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APRIL 2001Volume 3 Number 2

Murder and Mayhem Abound in the State Library's Law Collection

Denise Jernigan, Law/Legislative Reference Unit Head

Nineteenth-century readers may have had access to less information, but their fascination with the misdeeds of their fellow humans was no less intense. CSL's law collection has many accounts of murder trials which were reported in detail, even including maps and plans of murder sites, and lengthy, often gruesome descriptions of the crimes. The collection includes trial transcripts and court documents to aid the legal researcher or historian unravel some true-to-life murder mysteries.

Murder in the Manor

Orrin WoodfordThe Geer Company of Hartford published a detailed account of the trial of Orrin Woodford for the 1845 murder of his wife Diana in Avon, Connecticut. The account included the "arguments of counsel" accompanied by "plans of the house and premises, where the homicide was committed,

Three trials; no verdict

In March of 1856, Edward E. Bradley of Woodbury was accused of "wickedly, willfully, feloniously, deliberately and premeditatively" assaulting Lucius H. Foot with a wooden stick and a hammer, causing numerous mortal wounds. The attack was alleged to have occurred in the horse sheds attached to the Episcopal Church in Woodbury. Four separate physicians were called to testify to the extreme nature and extent of the injuries. Dr. Garwood H. Atwood actually brought the victim's skull into the courtroom to display and explain the location of the various wounds to the jury. Mr. Bradley was tried three times, with no verdict being reached. The State's Attorney was forced to give up further prosecution. One of Mr. Foot's colleagues remarked that the twelve jurors necessary to arrive at a guilty verdict were reached but, unfortunately for the State, they were scattered over the three separate panels.

The Real Arsenic and Old Lace Story

The famous case of Amy Archer Gilligan, inspiration for the play and the movie "Arsenic and Old Lace," aroused a huge amount of interest at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mrs. Gilligan was accused of poisoning residents of her old age home in Windsor with arsenic after collecting $1000 from them for life care. According to one account, she did not keep the money for herself but donated it to a local church for its altar fund. The State Library has an extremely detailed volume of court documents leading up to the first opinion of the state Supreme Court in this case. It includes transcripts of the examination of the jurors (Connecticut's unique system of individual "voir dire" which continues even today) and of the direct and cross-examination of the many witnesses. The Supreme Court ultimately overturned the original guilty verdict, which sentenced Mrs. Gilligan to hanging, and sent the case back to the Superior Court for a new trial. This time the lower court handed down a sentence of life imprisonment. Mrs. Gilligan was sent to the state prison in Wethersfield, then to the state mental hospital in Middletown where she died in 1962.

The CSL Law Unit has recently made these and other law case background documents easier to locate and use. These "Record and Briefs" for a case on appeal usually include a series of motions, orders, and opinions from the lower court treatment of the case and arguments. The arguments, or briefs, are designed to provide supporting precedent and logical reasoning which will lead the Court to rule in favor of the attorney's client. Complicated cases may include lengthy reply briefs, appendices, and additional papers submitted by third parties. These last submissions are known as "amicus curiae" briefs, meaning "friend of the court." The earliest records and briefs held by the State Library date to the 1830's; the collection encompasses cases of all types, not just notorious criminal matters.

Note to researchers:
The Connecticut State Library catalog is available online; search by keyword or use subject headings "Trials Individual," "Trials Murder", or "Trials Homicide."

The Law Collection is non-circulating; items classified as "Special Collection" are subject to additional access restrictions.

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