In the first of a series of short investigations into the lives of some of history’s legal figures, we look into the death of Clement Vallandigham (1820-1871). While the man led a very interesting political life, including an arrest for speaking against the Union and “King Lincoln” and an Ohio gubernatorial race launched from his exile in Canada, it is in his death that we see a true lesson — the lawyer should take every step to prove the innocence of their client (hopefully without dying).
Clement Vallandigham found himself back in Ohio following the end of the Civil War. After a series of political races on an Anti-Reconstruction platform (which he lost), he took up his law practice again and continued his private activism.
He took on Thomas McGehean as his client, a man charged with murder in the death of Tom Myers in the midst of a barroom brawl.
McGehean claimed Myers shot himself in the tussle. Vallandigham, as all good lawyers must, came up with a sound plan to prove to the jury that his client was innocent.
He decided to reenact the scene before the jury showing how easy it would be to accidentally discharge your own weapon when trying to grab it from your pocket in the middle of a brawl.
Vallandigham invited several of his fellow defense attorneys to attend to him at his hotel room where he demonstrated his reenactment.
Vallandigham pocketed a pistol he believed to be unloaded and knelt down. As he lurched to standing, he grabbed for the pistol and accidentally discharged the ball into his belly.
His defendant was acquitted.
Vallandigham died the next day at the age of 50.