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Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 2

This note contained in document ADMS-01-02-02-0002-0007-0003
4. The Ansell Nickerson murder case, an “Affair” in which JA was to be involved as one of Nickerson's counsel and which remains to this day “misterious.” The Boston Evening Post of 23 Nov. 1772 gives the facts as they were first reported:
“On Sunday the 15th Current, Captain Joseph Doane, jun. sailed from Chatham Harbour on the Back of Cape Cod, and soon after, viz. about 10 o'Clock in the Forenoon saw a Schooner with a Signal of Distress, and, going on board, found one Man only in her who appeared to be in a great Fright, and gave the following Account.—That the Day before the said Schooner, Thomas Nickerson, Master, sailed from Boston, bound to Chatham—That about 2 o'Clock the next Morning they saw a Topsail Schooner, who brought them to, and sent a Boat on board, and after questioning them returned again—Soon after four Boats with armed Men came back from the Schooner, and the Man who gave the Account fearing he should be Impressed, got over the Stern and held with his Hands by the Taffarill, with his Feet on the Moulding, under the Cabin Windows. That whilst he was thus hanging over the Stern he judges by what he heard that the Master, with his own Brother, and a Brother-in-Law, named Newcomb, were murdered and thrown overboard, and a Boy named Kent, carried away alive, as they said, in order to make Punch for them— That he heard a Talk of burning the Vessel, but it was finally agreed to leave her to drive out to Sea with her Sails standing. That after perpetrating this inhuman Deed they plundered the Vessel of a considerable Quantity of Cash, knocked out the Head of a Barrel of Rum, and after wasting { 70 } the greatest Part of it, went off with the Money and other Booty; tho' they left behind a Quarter of fresh Beef & a number of small Stores.—That when they left the Vessel he came upon Deck, he found none of the Crew, but saw the Marks of Blood, and supposes they were murdered.”
Nickerson was brought to Boston, examined by the Governor and other officials, and committed to jail pending his trial by a special court of admiralty. Public opinion was soon sharply divided between whigs who, remembering the Corbet case, were willing to believe the British navy was responsible for the atrocity, and tories who, like Hutchinson, found “Every part of [Nickerson's] account . . . incredible” and thought him guilty of a shocking multiple crime for the sake of “the money which the crew had received at Boston” (Hutchinson, Massachusetts Bay, ed. Mayo, 3:300–302).
On 16 Dec. the court sat. Nickerson's counsel, JA and Josiah Quincy Jr., requested and obtained a delay in order to gather further evidence. The trial took place in the summer, extending from 28 July to 6 Aug., and the prisoner, who stoutly maintained his innocence throughout, was found not guilty (Boston Gazette, 9 Aug. 1773).
Hutchinson says the verdict was owing to a technicality: Nickerson could be tried in America only for piracy (if for murder, he would have had to be sent to England, where evidence would be impossible to obtain). But four of the eight judges held that in order to prove the piracy, the murders would also have to be proved. Hutchinson did not agree, but the equal division of the judges resulted in acquittal.
JA's civil law authorities and other notes for his argument in the Nickerson case will be found among his legal papers (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185). In his Autobiography he wrote: “I know not to this day what Judgment to form of his Guilt or Innocence. And this doubt I presume was the Principle of Acquittal.” On 30 July 1773 Nickerson signed a promissory note to JA for his legal fees and expenses in the amount of £6 13s. 4d. lawful money. The note remains in the Adams Papers. It is not receipted.
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2018.