Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil

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The first week of August, 1845, the Delaware County sheriff, Green More, set out with the landlord’s agent to collect Charlotte Verplanck’s sixtyfour dollars from Moses Earle by auctioning off some of Earle’s cows and hogs. Before the sheriff reached Earle’s farm, over two hundred calico Indians had gathered and mapped their strategy in the woods around the Earle place.

 
 

Sheriff More was joined later by his deputy, Osman Steele, the arch tenantbaiter in Delaware County, and another deputy. Steele arrived at the Earle farm well fortified. He had stopped on the way for 3 few drinks, including one said to be concocted of gunpowder and brandy, which Steele downed with the toast “Lead can’t penetrate Steele.”

At the Earle place the Indians came out of the woods and formed a protective square around the cattle in a pasture next to the farmhouse. Trouble flared when the sheriff’s party tried to break through the cordon and drive the cattle into the road for the sale.

What happened next would be argued later in court. Most accounts agree, however, that the Indians shot the horse from under one of the deputies. Osman Steele then pressed his horse forward against the Indians, raised his arm, and fired into their ranks. The Indians answered with another volley, and Steele slipped slowly from his mount with three bullet wounds in his body.

As the deputy lay dying he said to Earle, “Old man, if you had paid your rent, I would not have been shot.” The farmer replied, “If you had stayed home and minded your own business, you would not have been shot.”

Steele’s death sent the Indians fleeing into the hills. Within a week five hundred men were under arms pursuing the fugitives. Governor Wright moved decisively to stem the collapse of public order. He declared Delaware County in a state of insurrection. Three hundred militiamen were dispatched to occupy Delhi, the county seat. Arrests piled up into the hundreds until the local jail was full, and troops had to throw together temporary log pens to hold the prisoners.

By stretching unmercifully the new law forbidding disguised persons to bear arms the prosecution was able to indict ninety-four persons for the murder of Osman Steele. An additional 148 men were charged with lesser crimes.

The first defendant tried was John Van Steenbergh, a young hired hand who had appeared disguised and armed at the Earle farm. In his charge to the jury Judge Amos J. Parker instructed the jurors that a man armed and disguised was liable to a year in prison. Furthermore, any crime punishable by confinement in a state prison was considered a felony. Moreover, any death resulting from the commission of a felony was murder. Therefore the jury had only to satisfy itself that Van Steenbergh was armed, disguised, and on the scene in order to find him guilty of murdering Osman Steele, whether he had fired or not. The jurors were troubled by the fact that Van Steenbergh had not fired. But they yielded to the judge’s logic and found the defendant guilty. Parker sentenced the twenty-one-year-old Van Steenbergh to be hanged.

Within three weeks the judge also condemned Edward O’Connor, another calico Indian leader, to death and sentenced four men to life imprisonment and nine to lesser terms. Fifty-one others were fined or received suspended sentences. Moses Earle, a meek and incidental bit player in the drama, was convicted of manslaughter and was one of those sentenced to life in prison.

On September 3, 1845, the second trial of Smith Boughton opened. In his opening remarks the presiding judge, John W. Edmonds, denounced lawbreakers who rose against the manor lords. He had observed, the judge said, the superiority in intelligence, morals, and industry of those who owned their own land over their tenants. Edmonds promised a conviction of Boughton in short order.

The prosecution’s key witness against Boughton was Abram Carle, a calico Indian, who said he knew Big Thunder was indeed Boughton because he had helped him take off his disguise at Barn’s Tavern. The defense sought to discredit Abram’s testimony by calling his mother to the stand. She swore her son had been hit on the head by a ninepin ball as a child and had not been right since.

After spending some time deliberating, the jury requested to be discharged for being unable to agree, but Edmonds refused. “Agree!” the judge ordered, and went off with a lady for a long ride in the country. The jurors found Smith Boughton guilty of robbery for stealing a sheriffs legal papers.

In his closing address the judge accused Boughton not of robbery but of high treason. Almost spitting out the words, he stunned the courtroom by sentencing Boughton to prison “for the term of your natural life.”

With so many leaders behind bars and with the calico Indians scattered, the strikers’ fortunes may have seemed at low ebb as the election of 1845 rolled around. Instead the vindictive character of the trials closed and stiffened anti-rent ranks.

That Boughton’s punishment was harsh in the extreme and that Van Steenbergh and O’Connor had been random choices for the noose was all too clear. Even close associates of Governor Wright urged him to commute the two death sentences. Petitions poured in from all over the state demanding that the condemned men be spared.