African-American History in our American Trials Collection, #4

June 14, 2008

Among the most uncommon and interesting of our trial pamphlets is Isaiah Lanson’s Statement and Inquiry, Concerning the Trial of William Lanson, Before the New Haven County Court, November Session, 1845, probably printed in New Haven in 1846. Ours is the only copy recorded in the online library dabase, WorldCat.

William Lanson was an African American and a successful New Haven construction engineer. He extended Long Wharf in 1810, built the East Haven Bridge, and helped develop Wooster Square. He also owned the Liberian Hotel. He was arrested repeatedly for allegedly illegal activities at the hotel, and put on trial for operating a house of ill repute.

In this pamphlet, Lanson’s son Isaiah comes to his father’s defense. He asserts that “If Mr. L. had been a white man, he would have had at least some advantages which he has not had. Some evidence of his would have been taken as good. We have no hesitation in saying that the jury were in a measure prejudiced.” Isaiah Lanson sets out an impassioned but also well-documented defense of his father’s conduct and reputation.

The pamphlet provides considerable information on the operation of a boarding house, and life in New Haven’s African American community in the early 19th century. It also provides evidence that African Americans in New Haven were not only literate but also sophisticated in their employment of print media.

Rare Book Librarian

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