Hal Roth - March 2007
Old News from Delmarva:
The Trial of John R. Plater – Conclusion
Last month’s issue contains testimony in the trial of John R. Plater for the murder of his wife, Elisa C. Plater, a case removed from Talbot to Dorchester County, Maryland.
Plater had met and married Elisa, a woman much younger than he, in Virginia in 1865, then soon abandoned her. After learning that Plater had taken up residence in Talbot County, Mrs. Plater traveled there in 1871 to join him, only to find her husband living with a black woman. Elisa moved in with them, but Plater soon became physically abusive and she appealed for help to representatives of the Talbot County Court, who convinced her to return to Virginia.
Still, she longed to be with her husband, and upon receiving a letter informing her that he was ill, she returned to Maryland, only to be met once again by an irate and abusive Plater, who immediately removed his mistress and all food and furniture from the house, locked the doors and windows and left. Later that evening, Plater and two employees returned the wagons and horses and discovered that Elisa had managed to reenter the house and build a fire against the winter cold. Sending his men on to the barn, Plater proceeded to the house alone.
Later that night, Mrs. Plater’s body was discovered behind a fence on the property.
On February 13, 1873, Maryland Attorney General A. K. Syester offered a two-and-a-half-hour summation of the case that he and his colleague, Howard M. Milbourne, had presented, arguing for a conviction of murder against John R. Plater. You are unlikely to find a more eloquent and impassioned plea to a jury.
After a brief preliminary statement, Syester informed the jury that before he proceeded to a discussion of the facts in the case and reviewed the principles of law connected with those facts, he had something to say about the attitude and remarks of the counsel for the defense.
“This is a tribunal whose proceedings are regulated and governed by certain defined principles and rule, applicable to the trial of all cases, and without respect to rank, station or condition in life, these principles are applied. They are to prevail in the trial of the high as well as the low, the proud as well as the humble, the rich as well as the poor. They constitute the law of the land, that law whose impartial administration has made this people the greatest, the happiest, most secure and free in all the world; yet from the beginning to the end of this case, counsel for the prisoner have complained that the ‘strict rules of law’ have been invoked by the prosecution against the prisoner. They murmur because the prosecution would wink at no relaxation in this particular, and offset a tone of complaint because the prisoner has been tried and shall be judged by those laws whose statutes he has broken and whose judgments he has already so grossly violated.
“Who and what is John R. Plater that these ancient rules of law that have for unbroken centuries enfolded society with their protection and panoplied the lives and liberties of the people shall be abandoned? And on what meat doth our learned brothers for the defense feed, that their clamorous notes shall be heard, inveighing against rules and principles that have been consecrated by the approval and adoption of the wisest and best of many ages? Counsel say they wished to lay bare all the facts in this case and conceal nothing, yet before this jury was sworn, the prisoner moved for a continuance of his case, and in the affidavit filed in support of his motion, he deliberately and willfully suppressed one of the leading facts in this case––a fact of which Plater has more knowledge than any other human being now living, namely, the fact that Eliza C. Plater, named in the indictment, was his own, his wedded wife.
“In the affidavit the words ‘Elisa C. Plater’ are stricken out and ‘the woman named in the indictment’ inserted. This is the defense that has clamored for days before this jury for the introduction of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Can anyone now, after the proofs in this case are considered, doubt that ‘the woman named in the indictment’ was the wife of this prisoner? The marriage certificate, Mrs. Jackson’s testimony, Plater’s own letters to her all conclusively show that to be a fact, which this prisoner knew and knowingly attempted to falsify. From that circumstance alone, gentlemen of the jury, could you judge of the relative character of husband and wife––who was true and who was false.
“Without any evidence whatever, the defense, with the concurrence of the prisoner at the bar, assailed the memory of his dead wife. Observe with what malignity he pursues her memory. He had caused the lines of her young life to run out in tears and sorrow. He blasted and blighted all the joys of her existence, and now, over her voiceless and deserted grave, he attempts to wither that which is dearer to a woman than her life. He deliberately attempts to blacken her memory and tarnish her name. Who could doubt the fitness of such an agent to do murder? How determined his malignity. How imperishable his hatred against this weary, heart-broken lady. He needs but the opportunity. Give him only a chance at her life, and who can doubt his readiness and ability to take it?
“The gentleman who spoke last said that she was disgraced and dishonored by living in the house of her husband under the circumstances she did. The sublime devotion of that wife to her husband is laid before you as evidence of the character of this unfortunate lady. She trusted him––that was all. She trusted him perhaps too far. He met her in the morn and liquid dews of life, when contagious blastments [sic] were most imminent, happy in the love of home and family. And would to God that in that hour she had died. Gentle memories would have gathered around her early grave and she would have been spared the bitter cup, which the hand of a ruffian husband pressed to her unwilling but uncomplaining lips. But the ways of God are not those of men, and she was reserved for the saddest, most mournful fate that ever clouded the life of woman with misery and despair.
“Never before did the history of a case present such persistent, deathless, personal malignity and special malice, visited on the defenseless head of a woman who had clung to her husband through evil and good report. The undeviating trust and deathless devotion of his wife were made to cry out against her honor. To her he had been everything in life; on him she had bestowed the un-searchable richness of her heart, and when the hour of separation was upon her, like one of old, she would not, could not be still. The language that faithful woman holds to the object of her love when about to part is very old, but very beautiful: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, nor to cease from following after thee. For where thou goest, I will go; thy people shall be my people; thy God my God; and where thou diest, there will I be buried. And may the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’
“Have any of the jurors a daughter? What fate is in store for her? Who can tell her end? A stranger gains her love. She crowns his brow with a constellation of every honor and virtue, leans on his strong arm and, trusting him, turns her back upon her home and friends and faces the world with him alone. He carries her among strangers. He neglects and abuses her. He murders her peace. He murders her life and finally attempts to murder her reputation and honor. Ah, gentlemen of the jury, it would be a bitter reflection in such an hour for you to think that you had once tamely listened to such obloquy heaped upon such a daughter and such a wife.
“Did the realms of the damned ever produce a more brutal, inhuman, marble-visaged demon than this––to play on the peace, life and honor of the innocent––and can you extend to him the slightest sympathy? Will you not rather demand of him a rigid account of his stewardship and hold him close to the highest obligations demanded by the laws of man and God?
“Counsel for the defense have assailed the memory of this unhappy wife, and burning words and bitter expressions have been poured forth on her character. Who that have heard this sad story of wrong, injustice and cruelty toward one of the frailest and saddest of human beings did not feel, as they listened to these aspersions, like rising and exclaiming, ‘Spare her, Mr. Plater; spare her memory for the name you bear. Enough she has suffered in that name; do not trample on the fallen and dead. For the love of God, spare her humble name. You will meet her no more in this world. Her neglected grave, which you would never look upon, conceals her wasted body forever. But there comes a day when that weary, heartbroken victim will meet you in the court above the sun, where the oppressor’s rod is broken, where the feeble one is strong and where earthly distinctions fade away. And there, a bright angel, she will accuse you, and with her fair hair dabbled in her own innocent blood, shed by your hands, shriek into your shrinking ear, false, fleeting and perjured.’
“How often are the great rules of right perverted in man’s administration of justice? How often are the innocent, the helpless and the blameless in life called upon to bear the burdens that ought to rest on the guilty alone? The heart grows sick when we see those by whom crime and ruin are brought into the world, those who sport with innocence only to turn it into vice, who toy with love and make a plaything of truth, not only go unscathed of justice but are applauded by the paid and hired panderers of a debauched and depraved sentiment.”
Syester then proceeded to review the testimony in regard to the letter that had brought Mrs. Plater to Easton.
“It is not important whether or not Plater wrote it. Whether it was written by Plater or not is a question of doubt, but one thing is certain: Sally Brice was not the author. The loss of the letter is a circumstance against the prisoner, as is his first thought the morning after the murder to send for his lawyer, Mr. Martin. Together, they doubtless ransacked Mrs. Plater’s effects and took from them everything of a character damaging to the accused. Mrs. Plater believed the letter represented Mr. Plater’s condition truly, and as a devoted wife she hastened to his bedside––her place by the laws of men and the laws of God.”
Syester traced Eliza’s journey from Lynchberg to Baltimore, from Baltimore to Easton and from Easton to the house of her husband. He described the scene there and dwelt upon the state of the weather, the remorseless husband turning her from the house, nailing down the windows, locking the door, leaving her in the loneliness and desolation.
“It was such a night when the cub-drawn bear, the hungry lion and the pinch-bellied wolf would keep their fur warm and dry, and yet in all this loneliness and despair no thought of suicide occurred to that brave woman. That was the supreme moment, and yet we find her strong and resolute, unyielding to the cold floods of despair that were then rolling around her.”
The attorney general next recited the circumstances attending the case, all of which, he contended, established that a crime was committed and pointed with almost infallible certainty to John Plater as the guilty party. Referring to the torn papers found on top of the snow near Mrs. Plater’s corpse, Syester said they disclosed the true character of the defendant’s attempts to mislead inquiry and stifle the truth. In answer to Plater’s plea of an alibi, Syester argued that Mrs. Plater must have been at the house when Plater arrived there.
“Bryan swears he saw a light, and the gloves and hat she wore to Emma Hughes were found scattered on the floor by Bryan when he went to the house a half hour after Plater. Thus Plater was at the house with the deceased for at least thirty minutes before anyone else came. Plater’s whole conduct preceding and subsequent to the transaction indicates a most obdurate and brutal disposition and presents us with a fit and ready agent for the commission of a dark and revolting crime like this. His mortal malice and deadly malignity against her marks every step of the inquiry. He first wronged her, and although for a time he seemed to be an affectionate husband, the oft-repeated story of indifference, then neglect, then dislike, and finally of special hatred and malice is told. He deserted her. Long years of anxious doubt and persistent inquiry follow, and at last she learns his home. Her weary feet carry her still more weary heart to him. She is first met with rudeness, then spurned, then beaten and scourged almost to madness and death. The trial was too much for even her sublime devotion and she returns to her home in Virginia. Then came the letter telling of his illness, and the blighted hopes that still tenanted her breaking heart are revived. She is all excitement, leaves for Easton, goes to his house and is rudely expelled. The windows are nailed down and the doors are locked against her. Who could hesitate to believe that the heart that could entertain cruelty and inhumanity like this against one of the frailest of all human beings would shrink from the more deadly purpose of murder itself?”
Syester spoke of the occurrences on the morning when Mrs. Plater’s body was discovered.
“The prisoner did not send for a coroner nor the State’s Attorney, but for his lawyer. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to have destroyed the letter.”
He spoke of the absence of testimony about the return of Mrs. Plater.
“Those who would have known these circumstances––Rebecca Cornish and the boy Ross, Plater’s servants, friends and companions––where are they? How is it that they have left the place where they were born and reared? They knew too much for the safety of the prisoner. The defense say Mrs. Plater never alluded to this letter as the reason why she returned. Who is here to say she did not? The only account of that meeting is from Plater himself through Bryan, and he who can deliberately swear he was never married to this lady is a fit instrument to conceal any fact and distort any truth in this case.”
The attorney general next proceeded to examine defense attacks on the chemical analysis.
“Mr. Thomas has advanced the astounding theory that the strychnine may have settled to the bottom of the liquid. How was it, then, that when Dr. Aiken dropped one-thousandth part of a grain of strychnine into the same substance, the result was most marked?”
Syester refuted the supposition advanced by defense counsel that strychnine might be present in the stomach of the deceased but none of it in the portion examined by Dr. Aiken with the sworn testimony of medical experts, who all agreed that the substance would inevitably have been diffused through the whole contents of the stomach.
After directing the jury’s attention to principals of the law and reading from a variety of authorities and rulings, the prosecutor turned again to the facts of the case.
“Both sides take the ground that the deceased came to her death by unnatural causes. Now, what was this unnatural cause? Strychnine poisoning?”
He reviewed the evidence bearing upon that theory: the appearance of the body, the testimony of medical experts, the chemical analysis and the testimony of Susan Wilson.
“Everything fails,” he scoffed. “Science and skilled observation cannot discover any indication of strychnine poisoning. The energetic manner and resolution of this brave woman negate any idea that she had thoughts of suicide, although she had been treated as one would hardly treat a rabid dog. She did not mean to die but was preparing to live. She built up a fire and went to a neighbor and borrowed comforts, used every precaution to render her situation tolerable if not comfortable.
“Where could she have bought the strychnine? Not in Easton. When did she buy it? Not when she was going on her mission of love, when her heart was throbbing with bounding hopes and the future was radiant with joyous promises. Who can imagine that Mrs. Plater looked forward, when she left Lynchburg, to the treatment she received when she reached, for the last time, this shore far famed for the hospitality of its homes and the generosity and chivalry of its citizens? It was not until she reached Plater’s house that the fond illusion that had beckoned her away was dispelled, and then it was impossible to have procured the strychnine.”
Syester sketched the treatment received by Mrs. Plater with great vigor and a vivid imagination: Plater leaving her alone at the house, then returning to extinguish the fire and remove all furniture and food.
“Then would have been the time for her to commit suicide, but when Bryan, Ross and Plater came back after supper, the light in the window showed that she was alive and in the room.”
The prosecutor dramatized the scene that he envisioned next: “The infuriated and brutal husband confronting the weak, timid, shrinking wife; her hasty flight, evidenced by the hat and gloves scattered on the floor; the hot, fierce pursuit; the short, deadly struggle; the last feeble effort of her life as evidenced by the abrasions on her knees; the last prayer for mercy and for life; the smothered shriek; the dying groan; the silent, pulseless heart and the body straightening and stiffening for the grave.”
In conclusion the attorney general admonished the jury of the grave and solemn responsibilities of their position. No ordinary trust, he said, was reposed in them.
“Interests and issues far more momentous and solemn than the life or death, liberty or captivity of a citizen are staked on your verdict. It is too fashionable for juries to forget the past, to overlook the fearful and deadly consequences of crime in the interests that so commonly center around the accused. The securities of homes, the salvation of society, the protection of the lives of all the people are as distinctly staked on this verdict as the joys and sorrows of the prisoner or his friends. This crowded hall attests that it is felt that this day’s business comprehends something of far more value to the community than the liberation, captivity or death of the prisoner.”
Syester warned the jury against turning the defendant free again to prey on the peace of families and the order of society. “You cannot be insensible,” he pleaded, “to the interest the public take in this day’s business. Your verdict will stand for years a monumental point in the history and tradition of this people. Your names will for many years to come be associated with its results, and that verdict will stand long after those who now crowd this ample hall shall slumber in their graves. Nor marble, nor the monuments of princes, nor bronze statues shall outlive its powerful influences for good or for evil on society. Your verdict will outlive yourselves, and tongues to be and lips unborn that verdict will rehearse, when all the breathers of this world are still.”
The all-male jury delivered a verdict of manslaughter, and Plater was sentenced to five years in the Maryland Penitentiary.
You can reach Hal Roth at email@example.com.