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Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842

Holmes Tried For Manslaughter

Defendant: Alexander William Holmes
Crime Charged: Manslaughter
Chief Defense Lawyer: David Paul Brown
Chief Prosecutor: William M.Meredith
Judge: Baldwin (historical records do not indicate his first name)
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: April 13-23, 1842
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 6 months in prison and a $20 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: In the Alexander Holmes trial, the court held that self-preservation was not always a defense to homicide.

On March 13, 1841, an American ship, the William Brown, left Liverpool, England for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to her cargo, she carried 17 crewmen and 65 passengers, who were mostly Scots and Irish emigrants. On the night of April 19, 250 miles from Newfoundland, the William Brown struck an iceberg and began to sink rapidly. There were two lifeboats, one small and one large. The captain and most of the crew took the small lifeboat, and the passengers crowded aboard the large lifeboat. There was not enough space on the large lifeboat for all the passengers, and 31 died on board the William Brown when it sank.

First Mate Francis Rhodes, Alexander William Holmes, and another seaman commanded the large lifeboat. The passengers were still dressed in their night clothes and suffered terribly in the cold Atlantic weather, which was made worse by a pelting rain. The two lifeboats stayed together through the night but separated the morning of the 20th because the captain, George L. Harris, thought there was a better chance of rescue if the two boats took different directions. Rhodes said that his boat was overcrowded and that some people would have to be thrown overboard to keep it from capsizing. Captain Harris said, "I know what you'll have to do. Don't speak of that now. Let it be the last resort." Throughout the day of the 20th and into the night, the rain and the waves worsened. The boat began to leak and fill with water, despite constant bailing. Around ten o'clock that night, Rhodes cried out in despair, "This work won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work." Holmes and the other seaman began throwing people overboard. They threw 14 men and two women into the freezing water. They chose single men only, spared the married men on board, and threw the two women overboard only because they were sisters of a man already thus ejected and had demanded to be sacrificed with their kin. None of the crew was thrown out.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882