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Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842

Defendant: Alexander William Holmes
Crime Charged: Manslaughter
Chief Defense Lawyer: David Paul Brown
Chief Prosecutor: William M.Meredith
Judge: Baldwin (historical records do not indicate his first name)
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: April 13-23, 1842
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 6 months in prison and a $20 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: In the Alexander Holmes trial, the court held that self-preservation was not always a defense to homicide.

On March 13, 1841, an American ship, the William Brown, left Liverpool, England for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to her cargo, she carried 17 crewmen and 65 passengers, who were mostly Scots and Irish emigrants. On the night of April 19, 250 miles from Newfoundland, the William Brown struck an iceberg and began to sink rapidly. There were two lifeboats, one small and one large. The captain and most of the crew took the small lifeboat, and the passengers crowded aboard the large lifeboat. There was not enough space on the large lifeboat for all the passengers, and 31 died on board the William Brown when it sank.

First Mate Francis Rhodes, Alexander William Holmes, and another seaman commanded the large lifeboat. The passengers were still dressed in their night clothes and suffered terribly in the cold Atlantic weather, which was made worse by a pelting rain. The two lifeboats stayed together through the night but separated the morning of the 20th because the captain, George L. Harris, thought there was a better chance of rescue if the two boats took different directions. Rhodes said that his boat was overcrowded and that some people would have to be thrown overboard to keep it from capsizing. Captain Harris said, "I know what you'll have to do. Don't speak of that now. Let it be the last resort." Throughout the day of the 20th and into the night, the rain and the waves worsened. The boat began to leak and fill with water, despite constant bailing. Around ten o'clock that night, Rhodes cried out in despair, "This work won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work." Holmes and the other seaman began throwing people overboard. They threw 14 men and two women into the freezing water. They chose single men only, spared the married men on board, and threw the two women overboard only because they were sisters of a man already thus ejected and had demanded to be sacrificed with their kin. None of the crew was thrown out.

Holmes Tried for Manslaughter

The next day, on the morning of the 21st, Holmes' lifeboat was spotted by a ship and rescued. Captain Harris' lifeboat was rescued by another ship six days later. Upon reaching Philadelphia, the news of the fate of the William Brown was an instant sensation, generating a great deal of public outrage against the crew. U.S. District Attorney William M. Meredith charged Holmes and Rhodes with manslaughter, which is a lesser degree of homicide than murder because it means killing without malice. Rhodes fled the city, never to be found, so Holmes was tried alone.

Holmes' chief defense lawyer was David Paul Brown, and the trial began on April 13, 1842. One of Meredith's assistants, Mr. Dallas (historical records do not indicate his first name) opened for the prosecution:

[Holmes'] defense is that the homicide was necessary to self-preservation. First, then, we ask: was the homicide thus necessary? That is to say, was the danger instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice or means, no moment for deliberation? For, unless the danger were of this sort, the prisoner, under any admission, had no right, without notice or consultation, or lot, to sacrifice the lives of 16 fellow beings.

Holmes' defense lawyers countered that, in the dangerous circumstances Holmes was placed in, he was not required to wait until the last second to act in self-preservation:

In other words, he need not wait until the certainty of the danger has been proved, past doubt, by its result. Yet this is the doctrine of the prosecution. They ask us to wait until the boat has sunk. They tell us to wait until all are drowned.

After the prosecution and the defense had rested, Judge Baldwin (historical records do not indicate his first name) gave his instructions to the jury. Although he recognized the principle that self-preservation was a defense to homicide, he stated that there were some important exceptions. One of these exceptions was when someone had accepted a duty to others that implied that he or she would put his or her life at risk before risking the lives of the others. Judge Baldwin held that seamen like Holmes had accepted such a duty, and that therefore self-preservation was not an adequate defense to the charge of manslaughter:

[W]e must look, not only to the jeopardy in which the parties are, but also to the relatibons in which they stand. The slayer must be under no obligation to make his own safety secondary to the safety of others. Such is the relation which exists on shipboard. The passenger stands in a position different from that of the officers and seamen. The sailor is bound to set a greater value on the life of others than on his own.

After 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Holmes guilty on April 23, 1842. As the official court report notes, the verdict was given "with some difficulty," and was accompanied by the jury's recommendation for mercy. Judge Baldwin sentenced Holmes to six months in prison and a $20 fine. There was some public sympathy for Holmes, but a movement by the Seamen's Friend Society for a presidential pardon came to nothing.

The Alexander Holmes trial dictated that seamen have a duty to their passengers that is superior even to their own lives. Further, it held that the ancient defense of self-preservation was not always adequate in a homicide prosecution if the accused was under a special obligation to the deceased.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Duke, Thomas Samuel. Celebrated Crimina/Cases of America. San Francisco: James H. Barry Co., 1910.

Hicks, Frederick Charles. Human Jettison: a Sea Tale From the Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1927.

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Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842

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