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Lynch mobs, posses, noon showdowns….clearly, laws have changed considerably over the last two centuries. In the 19th century as the American frontier was expanding, many times there were simply not enough lawmen to enforce the laws, or people decided to take matters into their own hands. At any rate, the justice system of the 1800s had some significant differences than the one of today, both formally and informally. Following are three examples of the different ways that justice was obtained, from civil means to downright barbaric acts, in the 19th century.
The lynching of Henry Smith – The lynch mobs of the 1800s provide one of the best examples chaotic and ruthless vigilante justice that has ever been shown. Barbaric by nature, these acts were often committed in the heat of the moment, when anger levels were high and the need for revenge was great. Sadly, many of the people executed were not even guilty of the offenses with which they had been charged, or their crimes were certainly not enough to warrant such a punishment. One of the most famous lynchings during this time period was that of Henry Smith in 1893. Smith was an ex-slave living in Texas when he was accused of the murder of a 3-year-old white girl, the daughter of a policeman. Though his role in the child’s murder was not certain, there would be no trial for Smith; once he was found, he would be forced to endure one of the most horrific acts of torture recorded in American history. Before of a crowd of 10,000 people eager to watch Smith suffer, he was tortured relentlessly before being burned alive. With his body lifeless on the ground, the crowd cheered their joy at justice having been served.
The work of Pinkerton detectives – The Pinkerton National Detective Agency provided another means to bring criminals to justice. Founded in 1850, the Pinkertons, as the detectives were known, managed to track hundreds of criminals to see justice served, including Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Irish Molly Maguires. At one time the agency employed more agents than the U.S. Army had soldiers, and it had more mug shots than any other law enforcement agency in the country. Besides their fine detective skills, the Pinkertons were also well-known for their diligence in tracking and capturing known criminals, even following some across the several states. The detectives worked hard to see justice served, and it paid off. Though the agency no longer exists today as it did then, it is remembered as a successful law enforcement group that worked tirelessly to defend the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens and give criminals their due.
The murder trial of Octavius Barron – When Octavius Barron murdered William Lyman in 1837, he was granted a fair trial by the public in Rochester, New York. On the night of October 20, 18-year-old Barron pointed his pistol at the back of Lyman’s head and fired at point blank range. It didn’t take long for authorities to piece together what Barron had done; with his open bragging of the crime, his reputation as a less than respectable citizen, and even eye witness accounts, police officers were quick to find and arrest the young man. Charged with murder, Barron faced a trial that was scheduled to begin on May 28, 1838. Though it lasted only 10 days, the trial was a spectacle to behold for the citizens of Rochester, who packed the courthouse daily. Eager to hear all the details, jurors, attorneys, court employees, and the public listened intently to hours of argument from both the prosecution and the defense. All the while, Barron maintained his plea of not guilty. The jury spent only 15 minutes deciding the young man’s fate; he was guilty with a sentence to die. After his execution on July 25, 1838, the majority opinion was that justice had been served – a life for a life.
But the story of Octavius Barron and William Lyman doesn’t end there. You can learn more about the men, the murder, and the meaning of redemption with “Visions: True Stories of the Supernatural,” a documentary by Ad-Hoc Productions. Learn more about this fascinating tale at http://www.ad-hoc-productions.com/.