The brutal murder of Mrs. Catharine Beakes in September 1827 became a sensation in Hunterdon County, not only because murders were rare at the time, but because this murder was quite brutal and her alleged killer was a 12-year-old black boy. Following a coroner’s inquest, he was arrested and brought to the Flemington jail (‘gaol’ in those days).
The Flemington Jail
At the end of Part One, we had left Little Jim languishing in the Flemington jail, awaiting his trial. He was imprisoned in more than one sense—he could not get away from the constant stream of visitors he received, and was too immature to insist on being left alone.
The jail was in the cellar of the original courthouse that was built in 1791, right after Flemington was named the county seat of Hunterdon County. George Alexander had donated a half-acre lot on Main Street, where it intersected with “the road to Howell’s Ferry” for the purpose of building a courthouse and a building for the county clerk and surrogate. The road to Howell’s Ferry (Stockton) is Route 523, which was Mine Street in Flemington before the traffic circle was built. But the site of the courthouse was the same as it is today, at the corner with Court Street. We know this because a map of Flemington dated 1822 shows the courthouse in that location, the same as the courthouse today.1
The original building was designed after the home of Joseph Reading, Esq., which was constructed in Delaware Township in 1787. It was a handsome stone house in the classic style, of plastered stone. In other words, the courthouse looked very much like the house of a prosperous resident of Hunterdon County after the Revolution.
The courtroom itself was on the second floor, with a 14-foot high ceiling. The sheriff’s family lived on the first floor (where ceilings were 9 feet high). The jail was in the cellar. There were probably windows high on the cellar walls to let in some light.
According to Stephen Albro, then Sheriff of Hunterdon County, too many people were coming to visit his prisoner. He stated in his testimony at the trial that “I think there are usually too many visitors to such prisoners.” Certainly in the case of Little Jim there were far too many, and few of them had his interests at heart. He was a curiosity, an exhibit in a freak show. Many visitors were trying to elicit a further confession from him, but there were also neighborhood boys who enjoyed taunting the prisoner, as described by Charles Bonnell, Esq.:
“I had been in the habit of going to the prison very often, and when I went the boys would be running in and asking him questions. In September last, I had cautioned James not to be making these acknowledgments to the boys as they were talking to him. He was told by the boys he would be hung and all that. He said he did not care a dam, he would swear at the boys.”
Bonnell seemed to be conscious of the inappropriate treatment Guild was receiving, and his inability to deal with it. He stated that Guild
“appeared to have considerable wit, but wanted discretion and good sense. Seemed to be irritated by others, and that was the cause of much of his bad conversation. I thought there was too much talking to him. Kept growing worse. Had devil enough in him when he came there.”
This was reinforced by the testimony of Thomas J. Stout:
“The week before February court, he was talking about it, in a loose manner, as he generally did. When asked if he thought the case would terminate against him in court, he said he did not care a dam. Would often rip out something against the boys passing. He appeared acute in many things, but did not appear to realize his situation. Never appeared cast down ; always cheery. . . . He did not appear to realize his case as a discreet or rational person would.”
The impact that all this attention could have had on a 12-year-old boy who had never received much in the way of education or emotional support during his young life must have been considerable. This was a child who needed help, but there was no one in those days who knew how to provide it, or even that it was needed.
The Courthouse Fire
Jim was incarcerated in Flemington from the end of September until February 13, 1828, when the courthouse burned down.2 The cause of the fire was never determined. Many suspected arson, perhaps by one of the lawyers who was unhappy with the poor condition of the building,3 or perhaps one of the many Lambertville residents who thought the courthouse should be located in their town.
The fire began in the middle of the night and roused the whole town. It seems to have begun in an upper story, as flames were seen “issuing from the roof near the southwest corner of the building.” There was no way to stop it.
The want of an effective Fire Engine and its accompanying apparatus necessary on such an occasion, soon convinced us that all attempts to rescue the Court House from the devouring element would be futile; all attention was therefore directed to the preservation of the adjacent buildings, and not without fearful apprehensions for the issue. . . . before daylight of Thursday morning, there was little to be seen of our venerable old court House but the naked walls, and the smoking embers of its ponderous timbers.4
Fortunately, the county clerk managed to remove all his records before they could be destroyed, which must have been quite an effort.5 The stones from the old courthouse were saved and used to construct a new jail on the back of the new courthouse. Next time you travel down Court Street, take another look at the old jail and appreciate the stone walls that once belonged to the original 1791 courthouse.
Also from amidst the smoking ruins, someone had the foresight to save the doors of the jail. There were two very heavy iron doors, both of them arched, that closed together like French windows, only much more forbidding. Many have written that the door that was saved was from Jim’s jail cell, but that hardly seems likely. With the two doors reaching about six feet across, it was most likely the entrance to the jail itself. How anyone managed to save them is a wonder as each of the doors must weigh well over 50 pounds. Both doors can now be found in the basement of the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society at the Doric House on Main Street.
Sheriff Albro and his family lost most of their personal possessions, including “clothing, bedding, grain, &c., though not a great amount.” Apparently Albro was not all that prosperous. More troublesome for Albro was the task of finding another place to live in the middle of winter, along with “the sudden suspension of his regular business.”
James Guild was among the prisoners who were relocated to the Somerville jail by Sheriff Albro. And there he remained until his trial at the Court of Oyer & Terminer, which took place on May 9, 1828. At that time, the new courthouse was still under construction, so all court matters were taking place in the Flemington Methodist Church, which had been offered for that purpose after the fire had done its work. It took another year to finish the new courthouse.
The Court of Oyer & Terminer
I titled this article “Little Jim, in Jail and in Court,” but in fact, I have no information about what the court trial was like for Jim. The Supreme Court record said nothing about his demeanor, or if he made any outbursts or any other form of reaction to the trial. And he was probably not present for the appeal to the Supreme Court. He continued to languish in the jail in Somerville while construction proceeded on the Flemington courthouse.
On May 7, 1828, the cornerstone for the new courthouse was laid with great ceremony. Justice George K. Drake of the New Jersey Supreme Court was present and well-known Flemington attorney, Peter I. Clark, Esq., delivered “an appropriate address.” Coincidentally, on the same day, James Guild was indicted for the murder of Mrs. Beakes.[#. James P. Snell, History of Hunterdon Co., p. 202. In Snell’s version, James’ name was written as ‘Guise,’ but in the NJ Supreme Court transcript, it was ‘Guild.’] Justice Drake did not make the trip to Flemington just to attend the cornerstone ceremony. As a Supreme Court justice, he was obliged to ride circuit and preside over local Courts of Oyer & Terminer, where murder trials were held. He had come to hear the case of James Guild. Peter I. Clark, Esq. happened to be one of Guild’s defense lawyers.
A black child was not likely to have access to high-quality legal representation in the courts of 1828, but that is just what James Guild got. He had not one but four lawyers for his defense: Nathaniel Saxton was the oldest (born 1777), followed by Joseph W. Scott (born about 1780). Peter I. Clark, and a Mr. Prall, who was probably Zachur Prall, were both born in 1790. The prosecutor was another eminent lawyer, and the youngest of the group, William Halsted, Esq., born 1794. Clearly this was no ordinary trial. These gentlemen were all at or close to the peak of their careers, and were well-known in Flemington, which had become something of a lawyers’ mecca, because it was a county seat. Obviously, they were not paid for their services in this case.
The defense lawyers were probably all “serjeants at law.” A Serjeant at law in English Legal History, was a member of an elite order of attorneys who had the exclusive privilege of arguing before the Court of Common Pleas and also supplied the judges for both Common Pleas and the Court of the King’s Bench. In the United States it meant that an attorney was an officer of the court, and more interestingly in relation to the Guild case, was eligible to be a court-appointed attorney to represent indigent clients. Nathaniel Saxton was named a Sergeant-at-Law in 1828, perhaps just in time for the Guild trial.[#. Snell, p. 207.] I assume that Clark, Scott and Prall were also Serjeants at law. Why the court thought it necessary to provide Jim with four attorneys is a mystery, unless the lawyers themselves promoted the idea, which makes more sense. What their motives were we can only guess. Cynics will say it was the free advertising, but I suspect that they were also disturbed that a boy would be treated as an adult criminal.
Nathaniel Saxton, Esq.
Nathaniel Saxton had worked with Peter I. Clark two years previously, in 1826, another case that excited much interest. They were joined by famous Trenton attorney Garret D. Wall representing the plaintiff Catharine Price.[#. I wondered if this might be the wife of Gen. Nathan Price of Flemington, but he did not die until 1842. It does not seem likely that she would bring a suit on her own.] who brought “an action for slander” against Mr. and Mrs. John Williams. What the slander was I cannot say. This was just a year after Natty Saxton, as he was known, had opened his law office in Flemington.[#. I had hoped to find him and his fellow attorneys on the 1822 map of Flemington published in Snell’s History of Hunterdon (pp. 328-39), but none of them are shown there.]
Saxton was busy representing various landowners offering their properties for sale in the 1820s, as well as representing both debtors and creditors in the Court of Common Pleas. He also speculated in real estate and was heavily involved in the settlement of Raven Rock, then known as Saxtonville. [#. Click on Raven Rock-Saxtonville under Localities on the website, or simply search on Saxton’s name to see a list of articles.] When the courthouse burned down, it was Saxton who came up with the Greek Revival design that was used for the new courthouse.
Unlike his fellow attorney, Peter I. Clark, Saxton abstained from political involvement in the campaign of 1828.
Peter I. Clark, Esq.
Peter Imlay Clark as born in Allentown, Monmouth County on Dec. 16, 1790, probably the son of Rev. Joseph Clark and Margaret Imlay. Clark moved to Flemington around 1815. I’m not sure why, but most likely it was because Flemington was just coming into its own and seemed like a good place for an up and coming attorney to make his way. He gradually built up an impressive law practice. And as was common with most successful lawyers in Hunterdon County, Clark aligned himself with Andrew Jackson. He was chosen to attend the Jackson state convention in 1828 and remained a strong Jackson supporter. He also was active in the Hunterdon Bible Society and the Hunterdon Militia, becoming a colonel sometime before 1830.
Clark was elected to the New Jersey legislative council for 1831-32, became active in the Temperance Movement, the Sunday School Association, and the Presbyterian Church. Toward the end of his life he was appointed a Judge on the Court of Common Pleas. He died on May 26, 1863, and was buried in Flemington’s Prospect Hill Cemetery, next to his wife Cynthia Risley, who died in 1891.
Joseph W. Scott, Esq.
Here I draw a blank. I found next to no information on this person. I suspect he might be Joseph Warren Scott, who fought in the War of 1812. He was counted in the 1830 census for Hanover in Morris County, so perhaps he left Flemington shortly after the trial. There was very little about him in the Hunterdon Gazette. Perhaps someone can help me out with his history.
Dr. Zaccur Prall, Esq.
Dr. Zaccur (short for Issachur) Prall was an attorney and a physician, born Oct. 15, 1790, the son of Isaac Prall and Rachel Stout. He never married. In 1825 he was chosen by the organizers of the Flemington July 4th celebration to read the Declaration of Independence. James Snell wrote that he left Flemington for the Schuylkill coal region of Pennsylvania in 1828, probably soon after the Guild trial.
It appears that Prall did not stay long in Pennsylvania. He was back in Flemington in 1829 to give another 4th of July toast, this time to “the President of the United Mexican States.” He was also among the early supporters of construction of the D&R Canal, all this according to the Hunterdon Gazette. From 1831 to 1838 letters were left for him at the Flemington Post Office, indicating he had left the area again. He died on Oct. 16, 1850 at the Hydropathic Institute in Willow Grove, PA, age 60, but was buried in the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery in East Amwell.
William Halstead, Esq.
William Halstead,6 1794-1878, was a well-known Trenton lawyer, but was only beginning his career when he prosecuted the case against Little Jim. He was born in Elizabeth, NJ, and came to what was then Hunterdon County, to study at Princeton University. He graduated in 1812, and was admitted to the Bar in 1816, having set himself up in Trenton, the state capitol. In 1821 he was appointed reporter of the New Jersey Supreme Court and in 1824, served as Hunterdon County prosecuting attorney until 1829, and again from 1833 to 1837. Halstead was a Whig, which explains why his position as prosecutor ended in 1829 when Jacksonian Democrats took over, and then resumed in 1833 when the Whig party began its rise. In 1837 he was elected as an at-large member of the House of Representatives. The attention he received from the Guild case certainly gave Halstead a boost for his political career, as indicated in a story about Halsted in 1897, called “Talk of the Town.”
“Somewhat Concerning a Distinguished Trentonian—Col. Wm. Halstead. As a prosecutor Colonel Halstead was a marked figure in legal life. Among his famous cases was that tried in 1828, when James Guild was indicted for the murder of Catherine Beakes in the township of Hopewell. Single handed and alone Halstead fought this great legal battle against such men as Scott, Saxton, Clark and Prall.”7
Testimony was heard from various witnesses to the discovery of the crime, many of them previously quoted in Part One. Obviously, there were no eye-witnesses. Much of the testimony had to do with Jim’s behavior and his character. The only solid evidence on which the court could convict him was his own confession, or I should say confessions, which several people elicited from him.
The jury began deliberation at 8 o’clock in the evening, and worked for three and a half hours before deciding that Guild was guilty as charged.9 Immediately, one of Guild’s attorneys, “Mr. Scott,” asked the court to postpone sentencing until the defense team had an opportunity to appeal to the Supreme Court. This was agreed to.
Justice Drake summarized the evidence and testimony for the hearing to be held in the Supreme Court. It was given verbatim in the Supreme Court transcript, but the closing arguments of the opposing attorneys were not included.
Justice Drake’s Summary of the Trial
Drake stated that the reason that Little Jim was accused of murdering Mrs. Beakes was based on the fact that “he was near the scene working in a field, that he was unwilling to go in and see her when told it might prove his guilt, and that he had some spots of blood on his jacket.” Drake then took pains to state why these factors alone should not determine Guild’s guilt.
The point of contention between the defense and prosecution was the matter of the first confessions given shortly after the inquest. It was argued that Jim was offered reason to hope that by confessing he would avoid hanging, which in those days was the sentence for murder.
And as for the later confessions, the defense argued that Jim could have learned details of the murder from his visitors, and that his confessions should be considered tainted, and therefore inadmissible. The Judge ruled that the earlier confessions were indeed suspect, and disallowed them. However, the later confessions were determined to be valid and could be considered by the jury. He addressed the jury thus:
. . . if you are fully satisfied that these confessions were made freely and understandingly, and uninfluenced by the causes of the first confessions, you will then examine the confessions themselves.
There was another important consideration about the confessions for the jury to consider: “at the time of the act and confession,” James Guild was “between twelve and thirteen years of age. This fact should make you more cautious in admitting the confessions, and induce you to resolve your doubts in his favour.” That seems rather fair-minded of him.
This brings up the law regarding “Infants.” Judge Drake explained that ‘persons’ under the age of seven were considered incapable of committing a crime. For children between seven and fourteen,
if there be no proof of capacity, arising out of the case, or by the testimony of witnesses, the presumption is in their favour; a presumption however growing weaker and more easily overcome, the nearer they approach to fourteen. And at the age of this defendant, sufficient capacity is generally possessed in our state of society, by children of ordinary understanding, and having the usual advantages of moral and religious instruction.
You will call to mind the evidence on this subject; and if you are satisfied that he was able, in a good degree, to distinguish between right and wrong; to know the nature of the crime with which he is charged; and that it was deserving of severe punishment, his instance will furnish no obstacle, on the score of incapacity, to his conviction.
The idea that a child between the ages of 7 and 14 could be tried as an adult in a criminal court seems outrageous to us today. It shows what a difference there is between our attitudes toward children from that earlier time. Back then, children were expected to work almost as hard as their parents or guardians did. Hence Little Jim being sent to work all day on his own in a field cutting down corn stalks. As the judge said, “sufficient capacity is generally possessed in our state of society, by children of ordinary understanding.”
Manslaughter or Murder?
Judge Drake told the jury that if they decided that James Guild committed the crime, they must then consider whether the crime was murder or manslaughter. The critical distinction was whether the crime was committed “with malice aforethought.” That would make it murder. All cases of homicide were presumed to be committed with malice aforethought, according to the law, unless there were alleviating circumstances.
The judge quoted from the law: “Manslaughter is the unlawful and felonious killing of another without any malice express or implied.” However, “If a man kill another suddenly, without any, or without considerable provocation, the law implies malice, and the homicide is murder.” In addition, if the homicide was committed with the use of “a deadly weapon,” then it would not qualify as manslaughter. The Judge ordered the jury to
apply these principles to the case before you. You will recollect the slight nature of the provocation. And notwithstanding the eloquent appeal which has been made on this subject to the compassion of the court, I feel it my duty to say to you, that there is nothing in the provocation sufficient to soften the crime into that of manslaughter ; but that, if guilty at all the prisoner is guilty of the crime of murder.
The judge had taken that decision of whether it was manslaughter or murder out of the jury’s hands. It is not too surprising that the jury concluded that Little Jim was guilty. As mentioned above, despite the late hour, the jury took the trouble to debate the issues, spending three and a half hours to come to a decision. Personally, I think the judge really left them no choice.
As promised, the defense lawyers, Saxton and Clark, took their case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the confessions should not have been allowed in the trial. Also, as noted above, prosecutor, William Halsted, argued against their position. As one would expect, there is a lengthy discussion of every legal issue involved, with plenty of citations. I was going to describe the arguments considered by the Supreme Court, but realized that this article as already reached my usual length. It would take another 5 or 6 pages to discuss the appeal, and I suspect most of you would skim over it anyway. So I will skip to the end and quote the Chief Justice’s last words on the subject:
. . Under a deep sense of responsibility, after a careful deliberation, and feeling the strongest impression of the tenderness due to the life of a fellow creature, we hold ourselves bound to advise the Court of Oyer and Terminer not to grant a new trial, but to preceed [sic] to discharge the solemn duty which remains to them, by pronouncing the sentence of the law on the crime of murder.
Next, The Execution and the Epilogue.
Note: The small photograph of an old jail cell shown on the home page was taken by Brian Moran, showing an old jail cell in the Buckhorn Museum, in San Antonio, Texas.
- Information about the original courthouse comes from the Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, Winter 1978, pp. 241-43. ↩
- Hunterdon Gazette, Feb. 20, 1828. See also Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, Winter Spring, and Fall, 1978, pp. 241-43, 253-54, 265. ↩
- There is a long letter to the editor of the Hunterdon Gazette and to Garret D. Wall, Esq., Feb. 20, 1828, regarding the condition of the courthouse. ↩
- Hunterdon Gazette, Feb. 20, 1828. ↩
- The Editor of the Gazette (Charles George) pointed out that the work of restoring the records to their proper place was made more difficult by the fact that many people were slow to pick up their recorded deeds. “Had these papers, with the records of them, fallen a product to the flames, their owners might have burned their fingers in searching for their titles to property among the smoldering ruins. – Those interested would do well to take the hint.” ↩
- Halstead’s name was variously written Halstead and Halsted. The court transcripts always used Halsted. ↩
- Trenton Evening Times, May 12, 1897. ↩
- I have not found a record of the court transcript for the trial in the Court of Oyer & Terminer, and must depend on the summary of it in the NJ Supreme Court transcript. ↩
- Hunterdon Gazette, May 14, 1838. ↩