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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:

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