Citizens judge facts in re-creation of 1849 case
(From The Marietta Times // Janelle Patterson)
Stepping back in time in the courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse, more than 75 local residents and students judged a historic case that pitted rights of personal property against the value of human life Monday.
The Castle’s new series “History on Trial,” played out the case of Abolitionist David Putnam, Jr., of Marietta, who was sued by Williamstown plantation owner George W. Henderson in 1849 for compensation of lost property after Putnam allegedly assisted in the escape of 10 of Henderson’s slaves.
The mock trial was based on the actual case of Henderson vs. Putnam filed in the United States Circuit Court on June 25, 1849. The case was dismissed on Oct. 12, 1852 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was no longer law.
Castle Executive Director Scott Britton said the “History on Trial” program is planned to become an annual event to allow local residents to learn more about the historic cases of the area.
“Mock trials are always about the show and who can make the best case. So any time you can get people together and excited about what goes on in a courtroom, and educate them, that’s a great thing.”- Attorney Robin Bozian, who played the slave catcher Willard Greene
Though the real suit never went to trial on either side of the Ohio River, it did depict local sentiments both for and against slavery in the years preceding the Civil War.
“This case is not about whether slavery is a good idea or a bad idea, moral or not moral. The case is one of property and the legal return of property to their lawful and rightful owners,” argued Henderson’s attorney Samuel Vinton, played by Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings.
But the case was centered on the alleged violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which entitled slave owners, or their agents, to repossess runaway slaves even in free states like Ohio. Henderson owned slaves to run his plantation in a time when not only was West Virginia still part of Virginia, but when the use of slave labor was legal in that state.
“I don’t think that young people realize the scar that slavery has left on this country,” said attorney Pat McFarland before the program. McFarland played the plaintiff, Henderson, in the case.
As a staunch abolitionist, Putnam, played by Marietta Law Director Paul Bertram, argued Monday that the idea of slavery, and the pursuit of freed slaves in Ohio for money was not only immoral but also led to trespass on his property by Greene.
“A viper with a moral compass that points toward gold,” he called Greene while on the stand. “It’s all about the money.”
For students in the crowd like Shawn Powers, 14, of Marietta, contrasting the law of the time with his own moral beliefs became a challenge of the mind Monday.
“It’s good to understand how they were thinking back then and whether or not they considered all life precious,” said the Veritas Academy student. “But (the attorneys) brought up that former presidents have owned slaves. That seems kind of odd to me, they were good men and founded our country and seemed to treat people as humans but human life isn’t property.”
In the end, the jury—made up of all 75 in attendance—voted in favor of Putnam to not pay Henderson for the loss of property.
“I was interested in reliving history and I think the outcome of divisive cases like this changes with the times,”- jury member Jack Moberg, of Marietta
Retired Washington County Common Pleas Judge Ed Lane, who helped write the case for the program, followed up the event with remarks on the history and nature of the case in Washington County in 1849.
“This idea that Ohio was united against slavery back then is not true at all,” he explained. “Even Marietta was divided. But what is interesting is that years later Henderson and Putnam happened upon each other and Henderson apologized for trying to sue Mr. Putnam. Putnam said he would forgive Henderson if he would vote for Abraham Lincoln in the election in 1860.”
Lane said Henderson did end up voting for Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States and signer of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that declared slaves within the United States to be free.