John Reed Murder Trial
In 1821 a young African American man named John Reed stood for trial in Chester County for murdering 2 men who tried to kidnap him and return him to slavery. Reed was tried for the murders separately. The 1st trial, for the murder of Samuel G. Griffith, resulted in Reed’s acquittal. The jury in the 2nd trial, in which Reed was charged with the murder of Peter Shipley, found Reed guilty of manslaughter. The 2 trials form the basis for the dramatized trial included in the Meet Your Judges program to be held on September 19th.
John Reed was an African American living as a free man in Kennett Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. According to Reed’s statement, he was freed from slavery by the will of his former master in Maryland. Reed came to Pennsylvania around 1817 believing that he was a free man.
Late in the evening of December 14, 1820 a group of men went to John Reed’s house. When he refused to open the door, they broke in. Reed shot one of the men, Samuel G. Griffith. Griffith, who died that evening, was from Baltimore County, Maryland. Reed hit a 2nd man, Peter Shipley, with a club. Reed then took his gun and ran to his neighbors, telling them that kidnappers had attacked him and that he thought they might pursue him. Shipley, who was Griffith’s overseer, died on December 21st. As handcuffs and rope were found in Shipley’s pockets, it was apparent that the men did not intend to follow the legal procedures in place at the time for the recovering of escaped slaves.
John Reed was arraigned Feb. 1, 1821, before the Chester County Court of Oyer and Terminer for the murder of Samuel G. Griffith. He entered a plea of “not guilty.” The court assigned attorneys to defend Reed, and the case was continued until the next court term. The 2 primary witnesses against Reed were William Miner and Richard Pearson. Both men were from Delaware and had accompanied Griffith and Shipley to Reed’s house the night of the attempted kidnapping.
According to a newspaper account of the trial, the judge’s charge to the jury took 1½ hours, and it was apparent “that he had no doubt of the prisoner’s guilt” (Village Record, May 16, 1821). On May 4, 1821, the jury found John Reed “not guilty.”
The 2nd trial, for the murder of Peter Shipley, occurred in November 1821. As in the Griffith case, Reed pleaded “not guilty.” According to the indictment, John Reed beat Shipley over the head with a large stick on Dec. 14, 1820, with Shipley dying of his wounds on Dec. 21. The coroner’s inquest on Shipley’s body stated that Reed had struck 1 blow in self-defense, although one of the trial witnesses claimed that Reed had told him that he (Reed) had hit Shipley several times until he thought that Shipley was dead. In his instructions to the jury, the judge indicated that he thought that this witness was mistaken. Reed was found “guilty” of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
John Reed was sentenced to imprisonment in the jail “and Penitentiary house of Philadelphia for 9 years from this day, and be confined kept to hard labor, fed, clothed… that he give security for his good behaviour for 6 months after the said term of Imprisonment shall have expired, himself in 1 hundred dollars and 1 sufficient surety in the like sum, that he pay the costs of Prosecution, and remain committed until the whole of this sentence be complied with.”
After the Trial
After the conviction in the 2nd trial, Luke Griffith, the administrator of Samuel Griffith’s estate, unsuccessfully tried to claim John Reed as the property of Samuel Griffith. In these proceedings, Luke Griffith supplied a certified copy of the will of Frances Garrettson of Harford County, Maryland. In her will, Garrettson left her plantation and slaves to Samuel Griffith. A corroborating statement by Dr. Elijah Davis of Harford County stated that Reed had absconded from Samuel G. Griffith in October 1817. Davis also said that he knew Reed’s mother, Nan, who was a slave, and that “Negro Tom alias John Reed was born in the said County of Harford and lived and remained therein until the time of absconding from the service of his master and that the said Negro Tom is at the time twenty 7 years of age and upwards … he was born in the month of April 1794 and this deponent says that the said Negro Tom is about 5 feet 8 inches high as near as he can judge is stout made.”
The information in this summary is taken from records in the Chester County Archives and from the newspaper clippings file at Chester County Historical Society.