|Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Great Diamond Hoax - Chapter XI|
Technicalities Fall Before True and Perjured Testimony and Author is Quickly Convicted of Treason.
We Find Consolation in Lock of Proof Until a Foolish Remark Causes Weakling to Turn Informer.
As I said, Rubery, Libby and myself were, brought from Alcatraz to the Broadway jail, while Greathouse was enlarged on bail. We remained there over six months, while the Government was preparing for our trial.
At that time there was published in San Francisco a paper called the American Flag. It perished peacefully after the war ended, but while it lasted, outclassed every publication of the North in downright ferocity, not alone to the cause of the South, but to every person of Southern parentage. It demanded that we be tried on a charge of piracy - a capital offense. But the closest examination of the law proved that no such, accusation was tenable. The final indictment was for high treason. That also used to be a capital crime, but such a multitude of treason charges were brought during the war that Congress stayed the hand of the executioner and made the offense punishable only by imprisonment and fine.
Even that charge might have come to naught. Against us was the accomplice Law, whose unsupported evidence was not sufficient. The armament found on the Chapman might have been intended for a filibuster expedition against a Central American State. The false custom-house papers might be explained in the same way, also the secret preparations for leaving the port, for the United States Government was bound to intercept any illicit expeditions against friendly powers. Some general literature of an inflammatory "secesh" character was found on us, but our natural inclinations were a matter of public knowledge in San Francisco. Finally the scraps of torn paper collected on the Chapman by Captain Lees and pasted together, while incriminating, were not complete and hardly admissible in a court of justice. In other words, while there was an ocean of suspicion, the prosecution could offer very little proof. Our best friends knew that the indictment was true enough, but to maintain it according to the rules of evidence was another thing.
The needed testimony, however, was supplied through some senseless talk of Greathouse. I have always contended that a man's worst enemy is his mouth, and there never was a better illustration. Greathouse visited us one day at the Broadway jail. He was handsomely caparisoned, full of spirits and I think had just risen from a good dinner, or rather lunch. Libby asked him anxiously about our prospects. "Well," said Greathouse, "they are not exactly flattering. I guess all of us will have to go to prison for a long term, but," he added somewhat grandly, "I will be able to buy my way out." He didn't say a word about the rest of us.
This remark started Libby to thinking. He was scared stiff before. Now he became a nervous wreck. He knew that Greathouse was powerful enough to be at large on bail. He knew that Rubery and I had influential connections. He was himself a poor fellow from Canada, adrift on the Pacific Coast, without a cent or a friend. He saw himself made what we moderns call the "goat" for the whole Chapman incident and concluded that the wisest thing was to look out for his own hide. Somehow I have never had it in my heart to blame Libby overmuch for whatever happened. My impression is that he intended to "sit tight" until he thought himself left in the lurch.
Be that as it may, the day after the visit of Greathouse, Libby sent for the United States District Attorney, made a complete statement of all he knew concerning the outfitting of the Chapman and our designs against the commerce of the coast, adding, I am sorry to say, some details that were false.
This confession, brought on as I believe by the foolish talk of Greathouse, absolutely sealed our doom.
We were brought to trial on October 2 in the United States Circuit Court, Judge Stephen J. Field and Judge Ogden Hoffman sitting in bank, with an array of eminent counsel on each side. It did not take long to pick a jury in those days. The very dogs of San Francisco knew of the Chapman case, yet the twelve good men and true who swore they were unbiased were impaneled in less than an hour. Some of them were later noted. Here are the names: John Wheeler, Jacob Schrieber, A. S. Iredale, Samuel Millbury, Joseph D. Pearson, Joseph A. Conboie, G. W. Chesley, J. K. Osgood, James W. Towne and W. P. C. Stebbins.
The evidence against us was overwhelming. Law and Libby told their stories in great detail. About half of it was rank perjury. They related conversations that never took place. Also incidents that existed only in their imaginations. Everything was set forth in its blackest light. The witnesses were well drilled and were not shaken by cross-examination. All of the other incidents were proved, the purchase of the ship through a custom-house broker named Bunker, the purchase of cannon and arms, the false manifest of the vessel and the assemblage of a considerable fighting force. The Government also proved that Greathouse and myself were citizens of the United States, not of the revolted States, while Rubery was classed as a common foreign adventurer. This, it seems, was necessary to establish the charge of high treason.
Our lawyers made the best of a bad job. They argued manfully many points of law concerning which I have no recollection, except that they contended that the mere loading of a ship with arms did not constitute a crime any more than buying a pistol constituted murder; that in order to constitute the overt act the ship must sail for its destination. On this point the court held that leaving the wharf and laying to in the stream constituted "sailing."
Finally our counsel made a grandstand bluff. They declared that witnesses, then in Mexico, could clear up the whole transaction, but in the absence of these they were compelled to submit the case without testimony. None of us took the stand.
The lawyers unlimbered the usual forensic lore, illumined by bursts of fiery eloquence. Both the judges charged dead against us. However, Judge Hoffman threw me the following judicial bouquet:
"For the accused I feel a deep regret, especially for one of them who appears to have been animated more by a zeal for the cause which he has unhappily espoused than by the sordid and unworthy motive of enriching himself by the plunder of his fellow-citizens. It is to be regretted that the courage and willingness to sacrifice himself for the benefit of his associates, a slight glimpse of which has been revealed by the evidence, have been wasted on an enterprise which is indefensible in morals as it is criminal in law."
It took the jury just four minutes to bring in a verdict of guilty of high treason.
A few days later we were brought into court and sentenced each to ten years' imprisonment and to pay a fine of $10,000. The county jail was named as the place of our confinement until the Government of the United States directed our imprisonment elsewhere.
As for Law and Libby, they were secretly placed on board a ship bound for China by the United States authorities, and were never heard of afterward, though I took some pains to learn their fate.
So ended the famous story of the so-called "Chapman piracy." I have given the details at some length because, while in itself rather trivial, it has been made to cut quite a figure in history. The facts have been so outrageously distorted that I thought it best for some one having full personal knowledge of every detail to tell the truth.
Libby's first name was Lorenzo. People often ask, "What's in a name?" Perhaps nothing; but I think otherwise. Lorenzo Libby helped to land me in prison. Lorenzo Smith did me up in a business deal, and I have unpleasant recollections of Lorenzo Sawyer, once on the Federal bench of San Francisco. I never see a man christened "Lorenzo" without an impression that he will bear a heap of watching.