Autograph Letter Signed. 3pp.+ address leaf, hand-carried To [US District Court] Judge [John] Davis, Boston. Rare document, unknown to the American historian who recently published a detailed account of the Smith case.
Plaintive plea for mercy by the “disconsolate” wife of 29 year-old Baltimore sea captain Joseph Findley Smith, the first American convicted under US laws of 1808 and 1818 outlawing the transatlantic slave trade. In April 1820 Smith’s schooner, the Plattsburgh, was captured off the west African coast by the US Naval warship Cyane on orders from President James Monroe to seize US merchant vessels engaged in the illegal trade. While the Plattsburgh had no African natives aboard, it had been secretly outfitted as a slaver in Spanish Cuba with 50 sets of slave shackles and deck cannons and carried fictitious papers of “Spanish” ownership. Smith was arrested and taken to Boston, where, in January 1821, in a trial presided over by US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, he was found guilty, and, with Monroe’s hope that he would be “made an example of”, sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. The trial was a small media sensation, newspapers exclaiming that Smith was fortunate not to be indicted under a later law that made slave-trading punishable by death. More than a year later, while Smith, from his jail cell, begged Monroe for a pardon, the “decent but poor girl” he had married just before sailing for Africa met with the President and Story, both men being sympathetic to this “suffering daughter of America” and the Justice advising her to have her husband confess to and apologize for his crime and implicate the secret owners of his ship and their Cuban confederates. The impoverished Smith, who was had not profited at all from the illegal voyage, complied, and was released from jail on August 30, 1822.
Mrs. Smith wrote (in part) to the federal judge who had presided at a related slave-trade trial: “…I am the disconsolate wife of the unfortunate Joseph F. Smith, who is now confined in Boston Jail for being taken by the American armed vessel the Cyane in the midst of comfort and happiness, enjoyed by the American citizens…I am ready to exclaim, woe is me, or why is my lot cast continually to misery and pain, or why am I to linger out a miserable existence… my unhappy husband… you were a witness to his trial and condemnation. …we were not more than three months married, before he took his leave of me, and he has not yet returned. And, oh, heavens had I only known what voyage he was going he should never have left me, no, he should still been with me and both been happy in poverty. I have done all that lay in my power for Mr. Smith’s release and restoration. I have three times seen the President [Monroe] and once I have seen Judge Story, they both seam to partake of my sorrows, and truly feel for my distressed and forlorn situation and since Mr. Smith has made his full confession…they now both seam willing to release my husband if I can obtain your consent…I sincerely pray you, to aid an assist me, in having my dear husband released and restored to me once more. Affricks [Africa's] coast shall never see him again.Mercy is a darling attribute in which I am willing to believe you highly prize… My drooping spirits, has in some measure revived, since I saw the President, and Judge Story. The Interest they seamed to take, the tender politeness in which they received and parted with me, has left an impression on my mind, time can never erase, and also gives me hopes my troubles will shortly end, by Mr. Smiths release, …I hope you will excuse a suffering daughter of America…stretch forth your hand to raise a suffering fellow creature…”