How the Author of the Article Abolishing Connecticut's State Supported Church Won One of the Early Nation's Most Colorful Libel Cases
In January of 1820 one of the nation’s most remarkable libel cases played itself out in a New Haven courtroom.
29-year-old newspaper publisher Sherman Converse stood accused of libeling Connecticut State Senator, tax collector and postmaster Joshua Stow.
In his weekly newspaper the Connecticut Journal Converse had labeled Stow an “infidel” - accusing him of denying God, committing blasphemy and official misconduct as tax collector and postmaster.
24 witnesses testified that Stow was an “infidel” – including his own brother and sister. One witness even accused Stow of comparing the resurrection to a turkey spontaneously coming back to life on a dinner table.
The author of the article that had abolished Connecticut’s state supported church Stow’s views on religion and religious freedom had placed him firmly in the crosshairs of Connecticut’s conservative establishment.
Stow’s views on religious freedom were formed when he was still a young man. His father Elihu - an opinionated ex-Revolutionary war soldier captured and released by the British - had traveled six miles from his home every Sunday to attend a separatist church and been arrested on at least one occasion for refusing to pay his dues to the state supported Congregational Church.
In a state traditionally Federalist Joshua became one of the few Democratic-Republicans and open supporters of Thomas Jefferson.
When the Federalist Party in Connecticut began to splinter following the War of 1812 Stow joined a coalition of disaffected moderate Federalists and Democratic- Republicans that coalesced under the banner of the Tolerationist Party.
Born on April 22, of 1762 Stow had grown up in the same home his grandfather had built along a steep hillside overlooking Besek Brook in Middlefield.
“A healthy active man, fond of wood life and determined to adopt all its practices, even to the eating of snakes,” according to one chronicler, Stow was part of the first group to survey the Western Reserve in 1796. During the trip Stow could be seen with as many as ten large rattlesnakes strung across his shoulders and body.
Over his lifetime Stow would make another dozen trips on horseback from Connecticut to the Reserve (present day Ohio) where he would have a township named in his honor.
Converse was born in in Thompson, Connecticut in April of 1790. His family moved to Massachusetts when he was just nine.
In 1817 Converse graduated from Yale University and started his own weekly newspaper the Connecticut Journal.
In an article entitled “Joshua Stow Senator!” that appeared in the Journal on March 16 of 1819, Converse accused Stow of being an “infidel”, of committing blasphemy, denying God and organizing an “Infidel Club.”
According to Converse - at the constitutional convention a year earlier in Hartford - Stow had declared that “the government had no more right to provide by law for the support of the worship of the devil” than God.
Outraged by the article Stow filed suit for libel in New Haven Superior Court. The case went to trial in late January of 1820.
Converse stood accused of making “false, scandalous, malicious, defamatory, [and] libelous” statements and of damaging Stow’s good name and reputation.
In response Converse paraded two dozen witnesses through the courtroom, all of whom testified under oath that Stow indeed was an “infidel.”
Among those who testified was John Bacon - who recalled a conversation he had with Stow 21 years before. “The Virgin Mary, he said, (if women should do so now) would be considered a whore and the savior a bastard,” testified Bacon.
Stow he claimed had even cast doubt on the resurrection itself arguing that it “was as miraculous as if a turkey were to rise up with its wings and feathers all on and gobble after having been eaten and pulled to pieces by a half dozen men at a dinner table.”
William Lyman recalled a similarly blasphemous conversation he had with Stow after stopping by the latter’s home following a meeting.
“The Bible he said was called the Word of God but it could not be because there were so many contradictions in it,” Lyman testified.
Stow’s own brother Obed – a tanner and shoemaker said to be the only one of Elihu’s sons who was religious – even testified against his brother.
“From fifteen to twenty-five years ago I talked largely with my brother on the subject of religion. I perceived that he had imbibed an unhappy prejudice against the scriptures,” Obed testified.
Joshua he claimed had attempted to make the Scriptures appear “ludicrous” on numerous occasions.
“He said the history of the conception of our savior was immoral and indecent – it was strange that a ghost should ravish a virgin and got her with child, especially as it was a good ghost and he did not believe that his salvation depended on believing in a bastard.”
Stow’s sister Eunice recalled a conversation she had with her brother about religion on a trip to the Western Reserve.
“He said it tended to ignorance and was like believing in ghosts and hobgoblins and that a belief in what was not true was injurious,” she testified.
When Stow’s sister-in-law Hezekiah Rice Stow took the stand and was asked if Stow was an “infidel” she refused to answer.
“I should not like to say. My impression is he has had some doubts as to divine revelation,” she testified.
Stow’s attorney on the other hand characterized Bacon and Obed as Stow’s “bitter enemies.”
Obed and Joshua had indeed had a falling out according to their sister-in-law. Hezekiah admitted that Obed had suffered a bout of an insanity more than a decade earlier that lasted a month or longer.
“Is he now at times deranged?” Stow’s attorney asked her.
“He has at times a strange laugh,” she admitted.
Stow’s sister Eunice also testified to having a falling out with Joshua.
Stow and his attorneys presented their own long list of witnesses who testified that Stow was not an infidel.
The so- called “Infidel Club” they argued was no more than a group of like-minded, free thinking men, who shared books and discussed ideas in the pursuit of learning.
Organized in 1788 – the Ethosian Society as it was called – was a group of young men, who for a dollar in dues gained access to the society’s library and took part in group discussions about grammar, geography and literature. Eating and drinking were prohibited at meetings and the Bible was frequently read.
The club’s detractors alleged that its library contained the works of such scandalous authors as Tom Paine and Voltaire. One witness testified at trial that Stow had expressed “infidel sentiments” during the society’s discussions.
Stow’s attorney gave his closing argument first.
“No man’s character from infancy to manhood has been more searched with candles,” he told the jury. “I appeal to you as Christian men, with confidence, that he is a believer in the scriptures.”
Stow’s attorney argued in favor of damages that “shall teach this defendant not to repeat his attack.” The jury – he was confident – would “lay a heavy hand on” on the defendant.
Converse’s attorney appealed to the law. “The nature and structure of our government, the statute and common law secure to every man the right of freely examining the character of every candidate for office. It is fit and proper that people should know the characters of persons held up for office,” he argued in his closing.
Obed and Bacon’s testimony against his client were “too shocking to dwell on” he claimed.
“What damages is this man entitled to?” he asked the jury. “I think you might say he is entitled to none at all for if ever there was a case proved in a court of justice this case has been.”
The jury however disagreed returning with a verdict of $1,000 in damages.
Converse and his attorneys were able to appeal and won a second trial which was held in late August.
The jury initially returned a verdict of $700 in damages. The judge refused to accept the verdict however and the case was returned to the jury.
The jury then decreased the amount of damages to $350.
Unhappy with the verdict, “I am unwilling to concur on this verdict,” explained the judge and the matter was returned to the jury once more.
The jury came back with the same verdict in Stow’s favor for $350. The verdict was final. Converse’s later attempt at an appeal was denied.
Following the trial Converse would continue to publish his Journal for another six years until moving to New York City – where he entered the book publishing business. He was the first to publish Noah Webster’s famous dictionary.
Later in life Converse’s health failed him. Around the year 1850 he suffered a violent bout of rheumatism that left him an invalid.
Following a series of financial setbacks Converse moved in with his son in Boston Highlands and for ten years was said to never have left his room. He died at the age of 84 after a brief illness on December 10 of 1873 and was buried in New Haven.
Remembered for writing the article that granted religious freedom Stow became a “sort of Rip Van Winkle figure” in his later years.
“Short and stout” with “a most determined expression of countenance” an observer who visited Stow when he was 73 recalled his attire “gray from head to foot”, with a “gray roundabout jacket” and a shotgun “hanging by the middle of his hand.”
Stow died on October 10, 1842 at the age of 80.
Report of the Case of Joshua Stow vs. Sherman Converse for a Libel New Haven Sherman Converse 1822 pgs.24-35, 50-55, 66-73, 86, 106, 173-182
Historical Collections of Ohio Henry Howe Vol. II C.J. Krehbiel & Co. 1902 Cinciinatti, pg. 654-655
A Genealogical History of the Kelley Family Herman Alfred Kelley Private printed Cleveland 1897 pg. 24
History of Middlefield and Long Hill Thomas Atkins, Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co. 1883 Hartford pg. 74-78
Some of the Ancestors and Descendants of Samuel Conversere Jr. , Charles Allen Converse Vol. I Eben Putnam Boston, MA `1905 pg. 230-231
Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College Vol. VI Franklin Dexter Yale Univ. Press 1912 pg. 536-537