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True Crime in 1831, Part 14 - Commonwealth v. Lucretia Chapman


The successful separation of trials, although requested by Lino's counsel, was actually a boon for Lucretia. Tried together, they could be seen as conspirators; tried alone she could be seen as a victim. Mr. Brown took full advantage of the opportunity, despite experiencing health issues. By the start of the trial, all that could be expected was done. Their witnesses were in readiness and they at least felt satisfied that, if life were to be lost, it would not be without a struggle.


The Court exacted from the reporters a promise not to permit their notes to be used for immediate publication. It seemed that the intense interest and excitement the trial generated pervaded the whole country and entered into the feelings of all classes. For the time it became paramount to all other considerations. Never before had so large an assemblage of persons been known in Doylestown. The taverns were crowded to repletion, private boarding houses were filled and many families admitted strangers to take lodging with them, who could not otherwise have been accommodated.


Long before the hour at which the doors of the court house were expected to be opened, hundreds gathered in front of them, forming in a dense mass which were so closely wedged together, that they moved as if animated by a single spirit. One reporter wondered what impulse or mere feeling could induce men, of various dispositions and habits, to unite together in suffering so much for the gratification of curiosity.


The doors of the court room were twice burst open by the immense rush and weight forced against them and, though they had been well secured by additional fastenings, people found access through the windows, which they scaled and broke through. Several of the ringleaders were brought before the court. Judge Fox commented severely upon the outrage they had committed upon the public peace and property. He admonished them of the legal consequence and with equal sense and propriety, ordered that as "they had entered by the windows, they should be turned out through the doors."


Once the spectators had been calmed the trial could proceed.


The prosecuting counsel, Mr. Ross, opened with the facts that were clearly proved by the evidence. That is to say: the purchase of arsenic by Lino, the sickness of William, the administering of the soup, the throwing out of the residue, and the death of the chickens and ducks the day after.


In addition to this, the doctors gave it as their opinion that the death was caused by poison. There were other portions of the evidence which were fearfully corroborative of that mentioned: the marriage, the letter written by Lucretia to Lino and her attempt to escape from justice when she became an object of suspicion. The letter, especially, appeared to be almost inexplicable.


The disclosures of the evidence, it was unquestionable, were shocking, but for David Paul Brown, apprehension had given place to reasonable confidence. Now, so far from approaching the case reluctantly, he met it firmly, if not eagerly. He responded to the facts arrayed against her.


Lucretia had not been shown to have known anything of the arsenic purchased. The soup contained no arsenic. In fact, in dramatic testimony to that fact, little Lucretia recounted being with her father after the soup and chicken were brought up.


"Pa tasted the gizzard, but it was tough--he used to be always very fond of the gizzard when he was well; he gave the rest to me, and I ate it....I ate some of the soup myself."


Thus, the defense concluded that if she drank of the soup and ate the chicken, after her father had been supplied, and before any portion had been thrown out, and that she was not affected, then the soup clearly could not have been poisoned. The ducks did not die of arsenic, but from lime water, by which the house was surrounded, as bricklaying was going on at that time. William had never been in robust health and his symptoms were the ordinary symptoms of cholera morbus. The condition of the body did not arise from the antiseptic properties of arsenic, but from the poor preparation of the body and soil conditions of the burial site. As to the flight, it was argued, that weak nerves were no evidence of guilt and that even a woman of undoubted innocence might be terrified, in the horrors of her situation, into indiscretion. She was surrounded by rumors, and crushed by grief, and that it was, therefore, too much to expect from her, the conduct which would belong to calmness and composure.


The letter was said to contain at least an equivocal passage, and to afford grounds for the belief, in the language of the prosecution, "that all was not perfectly right." It was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that all was perfectly wrong. Mr. Brown agreed that all was not perfectly right. It was not right that Lucretia should marry within a little month after her husband's decease. It was not right that Lino should sell her jewels, her plate, her horses, and her carriage, or that he should give away the trunk and books of her deceased husband. It was not right that Lino should take two ladies to the United States Hotel, and that, remaining there with them, he should pay their expenses and his own out of his wife's honest earnings. It was not right that he should squander her means in the journey to Baltimore, under the false profession that it was for the purpose of obtaining a legacy of forty-five thousand dollars, left by his friend Casanova. It was manifestly wrong that he should practice all sorts of frauds and falsehoods, upon this unsuspecting woman, during his absence. However, writing under the influences attributable to these many outrages, the clause referred to in her letter, was not to be considered as evidence of her having voluntarily aided in the destruction of the deceased. If one carefully perused the letter, nothing could be found that was inconsistent with the consciousness of innocence. Lucretia had been imprudent; she had been imposed upon; she had been impoverished, together with her children, to whom she was tenderly attached.


"If we are determined to suspect crime first, and then to distort and pervert everything to the support of that suspicion, no man, innocent or otherwise, can escape punishment," Brown declared in Lucretia's defense.


In closing, the prosecution tried to reinforce the evidence and charges against Lucretia. There was the illicit intercourse between Lucretia and Lino. She had every motive to procure the purchase of the poison, in order that she might relieve herself of her husband, whom she loathed and despised. He was the only obstacle that could defeat the gratification of her ambitious hopes and the attainment of all that wealth and splendor which had so long dazzled her imagination. After all, Lucretia was in Philadelphia on the same day, at the store of Mr. Watkinson, which was on the same street, and immediately opposite the drug store of Mr. Durand where Lino purchased the poison. She was not, to be sure, in the drug store when it was bought, but she was at the corner directly opposite.


The arsenic was purchased on the 16th of June, the husband buried on the afternoon of the 24th, the marriage in New York on the morning of the 5th of July, and the sister brought from Syracuse to take charge of her family during her absence in Mexico. Could one not see a combination or conspiracy between the two to commit the crime?


But what motive sufficiently strong could induce Lino to buy the arsenic voluntarily, and without the knowledge of Lucretia? It was not pretended that he was sincere in his profession of love and admiration for a woman of her age and appearance or that he ever seriously intended to take her to Mexico. So far from it, that even after he had married her, he made proposals of marriage to one of her nieces, to whom he no doubt told the same story about his gold and silver mines, his noble blood, and his distinguished rank. So what would be the inducement for him unaided and alone, to take the life of an innocent and unoffending man?


It was the soup that killed him, which Lucretia had prepared for him. It was taken by her from the kitchen--not to the sick room of her husband--but to the parlor, for the purpose, she stated, of seasoning it. Whoever before heard of a parlor being appropriated to such a purpose or of seasoning being put in articles of diet prepared for sick people?


As for little Lucretia's testimony, they would not accuse the interesting and intelligent child of willful misrepresentation, or to blacken her character with the guilt of perjury. However, one could not forget that it was her father who was murdered and her mother who was the murderess. She no doubt came forward to testify, with all the feelings of a daughter, anxious to rescue her mother from the imminent peril of her situation. In addition, if one considered her extreme youth and the time that had elapsed, it would not be a matter of surprise that she could have committed some errors in her testimony.


Her flight from the county, under the pretext of attending to some business, and eventually hastening to a remote section of the state to avoid the pursuit of the officers of justice, was not a course that would have been pursued by an innocent individual. If innocent, would she not have repelled with scorn and indignation so foul and so treacherous a charge? She would have eagerly sought for an investigation. She would have felt that it was her due, not only to public justice, but to herself, her children, and to her departed husband, that the stain should be wiped from her character. No ordinary motive could indeed have induced her to desert her family of young and helpless children. It was the fear of an arrest; of a conviction of the horrid crime, for which she was now on trial, that constituted the reason for her taking that step.


Mr. Ross concluded his prosecution: "In this case it is the blood of a husband--of a father--which has been shed--and shed too under circumstances so appalling and so unnatural! She in whom the trust was greatest, has become the assassinating wife, and the destroyer of her children's father. And what benefit has she derived? Has she obtained wealth, or rank, or power, or happiness? No, Gentlemen--but she has become the bride of a convicted felon, an outcast of society, and the curse of his race--She has gained a niche in the temple of infamy--She has inscribed her name upon the darkest page of guilt which the volume of man's crime unfolds--She has become not only the outcast of virtue, of peace, of fame, but whatever may be your verdict, she will be the shame of her children, and her children's children, in each succeeding generation, until oblivion shall have wiped her name from the scroll of time. I commit the case to your hands, confident that you will render such a verdict, as the public justice of the country may require."


Judge Fox then charged the jury that they must start with the legal presumption that the prisoner was innocent, and that presumption must continue until her guilt is satisfactorily proved. That was the legal right of the prisoner. The rumors they may have heard, the publications they may have read, any suspicions they may have entertained, or even what opinions they may have formed, in relation to the prisoner, did not matter.


The jury was instructed that if they were satisfied that William Chapman was poisoned, and that his wife was the voluntary agent, or was present, aiding in poisoning him, the law drew the inference that she was guilty of murder in the first degree, and that it was their duty so to pronounce. But, if they were not satisfied with the proof, if upon the evidence a reasonable doubt existed, whether she be guilty or not, the law called upon them to say not guilty.


At nine o'clock on Saturday night, 18 February 1832, the jury retired for final deliberation. Two hours later, around eleven o'clock, the ringing of the Court bell announced that they had agreed upon their verdict. It was soon after rendered and recorded in open Court:


NOT GUILTY.


The defendant was then discharged by proclamation and returned to her former residence on the next day.


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