Autograph Letter Signed (“Wm.J.”). . 3pp.address leaf. To his 16 year-old sister Harriet, via their father, Doctor Nathaniel Jacob, Canandaigua, NY.
A city toll-gate keeper writes his teen-aged sister about the execution of Henry Shorter, a 24 year-old black man, for the murder of Stephen Brush, a 19 year-old white youth who offended Shorter inciting an angry exchange and resulting in Shorter stabbing Brush to death.
“…went to attend the execution of Shorter, who was condemned to be hung for the murder of Brush, it being the first time I even beheld a man’s life taken amid shouts of applause or joy… from those without the limits of the ground who could not see but hear when the platform fell and which was heartrending to hear. I was one of the officers chosen for assisting in the execution. When he was taken down I assisted in extricating the rope from his neck and then carried him aloft in the jail for his friends to take...It was a solemn thing to behold him drop the distance of six feet and fetch up on nothing but air. When he was led forth from the dungeon dressed in a white robe and a white cap upon his head I was inspired with feelings which I never shall forget. I had been in and conversed with him about a week before his execution. He seemed resigned to his fate but when he ascended the scaffold and beheld the group of officers, ministers, and jurymen that were to behold him plunged into eternity he there declared himself innocent and censured the officers and mayor for perjuring themselves against him...On the drop he said "I die an innocent man." The world knew better. But alas he died with a lie in his mouth. I will send you … the confession he made… "
Close to midnight one evening in September 1848, Stephen Brush, a 19 year-old white youth and several friends who lived in a blue-collar industrial section of Buffalo, were returning from a Minstrel show, laughing about one of the characters in the cast who had played a “Negro servant”. Brush apparently used the “N-“ word just as he was passing two young black men – 24 year-old Henry Shorter, a hotel barber from Fredonia, and a friend who had just moved to New York from Ohio. Shorter took offense and an angry exchange ensued. Shorter pulled out a dirk knife and attacked Brush, pursuing him into the street, where he stabbed him in the abdomen, on the arm, cutting off one of his fingers, and above his eye. The Black men ran off as bystanders carried Brush to a tavern, where he soon died. A police investigation led, within hours, to the home of Shorter, who was awakened and arrested when blood was found on his hands and clothing. He allegedly confessed to the killing, saying it was unpremeditated, “the impulse of the moment”, and that his friend had nothing to do with the crime. Local newspapers called this a “cold blooded murder committed in our streets upon an unsuspecting and inoffensive citizen”. Brought to trial, Shorter was represented by two brothers, leading criminal attorneys of Buffalo; they found most prospective jurors had already formed an opinion of Shorter’s guilt. During the trial, the lawyers argued that Shorter, despite his alleged confession, had acted in self-defense. 20 witnesses were called for the prosecution, 10 for the defense who testified as to Shorter’s “good character”. The Judge instructed the jury not to regard Shorter as rich or poor, white or black, but just to consider the facts as presented in court. The jury deliberated for 8 hours and returned with a verdict of guilty. Before pronouncing sentence, the Judge stressed that he Shorter had received a fair trial, (as had his Black friend, who was acquitted of the crime and set free.) He then pronounced the sentence of death by hanging as Shorter silently betrayed “considerable emotion”. Shorter’s lawyers - one of whom was about to emigrate to Gold Rush San Francisco – appealed to the New York Supreme Court. Shorter told the Justices that he had “provocation” for attacking Bush, and that some witnesses had lied about details of the incident. His Appeal was denied; the execution, delayed for eight months, was set for August 1849 – the event described in Jacob’s letter. According to news reports, Shorter’s last words were on the scaffold were , “I am about to leave you. I die innocent of the crime of murder.” He hoped “God will forgive” the city officials who had had “testified falsely against me.”