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Clement Vallandigham – A defence lawyer who accidentally shot himself while trying to prove that someone shot himself. He died and the defendant was set free

Tijana Radeska
Clement Vallandigham

Clement L. Vallandigham was a politician during the American Civil War who had Southern sympathies. His determined vendetta against the Federal government and its war policy resulted in his court-martial and exile to the Confederacy.

Admitted to the Ohio bar in 1842, Vallandigham was elected to the state legislature in 1845. While a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1857–63), he was adamant against the principles and policies of the newly formed Republican Party, particularly as they related to the slavery issue.

Clement Vallandigham. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Clement Vallandigham. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Since he was of Southern ancestry, Vallandigham idealized the Southern way of life, and he assumed leadership of the faction of Midwest Democrats, called Copperheads, who opposed the prosecution of the war against the South — a war they viewed as beneficial only to Eastern interests.

During the Civil War, he bitterly attacked the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, claiming that it was destroying not only the Constitution, but civil liberty itself. He also became commander of the secret, antiwar, Knights of the Golden Circle (later Sons of Liberty).

Vallandigham's arrest, 1863. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Vallandigham’s arrest, 1863. Wikipedia/Public Domain

In 1863, he made vigorous speeches in Ohio against the war and the government and consequently grew to be one of the most suspected and hated men in the North. He was arrested in May by military authorities for expressing treasonable sympathy with the enemy; tried and found guilty by a military commission, he was sentenced to imprisonment. Soon afterward, Lincoln commuted his sentence to banishment behind Confederate lines.

Bored with exile in the South, Vallandigham made his way to Canada, where he continued his campaign of harassment from across the border. In September 1863 the Ohio Peace Democrats nominated him in absentia for governor, but resounding Union military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July ensured his decisive defeat at the polls. He returned illegally to Ohio in 1864 and took an active part in that year’s election campaign. He also wrote part of the national Democratic platform in which the war was denounced as a failure.

Vallandigham died in 1871 in Lebanon, Ohio, at the age of 57, after accidentally shooting himself in the abdomen with a pistol. He was representing a defendant (Thomas McGehan) in a murder case for killing a man in a barroom brawl in Hamilton, Ohio. Vallandigham attempted to prove the victim, Tom Myers, had in fact accidentally shot himself while drawing his pistol from a pocket while rising from a kneeling position.

Union Party poster for Pennsylvania warning of disaster if McClellan wins. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Union Party poster for Pennsylvania warning of disaster if McClellan wins. Wikipedia/Public Domain

As Vallandigham conferred with fellow defense attorneys in his hotel room at the Lebanon House, today`s Golden Lamb Inn, he showed them how he would demonstrate this to the jury. Selecting a pistol he believed to be unloaded, he put it in his pocket and enacted the events as they might have happened, snagging the loaded gun on his clothing and unintentionally causing it to discharge into his belly.  Although he was fatally wounded, Vallandigham’s demonstration proved his point, and the defendant, Thomas McGehan, was acquitted and released from custody (to be shot to death four years later in his saloon).

Surgeons probed for the pistol ball, thought to have lodged in the vicinity of his bladder, but were unable to locate it, and Vallandigham died the next day of peritonitis. His last words expressed his faith in “that good old Presbyterian doctrine of predestination”. Survived by his wife, Louisa Anna (McMahon) Vallandigham, and his son Charles Vallandigham, he was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.

“I have foolishly shot myself,” winced Clement Vallandigham, sinking into a chair in his hotel room in a mixture of pain and mortification. The calamity which ended the former congressman’s days happened in the town of Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio, in 1871, halfway through the case he thought would be the greatest of his life.