Archive for the ‘Law’ Category

“those dreary cells wherein I was confined”

ELIZABETH MUNRO FISHER was sent to the prison in Greenwich Village in March 1801 for the crime of forgery—attempting to forge a deed giving her property near Albany which, she said, had been promised by her father, Reverend Harry Munro. Fisher described her experience in the prison:

I went in on Friday. On Monday the inspectors thought proper to place some confidence in me—they put the women prisoners under my command, which command I received with reluctance, but was pleased, nevertheless, with this mark of distinction. I should be wanting in my duty, if I passed by, without making known to the public the attention with which I was treated—they seemed to try to make me happy. After I had received my orders from Thomas Eddy and John Murray (1), I was desired by them to make a choice of a room for myself, and a person to attend me. My provisions were sent me from the head keeper’s table. I lived well, and was used well in every respect; but still, in the solemn midnight hours, when all my family [the other prisoners] were asleep, instead of taking rest, I would walk the lonely hall, and view those dreary cells wherein I was confined from the world—and for what, I knew not.

. . . . I had the privilege of walking in the yard and garden, which made my time pass with universal approbation. I heard no complaints, and parted with them [the prisoners] in friendship. After delivering up every thing I had in charge, I took my leave, and went before the inspector, who gave me ten dollars. I am not mistress of language to express my feelings on going out of the gate. I came out alone. . . .

It is striking that in the space of a weekend, Elizabeth’s treatment, even though she “behaved bad for a few days,” suddenly improved dramatically. Surely even tenuous connections in high places had something to do with that. On 3 June 1806, she was pardoned “being represented unto us as a fit object of our mercy”(2) by Governor Morgan Lewis (1754-1844), who was not only an old friend of John Jay but a relation by marriage.

In 1810, Elizabeth Munro Fisher (1759-c.1812) self-published her memoirs, in which she related, often in harrowing detail, her unhappy childhood; her abandonment by her father after she refused the marriage he had arranged for her; her subsequent unhappy marriage to a tailor, Donald Fisher; her trials during the Revolutionary War, her apparently fairly successful life in Canada; and her futile attempt to return to the property near Albany, New York she had been promised by her father. Elizabeth, writing for an audience who, she hoped, would be sympathetic to her plight, did not shrink from describing mean-spirited or nasty things she had done, but she was desperately scrambling to be independent, and for that she needed property. As a feme covert, a married woman, she had no financial independence; any property she had was under the husband’s control.

Estranged from her children in Canada, Elizabeth Munro Fisher resided in various places in New York; she is listed in the City Directory in 1806 as “Fisher, widow 9 Magazine”; 1808-1810 as “Fisher, widow Elizabeth 2 West”; and in 1812, “Fisher, Elizabeth widow 92 Mott.” Also listed that year is her daughter: “Fisher, Eliza M. school 118 Chapel.” In 1813 and 1814 only Eliza M. Fisher is listed, after which date, her mother having died, she probably moved back to Canada.

From the sparse documents(3) that remain, it is clear that Rev. Harry Munro, having fled America in 1777 for Scotland, was a manipulative and vengeful man. His promise to his daughter to give her the 2,000 acres at Hebron, New York, as Elizabeth related, was spurious, as he knew the property would then be under the husband’s control.

It is also true that members of the Jay family were involved to some degree in Elizabeth Fisher’s affairs during these years. In 1794, Peter Jay Munro delegated his cousin, Peter Augustus Jay, who was in Great Britain at the time, to travel to Scotland to get a quit claim on the 2,000 acres in Hebron, N.Y. belonging to Harry Munro. In a letter of 24 July, 1797, Harry wrote his son, “my wish and intention is, that neither your Sister, nor any of her Children, shall have any Claim on” that property. Peter Jay Munro was thus able to sell the property c. 1800 just when Elizabeth was arrested. When Harry Munro died in 1801, all of his property real & personal was left to his son; his daughter received an annuity of ₤18 sterling and the interest of ₤600 stock.(3)

On November 23, 1809, Elizabeth Munro Fisher received a visit from her second son, Alexander Fisher. He was accompanied by Peter A. Jay. The matter under discussion was Alexander’s attempt to get his father Donald Fisher’s lands by “right of inheritance.” Some months earlier, he had appointed his uncle Peter Jay Munro as his attorney. It would not be until about 1813 before some resolution between Alexander Fisher and New York State may have occured.(4)

1. Thomas Eddy (1758-1827) and John Murray (1737-1808), Quakers, were members of the commission appointed to build the state prison with a single cell system in Greenwich Village (1797). They both were involved in philanthropic and social reform projects in NYC.
2. New York State Archives Executive Pardons 1799-1931, B0042-78.
3. See the Munro Papers at the Archives of the Museum of the City of New York and the New York State Archives in Albany.
4. Albany, N.Y. State Archives, John Chambers Papers, Box 2, CP 9885 #93-198 9885-93-99; 9885-141-143; also HY 12382 John Williams Papers, Box 2, Folder 8, Legal Papers SC12382.
The illustration is the cover of Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fisher, of the city of New-York, daughter of the Rev. Harry Munro, who was a Chaplain in the British Army, during the American Revolution.—Giving a particular account of a variety of domestic misfortunes, and also of her trial, and cruel condemnation to the state’s prison for six years, at the instance of her brother, Peter Jay Munro. The original is at the Library of Congress.

posted July 10th, 2018 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Fisher, Elizabeth Munro,Jay, John,Jay, Peter Augustus,Law,Munro, Peter Jay,Munro, Reverend Harry,New York

“[I] could not believe that I was a prisoner”

On 6th March 1801, at a session of Oyer and Terminer and Goal delivery, John Lansing Junr. Esq., Chief Justice of Court of Judicature presiding, the following complaint was read:

. . . Elizabeth Fisher late of the town of Hebron in County of Washington, widow, Aug. 29, 1800 with force and arms at the City of Albany . . . feloniously did falsefy, make forge and counterfeit, and cause and procure to be falsely made, and did willingly cut and assist in the false making forging and counterfeiting a certain paper writing sealed, purporting to be a deed of conveyance for certain lands therein mentioned, and to be signed sealed and delivered by one Harry Munro to the said Elizabeth Fisher.1

ELIZABETH FISHER stated “she is not guilty thereof.” The brown-haired widow, 41 years old and standing 5 feet 2¾ inches tall, had been arrested by Albany County Sheriff on a complaint by her half-brother Peter Jay Munro on 27 October 1800. She had been in jail since then.

At her trial by jury on 10 March 1801, the district attorney produced a 28-year old farmer, as Elizabeth wrote in her Memoirs, “a man by the name of John Nira Smith to my utter astonishment, swore that he saw that deed executed in Ruport [Rupert, north of Bennington], in the State of Vermont, by Adonijah Crane. This evidence, being so pointed,” Fisher, according to court records, “nothing further saith.” According to 18th century rules of evidence, the accused in a criminal case could not take the stand, even on her own behalf, thus Elizabeth Fisher was sentenced to life at hard labor in the State Prison in New York City. So was Smith.

I left Albany and came to the New-York state’s prison, and arrived on [Thursday] the 19th of March, but could not believe that I was a prisoner till I found the keys turned on me. I thought my brother could not be so cruel as to imprison a poor widow woman, who had suffered every thing but death, by having a cruel step-mother, a disagreeable partner in life, and left to an unfeeling and unpitying world, with three children, to do the best I could for a living. Such thoughts made me think my brother would be merciful. But no, his heart was untouched with mercy—I was to be immured in a prison for life. Caring not for a life thus devoted, I behaved very bad for a few days, for my wish was that they would punish me with death. . . .2

How had Elizabeth Munro Fisher’s life come to such a pass? After all, she was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and Loyalist Rev. Harry Munro (1730-1801), and the half-sister of the New York lawyer Peter Jay Munro (1766-1833), who, in turn, was the nephew of the New York governor, John Jay.

But forgery and passing counterfeit money were crimes considered as heinous as murder and carried an automatic life sentence. John Jay, as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, had stated in his Charge to the Grand Jury (in Bennington, Vermont, 25 June 1792):

Among the Crimes specified in what is generally called the penal Statute, there are two so dangerous to Society, as always to merit particular Attention—I mean the crime of Perjury, and the crime of Forgery. . . . With a Heart contaminated with Guilt, and a mind poluted [sic] with iniquitous Desires and Designs, he [the forger] calmly and deliberately prepares and begins his work, and with patience and with Caution pursues it. . . . The Folly of all bad men is to be regretted, but the Punishment of Persons so deliberately wicked, can merit very little compassion. . . .3

In the next post: What became of Elizabeth Munro Fisher?

1. People of the State of New York vs. Elizabeth Fisher, Criminal Case Document 1797-1801
[J2911-82;A52/6], NYS Archives, Albany, NY.
2. Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fisher, of the City of New York, Daughter of the Rev. Harry Munro, who was a Chaplain in the British Army, during the American Revolution-Giving a particular account of a variety of domestic Misfortunes, and also of her trial, and cruel condemnation to the state’s prison for six years, at the instance of her brother, Peter Jay Munro. Written by herself. New York: Printed for the Author(c.1810).
3. The Selected Papers of John Jay, Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Ed., vol. 5: 1788-1794 (Charlottesville: U. of Virginia Press, 2017), pp. 425-26.
The illustration is of the New York State Prison in Greenwich Village.

posted July 5th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Fisher, Elizabeth Munro,Jay, John,Law,Munro, Peter Jay,Munro, Reverend Harry

   Copyright © 2018 In the Words of Women.