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Charity Lamb Trial: 1854

Charity Lamb Trial: 1854

Defendant: Charity Lamb
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James K. Kelly, Milton Elliot
Chief Prosecutor: Noah Huber
Judge: Cyrus Olney
Place: Oregon City, Oregon Territory
Date of Trial: September 11-16, 1854
Verdict: Guiltyof second-degree murder
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Charity Lamb was the Pacific Northwest's first convicted murderess. Her case represents one of the earliest known self-defense arguments predicated on what today would be called the spousal abuse syndrome. Then, as now, that defense ran against the traditional notion that in order for self-defense to be justified, the threat defended against had to be imminent and not merely inevitable.

On a Saturday evening, May 13, 1854, in a lonely pioneer cabin deep in the woods and hills of the Oregon frontier, a settler family was seated around the supper table. Four young sons and a teenage daughter, Mary Ann, were listening to their father, Nathaniel's, yarn about the bear he had shot at that day's hunt. A baby was cradled nearby. The woman of the house left the table, went to a woodpile, got an axe, came behind her husband's chair and drove the axe blade into the back of his head two times. Her name was Charity Lamb. Her actions betrayed that name, for in that moment she was neither charitable nor a lamb.

Settlers Shocked by Murder

Settlers throughout the Willamette Valley reacted with horror. Newspapers called it "revolting cold-blooded inhuman" and named the culprit a "monster." When her first trial date was postponed, those anxious for speedy justice labeled the delay a "farce." The Oregon Spectator said:

Think of it ladies! If any of you feel disposed to walk up behind your husbands or fathers and chop their heads open, why, just pitch inyou are safe in doing so!

On September 11, her trial began in Oregon City in the U.S. District Court for the Oregon Territory. The prisoner stood before the presiding judge, Cyrus Olney. Carrying an infant in her arms, according to the Oregon Spectator she was:

pale and sallow emaciated as a skeleton, apparently fifty years of age Her clothing was thin and scanty, and much worn and torn, and far from clean She had a sad, abstracted and downcast look.

Lamb's court-appointed lawyers pled her "not guilty." In selecting the jury, the prosecutor sought to know whether the panelists had any hesitation about hanging a woman. A woman had never before been sentenced to die on the frontier or anywhere in the federal judicial system. The 12 jurors eventually selected were all men. The law did not allow women to serve on juriesnot even in the trial of one of their peers.

Defendant's Children Testify

The trial began when the coroner established that the victim died in his bed one week after the infliction of two cuts that went through the top of the skull and into the brain.

Identification of Lamb as the culprit was easy. She implied her involvement by fleeing the scene. Furthermore, she told the doctor and the constable that she "did not mean to kill the critter, only intended to stun him" and "she was sorry she had not struck him a little harder." Then too, her dying husband asked his wife, "My dear, why did you kill me for?" But the saddest evidence came from her own children. Son Thomas testified that he "saw her strike him one blow on the head with the axe." Son Abram testified that his father "fell over and scrambled about a little."

Finally the prosecutor had to show premeditation. Here, motive was the gate and a man named Collins was the key. The doctor testified that:

there was a love affair between Collins and Mary Ann [the daughter]; that she [Charity] favored the suit, and Lamb opposed it; that she was mortified and vexed about it, for Collins was so nice a man.

That dispute blossomed into rage when, one week prior to the killing, Charity helped Mary Ann compose a love letter to Collins. Before it could be sent, Nathaniel discovered it, destroyed the letter, and threatened to kill Collins.

An axe in the back of the head was further proof of premeditation. It showed a planned selection of time, place, and weapon. Then too, she showed no sign of remorse. After the killing she was found smoking her pipe at fireside in a distant neighbor's cabin, her only concern being whether Nathaniel could come find her.

The Defense: Insanity

The first line of defense was insanity. Lamb's lawyers called her a "monomaniac." While the doctor described her as "very much excited looked wild-like out of her eyes," he nevertheless "thought she was pretending. " Although her mind may have been deranged, there was not enough to show moral ignorance, the traditional test of legal insanity.

As a second defense, her lawyers argued that she did not intend to kill her victim; "she only meant to stun him until she could get away." But that defense beggared reason: a blow with an axe blade instead of its butt was hardly the choice for stunning.

Finally, Lamb's lawyers urged that she killed to save herself from being killed. Throughout her marriage, Nathaniel had physically abused her. The children testified that once he threw a hammer at her and put a gash in her forehead. On several occasions when Lamb was sick in bed, Nathaniel threatened her with violence and ordered her to get up and work. One winter, "he knocked her down with his fists and kicked her over several times in the snow." Lamb told others that her husband also tried to poison her.

The children testified that their parents quarreled "lots of times." The quarrels sometimes ended with Lamb fleeing the encounter but having to turn back when her pursuing husband threatened to shoot her. Nathaniel had threatened to kill his wife and children if ever they told of his thefts of a horse and an ox. There was also evidence of Nathaniel's intemperate use of alcohol.

The final straw was the rage that followed the conflict over the love letter to Collins. Nathaniel had promised to kill Lamb, take the boys, and desert to California. One week before the killing, he told his wife that she "would not live on his expense longer than a week; that he was going to kill her next Saturday night"May 13. The threat was now keyed to a specific time. During that week he sold his mare to make ready for the trip. When Saturday came, before he went off on his bear hunt, the children saw him fire a shot toward their mother.

In summation to the jury, Lamb's counsel did not emphasize self-defense. Instead they chose to rampage against the sins of capital punishment and to focus on the notion that Charity's mind was incapable of rational judgment.

Oddly enough, it was Judge Olney who stressed self-defense in his charge to the jury. He bent the law of self-defense toward a leniency not today and not then legally warranted. He instructed that she must be found innocent if she "acted out of a genuine belief in self-preservation," even if that "belief was a delusion of a disordered mind."

The Verdict

The jury was out more than one half a day when they returned to court with a question. They had boiled the matter down to the dregs of self-defense. What still simmered was: "What was meant by imminent danger, such as would justify killing?" They were apparently convinced that Nathaniel was a threat to her life but not at the very moment he was killed. How immediate did the danger have to be?

Reluctantly, Judge Olney had to tell the jurymen that a justifiable killing should be at that instant unavoidable: "If she saw that danger, before he returned home, it was her duty to have gone away."

The jury retired and had their verdict swiftly: "Charity Lamb is guilty of the killing purposely and maliciously but without premeditation and do recommend her to the mercy of the Court."

The next day Lamb stood before the bench with her baby in her arms. Judge Olney asked her if she had anything to say before sentencing. She had not testified at trial. She spoke for the first time and the only time in the record: "Well I don't know that I murdered him. He was alive when I saw him last I knew he was going to kill me."

The judge said, "The jury thinks you ought to have gone away, in his absence."

To that, Lamb offered: "Well. He told me not to go, and if I went that he would follow me, and find me somewhere, and he was a mighty good shot I did it to save my life."

Judge Olney may have been hard put to utter the sentence mandated by law for second-degree murder:

The jury recommended you to mercy. But the law gives the court no discretion The sentence therefore is, that you be conveyed to the penitentiary of this territory and there imprisoned, and kept at hard labor, so long as you shall live.

Lamb wept and was led from the courtroom still carrying her baby, which would soon be taken from her.

She was taken to the prison in Portland, where she was confined with six other male inmates. Five years later she was still jailed there, doing the wash for the warden's family. Missionaries inspecting the prison noted that "she is not of sound mind." In 1862, she was transferred to the Hawthorne Insane Asylum.

The law took no account of her predicamenta choice between waiting for menacing immediacy or fleeing into a wild frontier without her children, without provender, without barter, without refuge, shelter, or whatever else it takes to survive while pioneering in a rugged and paternalistic society. Her judge, jury, lawyers, witnesses, and jailers had all been men. The media too were male reporters who, throughout her ordeal, were printing sermons such as:

There must be a man born in the world for every womanone whom, to see would be to love, to reverence, to adore that she would recognize him at once her true lord.

True to the sentence mandated, she was kept behind walls so long as she lived. She died in the asylum in 1879her family goneher gravesite unattendedforgiveness never given.

Ronald B. Lansing

Suggestions for Further Reading

Lansing, Ronald B. "The Tragedy of Charity Lamb, Oregon's First Convicted Murderess." Oregon Historical Quarterly 40 (Spring 2000).

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