Once considered one of the most influential state judges, Lemuel Shaw was born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts on January 9th 1781. For most of his early life, Shaw was educated at home by his father and in 1796 he was admitted into Harvard University. Shaw began his life-long career studying law in 1801 under David Everett, a well-established New England newspaper editor. In 1802, Shaw accompanied Everett to New Hampshire where he could assist with legal paperwork. There he met his first fiancee, Nancy Melvill, the daughter of the famous Major Thomas Melvill of Boston. The engagement was short-lived as Nancy passed away soon afterward.
Shaw was admitted to the Plymouth County Massachusetts bar in November of 1804 and began practicing law in Boston. With his election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1811, his participation on the Constitutional Convention of 1820, and his election as State Senator in 1821, Shaw slowly climbed the legal ladder to eventually assume the Chief Justice position on the Massachusetts State Supreme Court where he served from 1830 to 1860. There are a number of defining cases on Shaw’s court that continue to stand out through history. One of these such cases is, Commonwealth V. Aves (1836) which dealt with the transportation of slaves into free states.
In 1836 Mary Aves Slater arrived in Boston to visit her father, Thomas Aves. Accompanying Mary, was a six year old slave girl named Med who was deemed the property of Mary’s husband. When members of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society heard the young slave girl was in Boston they hired a lawyer to sue the Aves family for her freedom. They argued that since slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts and Med’s owner willingly brought her to a free state, she is no longer a slave. Shaw wrote the unanimous decision for the court stating that “Slavery was contrary to natural right” and that any slave brought to Massachusetts could not be forcibly detained or removed. This precedent was used across many northern states to advance legislation that stated that any free state automatically guarantees freedom to any person within it’s borders, including individuals considered to be slaves in the south.
Another case Shaw ruled on that continues to capture the morbid interest of generation after generation is famous murder case, The Commonwealth V. Webster (1850). The details of the case begin with a debt owed to beloved socialite, George Parkman from a Harvard Medical professor, John Webster who was constantly dogged by financial instability. Webster had guaranteed Parkman a loan collateral of a cabinet full of valuable minerals in exchange for $400. Parkman soon found out that Webster had used this same cabinet of minerals as a collateral for a different loan.
George Parkman had tried to collect the money Webster had earned from giving his medical lectures from Harvard University in order to pay back the $400 debt Webster had accrued. This type of public humiliation enraged Webster so much so that shortly after, George Parkman disappeared. In the case hearings, evidence was brought to Shaw’s court that Parkman’s remains were discovered by a suspicious janitor who began chiseling through a hollow-sounding wall in Webster’s office after hours while his wife kept watch. The janitor found a secret compartment behind the wall. Adjusting his lantern, the janitor was able to see the charred remains of George Parkman. The Parkman-Webster murder case is one of the earliest cases on record that used forensic dental evidence to identified partially cremated human remains.
During the trial of John Webster, Lemuel Shaw stated for the jury one of the most famous historical outlines of the legal principle of “reasonable doubt”,
“The evidence must establish the corpus delicti, as it is termed, or the offence committed as charged; and, in case of homicide, must not only prove a death by violence, but must, to a reasonable extent, exclude the hypothesis of suicide, and a death by the act of any other person. This is to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs and depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor.”
The jury convicted Webster of the murder of George Parkman and on April 1st of 1850 Lemuel Shaw handed down the indictment saying: “That you, John W. Webster, be removed from this place, and detained in close custody in the prison of this county; and thence taken…to the place of execution, and there be hung by the neck until you are dead. And may God, of His infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!”
After 30 years of an influential career, Shaw resigned from his bench and, shortly after, he took ill. Within a few months after his retirement, he passed away and was buried at Mount Auburn on Harebell path.
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