Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Extortion Trial of 1861, Jury Selection & Questions about Ellen Shaw: Part 2

In part one we were introduced to Captain A.B. Shaw.  Using period sources we found out where he was born, who he married and we learned about his children.  We discovered that he owned quite a bit of prime real estate on Union Avenue in Memphis and that his "property" included 14 household slaves.  All told he was valued at $105,000 in 1860.  He was the proprietor of A.B.Shaw & Co and transported people and products throughout the south.  He was also the co-owner of a company named Whipple & Shaw.  He helped thwart the escape of a slave down at the wharf.  He served as an Alderman for the city of Memphis and his wife Ellen made a flag for the Memphis Light Guards.  

Except for the occasional illness or death in the family, life seemed very nice for the Shaws until 1861 when his wife, Ellen Jane McLean Shaw, was accused with Charles N. Martin of extorting money from Dr. Samuel Gilbert, a prominent Memphian, in the amount of $10,000.  The trial was quite the sensation and took place over the course of  several days.  The following report comes from the Daily Appeal, August 9, 1861.


At the criminal court yesterday afternoon Charles N. Martin and Ellen Shaw, wife of A.B. Shaw, were called for trial on the charge of "wilfully (sic) and maliciously extorting from Dr. Samuel Gilbert five promisory  (sic) notes, to the amount of ten thousand dollars, and his signature to a deed of trust upon real estate, to secure the same--by means of verbal threats upon his life."  Attorney-General Eldridge and Messers. Sale, Farrington and Poston appeared for the prosecution, and Messrs. King, Yerger, Brown and Payne for the defendant.

Judge King applied for a severance, so that the two prisoners might each have a separate trial.  The court granted the severance applied for, and Charles N. Martin was put upon trial.  By the waving of a technical objection, it was admitted that Mrs. Shaw should be made a witness in the case. 

The selection of a jury was then proceeded with .  The challengers were numerous.  The defense in several instances put the question to jurymen:  "To what church do you belong/"  This was understood to be done owing to the fact that the prosecutor in the case, Mr. Gilbert, has long been a member of the Methodist church.  The prosecution permitted the question to be put, upon the understanding that it was not to be considered in any sens as a legal precedent.

When eight jurymen had been obtained the court adjourned until eight o'clock this morning.

Why would the wife of a wealthy merchant become entangled in a case of extortion against another prominent citizen of Memphis?  Depending on which source you look at Ellen was anywhere from 7 to 15  years younger than her husband.  Was she tired of being married to an "old" man who by all reports was not in the best of health?  How did the young Charles Martin come to live in the house with the Shaw's as was reported in the 1860 Census?  

In 1858 Captain Shaw was liquidating his Memphis estate with plans to move to Louisiana yet there was no move.  In 1859 he placed a notice in the newspaper that he was not responsible for any debts incurred without his or his agents written order.  What prompted the liquidation and the subsequent notice?   Had Ellen been racking up debts on her own or had someone, possibly the young Charles Martin, been encouraging her?  

Charles had been referred to as her "chaperon", was that a code word for lover?  At this point it seems reasonable to think that Capt. Shaw was trying to remove his family from Memphis, hence the sale.  Something happened to prevent the move, perhaps it was the death of their son John or perhaps Capt. Shaw became ill.  His next attempt was to curb any debts except those signed by him which meant Ellen was no longer free to spend money.  It seems likely that these steps by Captain Shaw spurred Ellen and Charles to come up with the extortion scheme.

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