June 21, 2010

Bill Johnston's Peel Raiders Go on Trial

Within days of Bill Johnston's raid on the Sir Robert Peel, American constables arrested 13 of his pirate crew, including three men who never set foot on the ship. Most people in Jefferson County, NY, supported Johnston's men and waited expectantly for their trials to start. The show began on June 23, 1838, at the county court house in Watertown. And what a show!

Dignitaries Attend Trial

American authorities wanted to prove the United States didn't condone attacks on British property. The state appointed six judges and two prosecutors to the trial. New York Governor William Marcy (December 12, 1786-July 4, 1857) came to watch, as did the state Attorney General, Samuel Beardsley (February 6, 1790-May 6, 1860). The Peel skipper, Captain John Armstrong, attended as a witness, as did the ship's purser and several Peel passengers.

Judge John Cushman read a long list of indictments for robbery and arson against each accused. (A charge of piracy was considered but rejected because the act did not take place at sea.)

William Anderson, a Canadian from Bill Johnston's home town of Bath, was the first tried. He faced six counts of arson, with a maximum penalty of death. Bernard Bagley, a local lawyer and known supporter of the Patriots and Bill Johnston, defended Anderson pro bono.

Bagley asked for and received a court order prohibiting publication of evidence while the trial was in progress. So, the eager public subsisted on rumors.

For three days, witness after witness testified to Anderson's activities before and during the Peel raid. Many described Anderson's association with Bill Johnston and his henchman Hugh Scanlan.

One of the arrested Peel raiders, Nathan Lee, became a state witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Bagley produced several witnesses who testified Lee was a drunken, lying lowlife. The tactic worked—the court rejected Lee as a witness.

Verdict Defies the Evidence

On June 26, Beardsley and other prominent men stood and addressed the jury with impassioned speeches lasting hours. They stressed the importance of the decision the jury had to make and reminded them that the reputation of New York State and the country rode on their verdict.

After two hours of deliberation, the twelve men returned. The jury foreman announced the verdict to a hushed court: not guilty.

The next day, the court arraigned Marshall Forward, another Peel raider but the judge agreed to delay his trial to give the state prosecutor time to gather more evidence. In the end, the state brought no other raiders to trial. With the lingering resentment against the British from the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and with the local hero worship of Bill Johnston, Jefferson County men were unlikely to convict any of them.

Newspapers in Upper Canada spewed scathing criticism of American justice. US newspapers reported the facts of the trial with little editorializing. William Lyon Mackenzie, the exiled Patriot leader, gloated in the pages of his Gazette.

That December, the court released every prisoner on his own recognizance. The only Peel raider to pay a serious penalty was Lyman Leach, but that was in connection with a later raid. (More on Leach in a future post.)

Further Reading

Pirates of the Thousand Islands, by John Northman (pseudonym of W. J. Wraith), published in 120 installments in the Watertown Daily Times in 1938 and 1939. Installments 59 to 61 relate the raiders' trial. (This series is not online.)
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