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An Irishman’s “Gust of Passion” in the American Trial Collection

The following is a guest post by Margaret McAleer, Senior Archives Specialist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

I am about to end a three-month detail in the Law Library to return to my regular job in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, where I am a senior archives specialist.  I have enjoyed my time here tremendously—the Law Library’s mission, leadership, staff, holdings, and blawgs are inspiring, and I leave invigorated.

The Law Library’s staff may not know that I spent several happy months in the Law Library reading room while I was researching my dissertation on Irish immigrants in late 18th-century Philadelphia.  Court records are one of the richest narrative sources on the lives of immigrants during the early national period.  The records I found in the Law Library did not disappoint.

An obscure footnote on the admissibility of testimony told me about Owen O’Hara, a young shoemaker from Ulster.  On a pleasant June afternoon in 1797, O’Hara toiled away in an upstairs room while his fellow journeymen gossiped downstairs.  His friend Andrew Aitken, who sailed with him across the Atlantic, seized center stage and repeated a rumor that O’Hara had stolen five sheep in Ireland.  Aitken searched out his friend and told him, “I have been talking about you below this hour”—about the five sheep.  The scene turned gothic when O’Hara grabbed his shoemaker’s knife and plunged it into Aitken’s belly.  “Andy, you are stabbed,” a journeyman shouted.  With an eerie, quiet assurance, Aitken replied, “No, he would as soon stab his brother.”  Aitken collapsed and, within an hour, he was dead.

I needed to know what happened to Owen O’Hara and so I pursued him through newspapers and Pennsylvania’s state archives.  O’Hara was the first person convicted of first-degree murder under the state’s 1794 criminal code that abolished the death penalty for all crimes except first-degree murder.  Members of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice reform movement were outraged at the conviction, and many prominent Philadelphians, including Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin Bache, Francis Bailey, Mathew Carey, and Israel Israel, sent letters to the governor.  O’Hara’s act was as a “gust of passion” and a “delirium of frenzy,” they argued, and “did not originate a minute scarcely before the injury was done.”

On December 23, 1797, the day Owen O’Hara was scheduled to die, two thousand Philadelphians gathered outside the jail.  Time passed, and expectations rose.  Then, at the very last minute, the governor granted O’Hara a month’s respite.  He gave the prisoner one last Christmas and New Year, although it is difficult to know what he expected the young Irishman to make of his gift.  Other respites followed, until at last O’Hara’s name dropped from the record around 1800.

I like to think that the Irishman was put on a ship headed for Ireland.  Of course, if the story of the five sheep was true, this would not have been a happy ending for young Owen.

Here is an illustration from The Book of Trades (Philadelphia: Edward W. Miller, 1847), available online on the Rare Book and Special Collections Division website:

An Interview with Hanibal Goitom, Foreign Law Specialist

This week’s interview is with Hanibal Goitom, a Foreign Law Specialist in our Global Legal Research Center.  Hanibal has previously written two guest posts for In Custodia Legis.  His “Power Lunch” was also discussed in the post There’s No Place Like Home. Describe your background. I am a Foreign Law Specialist at the Law Library […]

State Collections Being Relocated and Where to Find Them

The following is a guest post by Margaret Wood, Legal Reference Specialist in our Public Services Directorate. Here in the Law Library Reading Room we are continuing our work to relocate certain collections in preparation for the Reading Room Remodeling.  The purpose of this post is to give everyone an update about the collections currently […]

Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

The following is a guest post by George Sadek, Senior Legal Information Analyst. Last month I wrote about the constitutional dilemma in Egypt and some of the possibilities for moving forward.  Since then a number of important events have happened, which eventually led to Egyptians voting in favor of constitutional amendments to the 1971 Constitution […]

Cherry Blossoms at the Library of Congress – Pic of the Week

So far for our Pic of the Week series, we’ve taken all of the pictures ourselves.  This week we are featuring a photo from a Library of Congress colleague, Dan Chudnov.  Washington really looks wonderful in the spring, and this picture demonstrates the reawakening that occurs.  In addition to the trees blooming, our city fills […]

Trains and Corruption in China

The corruption of government officials in China, as in a number of other countries, is a major concern and attempts to investigate and prosecute instances of corruption can generate a lot of public attention – particularly if a senior official or significant project is the subject of the investigation.  This has been the case with […]

Classes Offered by the Law Library of Congress

The following is a guest post by Shameema Rahman, Legal Reference Specialist in our Public Services Division. Do you know the Law Library offers two classes to the public: Orientation to Legal Research and THOMAS Orientation? Orientation to Legal Research and the Use of Law Library Collections is a basic introduction to legal sources and […]