THE TRIAL, 1859
WHEN THE trial took place at the U.S. Custom House in Savannah, the prosecuting attorney Joseph Ganahl presented his case against three crew members of the Wanderer: Nicholas Brown, Juan Rajesta, and Michael Arguirir. With little physical evidence, Ganahl relied on eyewitness testimonies.
As evidence against the Wanderer's crew Ganahl offered witnesses who has reportedly seen the Africans on Jekyll Island with the three defendants. He provided a barber who had supposedly altered the appearance of Nicholas Brown by dying his hair and beard, and a store owner who in a roundabout way had discussed the slave trade with the defendant Brown. Ganahl saved his most impressive and authoritative witness for last: a doctor who had inspected some of the Africans on Jekyll Island.
Ganahl's approach was methodical and systematic and the statements of each new witness seemed to substantiate the previous testimonies.
But U.S. attorney Joseph Ganahl was up against the toughest and most distinguished criminal attorney in Savannah, John Owens, and Owens (who was Charles Lamar's personal attorney) was determined to discredit the witnesses. With seemingly little effort Owen's fierce cross-examination altered the certain eyewitness accounts into inconclusive and circumstantial claptrap.
Another strategy implemented by Owens was to make the Wanderer trial a North-South issue. In his closing arguments he mentioned that for 40 years the North had been passing laws restricting the rights of the South, referring of course to the abolition of the slave trade, the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850. He also suggested that to find these men guilty would be to doom the Southern way of life. It was a manipulative tactic but an effective one.
THE TRIAL, 1859
"The North to be sure, has power. They have the power to pass what laws they please, and they have passed them. They have circumscribed our institution, they have restricted it to certain latitudes, they have precluded it from vacant territories. They have abolished the trade of slaves in the District of Columbia, they are preparing to suppress and abolish the trade between the States. And they have passed a law that is now the object before us for enforcement. To bring it to enforcement is the last remaining step at which aggression trembles."
- John Owens, closing arguments,November 21, 1859
Excerpt from The Wanderer, The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy that Set its Sails, by Erik Calonius
Despite hardly any physical evidence, inconclusive eyewitness accounts, a ship which resembled a luxury yacht instead of an African slaver, and the weight of 40 years of legislation circumscribing southern institutions, the all white male jurors deliberated for a lengthy period of twenty hours before announcing a verdict of "not guilty."
After a year of intensive national interest in the Wanderer trial the verdict, surprisingly, provoked little astonishment. In Savannah, there were no victorious stirrings celebrating the verdict. The judgement is seems was just another division straining the already fractured Union.
(Image: "Woman Carrying Bundles," Savannah, Georgia, *image reference: King03)