Daniel Webster at court

The Sham Robbery of Elijah Goodrich on his own person, tried in Ipswich

*From Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Thomas Franklin Waters:

From time to time the most eminent lawyers appeared as counsel in the Ipswich Court. Once at least, Daniel Webster conducted a case and addressed the jury with marvellous power. One Friday afternoon in the year 1817, three men called on Mr. Webster at his Boston office. His visitors proved to be friends and neighbors of Levi and Laban Kenniston, accused of robbing a certain Major Goodridge on the highway, whose trial would take place at Ipswich the next day. They desired him to undertake the defence, saying that no member of the Essex bar would act on their behalf.

Mr. Webster declared that no fee could tempt him to forego his vacation trip. “Well”, was the reply of one of the delegation, “it isn’t the fee that we think of at all, though we are willing to pay what you may charge; but its justice. Here are two New Hampshire men who are believed in Exeter and Newbury and Newburyport and Salem to be rascals; but we in Newmarket believe, in spite of all evidence against them, that they are the victims of some conspiracy. We suppose that men whom we know to have been honest all their lives can’t have become such desperate rogues all of a sudden.”

“But I cannot take the case”, persisted Mr. Webster, “I am worn to death with overwork, I have not had any real sleep for forty-eight hours. Besides I know nothing of the case.”

“But you’re a New Hampshire man,” he continued, “and the neighbors thought that you would not allow two innocent New Hampshire men however humble they may be in their circumstances, to suffer for lack of your skill in exposing the wiles of this scoundrel Goodridge. The neighbors all desire you to take the case.”


Their simple plea carried him back to his country home, and the kindly offices of the neighbors in every time of sickness or trouble he had known so often in his boyhood. “Well, said he, ruefully, “if the neighbors think I may be of service, of course I must go” and he was soon seated in the stage for Ipswich, where he arrived about midnight.

The court met the next morning and his management of the case is still considered one of his masterpieces of legal acumen and eloquence. Circumstantial evidence seemed to settle the guilt of his clients beyond question. No respectable lawyer would risk his own reputation in their defence. No motive could be imagined, which should prompt Goodridge to shoot his own hand and rob himself.

Webster had discovered that Goodrich was deep in debt, had bribed a woman to testify for him and was present when evidence against the men was “discovered.” After a cross-examination of the accuser, which rivalled the tortures of the Inquisition, he turned to the jury. Addressing them familiarly in simple language, he assailed the argument for the prosecution, and appealed to the jury whether such inconsistencies and improbabilities should have any weight:

“If the jury were satisfied that there was the highest improbability that these persons could have had any previous knowledge of Goodridge or been concerned in any previous concert to rob him, it is for the jury to say!

If their conduct that evening and the next day was marked by no circumstances of suspicion, it is for the jury to say!

If from that moment until their arrest nothing appeared against them it is for the jury to say!

If they neither passed money nor are found to have had money, it is for the jury to say!

If the manner of the search of their house and the circumstances attending it excite strong suspicions of unfair and fraudulent practices, it is for the jury to say!

If in the hour of their utmost peril, no promises of safety could draw from the defendants any confessions affecting themselves or others, it would be for the jury to say whether they could pronounce them guilty!”

When the case was given to the jury, their verdict was, “Not guilty.” Not only were the Kennistons vindicated but the public which almost unanimously had denounced them as villains, deserving the severest punishment, soon recognized their innocence.

Goodridge disappeared soon after the trial. Some twenty years after, Mr. Webster while travelling in western New York stopped at a village tavern for a glass of water. The hand of the man behind the bar who gave it to him, trembled violently. Mr. Webster, looking him steadily in the eye, recognized Goodridge and it was evident that Goodridge knew him.





1 thought on “The Sham Robbery of Elijah Goodrich on his own person, tried in Ipswich”

  1. Gordon, I enjoyed reading about the “sham robbery” of Elijah Goodrich that occasioned Daniel Webster to agree to plead for the defendants Levi and Laban Kenniston.

    Daniel’s entreaty to forgo the case because of other obligations reminds me of Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1936 great story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Daniel finally agrees to defend the hapless Jabez Stone who has sold his soul to the devil:

    “Yes,” said Dan’l Webster. “I’ve got about seventy-five other things to do and the Missouri Compromise to straighten out, but I’ll take your case. For if two New Hampshiremen aren’t a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians.”

    Interesting coincidence. Needless to say, Webster prevailed in each case.

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