rob him having been laid at Exeter.

But how comes it that Goodridge was near or quite four
hours and a half in travelling a distance which might have
been travelled in two hours or two hours and a half. He says
he missed his way, and went the Salisbury road. But some
of the jury know that this could not have delayed him more
than five or ten minutes. He ought to be able to give some
better account of this delay.

Failing, as he seems to do, to create any belief that a plan
to rob him was arranged at Exeter, the prosecutor goes back to
Alfred, and says he saw there a man whom Taber resembles.
But Taber is proved to have been at that time, and at the time
of the robbery, in Boston. This is proved beyond question. It
is so certain, that the Solicitor- General has nol prossed the in
dictment against him.



448 DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS.

There is an end, then, of all pretence of the adoption of a
scheme of robbery at Alfred. This leaves the prosecutor alto
gether unable to point out any manner in which it should be
come known that he had money, or in which a design to rob
him should originate.

It is next to be considered whether the prosecutor s story is
either natural or consistent. But, on the threshold of the in
quiry, every one puts the question, What motive had the prose
cutor to be guilty of the abominable conduct of feigning a rob
bery ? It is difficult to assign motives. The jury do not know
enough of his character or circumstances. Such things have
happened, and may happen again. Suppose he owed money
in Boston, and had it not to pay ? Who knows how high he
might estimate the value of a plausible apology ? Some men
have also a whimsical ambition of distinction. There is no
end to the variety of modes in which human vanity exhibits
itself. A story of this nature excites the public sympathy. It
attracts general attention. It causes the name of the prosecu
tor to be celebrated as a man who has been attacked, and,
after a manly resistance, overcome by robbers, and who has re
newed his resistance as soon as returning life and sensation
enabled him, and, after a second conflict, has been quite sub
dued, beaten and bruised out of all sense and sensation, and
finally left for dead on the field. It is not easy to say how far
such motives, trifling and ridiculous as most men would think
them, might influence the prosecutor, when connected with any
expectation of favor or indulgence, if he wanted such, from his
creditors. It is to be remembered that he probably did not see
all the consequences of his conduct, if his robbery be a pre
tence. He might not intend to prosecute any body. But he
probably found, and indeed there is evidence to show, that it
was necessary for him to do something to find out the authors
of the alleged robbery. He manifested no particular zeal on
this subject. He was in no haste. He appears rather to have
been pressed by others to do that which, if he had really been
robbed, we should suppose he would have been most earnest to
do, the earliest moment.

But could he so seriously wound himself? Could he or would
he shoot a pistol-bullet through his hand, in order to render the
robbery probable, and to obtain belief in his story ? All exhibi-



DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS. 449

tions are subject to accidents. Whether they are serious or
farcical, they may, in some particulars, not proceed exactly as
they are designed to do. If we knew that this shot through the
hand, if made by himself, must have been intentionally made
by himself, it would be a circumstance of greater weight. The
bullet went through the sleeve of his coat. He might have in
tended it should go through nothing else. It is quite certain he
did not receive the wound in the way he described. He says
he was pulling or thrusting aside the robber s pistol, and while
his hand was on it, it was fired, and the contents passed through
his hand. This could not have been so, because no part of the
contents went through the hand, except the ball. There was
powder on the sleeve of his coat, and from the appearance one
would think the pistol to have been three or four feet from the
hand when fired. The fact of the pistol-bullet being fired
through the hand, is doubtless a circumstance of importance. It
may not be easy to account for it ; but it is to be weighed with
other circumstances.

It is most extraordinary, that, in the whole case, the prose
cutor should prove hardly any fact in any way but by his own
oath. He chooses to trust every thing on his own credit with
the jury. Had he the money with him which he mentions ? If
so, his clerks or persons connected with him in business must
have known it ; yet no witness is produced. Nothing can be
more important than to prove that he had the money. Yet he
does not prove it. Why should he leave this essential fact
without further support ? He is not surprised with this defence,
he knew what it would be. He knew that nothing could be
more important than to prove that, in truth, he did possess the
money which he says he lost ; yet he does not prove it. All that
he saw, and all that he did, and every thing that occurred to
him until the alleged robbery, rests solely on his own credit.
He does not see fit to corroborate any fact by the testimony of
any witness. So he went to New York to arrest Jackman. He
did arrest him. He swears positively that he found in his pos
session papers which he lost at the time of the robbery ; yet he
neither produces the papers themselves, nor the persons who as
sisted in the search.

In like manner, he represents his intercourse with Taber at
Boston. Taber, he says, made certain confessions. They made
38*



450 DEFENCE OF THE KENNISTONS.

a bargain for a disclosure or confession on one side, and a re
ward on the other. But no one heard these confessions except
Goodridge himself. Taber now confronts him, and pronounces
this part of his story to be wholly false ; and there is nobody
who can support the prosecutor.

A jury cannot too seriously reflect on this part of the case.
There are many most important allegations of fact, which, if
true, could easily be shown by other witnesses, and yet are not
so shown.

How came Mr. Goodridge to set out from Bangor, armed in
this formal and formidable manner ? How came he to be so
apprehensive of a robbery ? The reason he gives is completely
ridiculous. As the foundation of his alarm, he tells a story of a
robbery which he had heard of, but which, as far as appears, no
one else ever heard of; and the story itself is so perfectly absurd,
it is difficult to resist the belief that it was the product of his
imagination at the moment. He seems to have been a little too
confident that an attempt would be made to rob him. The
manner in which he carried his money, as he says, indicated a
strong expectation of this sort. His gold he wrapped in a cam
bric cloth, put it into a shot bag, and then into a portmanteau.
One parcel of bills, of a hundred dollars in amount, he put into
his pocket-book; another, of somewhat more than a thousand dol
lars, he carried next his person, underneath all his clothes. Hav
ing disposed of his money in this way, and armed himself with
two good pistols, he set out from Bangor. The jury will judge
whether this extraordinary care of his money, and this formal



Online LibraryDaniel WebsterThe works of Daniel Webster (Volume 05) → online text (page 43 of 53)