- Historic Sites
Crazy Bill Had A Down Look
Quaint pictures and a grim story tell of prejudice and mob passion in upstate New York of the 1840’s
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
He characterized the Auburn Negroes as “victims of unworthy prejudices which compel them to exist under circumstances where they are exposed to imbibe all the vices, without being able to become imbued with the virtues of those around them; who can wonder that they fall into crime?” John DePuy, Freeman’s brother-in-law, testified that white men had made this murderer what he was, “a brute beast; they don’t make anything else of any of our People but brute beasts; but when we violate their laws, then they want to punish us as if we were men.”
Another voice in the wilderness was that of ex-Governor Seward, then a private lawyer and Auburn’s most influential citizen. When no one would undertake the defense of Freeman he offered his services, thereby bringing the wrath of the entire village down upon him. Seward held the viewpoint, not yet generally accepted, that the insane were not responsible for their acts.
Judge Bowen Whiting announced on June 24 that there would be a preliminary jury trial to determine Freeman’s sanity. Seward and his law partners volunteered their gratuitous services and appeared for the prisoner. State Attorney General John Van Buren, son of Martin Van Buren, and the district attorney of Cayuga County represented the people. The trial lasted ten days and in spite of the tremendous evidence of Freeman’s insanity, the jurors brought in the verdict that the prisoner was “sufficiently sane in mind and memory, to distinguish between right and wrong.”
On July 10 Freeman went before a second jury, this time on trial for his life. Once again the best of authorities were presented by Seward in an attempt to persuade the jury that the murderer was completely insane.
The trial itself was a travesty, where every possible insult and calumny was heaped on Freeman and on his defense. Even Seward’s masterful summation, which was called the most impassioned that ever passed his lips, went almost unheard. On the twenty-third Freeman was quickly found guilty, and the following morning Judge Whiting sentenced him to be hanged on September 18.
Seward, continuing his valiant fight on behalf of Freeman, obtained a stay of execution. In October Mrs. Seward paid a visit to the jail with her husband. There she found Freeman with only a few feeble glimmerings of memory. “I was affected to tears by his helpless condition,” she wrote to her sister. “I pray God that he may be insensible to the inhumanity of his relentless keepers. He stood upon the cold stone floor with bare feet, a cot bedstead with nothing but the sacking underneath and a small filthy blanket to cover him.”
It was on February 11, 1847, that the State Supreme Court handed down a ruling reversing the judgment of the local court and ordering a new trial. In a letter written four days later, Seward called on Dr. Amariah Brigham, head of the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica to submit the names of “one hundred of the most intelligent physicians throughout the State of New York and abroad” who might give evidence. But no trial was ordered. Area newspapers continued to enmesh the case in local politics. They even accused all concerned of taking part in a Whig conspiracy to build up Seward.
To ailing, demented Freeman, languishing in his cell at the Cayuga County jail, his feet heavily ironed, all this meant nothing. For many weeks he had been failing and those who saw him were convinced that he had become a perfect idiot. He died on Saturday morning, August 21, 1847. A post-mortem examination was held and Dr. Brigham summed up the sad case of Bill Freeman in these few words: “I have very rarely found so extensive disease of the brain in those who have died after long continued insanity, as we found in this instance; and I believe there are few cases of chronic insanity recorded in books, in which were noticed more evident marks of disease.”
The great furor created by crazy Bill Freeman was in its time spread far and wide by the press, but certainly no reporting could have compared with the sense of immediacy and intimacy that came to those who saw the events dramatized in George Mastin’s paintings. The last of the series shows, with Hogarthian effectiveness, the hanging of Freeman which the court ordered and for which the community profoundly hoped. The death of Freeman not only forestalled his hanging, but it also vindicated William Seward. As time passed the people realized that the tragedy involved more than four needless murders.