“[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.


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