Friday, December 18, 2015

Clarence Darrow Argues for the Defense -- December 18, 1896

December 18, 1896 -- More Trouble at Fort Sheridan (JWB Photo)
On this date, December 18, in 1896 a manslaughter trial ended in the courtroom of Judge Peter S. Grosscup.  The defendant was a young Fort Sheridan private, James D. Allen of the Fifteenth Regiment, who was accused of killing another private on the post, Daniel M. Call, the previous March. 

Judge Peter Grosscup
What makes the trial especially interesting is that Judge Grosscup was the same jurist who had issued the injunction against the Pullman strikers two years earlier, allowing 22 railroads to continue operations.  Leading a boycott of those railroads, Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union was indicted for refusing to end the job action.  A team led by Clarence Darrow defended him.  Darrow was in the courtroom as Private Allen’s attorney on this day in 1896.

Allen had little chance of winning.  At least four witnesses had seen him shoot Call, and the facts were indisputable.  Apparently at breakfast on the morning of March 20, 1896 a quarrel began between the two men because one had supposedly taken the other’s seat at the mess table.  The Chicago Tribune reported, “Call, in a joking way, suggested that it would be a good plan to settle the matter with the boxing gloves.” [Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1896]

Four other privates in Company A accompanied Allen and Call to the company’s barracks where the Allen and Call put on boxing gloves and began sparring.  It seems that Allen was the better athlete of the two.  He was an instructor at the garrison’s gym and “well-formed, and skilled in difficult feats of agility and strength.”  One can imagine that he would be aggrieved, then, when Call appeared to be “having the best of the sparring match.”

After five minutes or so of trading punches, Allen sat down for a few minutes and then announced that he was going for a drink of water.  When he returned, “he opened the door a little way, and, thrusting his hand holding the revolver through the space . . . shouted to call, 'You’re a goner.'"

He was right.  He shot Call in the abdomen, and the wounded man was carried out on a stretcher. He subsequently died.  In the struggle for the weapon, Allen was also shot in the upper leg.

An officer on the post, Captain Brinkerhoff, said, “The man must be crazy.  It has been reported to me since the affair that he has been acting and talking queerly for the last few days and it is a deed no sane man would have done.  The dispute which started it was trivial, and onlookers thought the boxing match was merely a friendly contest.”

Colonel R. E. A. Crofton
(Buffalo Bill Center of
the West)
The shooting was the culmination of a series of distrurbing events that had taken place under the command of Colonel R. E. A. Crofton over the preceding three years.  Consider the following:

March 25, 1893:  Soldiers at Fort Sheridan are so alarmed at reports of a sea monster in Lake Michigan off Fort Sheridan that 200 of them sign a resolution to give up drinking.

November 1, 1893:  Lieutenant J. A. Maney shoots Captain Alfred Hedberg, allegedly as a result of a quarrel over the dead man’s wife.

February 22, 1894:  A federal grand jury returns a number of indictments against unlicensed liquor dealers at Fort Sheridan, Highwood, and Highland Park.

July 18, 1894:  Three soldiers are buried at Fort Sheridan after a caisson explosion on the south side of Chicago.

January 9, 1895:  Three soldiers are hospitalized, two of them with gunshot wounds, and a fourth in jail after an altercation with Highwood police.

October 3, 1895:  Lieutenant Samuel S. Pague tries to shoot the post commander, Colonel Crofton, and is taken to the federal insane asylum in Washington, D. C.

November 1, 1895:  Six enlisted men join in a complaint to the Secretary of War regarding enlisted men being used as body and house servants.

January 25, 1896:  The Tribune reports on various “scandals and quarrels” that have occurred at Fort Sheridan under the command of Colonel Crofton.

March 20, 1896:  Private Allen shoots Private Call.

January 16, 1897:  A cavalry trooper stabs an infantryman.

January 17, 1897:  There is a “rebellion” at the fort over the quality of the food that is being served.

When the guilty verdict was returned at the trial of Private Allen in December of 1896, Allen said, “I do not know what to say about the verdict.  My friends seemed to be satisfied, and I guess it is all right.”

Things clearly were not “all right” at Fort Sheridan, and the Allen manslaughter trial appears to have been the last straw for the War Department. On February 4, 1897 the Fort Sheridan post commander, Colonel Crofton, was forcibly removed from the army by orders of President Cleveland and placed on the retired list.

1 comment:

Jill Bartholomew said...

Wow what an old west kind of story. Ft Sheridan had some interesting characters!