Editor’s Note: Clement Laird Vallandigham (1820 – 1871) was a Democrat Congressman from Ohio, US. A lawyer by profession, he was a leading figure of the anti-war faction of the Democratic Party in the historic US Civil war and also a proponent for the ‘New Departure’ policy, which was established by the progressive and liberal members of the Democratic party to redress the wounds of the Civil War. The following piece is a short account of his accidental death to prove a point for his client.
By Adib Shamsuddin
“I have foolishly shot myself ”
These were the last words of lawyer and Congressman Clement Vallandigham before succumbing to fatal self-inflicted gunshot injuries. Vallandigham was demonstrating the innocence of his client Thomas McGehan, who as later turned out to be, was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It all started with a bar fight in the Christmas of 1870 in Hamilton, Ohio. The alleged victim Thomas Myers and defendant McGehan were never in the best of terms. When the witnesses later sought to recount their tales, naturally McGehan’s name came up again and again. Though no one could actually confirm that he was indeed the killer, but many vouched that he was at least one of the gatecrashers that eventful night. Everyone was convinced who the killer was, except Clement Vallandigham.
After the prosecution had rested their case, Vallandigham set out to conduct the demonstration that made his odd tale one worth telling. In his hotel, the lawyer had just begun to explain a visitor how Myers had actually shot himself and that his client McGehan was innocent.
He grabbed a pistol, put it in his pocket, drew it slowly, turned the muzzle on himself and pulled the trigger. He realized what he did, albeit a little too late.
Bang. “The unfortunate advocate had demonstrated the reasonableness of his theory,” reported the Leeds Times, “but at the cost of his life.”
The bullet was thought to have lodged in the vicinity of his bladder, but the effort of the surgeons to locate it was unsuccessful. Vallandigham breathed his last the next day, peritonitis was cited as the official cause of his death.
Thus he secured Mcgehan’s life in exchange of his, the Court acquitted the defendant. However, McGehan was shot to death after four years in a saloon of Hamilton.
“The Hamiltonians threatened to take his life if he attempted to make his home in that city,” said Ohio’s splendidly named Tiffin Tribune, “and they evidently don’t like to be caught in a lie about a small matter of that kind.”
Adib Shamsuddin is a final year Law student at the University of London.