Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Assassination of Roddy A. Small

The Small murder trial was just one of many hundreds during the Civil War, but it perfectly encapsulates an emerging theme in American jurisprudence, one that remains powerfully resonant today. Sutherland had ventured out carrying a concealed revolver prepared to “confront” his antagonist. Once met, he drew his weapon to kill Small and did so, shooting down a fleeing man. But Fishback skillfully appealed to American masculinity couched in partisan language to trump centuries of legal precedent. His invocation of the “natural right” to seek out and destroy a threat joined a chorus of case law that later transformed American jurisprudence to form what the historian Richard Maxwell Brown has called the “no duty to retreat” doctrine. After the verdict, the Democratic Sentinel observed that “in civilized States, every safeguard is provided for the protection of human life, but if murder is justified upon the grounds assumed in this trial, all the restraints of law will be loosened, and the passions of men, not justice or Christian principles, will judge their fellows.”

The dead man was named Roddy A. Small, the foreman of the blacksmith’s shop of the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad. He was a middle-aged Irish Catholic with a wife and children, and a Democrat. The man who shot him dead was James Sutherland, a hand in Small’s shop, a young Protestant man with a wife and three young children, and a Republican. The men had quarreled in the past, most likely over a workplace rivalry. But as the trial showed, wartime politics stoked the heat of their animosity to the point of murderous hatred.

Testimony showed that wartime politics entered into their dispute. Sometime before the shooting military authorities in the city had arrested and tried Small, the Democrat, for “traitorous sympathies.” Records (not introduced in the murder trial) show that in the summer of 1863 military authorities in Indiana circulated a list of people to be arrested by the Army for disloyalty.
Was Roddy Small on that arrest list? We don’t know. But testimony in the murder trial showed that Sutherland had informed on Small to Brig. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox, commander of the district of Indiana and Michigan, who released Small on $1,000 bond. Afterward, an angry Small loudly accused Sutherland of joining the Republican political secret society, the Union League, to spy and inform on him.
In the 1920s anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment became so extreme that the KKK took over the Indiana government, a phenomena not unrelated to the Small assassination.