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William Freeman Trial Collection

An inventory of the collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: MRC
Date: 24 Aug 2012

Biographical History

In March of 1846 William Freeman, a young man of African-American and Native American descent, murdered four members of the Van Nest family in the town of Fleming in Cayuga County, New York. The victims included a pregnant woman and a two-year-old child. William Seward, later Secretary of State to President Abraham Lincoln and a long-time advocate of prison reform, defended Freeman on the grounds that he had suffered abuse resulting in brain damage and therefore could not be held responsible for his actions, making this one of the earliest American trials to attempt an insanity defense. (Seward defended another murderer, Henry Wyatt, on similar grounds that same year.) Freeman was convicted but Seward successfully appealed, although Freeman died in prison before he could be retried. The prosecuting attorney was John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The William Freeman Trial Collection consists of five complete issues of the Rochester Daily Advertiser with numerous lengthy articles about the murders and the trial. One issue includes, unusually, an engraving of Freeman done from a sketch "supplied by our friends of the Cayuga Tocsin."

Arrangement of the Collection

Issues are in chronological order.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

Auburn and the surrounding regions of New York State were noted for their progressive attitudes towards penal systems. Special Collections Research Center is also the repository of the papers of several prison reformers, notably Thomas Mott Osborne.

Several books on the murder and trial were published and are in either the Rare Books or general (circulating) collection; please refer to the Classic Catalog and search on "Freeman, William, 1824-1847" to locate these items.

Subject Headings


Freeman, William, 1824-1847.
Seward, William H. (William Henry), 1801-1872.

Associated Titles

Rochester Daily Advertiser (Rochester, N.Y.)


Insanity (Law) -- History -- 19th century.
Newspaper court reporting -- United States.
Trials (Murder) -- New York (State) -- Auburn.

Genres and Forms


Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

William Freeman Trial Collection,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchase, 2012.

Table of Contents

Published material