Part III – The Trial of the 18th Century
William Prendergast had led an unsuccessful rebellion against what he and other tenant farmers saw as unfair lease practices of the “Landed Gentry” of the Hudson Valley. By late June 1766, he was in custody and awaiting trial on a charge of high treason in New York City. William and his wife, Mehetibal, now had to argue for his life.
A special trial was convened on August 6, 1766. David Horsmanden, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of New York, presided over the court. Counsel for the King was Samuel Jones, who was leader of the New York Bar. Also in attendance was Judge Robert R. Livingston, members of His Majesty’s Council, and other manor landlords. Associate justices were Johns Watts, William Walton, Oliver De Lancey, Joseph Reade, William Smith, Whitehead Hicks, and John Morin Scott. Two of these, Livingston and De Lancey, were related to the manor lords against whom the rebellion was directed.
All of the jurors were wealthy land owners, as one had to own land valued at forty pounds or more to vote in elections or sit on a jury. Tenant farmers did not meet the property qualifications to do either.
William Prendergast was delivered to Poughkeepsie via sloop to prevent any rescue attempts by his followers along the way. Mehetibal met him at the wharf, walked by his side, and sat beside him in the crowded Poughkeepsie courtroom. Widespread public attention was directed at the courthouse, as the Prendergast Trial was headline news in New York City. The rent rebellion had gained a tremendous following there.
The Trial lasted twenty-four hours. The record indicates that William Prendergast was charged with “disturbing the peace, levying war against the king, assembling a number of five-hundred unlawfully for that purpose, and did order and levy war.” He was not allowed legal assistance.
Mehetibal gave an eloquent, logical, brilliant defense of her husband. When Samuel Jones charged William as being the ringleader of the rent rebellion, she blamed it on another “leveler” named Samuel Munro, who was safe in Massachusetts and out of the jurisdiction of the court. When William was charged as being a dangerous criminal, she stated that he was an “esteemed as a sober, honest, and industrious farmer, much loved by his neighbors.”
The New York Gazette wrote of Mehetibal: “She never failed to make every remark that might tend to extenuate the offense and put his conduct in the most favorable point of view.” Her logical arguments caused Samuel Jones to exclaim, “your Lordship, I move that this woman be removed least she too much influence the jury.” But justice Horsmanden stated, “She does not disturb the court.” “Your Lordship,” Jones then complained, “I do not think she should speak at all, and I fear her very looks may too much influence the jury.” The young Quaker lady exercised orderly logic and personal charm in the defense of her husband that day.
But Mehetibal was not successful against such a stacked jury. The jury quickly returned with the verdict: “Guilty!” Horsmanden was not satisfied and stated, “Your verdict does not accord with the evidence in the opinion of the court. I must ask you to return to your deliberations.” Again, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The judge then passed the required sentence for high treason.
William Prendergast was to be executed on September 28, 1766. “The prisoner shall be led back to the place whence he came, and from thence shall be drawn on a hurdle to the place for execution, and then shall be hanged by the neck, and then shall be cut down alive, and his entrails and privy members shall be cut from his body, and shall be burned in his sight, and his head shall be cut off, and his body shall be divided in four parts, and shall be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”
As Prendergast was led away to the county jail in the courthouse’s basement, he looked toward Mehetibal and said “Goodbye, my sweet pigeon.”
Note: The next chapter of “The Heroine of Quaker Hill” will appear in The Pawling Record on October 12. To read previous installments of “The Heroine of Quaker Hill,” visit PawlingRecord.org online and click on “lifestyle.”