Victorian Strangeness: The lawyer who shot himself proving his case
- 16 August 2014
Author Jeremy Clay tells the strange story of the 19th Century lawyer who accidentally shot himself while demonstrating the innocence of a defendant in a murder trial.
"I have foolishly shot myself," winced Clement Vallandigham, sinking into a chair in his hotel room in a mixture of pain and mortification.
The calamity which ended the former congressman's days happened in the town of Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio, in 1871, halfway through the case he thought would be the greatest of his life.
At stake was a man's life. The Christmas Eve before, a rough and ready character called Thomas Myers had been playing cards in a private room above a bar in nearby Hamilton when five thugs burst in and a huge brawl broke out.
As Myers rose, scrabbling to draw his pistol from his pocket, a muffled shot was heard. He pulled out the gun, fired off a couple of wayward rounds, then slumped back down, dead.
In the wild confusion of the moment, as gamblers fled in all directions, it wasn't clear what was happening. But when the witnesses later recounted their tales, one name came up again and again - Myers' bete noire, Thomas McGehan. No-one could say for sure that he was armed that night, but he was certainly one of the gang of gatecrashers. Everyone knew there was bad blood between the two. The judge-juries who gathered at Hamilton's street corners, shop counters and saloon bars were satisfied they had their killer.
And so it came to trial. On the evening after the prosecution had closed their arguments, Mr Vallandigham took a piece of muslin from his hotel, headed out for open land, and conducted his own CSI Ohio experiment to establish the levels of residue left by a shot fired at point-blank range.
When he was done, three live rounds remained in the chamber of his pistol. This, as we shall see, was unfortunate.
Back at the Lebanon House hotel, he was handed a parcel. Inside was Myers's gun, unloaded, and ready to be examined. Vallandigham went to his room, and lay down both pistols, side by side. You can probably guess the rest.
Still flushed with the success of his tests, the lawyer began explaining to a visitor that Myers had actually shot himself, then had a sudden brainwave - he'd stage his own demonstration.
He grabbed a pistol, put it in his pocket, drew it slowly, turned the muzzle on himself and pulled the trigger.
Bang. "The unfortunate advocate had demonstrated the reasonableness of his theory," reported the Leeds Times, "but at the cost of his life."
But the dark farce was still not played out. "Hardly was he in his grave before another man killed himself while trying precisely in the same way to demonstrate how Mr Vallandigham had met his death," said the Fife Herald.
What became of McGehan? He was acquitted, only to be shot himself in Hamilton, a few years later.
"The Hamiltonians threatened to take his life if he attempted to make his home in that city," said Ohio's splendidly named Tiffin Tribune, "and they evidently don't like to be caught in a lie about a small matter of that kind."
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