Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Secession Murder Case.

Samuel Merritt and Cornelius Salmon were walking down Prince Street in New York City on May
31, 1861, and as they approached a lager beer saloon, Salmon suggested that they stop for a glass of beer. Merritt agreed, and they went into the saloon which was in the basement of a house owned by John Immen.  The owner’s son Edward was tending the bar and poured the men two glasses as they took seats at a table.

A little after 4:00, John M. Swain, who lived in the house above the saloon, stopped in for a drink, and Salmon invited him to join them at the table. They had a pleasant conversation until the subject of politics came up. 

The issue of the day was the secession of the southern states, and Swain was a strong supporter of the secessionists. Merritt, who staunchly supported the Union angrily disagreed. Swain said that the Union should be dissolved, and there should be two confederacies, one southern and one northern. The argument became heated, and Swain said he would like to have the American flag trampled upon. Merritt, who could take no more, said “United States or nothing” and demanded that Swain say it too. Swain refused.

There were only four men in the saloon at that time, and none of the witnesses could say for sure how it transpired, but Merritt had a pistol in his hand and fired a shot into Swain’s chest, killing him instantly. Merritt laid the pistol on the table, then he and Salmon left the saloon and went separate ways. 

The police were called the scene and got the story from Edward Immen. Patrolman Sullivan arrested Cornelius Salmon, and at about 6:45 that evening, Samuel Merritt went to the Eighth Precinct station and turned himself in. By that evening, a coroner’s jury determined that John M. Swain had come to his death by a pistol shot wound at the hands of Samuel H. Merritt. Merritt declared he was not guilty and said the pistol had belonged to Swain.

Merritt’s trial for murder began on January 28, 1862. There was no doubt that Merritt pulled the trigger, but the trial focused more on Swain’s seccessionist views. As the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “the only question to be determined by the jury is what amount of guilt attaches itself to a man who unintentionally kills a ‘traitor?’”

The jury found Samuel Merritt guilty of manslaughter in the third degree and recommended mercy. He was given the minimum sentence of two years in State Prison.

“Murder in the Eighth Ward,” World, June 1, 1861.
“The Murder of John M. Swain,” The New York Times, June 2, 1861.
“Murder of John Swain,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861.
“News Article,” Herald, January 30, 1862.
“Our New York Letter,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 1862.
“The Secession Murder Case,” Herald, January 29, 1862.
“Verdict in the Eighth Ward Murder,” World, June 3, 1861.


Howard Brown says:
March 7, 2020 at 10:31 AM

Thanks for the article, Robert. Makes you wonder how many other instances of this sort occurred during the 1860's.

BevAnneS says:
March 7, 2020 at 7:44 PM

successionist, secessionist -- not a question of pronunciation but of meaning.

Glenn Hester says:
March 21, 2020 at 1:47 PM

Politics and religion are two subjects not to discuss while drinking.

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