Rainy and cold.
Was in Court a short time this evening, which was densely crowded, so that it was impossible to hear the proceedings without getting on the platform behind the Judge. The case is M. Hinchman vs. a large number of Quakers, who confined him in the Insane Asylum, as an insane man to get his property.
On January 7, 1847, Morgan Hinchman, a Bucks County farmer, was arrested at the Red Lion Tavern and taken to the Frankford Asylum for the Insane. On March 9, 1849, the case of Morgan Hinchman v. Samuel Richie et al. came to trial and would capture the attention of Philadelphians for the next five weeks. The central issue of the case was conspiracy, but the events culminating in the trial had the hallmarks of melodrama. In addition to alleged insanity (or was he just prone to bouts of sullenness?), there was that unfortunate event in the apple orchard, accusations of venereal disease, and family members pitted against each other. It was Hinchman’s mother and wife who instigated his arrest and Hinchman’s sister and sister-in-law were among the defendants. Hinchman claimed the defendants were after his property, many times telling him if he would only sign over his property to his wife, he could be released. The defendants, of course, denied that and said they had Morgan Hinchman committed for his safety and the safety of his wife and children. The court room was packed with hundreds of people every day, with sessions often lasting until 8 p.m. Newspaper coverage was extensive. The Public Ledger had virtual complete transcriptions of the each day’s proceedings.
If the facts of the case were not enough of a draw, the greatest Philadelphia lawyers (no pejorative intended) of the day were involved. On the plaintiffs side were superstars William Bradford Reed and David Paul Brown, lawyers that frequently opposed each other in criminal cases. (Regular readers of this blog will recall William Bradford Reed and David Paul Brown were each a keynote speaker at separate Whig festivals on Washington’s Birthday in Philadelphia.) The plaintiffs had J. Williams Biddle and George Griscom. After five weeks and at least one hundred fifty witnesses, the jury found for the plaintiff against seven of the defendants and awarded damages of $10,000 (Morgan Hinchman’s sister Anna W. Hinchman was exonerated but his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Shoemaker was among the seven). The defendants also had to pay court costs which the Philadelphia Inquirer estimated at $5-6,000.
David Paul Brown’s closing argument, delivered on Good Friday (April 6) was published in 1849. A copy is extant in the AAS collections.
Such was the anticipation for the Hinchman verdict, that at least one advertiser took advantage of the public clamor for any news about the decision.