At first he walked slowly away, but soon broke into a run when he heard the
anguished cries of Mrs. Schermerhorn's children (one being 10 year old Sarah)
and her mother-in-law. He ran into the woods, reloaded his gun, and determined
not to be taken by his neighbors. As he neared the church (today's Cobblestone
Church)(another report states Fisher Methodist Church), he realized many men
were chasing him. One of his pursuers, Mr. Springer, called to him and
threatened to shoot him if he did not surrender.
By this time John was in no condition to resist, handed over the gun, and "was so
affected that for some time I could not speak to them." John I. Schermerhorn,
husband of the murdered woman, was in the group that captured John and,
according to the prisoner, "He exhorted me and I was much affected." John's
captors carried him to the police office in Schenectady, where after a short
examination, he was committed to the jail.
On November 9, 1824 John Van Patten was indicted for the murder of Mrs.
Schermerhorn and arraigned at a "court of oyer and terminer" at the city hall on
January 11, 1825. He pleaded innocent.
The trial took place the following day at 9:00 a.m. before his honor Judge Duer,
assisted by Judges Boyd, Ryley and Potter. Alonzo Paige, Esq., the District
Attorney and Schenectady's well-known legal mind, and Nicholas F. Beck, Esq.,
a solid well-trained lawyer, were the councel for the people.
Defending the prisoner were a pair of local attorneys, Abraham Van Vechten and
Henry Yates, Jr. - both considered to have no peer when it came to swaying a
jury with persuasive eloquence.
Many prospective jurors were excused because they admitted their sympathies
lay with the defendant. Numerous local people believed that the murdered
woman had driven the distraught young man to blind, insane vengeance.
The jury was finally selected and the prosecution began its case. Several
neighbors and members of the victim's family were paraded to the witness stand,
where it was definately established that the defendant did indeed commit the
horrible "deed of blood." They vividly described the apparent frame of mind of
the assailant, the shooting, and the chase through the woods.
It was obvious from the beginning of the trial that the defense would try to prove
that John Van Patten was not sane when he killed his tormentor.
As Mr. Van Vechten addressed the jury "in order to constitute guilt, it is not only
necessary that the prisoner did commit the crime, but that when doing so he was
in a sound state of mind, capable of distinguishing good from evil."
The defence attorneys then proceeded to produce witnesses on the part of the
prisoner; James Riley: "I did not think the prisoner was in his right senses"; John
C. Toll, Jr.: "the prisoner did not act as if in his right senses. He appeared to be
very simple and agitated in his mind"; Francis Prime: "The prisoner has a weak
mind." Many other acquaintances of John's repeated the opinion that he
sometimes appeared deranged, epileptic, or weakminded.
Among the others appearing on his behalf were Philip De Forest, James Van Eps,
Jacob Van Dyke, and three local doctors. In nearly each case, under
cross-examination, they admitted that in spite of John's apparent mental
deficiencies, he probably knew right from wrong.
His honor Judge Duer then charged the jury, and presented an unusually lucid
and able view of the testimoney. In most eloquent language, he described the
heinousness of the offence with which the prisoner stood charged: "an offence
which Devine Law punished with death, for whosoever shedeth man's blood, by
man shall his blood be shed".
Included in his lenghty instructions to the jury were his remarks that "there are
three kinds of insanity. First, Melancholy madness; 2nd, Raving madness; 3rd,
Idiocy. If from the testimony they conceived the prisoner not possessed of an
understanding to distinguish between right and wrong, it was their duty to aquit
him; but mere weakness of intellect did not justify an acquital".
As the crowd in the courtroom appeared to be about evenly divided between
acquital and conviction, it was expected that the jury would be a long time in
deliberating. However, after meeting for only fifteen minutes, the foreman
announced that they had agreed on a verdict.
The buzzing crowd soon quieted down and in the stillness of the now-darkening
courtroom, the spokesman for the jury proclaimed the verdict - "We find the
prisoner Guilty of Murder".
Judge Duer asked the prisoner if he knew of any reason why the sentence of the
law should not be pronounced against him. The usually loquacious John Van
Patten just shook his head. His honor then addressed some appropriate remarks
to the prisoner, which though producing no apparent effect on John, were
delivered with such pathos and feeling as to draw tears from the assembled
citizenry. The sentence was then read: "The sentence of this court, etc".
John spent most of the last six weeks of his life in prayer. "From the 24th of
January I became more earnest in seeking salvation; I often put my hand to my
mouth to prevent blaspheming God".
"Tuesday, Feb. 1st, I prayed long and earnest; all of a sudden I felt a change in
my feelings as though something was passing through my heart; I felt amazed;
felt my burden removed; I felt that my sins were forgiven." Now that this
revelation had relieved John of his anxieties, he began to talk - and to write.
During his last few days on earth he compiled a history of his life - his dreams,
his doubts, and his disappointments. He held no resentment against those that
captured him and warned "all people, old and young, but especially the young,
not to resist the spirit of God."
After reaffirming his love for Josenah, he quickly took all the blame for the
bloody deed, and added, "I die in peace with you, your parents, with all my
acquaintances and the world".
The series of events leading up to John's conviction were bizarre enough, but
they proved to be just a prologue to all that took place on the day of his execution.
According to the March 12, 1825 issue of the 'Schenectady Cabinet', "early on
the morning of Friday last, the different avenues leading to this city were literally
lined with people, in wagons and on horseback coming in to witness the
execution." The number assembled are variously estimated from ten to twenty
thousand. The uniform military of this city and vicinity were summoned to aid in
the meloncholy tragedy - they promptly attended. Between 11 and 12 o'clock
they paraded in front of the jail and they then formed two ranks to enable the
sheriff, his deputies, and the prisoner to pass down the center.
|John Frederick Van Patten
Part II: The Trial
Source: Press of the Mohawk Sentinel; 1825.
Source: John F. Van Patten's cellblock confessions; 1825.
Source: Tales of Old Schenectady, by Larry Hart; 1975; pgs. 143-145