An African American's Murder Trial — Insanity Defense, 1848
Freeman, William, defendant. The trial of William Freeman for the murder of John G. Van Nest, including the evidence and the arguments of counsel, with the decision of the Supreme Court granting a new trial, and an account of the death of the prisoner, and of the post-mortem examination of his body by Amariah Brigham, M.D., and others. Auburn: Derby, Miller & Co., 1848. 8vo (23.5 cm, 9.25"). iv, –508 pp.; 1 diagram.
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The first use of the insanity defense in the U.S. was on behalf of William Freeman, anAfrican American whose father was a slave until he became a free man in 1815, “by purchase of his time, under the act for the gradual abolition of slavery in New-York,” and whose mother “was a native of Berkshire, Massachusetts, . . . a house servant . . . a red woman of the Stockbridge tribe, but in whose veins, however ran some French blood” (p. ). Through his defense team, including former Governor of New York William H. Seward, Freeman pled insanity for the murder of J.G. Van Nest (having also killed Van Nest's mother-in-law, pregnant wife, and child). Two trials ensued, and the second trial resulted in a death sentence, later reversed. In part, the insanity plea was based on physical and mental injuries done to Freeman while he was serving time in prison for horse stealing; although later shown to have been innocent, he never recovered from the unjust confinement and abusive prison conditions. Freeman died shortly after the conclusion of the second murder trial and a necropsy discovered his brain to be severely diseased.
The trial is here reported by Benjamin F. Hall (1814–91), “counsellor [sic] at law.” McDade notes that “the case did much to insure a better hearing for the insane, who, until then, received small consideration in the courts.”
Provenance: From the library of Robert Sadoff, M.D.
McDade, Annals of Murder, 3240; Sabin 25785. Apparently not in Library Company, Afro-Americana (rev. ed). Late 20th-century quarter golden brown calf, round spine, red leather spine label, marbled paper sides. Scattered foxing and staining as in all copies we've seen, including digitized copies. Title-page with very small initials and numeral in upper portion. In fact, very good. (39378)
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