Webmaster's Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2002 issue of the GFA Newsletter. Marj Murray arranged for permission to republish it at that time. It is very important to know that this is not the much better-known Moses Hicks Grinnell of New Bedford and New York!
Newport Mercury, May 20, 1882 THE GRINNELL TRIAL
Moses Grinnell Convicted of the Murder of Chas. H. Thomas, Nov. 9, 1880
The Trial of Moses Grinnell, of Tiverton, for the murder of Chas. H. Thomas at Tiverton Four Corners on November 8, 1880, was begun in the Court of Common Pleas before Justices Matteson and Tillinghast on Tuesday morning. Attorney General Colt appeared for the State and Nicholas Hathaway, Esq., of Fall River, for the prisoner.
Grinnell, who was 60 years old last October, appeared strong and hearty, and apparently had not suffered by his incarceration of 18 months. He bore himself well during the trial, and appeared little disturbed at the strange position in which he was placed. He pleaded not guilty to the charge of willful murder, in a firm strong voice.
The securing of a jury occupied an hour and a half, and an extra panel was exhausted before the twelfth man was obtained. The jury were as follows: A. J. Ward, Newport, foreman; Robert B. Almy, Portsmouth; Fred A Field, Portsmouth; John Weeden, Jamestown; Abner G. Tripp, Tiverton; Samuel S. Field, Little Compton; Risbrough H. Tilley, Newport; Thos. S. Burdick, Newport; Thos. W. Freeborne, Newport; Truman B. Congdon, Middletown, and Achilles Stevens, Newport.
Chas. A. Chase, Portsmouth, Geo. W. Long, Newport, Walter Sherman, Newport, Albert K. Sherman, Newport, William H. Stanhope, Newport, Peleg Bryer, Newport, John M. Popple, Newport, and H. H. Young, Jr., Newport, were excused for having formed an opinion; Thos. Dumphy, Newport, not qualified; Thos. D. Grinnell, Little Compton, on peremptory challenge; Sidney B. Gladding, Newport, on prisoner's objection; John Pitman, Newport, on doubt as to qualification.
The indictment was read, and Attorney General Colt opened the case with a clear presentation of the facts he intended to prove. The first witness was Benj. H. Grinnell, the prisoner's son. He related the circumstances of the tragedy at which he was present. He testified that he and the murdered man were engaged in taking the coops from a hen house on Moses Grinnell's premises, which the witness had built and paid for. This house he was proposing to remove, under legal advice. It appears that there were family difficulties of long standing among the Grinnells, and a few days before the shooting the witness and his wife had been convicted in the Justice Court of an assault on his father. They claimed that the farm belonged to them by virtue of a certain mortgage. The father, however, held a life interest in the farm, derived from his deceased wife, in whose name the fee had been.
While the two men were working in the hen-house, the witness saw his father standing near the doorway, and taking aim at Thomas, who was in a bending position. The witness exclaimed, "Don't shoot, father, don't shoot", but the fatal shot was given, and turning round, he saw Thomas fall, and saw the blood running from the wound. Grinnell shot Thomas at a distance of not more than 15 feet. The witness then ran out of the house, and was pursued by his father for some little distance, and heard him exclaim "I'll shoot you!"
On the cross examination, the witness admitted that he first came to live on the premises by his father's permission, and had paid no rent. He exhibited an almost total ignorance of the provisions of the mortgage, under which he claimed the property, and was in general a most unsatisfactory witness.
Edward M. Grinnell, Benjamin's 12 year old son, related that he was outside of the hen house at the time of the shooting, that he saw his grandfather come from the house with this gun, aim inside the house, fire, and hit Thomas, and then that his grandfather followed his father 20 or 30 yards. The lad told his story exceedingly well, and the cross-examination only revealed that he bore a strong feeling of antipathy towards his grandfather.
Mrs. Ann Marie Lake testified that she lived 40 or 50 rods from Grinnell's house, and saw the occurrence at the henhouse from her house. She heard Grinnell say: "I am going to shoot you, by G-d, and I am going to kill you."
Dr. Edward P. Stimpson , the physician who examined Thomas' body, described his wound, and said that it passed through the lungs, and was necessarily fatal. He was of the opinion that Thomas was leaning over, when shot, as he fell on his back, and could not have been advancing or leaning forward, or he would have fallen on his face. This testimony went strongly against the claim of the defence (sic) that Grinnell only shot because Thomas was coming at him.
Sumner Williston, of Tiverton, testified that the night before the shooting Moses gave him a revolver for safe keeping and after shooting, Moses saw him again, and told him that "he had stopped one's wind", and that he had "aimed as nigh" as he could at his head. He then gave the witness a package, which was found to contain a revolver.
John Hambly, Town sergeant of Tiverton, testified as to the arrest of Grinnell and produced the fatal gun and the two revolvers. His testimony completed Tuesday's work, and the jury were locked up for the night under the sheriff's charge.
Wednesday morning at nine o'clock, the court re-assembled, and John S. Wilcox, of New Bedford, Moses Grinnell's grandson, 21 years of age, was the first witness. He stated that he came on Grinnell's premises the day of the shooting, and was warned away by his grandfather. He had not gone far from the hen-house, when he saw his grandfather approach the door, and heard Benjamin Grinnell exclaim, "Don't shoot, don't shoot," and this was followed by a shot.
The witness understood himself thoroughly, and sustained a long cross-examination with success. Mr. Hathaway endeavored to show that the witness was biased and bore malice towards his grandfather, and sifted the young man's rather unsavory family history very carefully. Hon. W. P. Sheffield testified concerning legal complications of the Grinnell property, and the State rested.
Mr. Hathaway introduced his case briefly. He claimed that the children and grandchildren had entered into a general conspiracy to secure the property of Moses Grinnell, and charged them with the attempt to swear a deliberate murder on Grinnell, in order to get him into state prison for life. He claimed that Grinnell had acted in self-defence, and that, moreover, the unfilial (sic) conduct of his children in abusing him and openly assaulting him had driven him to a justifiable desperation, when acting on impulse he had killed Thomas.
The prisoner was first put upon the stand. He gave his testimony in a loud, determined tone, and bore himself well. He said he took his gun from the house, to shoot hawks with, and seeing his son and Thomas at work on the hen-house, went to the door, and ordered Thomas off the premises. Thomas returned an insulting answer, and started at him with a club. He then fired in self-defence. This story was not substantiated by other testimony.
Nathan Grinnell, the prisoner's brother, testified that he had given the murderer a revolver with which to defend himself against Thomas, who the witness considered a dangerous man. Other witnesses testifled to Thomas' bad reputation, and a paper was put in evidence showing that Thomas in 1849 was sentenced at Taunton to 20 years' imprisonment for highway robbery and served 16 years of the sentence. Geor. W. Reynolds, who arrested the prisoner, testified that Grinnell was terribly excitied and seemed almost beside himself.
Several witnesses for the State then testified as to Thomas' reputation, saying that they had known nothing against him. Christiana C. Almy, the prisoner's daughter, testified that she went to her father's after the shooting of Thomas, and was ordered away with the threat that he would serve her in the same way. She further testified that Thomas lad lived in her family for over two years preceding the murder, and that she was to have been married to him the following Christmas.
After the recess, Mr. Hathaway made an able plea of an hour and twenty minutes in behalf of the prisoner. He claimed that Grinnell should have the benefit of any doubt, and pleaded in extenuation of the fatal shot, which he acknowledged the unnatural and bitter conspiracy of his children against him. Attorney General Colt reviewed the case thoroughly and pointed out the strong evidence that had been given against the prisoner. Judge Matteson's charge was clear and fitting, and if anything, favored the prisoner.
The jury took the case about six o'clock, and returned a little before eight with a verdict of "guilty as in form and manner charged," thus imposing a life sentence on the prisoner, who received the announcement with great composure. The court room contained a large assemblage of interested spectators. Attorney General Colt moved that sentence be pronounced, but added, that Mr. Hathaway, who had gone home, had requested him to ask for a stay of proceedings until he could file a bill of exceptions. The motion was granted, the jury was dismissed, and the convicted man was remanded to jail.
Permission was obtained from the Newport County RIGenWebProject to publish this newspaper account here. Well, did he do it on purpose, or was he provoked by his family and 'lose it' in a split second? I honestly can't say whether he was guilty or not from the story. Perhaps we will never know.
Notice there were no 'alleges' anywhere, and Moses was referred to as 'the murderer' that would not be allowed in a court of law today. One hundred and twenty years later we can ponder and interpret, but can we draw a firm conclusion?