The following article was written for Louisiana Road Trips magazine in 2013:
I found this article many years ago and it struck me as a little funny! A Revolutionary War veteran [John Loslo] was on trial in Monroe for murder and a visiting man from Pennsylvania wrote about the trial in a letter to a friend back home. The local newspaper, The Washita Gazette, ran it on their front page November 1, 1825. It is interesting to note how the rest of the country viewed this area at the time. To them, Louisiana was the wild frontier of America. You can almost detect a sense of surprise in the letter at how civilized the whole trial was! As an interesting side note, the young lawyer named Downs mentioned in the article was Solomon Weathersbee Downs, who would eventually become one of our early United States Senators. The spelling in the below article is as it was written.
To the Washita Gazette,
I send you an extract from the journal of a gentleman from Pennsylvania, now on his travels in this state. I have obtained his leave to publish this extract, because it may be viewed as an impartial attestation of an interesting fact, to wit-the progressing moral improvement of this country. It appears to be addressed, in the form of letters to a friend. Saturday, October 22, 1825. I arrived on Thursday last at Monroe, a Port-town on the Washita river, and the seat of justice for the Parish of Washita. On Friday morning (the court being now in session,) there was arraigned before the court,- Overton Judge, an old man of the name of Leslie, on the awful charge of murder!-I will now, my dear friend, give you a faithful outline of the trial, and from this, you will easily perceive how grossly false is the opinion which prevails in the Northern states, with respect to this country. It is there generally thought that this country is a hot bed of heathenism; that the inhabitants are in a state of constant and savage warfare; and that villainy and crime, however enormous and shocking, are certain of connivance & impunity. But although it is undesirable that this caricature has once been applicable to this country, yet a new era has evidently commenced, and glorious to the country itself. The clerk read the bill of indictment with that dignified solemnity of feeling, which was due to the occasion. A plea in abatement was urged, with great ingenuity, by one of the counsel for the defendant; but the judge, with a precision and clearness, which reconciled all opinions in a few moments, demonstrated that this plea could not be sustained, and ordered a jury to be empanelled. On this occasion, the inhabitants of the country had an unsought for opportunity to develope their really-amiable character. With due deference to the obligation of the oath which they had severally taken, they exhibited an universal disposition and wish to be excused from the trial. More than 50 men were sworn, and interrogated by the judge, with respect to having formed or declared an opinion, before a jury could be formed. At length however 12 men were found who declared under oath,
that they had formed no opinion. The court being then fully organized, the wintesses were called in, and their evidence given in that cool and dispassionate manner, which did credit to their feelings.-Scott, the prosecuting attorney then rose, and in a luminous and forcible manner, expounded the law, and proceeded, with becoming solitude to demonstrate to the jury, that the evidence did simply sustain the charge as laid in the indictment. His comment on the law and the prominent points of the evidence was highly judicious and consistent-his emphatical pauses appeared to be the offspring of astonishment, and not designed to give effect to his address. In his conclusion, he assured the jury that he did not wish them to convict the accused, unless they believed he was unquestionably quitty. -The gentleman appears to be a mere youth, and his performance on this occasion, reminded me of John Randolph, in the year 1798. An elderly gentleman then rose, on the part of the defence, and in a concise pertinent and impressive speech, endeavered to convince the jury that the evidence partook too largely of the circumstatial character, to admit of conviction. The arrangement and distribution of this gentleman, showed the man of talent and experience-but when services of the accused, (some account of which he had been given in the evidence.) He appeared to be overcome by the recollection of the “times that that tried men’s souls” and he set down in emphatical silence. Next rose an youthful gentleman, of the name of Downs, who addressed the jury in a speech of perhaps three hours deviation. This gentleman adverted to the laws and referred to analogons cases, with a dexterity and precision which would have done honor to the bar of any court of America; he analized the law and brought the evidence in comparison with it, in a logical and masterly style; his intermediate inductions were not neglected, but were earnestly impressed on the jury; and his grand conclusion was awefully impressive with wonderful aptitude and energy, he told our old friend Duane’s motto for his concluding words-“When you shall these unhappy deeds relate nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.” The Jury, who had paid the most earnest attention to the evidence and debates and [missing word], now rose to their feet as if involuntary, to receive the paramount instructions of the bench. It would be needless for me to undertake, at this time, to deliniate the deportment and character of the honorable Judge. I feel incompetent for the task. Let therefore death-like silence that prevailed, and the suspended breathing of the jury, indicate to you the implicit confidence universally reposed in the judge. He proceeded to elucidate the law, marking out clearly the lines of separation between its various definitions of homicide; and as if apprehensive that too much weight might be attached to an opinion expressed by him he referred the whole matter to the awful responsibility of the jury. They retired and about half hour returned with a verdict of guilty.
I do not recollect, my dear friend, that I have ever seen a trial conducted with more dignity and solemnity. The behavior of the people at large was that of feeling and sensible and feeling men, the present aspect of the country indicates an improving society, and although in all new countries ruffian and atheists are occasionally to be found, yet there are good grounds to say that, in this beautiful country, a few years more will reduce them to soverign [missing word].