It was going to be the biggest case of his life. Fifty year old Dayton Attorney Clement Vallandigham was to defend Thomas McGehan, who was charged with murder for a barroom brawl turned deadly in Hamilton, Ohio. Having been unable to find a jury un-swayed by newspaper reports in Hamilton, the trial moved to Lebanon.
Vallandigham and his partner, Daniel Haynes, formed a practice that had become “one of the best and ablest in the West”, with stories of Vallandigham making final pleas so persuasive that the jury was left in tears. Nobody researched more than he did, and he was adept at anticipating the rebuttal arguments of the opposing lawyers.
The case was built on the reasoning that McGehan must have had a pistol in his right pocket, shooting his brawling opponent, Tom Myers, while they were standing a few feet apart. Vallandigham argued that Myers must have been drawing a gun from his own pocket while in a kneeling position on the floor, accidentally shooting himself while attempting to draw it.
Under Vallandigham’s detailed questioning, witnesses contradicted themselves and each other, picking apart the prosecution’s case. Vallandigham examined every detail, including the lighting in the barroom, visibility, what the witnesses could really have seen from where they were standing, and the physical evidence. There were no powder burns on the clothing Myers wore the night of his death, and Vallandigham theorized that it was because of the close proximity of the gun to his clothing when it was fired. To prove his point, Vallandigham went out to a secluded area with Myers’ gun, fired a few rounds into a square cloth, and once he was satisfied with this piece of evidence, returned to the Lebanon House (now known as The Golden Lamb). He set the gun down on the table and called his fellow attorneys in to reenact Myers’ death.
While reenacting the brawl, Vallandigham played the role of Myers, kneeling on the floor. As his peers watched, Vallandigham demonstrated Myers pulling the gun out of his pocket and cocking it, then stood up to demonstrate how he thought the gun went off, snagging on the jacket Myers wore.
Nobody in the room expected to hear the shot, especially not Vallandigham, who had grabbed what he thought was an unloaded pistol. Only, it wasn’t. Intent on his argument, he set the loaded gun from his experiment down next to the unloaded gun he intended to use for the demonstration, and made the wrong choice during demonstration. Stunned silence filled the room, and the next thing to be heard was Vallandigham himself, stating “My God, I’ve shot myself.” Doctors tried to remove the bullet, only to find it was too close to his bladder to be removed. Vallandigham died the next day of infection.
What better way to prove a man accidentally shot and killed himself than to do the same actions and get the same result? The situation and bullet wound mirrored Myers’ injury so closely that the jury agreed, and McGehan was soon found not guilty of murder.
Vallandigham was buried in Woodland Cemetery. The Golden Lamb commemorates Vallandigham’s place of death on the second floor. It is now a banquet hall that shares his name.