The Record from Hackensack, New Jersey on May 20, 1973 · 138
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The Record from Hackensack, New Jersey · 138

Hackensack, New Jersey
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 20, 1973
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mo THE MORR ISTOWN BLASPHEMY TRIAL By Carl Shapiro Wh 'HEN ON a summer day in 1886, citizens of Boonton, N.J. gathered bushels of eggs and apples, they were not preparing for an idyllic afternoon picnic. Indeed, the good folks of that tiny Morris County town were readying themselves for an assault upon Charles B. Reynolds, an ex-Methodist minister who had renounced the Bible, set up a tent, and begun preaching the gospel of Freethought. By also distributing pamphlets mocking the Holy Scriptures, Reynolds had ignited the torch of infidelity, exposing himself to the wrath of pious fundamentalists. Armed with produce from the Eden of the Garden State, the area's Christian soldiers marched onward, destroying Reynolds' tent, pelting him with their missiles and driving the rationalist rebel out of town. Thinking he would receive a more cordial reception in nearby Morris-town, the undaunted Reynolds continued his heretical crusade there. Unfortunately for the Freethought evangelist, Morristown officials promptly arrested Reynolds and immediately indicted him on an old New Jersey blasphemy statute. According to the statute, still on the books, anyone who reproaches i or exposes the character of the deity of the Bible "to contempt or ridicule, is guilty of a misdemeanor." Upon conviction, Reynolds faced a fine of $200, or one year imprisonment, or both. Though it appeared for several rionths that Reynolds would not tnd a lawyer to defend him on such a farcical charge, wide publicity of the indictment in the press finally brought the eminent lawyer, orator and agnostic. Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, to Reynolds' defense. I HE TRIAL COMMENCED at Morristown on May 19, 1887. (Historians may remember that Morristown was not only the site of a famous lunatic asylum, but during the Revolution the area boasted of an army camp called "Fort Nonsense".) The State was represented by Morris County Prosecutor, Wilder W. Cutler. Circuit Court Judge Francis Child, assisted by County Judges Munson and Quim-by, were assigned to the case. In view of the law, Ingersoll would base his defense upon the premise that the blasphemy statute was an infringement upon intellectual liberty and a mockery of the constitutional clause that reads: ! - . vkW Robert Ingersoll, defense lawyer in the Morristown Blasphemy trial, is shown taking the Devil on as a client in this Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper's Weekly, 1886. On a balmy day in May. 86 years ago. an ex-preacher and the First Amendment went on trial. They almost won. "No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press." The normally sedate community of Morristown suddenly awoke with enthusiasm. The presence of such an illustrious figure as Ingersoll excited public sentiment and no other topic was as gossiped about as this. Needless to say, the day of the trial saw practically the entire Morristown area's citizenry pack and surround the courthouse with the attentiveness of a crowd expecting to witness a religious miracle. The trial commenced, without delay. Within minutes, five jurors were chosen. Ingersoll was permitted to examine each juror and was informed that he could disqualify any man who, in the lawyer's opinion, was prejudiced. Judge Child directed that the court would eject any juror who had not the ability "to change his opinion in spite of evidence." (One spectator had already been ejected for shouting, "Three cheers for Ingersoll.") Ingersoll questioned each juror about his prejudices. To a man who did not understand the meaning of the word, the attorney explained, "I may not define the word legally, but my own idea is that a man is prejudiced when he has made up his mind on a case without knowing anything about it." Two jurors who fitted that category were promptly dismissed. In all, 20 men were examined. The jury having been sworn, Prosecutor Cutler summoned numerous citizens to whom Reynolds was alleged to have given a pamphlet. The only cross-examination Ingersoll made was to ask the witnesses if any had read the defendant's literature. None of the witnesses would admit having read even a page. Ingersoll immediately demanded a dismissal of the charges on grounds of insufficient evidence. He reasoned that since no one had actually read (or would not admit having read) the "blasphemous pamphlets," how could Reynolds be tried? The massive, broad-shouldered attorney wryly declared, "You'd better discharge Reynolds, or I will appeal and try the case again and convert the whole town." But ignoring the applause, Judge Child ruled that the mere distribu- tion of the pamphlets was sufficient cause for indictment. - Anxious to hear an Ingersollian cross-examination, Judge Child expressed disappointment when Ingersoll announced, "I do not know that I shall have any witnesses one way or the other." Ingersoll then suggested a recess, declaring, "Perhaps after dinner I may feel like making a few remarks." Replied Judge Child, "There will be a great disappointment if you do not." Ingersoll did not disappoint the court. The highlight of the trial was his magnificent address, one of the most eloquent speeches ever delivered in a temple of justice. The forensic lawyer prefaced his address by. emphasizing the importance of the case that "involves the freedom of speech, the intellectual liberty a every citizen of New Jersey." Thi lecture-summation held the specta tors motionless for nearly thre hours: . .If there is one subject in this world worthy of being . discussed, worthy of being understood, it is the question of intellectual liberty. Without that, we are simply painted clay; without that, we are poor, miserable serfs and slaves. If you have not the right to express your opinions, if the defendant has not his right, then no man ever - walked beneath the blue of heaven that had the right to express his thought. ". . .Let me say now, that the crime of blasphemy, as set out in this statute, is impossible. No man can blaspheme a book. No man can commit blasphemy by telling his honest thought. ". . .What is blasphemy? To enslave the minds of men, to put manacles upon the brain, padlocks upon the lips that is blasphemy. To violate your conscience that is blasphemy. ". . . No man, no human being, has ever lived who cursed his own idea of God. He always curses the idea that somebody else entertains. No human being ever yet cursed what he believed to be infinite wisdom and infinite goodness. Every man on this jury knows that. Then what have they cursed? Some God they did not believe in that is all. And has a man that right? I See TRIAL, Page 22 THE SUNDAY4'! CORD

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