Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Trial of James Wood,” from Alexander's Weekly Messenger, vol. 4, no. 14, April 1, 1840, p. 2, col. 2


The Trial of James Wood.

The trial of the unfortunate Wood, for the murder of his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Ann Peak, was brought to conclusion on Friday evening last, the jury, after a brief absence, returning a verdict of “Not Guilty, on the ground of insanity.” This was anticipated by every one, and occasioned no surprise. The witnesses for the defence (of whom the most important was Dr. Meigs, for a long time the family physician of the accused) made out so clear a case of constitutional tendency to mania, if not of existing derangement itself, that but one course was left for the jury. The prosecution was conducted by Mr. Johnson, himself, the Attorney General of the State, who, at the conclusion of the evidence, left the matter, without argument, to the jury. Judge King briefly pointed out the main points for determination, and commented especially upon the question of insanity. Upon this head, it appears to us that a very material argument was strangely omitted by the counsel for the defence — an argument which, with many minds, would have had more weight in bringing about a conviction of the prisoner's insanity than any urged in his behalf. It appears from the testimony that the conduct of Wood, when purchasing his pistols at the shop of the gunsmith, was characterised by an entire self-possession — a remarkable calmness — an evenness of manner altogether foreign to his usual nervous habit. His replies were cool, and without the slightest apparent trepidation. It is just possible that the defence feared to broach this striking subject; for, upon a cursory view, the facts do certainly make against the accused, and imply a premeditated and cool-blooded assassination. But the metaphysician, or the skilful medical man, would deduce from them a positive conclusion in favor of Wood. With the deep cause for agitation which he is known to have had, he could not possibly, in the supposition of his sanity, have assumed the calmness of demeanor mentioned. A nervous trepidancy would have manifested itself, if not in an ordinary form, at least in an overstrained endeavor to be calm. But, in the supposition of his insanity, all is natural — all is in full accordance with the well known modes of action of the madman. The cunning of the maniac — a cunning which baffles that of the wisest man of sound mind — the amazing self-possession with which at times, he assumes the demeanor, and preserves the appearance, of perfect sanity, have long been matters of comment with those who have made the subject of mania their study.

The acquittal of the accused on the ground of insanity involves his legal confinement as a madman until such time as the Court satisfy themselves of his return to sound mind. We cannot believe, however, that this truly unfortunate man will ever be restored to that degree of reason which would authorise his final discharge. His monomania is essentially periodical; and a perfect sanity for months, or even for years, would scarcely be a sufficient guaranty for his subsequent conduct. A time would still come when there would be laid to his charge another — although hardly a more horrible — deed of sudden violence and bloodshed.




This item was first attributed to Poe by Clarence S. Brigham in Edgar Allan Poe's Contributions to Alexander's Weekly Messenger, 1943, pp. 63-64.

A color scan of the original article was kindly provided from the William H. Koester Collection, HRCL, the University of Texas at Austin.



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