If the Pritchard and Tichborne Cases are still discussed and known by many people, the trial of Willie Freeman (1846) is less known to the public. Yet it is of interest - for the curious effect it had on Whig and Democratic political history in the 1840s and 1850s.
Willie Freeman was an African-American who went mad and killed several members of a white farm family. He was put on trial in upstate New York. The prosecutor was John Van Buren, the oldest son of former U.S. President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was a popular Democratic figure at the time, nicknamed "Prince John", who was thought to be the future of the national party as first Governor of New York, and then as President of the United States. But Freeman was defended by upstate Whig leader William Seward.
Seward was a very good lawyer, and he won a groundbreaking decision - Freeman was found guilty but insane, despite Van Buren's hardest attempts to prove him guilty but sane. As a result, Seward's star rose in politics, until he became New York's Senator in Washington, than Governor, and then a potential Presidential Candidate for the Republicans in 1860. Lincoln got the nomination and the Presidency, but made Seward his Secretary of State - a job he held into the Andrew Johnson administration, which he capped by buying Alaska in 1867. But while he went on, John Van Buren's career collapsed. His early promise fizzled as he became more of an alcoholic.
Joseph Cotton is Seward here (better casting than when he was chosen as Pritchard in the earlier episode of the series). John Van Buren is Henry Daniell (good in one way - Daniell would be a merciless cross-examiner - but Daniell is just a tad too old to be John Van Buren, who was in his early forties at most at this time).
I just wonder if the series kept the fact that Willie was an African-American. I see that his wife is played by Jeanette Nolan, who was white, so I wonder if Robert (or Bob) Nichols was also white. If so, part of the drama of the actual story is somewhat lost.
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