Daniel McFarland Trial: 1870
Daniel McFarland Trial: 1870
Defendant: Daniel McFarland
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Elbridge T. Gerry, John Graham, Charles Spencer
Chief Prosecutors: Noah Davis, Samuel Garvin
Judge: (No record of first name) Hackett
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: April 4-May 10, 1870
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: This trial underscores several points that seem just as relevant today as they were more than 13 decades ago: that skillful lawyering can acquit a clearly guilty murderer, that an abused wife can find true love in a second marriage, that talented members of the theatrical and literary world lead headline-producing lives.
Late in the afternoon of November 25, 1869, Albert Deane Richardson, a 36-year-old journalist who had covered Civil War battles for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, walked into the Tribune offices in New York's Printing House Square. He went to the first-floor counting room to see if one of its pigeonholes held a letter from his fiancee, an actress and writer named Abby Sage, who was visiting Massachusetts. As Richardson neared the mail desk, a figure rose from the shadows, pointed a pistol at him from five feet away, fired, and ran.
Shot in the stomach, Richardson climbed four flights to the paper's editorial offices. A doctor administered morphine and friends escorted him to the Astor House hotel, two blocks down Park Row.
Not the First Time
Richardson knew his assailant well. He was a 50-year-old lawyer and unsuccessful entrepreneur named Daniel McFarland from whom, only weeks earlier, Abby Sage had obtained a divorce after several years of suffering his drunken abuse. Two and a half years earlier, in 1867, not long after Sage had first become acquainted with Richardson, McFarland had ambushed the journalist, shooting him in the thigh as he escorted the actress home after her theater performance. Richardson had not pressed charges.
Jailed, McFarland denied remembering the shooting but showed no remorse over it. At the Astor House, doctors tried to make the victim comfortable. Facing the inevitable, Abby Sage called on her friend, the prominent preacher Henry Ward Beecher, to perform a death-bedside wedding ceremony. Tribune editor Greeley was a witness. On December 2, Richardson died in the arms of his bride. On December 8, McFarland was indicted for murder.
The shooting, and then the wedding, had dominated the front pages of New York's many newspapers. As the trial opened on Monday, April 4, 1870, reporters, stenographers, and spectators fought for space. Defense lawyers Elbridge T. Gerry, John Graham, and Charles Spencer, sensing the emotional pull of the trial of a man for murdering the alleged seducer of his wife, arranged for 10-year-old Percy McFarland to be seen running happily to his father when the defendant was brought into the courtroom, then permitted the boy to sit beside him during the trial.
Prosecutors Noah Davis and Samuel Garvin presented a straightforward case. Dan Frohman, an 18-year-old clerk in the Tribune office, described how he was getting Richardson's mail when McFarland, who had been hanging around the office for some 15 minutes, abruptly shot him.
The Libertine's Letter
Defense lawyer Graham's opening depicted McFarland as "a man overtaken by sorrow and calamity brought on by the unholy, reckless, and lawless passion of a bold, bad libertine, a wife-seducer and child-robber sent into eternity by a husband and father wronged when a great sea turned away his reason." The jury—all 12 of them husbands and fathers—listened intently.
Now McFarland's attorneys presented an "intercepted letter" written by Richardson to "Darling Abby" shortly after her marriage broke up—but before the divorce. Interspersed with frequent "darlings," it included such titillating expressions as "I want you always, a hundred times a day my arms seem to stretch outward toward you. I never seek my pillow without wanting to fold you to my heart for a goodnight kiss.…" The letter ended with the pencilled notation, "Burn this—will you not?" Spectators gasped. Newspapers printed the letter verbatim.
How had it been intercepted? Richardson had addressed the letter to Mrs. McFarland at the Tribune office in care of its publisher, in whose home she was staying while separated from her husband. But a Tribune mail clerk, seeing Mr. McFarland drop in, had handed him the letter.
The defense set out to prove McFarland's insanity. A daughter of his first cousin described her own father's 18 months of "fits of crying and melancholy" followed by attempted suicide and, ultimately, commitment in an asylum. An attorney colleague recalled McFarland as "not in his right mind."
Altogether, more than 40 defense witnesses testified with similar observations on the frantic, nervous, and obsessive aspects of McFarland's mental condition. And then Mary Mason, landlady of a boarding house where Richardson had had a front room while the McFarland family occupied the same floor to the rear, testified, "I saw Mr. Richardson and Mrs. McFarland going in and out a great deal together, often when Mr. McFarland was away." A domestic servant and a 16-year-old waiter added similar recollections, with the waiter concluding, "You ask if I have seen Mr. Richardson take 'liberties' with Mrs. McFarland. Yes, I have. I've seen them shake hands together many times." The courtroom exploded with laughter.
The defense interrogated Dr. William A. Hammond, a well-known professor of neuro-surgery, on tests he had recently conducted on McFarland. "I can observe," he said, "many phenomena that he could not feign. There can be no doubt that his state was such as to render him entirely irresponsible for his acts."
The prosecution's first rebuttal witness was famed editor Horace Greeley, whose Tribune had rebuked McFarland. He failed to add condemning testimony but, when cross-examined about letters of recommendation he had written on McFarland's behalf, remarked caustically, "Those letters were as true as such letters usually are."
Tribune publisher Samuel Sinclair, in whose home Abby stayed after separating from McFarland in 1867, gave stronger evidence, citing McFarland's drunken brutality toward his wife. And the editor of a competitive paper recalled how McFarland—apparently hoping to embarrass the Tribune —offered to sell him, for $100, his wife's personal letters.
In its fifth week, the trial drew ever-larger crowds. They brought basket lunches. Those unseated framed the courtroom, shoulder to shoulder along its walls. They heard more rebuttal witnesses testify on the defendant's drunken and abusive behavior and on Abby Sage's decision to leave him.
… In the Day of Vengeance"
Defense attorney Graham's summation took two full days. He cited trials in which aggrieved husbands had been acquitted of murdering their wives' lovers. He alluded to implications of the philosophy of free love—a topic then current in popular magazines—raised by the trial's circumstantial evidence. He quoted the Bible (Proverbs, Chapter VI):
Whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding; he that doeth it destoyeth his own soul. A wound and dishonor shall he get; and his reproach shall not be wiped away. For jealousy is the rage of a man; therefore he will not spare in the day of vengeance.
Prosecutor Garvin's brief summation included appealing questions: "Gentlemen of the jury, did it occur to you that it might be a fact in this case, whether proved or unproved, that Albert Richardson and Mrs. McFarland were entirely innocent of those charges? I put it to you as sensible men, would Albert Richardson have sought to marry Mrs. McFarland, would he have aided her in getting a divorce to marry her, if he had seduced her?"
The jury deliberated for one hour and 55 minutes before pronouncing the defendant "Not guilty."
McFarland moved to Leadville, Colorado, where he was last seen living among laborers in a boarding house in 1880.
Abby Sage Richardson became a successful author and play-wright well known in New York society and literary circles. In 1890, she again dominated headlines when she and theatrical producer Daniel Frohman (the very same Dan Frohman who had witnessed the murder two decades earlier) lost a court case when they were enjoined from producing her theatrical adaptation of Mark Twain's novel The Prince and the Pauper. The contender proved that Twain had previously authorized him to adapt it.
Abby Richardson died in 1900.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Cooper, George. Lost Love: A True Story of Passion, Murder, and Justice in Old New, York. New York:Pantheon, 1994.
Stern, Madeleine B. "Trial by Gotham 1870, The Career of Abby Sage Richardson." N.Y History (July 1947): 271-87.