Friday, August 28, 2015


When Abraham Lincoln's good friend, Ward Hill Lamon, got himself elected State's Attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, Lincoln would often help Lamon prosecute cases. One of Lamon's first murder cases looked on the surface like an open and shut case, but it had complications. Lamon called on Lincoln to help with the prosecution, and Lincoln wound up almost single-handedly trying the case.

On the other side Lincoln faced another good friend, Leonard Swett, a lanky man who looked so much like Lincoln that people often confused the two. Swett was an excellent criminal defense attorney, probably the best trial lawyer in Illinois, and he came to court fully prepared to defend his client to the nth degree. To get an idea of the uphill battle Swett confronted, let's look at a newspaper article that ran almost immediately after the murder occurred:

One of the most cold-blooded murders we ever heard of, was perpetrated in this place about 2 o’clock P.M. on Friday last. The victim’s name was Anson Rusk; the name of the murderer is Isaac Wyant. Last June a difficulty arose between Rusk and Wyant, and the latter attacked the other with a large knife. Rusk tried to avoid a collision with Wyant, but to no purpose; and as a means of saving his own life, he drew a pistol and shot the latter in the arm. Wyant’s arm had to be amputated, and he swore he would have revenge, and since that time he has narrowly watched for such an opportunity. A short time before the murder, he said he was going to Indiana; but instead of that, he came to this place, for the purpose of watching the movements of Rusk, as it is supposed. Last Friday Rusk came to town, and Wyant saw him; the latter dogged the footsteps of the other from place to place, and finally into the courthouse. Rusk entered the office of the county Clerk and was standing behind the stove with his arms folded, when Wyant opened the door and commenced firing an Allen revolver at him. The first ball struck Rusk in the side, the second in the shoulder, and the third ball entered his arm. Wyant then stood over the fallen man, put the pistol to his head and fired the fourth shot, the ball passing entirely through the head, and from the orifice it made oozed the brains. Rusk lived near an hour after, but never spoke, we believe. His murderer, Wyant, tried to make his escape, but was secured a short distance from the court house and conveyed [back into the] building. Shortly after he was taken to prison and securely ironed. It is thought nothing will save him from hanging, as a responsible witness was in the clerk’s office at the time of the murder. We understand that the wife of Rusk, who was enceinte at the time of his murder, and her child, which was prematurely born, are not expected to live from one minute to another, and perhaps may be dead now. If they die Wyant will be a triple murderer, and consequently, he should suffer the severest penalty of the law. Circuit court is now in session, but it is thought his trial will not take place this term. Some think there will be a change of venue.

The doctors who amputated Wyant's arm had used chloroform, and it was widely believed at that time that chloroform could induce insanity. [EdwardWilliam Murphy, Chloroform: ItsProperties and Safety in Childbirth (London: Walton and Maberly, 1855), 66.] Swett lined up an impressive array of doctors to come in and testify that the use of the chloroform had induced insanity in Wyant, and Wyant was legally insane when he shot and killed Rusk. Swett also offered the testimony of numerous relatives of Wyant, all of whom testified to Wyant's bizarre behavior after he lost his arm. The case was tried on change of venue to McLean County, and the results of the trial are reported in the following news article:

The trial of Isaac Wyant for the murder of Ason Rusk occupied the attention of the Circuit Court during nearly the whole of last week. Great interest in the progress and result of the trial was manifested by the people, and the Court House was constantly thronged. The case being one of great importance, we design to give a very full abstract of the evidence, which we shall begin publishing in a day or two, we purposely abstained from doing so during the trial. The following is a very brief summary of the trial:
The case was taken up on Tuesday afternoon, 31st ult. The counsel for the State were Ward H. Lamon, Stte’s Attorney, Hon. A. Lincoln, C.H. Moore, Esq., of Clinton, and Harvey Hogg, Esq., of this place. For the deense, Mesrs. Swett & Orme. The regular panel of jurors was exhausted before completing the jury, ten jurors only having been obtained, of whom two were afterwards objected to and discharged, in accordance with an agreement of counsel reserving that privilege. A tales or supplementary panel having been summoned, the jury was completed and sworn as follows:
James Adams, Wolford Wyatt, Samuel White, E.V. Augustus, Denton Young, J.L. Brittan, David Shough, John T. Hill, James Huff, W.C. Wardlow, J.S. Barber, Joseph Shough.
The Jury were accommodated at the Pike House in charge of officers during the trial.
Hon A. Lincoln opened the case for the prosecution, and a clear prima facie case having been made out by the witnesses, the State’s evidence closed the same evening. Mr. Swett opened for the defense the next morning in a long and powerful speech.
The murder was committed in the County Clerk’s office at Clinton DeWitt County, in October, 1855, in broad daylight, and in the presence of several people, Wyant shooting Rusk no less than four times with a revolver.
There had been bad blood between Wyant and Rusk for some months previous, and in June the two had a fight, in which Rusk shot Wyant in the arm. The arm had to be amputated, and chloroform was administered during the operation. The evidence for the defense was that Wyant was ever after morbidly fearful that Rusk would kill him, and that he complained greatly of his head, and manifested many signs of being unsettled in his intellect.
The fact of the killing was not controverted, the defense resting on the ground of insanity. Several medical witnesses were examined on this point, among the Dr. McFarland of the State Lunatic Asylum, Drs. Roe, Spencer, and Parke of this place, and others.
After speeches from Messrs. Hogg and Lincoln for the prosecution, and Messrs. Orme and Swett for the defense, the case went to the jury at about six o’clock on Saturday evening 4th inst. Somewhat after midnight the jury agreed, and the Court being called together, a verdict of acquittal was rendered, coupled with a recommendation for the prisoner’s confinement in a lunatic asylum. The prisoner remains in custody.

To my largely uneducated eye, it appears that Wyant was not suffering from chloroform induced insanity, but from post traumatic stress disorder and a bloodthirsty desire for revenge. Of course, PTSD had not yet been discovered and mental health was so young a field that the term "psychiatry" hadn't been invented yet.

This was one of the earliest cases in the history of American jurisprudence where the defense of insanity actually resulted in an acquittal. Not long after the trial, a good friend of Lincoln's asked him to defend a young man named Robert Sloo on a charge of murder. The case looked to be an open and shut one, and Sloo's only hope was a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Lincoln asked Swett to go and defend Sloo in his place. Swett objected, saying "I am unknown to the parties and they  would not be satisfied with the change." Lincoln replied, "If I can get you to go, it is not fair to that young man and his family that I should go."

Swett went, and he won another seemingly impossible acquittal. This acquittal was so spectacular that it was written up in the American Journal of Insanity, the forerunner of the American Journal of Psychiatry. ["The Trial of Robert C. Sloo for the Murder of John E. Hall," American Journal of Insanity, Volume 15 (Utica: New York State Lunatic Asylum, 1859), 33-68].

Swett put his law practice on hold to campaign for Lincoln's election as president, and worked in an unofficial capacity in support of the war effort on behalf of the Union. After the Civil War he relocated to Chicago, where he prospered as a trial attorney, winning several more murder cases on pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity.

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