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Charity Lamb Trial: 1854

The Verdict

The jury was out more than one half a day when they returned to court with a question. They had boiled the matter down to the dregs of self-defense. What still simmered was: "What was meant by imminent danger, such as would justify killing?" They were apparently convinced that Nathaniel was a threat to her life but not at the very moment he was killed. How immediate did the danger have to be?

Reluctantly, Judge Olney had to tell the jurymen that a justifiable killing should be at that instant unavoidable: "If she saw that danger, before he returned home, it was her duty to have gone away."

The jury retired and had their verdict swiftly: "Charity Lamb is guilty of the killing purposely and maliciously … but without… premeditation and do recommend her to the mercy of the Court."

The next day Lamb stood before the bench with her baby in her arms. Judge Olney asked her if she had anything to say before sentencing. She had not testified at trial. She spoke for the first time and the only time in the record: "Well I don't know that I murdered him. He was alive when I saw him last… I knew he was going to kill me."

The judge said, "The jury thinks you ought to have gone away, in his absence."

To that, Lamb offered: "Well. He told me not to go, and if I went that he would follow me, and find me somewhere, and he was a mighty good shot… I did it to save my life."

Judge Olney may have been hard put to utter the sentence mandated by law for second-degree murder:

The jury … recommended you to mercy. But the law gives the court no discretion … The sentence therefore is, that you be conveyed to the penitentiary of this territory and there imprisoned, and kept at hard labor, so long as you shall live.

Lamb wept and was led from the courtroom still carrying her baby, which would soon be taken from her.

She was taken to the prison in Portland, where she was confined with six other male inmates. Five years later she was still jailed there, doing the wash for the warden's family. Missionaries inspecting the prison noted that "she is not of sound mind." In 1862, she was transferred to the Hawthorne Insane Asylum.

The law took no account of her predicament—a choice between waiting for menacing immediacy or fleeing into a wild frontier without her children, without provender, without barter, without refuge, shelter, or whatever else it takes to survive while pioneering in a rugged and paternalistic society. Her judge, jury, lawyers, witnesses, and jailers had all been men. The media too were male reporters who, throughout her ordeal, were printing sermons such as:

There must be a man born in the world for every woman—one whom, to see would be to love, to reverence, to adore … that she would recognize him at once her true lord.

True to the sentence mandated, she was kept behind walls so long as she lived. She died in the asylum in 1879—her family gone—her gravesite unattended—forgiveness never given.

Ronald B. Lansing

Suggestions for Further Reading

Lansing, Ronald B. "The Tragedy of Charity Lamb, Oregon's First Convicted Murderess." Oregon Historical Quarterly 40 (Spring 2000).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Charity Lamb Trial: 1854 - Settlers Shocked By Murder, Defendant's Children Testify, The Defense: Insanity, The Verdict