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Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842

Holmes Tried For Manslaughter

The next day, on the morning of the 21st, Holmes' lifeboat was spotted by a ship and rescued. Captain Harris' lifeboat was rescued by another ship six days later. Upon reaching Philadelphia, the news of the fate of the William Brown was an instant sensation, generating a great deal of public outrage against the crew. U.S. District Attorney William M. Meredith charged Holmes and Rhodes with manslaughter, which is a lesser degree of homicide than murder because it means killing without malice. Rhodes fled the city, never to be found, so Holmes was tried alone.

Holmes' chief defense lawyer was David Paul Brown, and the trial began on April 13, 1842. One of Meredith's assistants, Mr. Dallas (historical records do not indicate his first name) opened for the prosecution:

[Holmes'] defense is that the homicide was necessary to self-preservation. First, then, we ask: was the homicide thus necessary? That is to say, was the danger instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice or means, no moment for deliberation? For, unless the danger were of this sort, the prisoner, under any admission, had no right, without notice or consultation, or lot, to sacrifice the lives of 16 fellow beings.

Holmes' defense lawyers countered that, in the dangerous circumstances Holmes was placed in, he was not required to wait until the last second to act in self-preservation:

In other words, he need not wait until the certainty of the danger has been proved, past doubt, by its result. Yet this is the doctrine of the prosecution. They ask us to wait until the boat has sunk.… They tell us to wait until all are drowned.

After the prosecution and the defense had rested, Judge Baldwin (historical records do not indicate his first name) gave his instructions to the jury. Although he recognized the principle that self-preservation was a defense to homicide, he stated that there were some important exceptions. One of these exceptions was when someone had accepted a duty to others that implied that he or she would put his or her life at risk before risking the lives of the others. Judge Baldwin held that seamen like Holmes had accepted such a duty, and that therefore self-preservation was not an adequate defense to the charge of manslaughter:

[W]e must look, not only to the jeopardy in which the parties are, but also to the relatibons in which they stand. The slayer must be under no obligation to make his own safety secondary to the safety of others.… Such … is the relation which exists on shipboard. The passenger stands in a position different from that of the officers and seamen.… The sailor… is bound to set a greater value on the life of others than on his own.

After 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Holmes guilty on April 23, 1842. As the official court report notes, the verdict was given "with some difficulty," and was accompanied by the jury's recommendation for mercy. Judge Baldwin sentenced Holmes to six months in prison and a $20 fine. There was some public sympathy for Holmes, but a movement by the Seamen's Friend Society for a presidential pardon came to nothing.

The Alexander Holmes trial dictated that seamen have a duty to their passengers that is superior even to their own lives. Further, it held that the ancient defense of self-preservation was not always adequate in a homicide prosecution if the accused was under a special obligation to the deceased.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Duke, Thomas Samuel. Celebrated Crimina/Cases of America. San Francisco: James H. Barry Co., 1910.

Hicks, Frederick Charles. Human Jettison: a Sea Tale From the Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1927.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842 - Holmes Tried For Manslaughter