Crime and Scandal

The Sham Robbery of Elijah Goodridge – Daniel Webster Gets to the Truth

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.

Elijah Goodridge

Daniel Webster exposed Elijah Goodridge as a fraud.

Goodridge was journeying from Bangor, Maine to Boston to settle some debts. He was furious, and 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 was carrying money and they conspired to attack the travelling stranger and rob him.

Newburyport, then part of Newbury, was known for its smuggling and was sometimes a rough and tumble town, but the case created a major stir. The defendants were well regarded, and the Kenniston’s approached famed attorney and statesman Daniel Webster and asked for his help with the trial 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.

He produced a man who sold pistols to Goodridge, and demonstrated it was entirely possible Goodridge had shot himself in the hand. He found barbers who testified that Goodridge had demanded a razor and made a deep cut in his face.

He found Goodridge, far from being well off, was deep in debt to his Boston creditors and 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 she had been paid by Goodridge 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 became 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 was bothering the hold-out juror, more joined in the smoking. The room was thick with smoke, 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, he was hanged and burned in effigy.

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