Business and Labor

In 1770 Silversmith Samuel Casey Narrowly Escaped the Gallows

Samuel Casey was a talented, well-respected silversmith in Kingstown, R.I in the mid-1700s. Casey made teapots, tankards, and porringers as well as hardware for furniture makers, such as escutcheon plates and drawer pulls.

Described as a prosperous merchant, his luck took a turn for the worse in 1764 when he was about 40 years old. Casey had stoked a hot fire for working his forge. The fire was so hot that a beam at the back of the brick chimney caught fire. His house burned, destroying most of his belongings and his wealth.

After the fire, Casey began working in the attic of the Helme House, a historic home that today serves as the headquarters of the South County Art Association.

While Samuel Casey was apparently prosperous before the fire, afterwards he struggled. He was repeatedly hauled to court for non-payment of debts. Finally, in 1770, matters grew worse for the silversmith. In September of 1770 he was indicted on charges of passing counterfeit dollars. The case was a scandal that was reported throughout New England.

samuel casey

Teapot by Samuel Casey at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

In October, Casey stood trial. The trial lasted until eight o’clock at night. The jury would deliberate until 4 a.m. the following morning. It returned a verdict of not guilty. The judge in the trial, however, exercised an option not available today. He told the jurors that their verdict was lacking in logic and ignored the evidence. He directed them to reconsider and find Casey guilty. The jury returned a special verdict and Casey was sentenced to be hanged.

Still in jail, while appealing his sentence, matters grew worse for Casey. In the part of Kingstown called Tower Hill, a discovery was made. In a field, a set of tools were discovered that included dyes for stamping coins – counterfeit coins. In another, nearby stone wall another set of tools was discovered. The tools were capable of making phony dollars, Spanish pistareens and Portuguese josephuses.

With the evidence against him mounting, Casey finally had a bit of luck. Several days after the discovery, a gang assembled outside the Kingstown jail. Their faces were blacked over. They battered down the door to the jail with iron bars and pick axes. Inside, they smashed the locks and released four inmates, including Samuel Casey.

The silversmith didn’t wait for a second trial. Samuel Casey disappeared after his unexpected release and left Rhode Island. Historians suspect he died in 1773, probably in New York.

Today, Samuel Casey’s work can be found in museums such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Winterthur and museums of Yale and Dartmouth College.

Thanks to Rhode Island, A Guide to the Smallest State, Federal Writers’ Project.

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