Albert Patrick Trial: 1902
Albert Patrick Trial: 1902
Defendant: Albert T. Patrick
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Albert T. Patrick
Chief Prosecutor: William Travers Jerome
Judge: John William Goff
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: January 22-March 26, 1902
Sentence: Death by electrocution, later commuted to life imprisonment, and ultimately pardoned by the governor of New York
SIGNIFICANCE: The Albert Patrick trial illustrated the often uncertain nature of medical evidence in proving a murder. Although the jury found Patrick guilty, lingering doubts about the evidence eventually caused the governor of New York to pardon him.
AIbert T. Patrick was the sort of man who gives lawyers a bad name. A native of Texas, where he went to law school and then practiced law for several years, Patrick moved to New York in 1892 to escape disbarment proceedings initiated by a federal judge who was outraged by Patrick's conduct in a particular case. Once in New York, Patrick continued his shady ways. Although nothing was ever proven, there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a wealthy fertilizer magnate who had sued Patrick for restitution of $5,500—a respectable sum in those days—and surrounding the death of Patrick's wife in 1896.
In 1896, Patrick also became involved in the affairs of William Marsh Rice, a multimillionaire and philanthropist. Rice was born in 1816 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and moved to Texas in the 1830s when it was still the raw frontier. Rice built a fortune in oil, retailing, and real estate, and his empire extended into Louisiana and Oklahoma as well. In his old age, Rice had returned to the East Coast to live with his second wife in Rice's Dunellen, New Jersey mansion. Rice's wife died in July 1896, and in her will left a considerable amount of her estate to her family and relatives. Under Texas law, her estate consisted of half of all property acquired by Rice during their marriage, which amounted to millions of dollars. Her will conflicted with Rice's desire to leave virtually all of his estate to the William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art in Houston, Texas. Rice, having a Madison Avenue apartment, asserted that he was a New York resident and therefore not subject to Texas law. When he started legal actions against the executor of his wife's estate, O.T. Holt, Holt went to Patrick for help.
William Marsh Rice Murdered
Holt retained Patrick to obtain evidence from anyone who had ever known Rice that could be used to prove that Rice was legally still a Texan. During his investigations, Patrick met Rice's personal valet and secretary, Charles F. Jones. Patrick and Jones thought up an ambitious scheme to murder Rice, plunder his estate by cashing forged checks on his New York bank accounts, and get at the rest of Rice's assets through a forged will naming Patrick and Jones as beneficiaries. Patrick himself drafted the fake will, also deliberately inserting generous legacies to Rice's relatives at the expense of the institute in the hope that the relatives would not challenge the will.
On the night of September 23, 1900, Jones covered the sleeping Rice's face with chloroform-soaked towels. The old man died without a struggle. Patrick and Jones were unable to carry through their scheme, however. Rice's Texas lawyer demanded an autopsy and came to New York to begin an investigation. When Patrick tried to cash the forged checks at Rice's bank, the bank officials became suspicious and notified the authorities. Patrick and Jones were soon arrested for Rice's murder. After unsuccessfully trying to commit suicide, Jones confessed and agreed to testify against Patrick in return for leniency.
Patrick Tried and Convicted
Albert Patrick's trial began on January 22, 1902. Patrick defended himself. The prosecutor was District Attorney William Travers Jerome and the judge was John William Goff. The central issue of the trial was proving the corpus delicti, namely that a murder had occurred. Although the doctors who had performed the autopsy generally agreed that Rice had been killed by chloroform poisoning, there was enough scientific uncertainty, given Rice's advanced age, that Patrick was able to keep the trial stalled for over two months. For example, take Patrick's questioning of Dr. Edward W. Lee:
Patrick: Doctor, assuming that a patient is eighty-four years of age, that prior to death he had dropsy of the lower limbs for several months from the knees down, and that the post-mortem findings revealed … the lungs congested slightly … the kidneys firm [with] a number of small cysts, and that on the day preceding his death the patient was troubled with his urine, and had to urinate frequently, … what would you say would be the cause of death?
Lee: Congestion of the lungs and diseased kidneys [which could be caused by chloroform or by tuberculosis, pneumonia or kidney disease]
On March 26, 1902, the jury returned a guilty verdict against Patrick. Goff sentenced Patrick to death by electrocution. Luckily for Patrick, however, one of his sisters had married a wealthy man, John T. Milliken, who was convinced of Patrick's innocence. Milliken financed a team of lawyers to handle Patrick's appeals, which tied up the courts for years. In 1906, Governor Frank Higgins commuted Patrick's sentence to life imprisonment. Patrick continued to fight for total freedom, however. For the next six years, Patrick and the Millikenfinanced team of lawyers pursued every avenue of appeal, including, according to accounts in the press, under-the-table payments to state legislators and officials.
On November 28, 1912, Governor John A. Dix pardoned Patrick. Dix claimed that "there has always been an air of mystery about the case." Dix's pardon was widely criticized, but there was nothing that could be done about it, especially as Dix was about to leave office anyway. Patrick left New York, never to return, and died in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1940. Although the Patrick case amply illustrated the fact that medical evidence is often inconclusive in proving a murder, it also demonstrated that money makes a difference in the American system of justice.
—Stephen G. Christianson
Suggestions for Further Reading
Medico-Legal Society. Medico-Legal Questions Arising in the Case of People v. Patrick. New York: Unknown Publisher, 1905.
Nash, Jay Robert. Murder, America: Homicide in the United States from the Revolution to the Present. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Pearson, Edmund Lester. Five Murders. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928.
Symons, Julian. A Pictorial History of Crime. New York: Crown Publishers, 1966.