On December 19, 1816, shots rang out in the darkness of Newburyport, Mass. A man was heard crying in distress, and searchers found Maj. Elijah Goodridge with a bullet hole in his hand and scratches and bruises on his head. He had been robbed, he said.
Goodridge was journeying from Bangor, Maine, to Boston to settle some debts. The robbery infuriated him, and he determined to track down his money. He identified two brothers, Levi and Laban Kenniston, as robbers. When he led the sheriff on a search of the Kenniston’s property, they found some of Goodridge’s papers and gold, with the aid of a witch hazel divining rod. Goodridge pursued Joseph Jackman, a tavern owner and grocer, to New York and there, with the help of police, recovered more of his papers.
Back in Newburyport, the prosecutors concluded that the Kennistons, Jackman and innkeeper Ebeneazor Pearson had learned that Goodridge carried money. They then conspired to attack the travelling stranger and rob him.
Newburyport, then part of Newbury, had a reputation for smuggling and as a rough and tumble town, but the case created a major stir. The defendants were well regarded. The Kennistons approached famed attorney and statesman Daniel Webster. They asked for his help with the trial, which that commenced in 1818 in Ipswich, Mass.
At this stage of his career, Webster had yet to distinguish himself in the Senate. He was, however, a noted constitutional scholar, an able lawyer and former congressman. He dismantled the case against the Kennistons with a methodical attack on the evidence and swashbuckling oratory.
The Real Elijah Goodridge
Webster produced a man who sold pistols to Goodridge, and demonstrated the possibility that Goodridge had shot himself in the hand. He also found barbers who testified that Goodridge had demanded a razor and made a deep cut in his face.
Webster found Goodridge, far from being well off, had deep debts to his Boston creditors. He needed the robbery story as a ruse to avoid paying his debts. And Goodridge was present when the evidence against the men was “discovered.” Webster found that in a stint as a seaman, Goodridge had deserted and his captain did nothing to recover him. He thought it a blessing that he didn’t have the lying, conniving sailor on board any longer.
And he produced a witness who admitted Goodridge paid her to testify against the men who he charged with robbery.
With each shocking revelation, the robbery began to seem less believable. The idea that Goodridge cooked the whole thing up to put off his creditors grew more believable, as Webster cleverly wove together the story for the jury.
The jurors retired to debate. Eleven men voted that no robbery had occurred. One man held out. The jury then retired to the upstairs room in a hotel and began smoking cigars. When they noticed that the smoke bothered the hold-out juror, more joined in the smoking. The smoke thickened, but the men would not open a window unless the lone holdout agreed to change his vote.
Finally, nearly suffocated, the last juror agreed to support the verdict that no robbery had occurred. The case ruined Goodridge, who left New England. In Newburyport, a mob hanged him and burned in effigy.
This story about Elijah Goodridge was updated in 2022.