Hidden History: McLeod Trial


In 1837, our neighbors to the north in the British province of Upper Canada tried to break away from their mother country.

Insurgents attacked British loyalists in Toronto, but they were beaten back and sought refuge in western New York.

The Canadians took over Navy Island, which sits in the Niagara River seven miles upstream from Niagara Falls.

American sympathizers used ships to help arm and supply the rebels, but the British found one of those ships, the Caroline, set it on fire and sent it over the falls.

Amos Durfee, an African-American sailor, was shot and killed in the skirmish.

Niagara, Ontario Sheriff Alexander McLeod bragged that he had been part of the Caroline affair and that he had killed an American in it. Three years later, on a business trip into New York, McLeod was arrested for murder.

This caused an international uproar. The British demanded McLeod’s immediate release, but he was held on the authority of the State of New York, which not even the President could overrule.

The state Supreme Court changed the venue of McLeod’s trial from Niagara County to Utica.

State Attorney General Willis Hall was the prosecutor. The defense was unusual.

Joshua Spencer of Utica was one of the most respected lawyers in the country back then. He’d also recently been appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York.

As a federal prosecutor, one would think Spencer would be disqualified from service as defense counsel.

However, President John Tyler, perhaps seeking to entrust the nation’s interests to a federal attorney, let Spencer decide for himself whether or not to take the case — and he did, in fact, choose to take it.

With no witnesses to the shooting, and with an alibi that placed McLeod in Canada at the time, the jury needed only 20 minutes to acquit him and avert a possible war.

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