If a man walks up to another on a crowded public street, demands that he “stand or fall,” and then without pause shoots him three times in front of twenty witnesses, it’s a clear-cut case of murder, is it not? But if the victim was a blackguard, is the shooter entitled to claim provocation or self-defense or some other statutory excuse to reduce the charge to one of manslaughter or even a simple assault? A jury in Frederick, Maryland, faced such questions in April, 1871.
The date of the killing: Monday, October 17, 1870. The scene: a commercial street in downtown Crawford, Maryland. The victim: Colonel William W. McKaig of Crawford, late of the Confederate Army, wealthy owner of an iron foundry. The shooter: Captain Henry C. Black of the same city and service, born to a poor family and employed at a coal company. Black had been on the hunt for McKaig for half an hour and finally spotted his quarry on a public sidewalk. Drawing a pistol, declaring his intent, Black mowed down McKaig, who staggered and fell dead in the street.
Henry Black had learned only the night before why his family hated Colonel McKaig. Henry’s father, Harrison Black, had shot Colonel McKaig in the arm and faced criminal charges. Henry demanded an explanation, and in an all-night talk with his mother, he got it: Henry’s older sister Myra had been intimate with McKaig for years, both before and after the Colonel’s marriage to another woman. Myra had discovered in the spring that she was pregnant and had been sent away. The elder Blacks had recently learned that Colonel McKaig was bad-mouthing Myra as a prostitute to his friends. But it wasn’t true. Henry’s mother brought out a letter from Colonel McKaig to Myra Black that described the best way for Myra to sneak over for a rendezvous while his wife was out of the house.
The next day, Henry Black found McKaig on the street, and that was the last of Colonel William W. McKaig. After the shooting, Black stood over the dying man and shouted, “That’s what you get for ruining my sister, and for trying to send my father to the penitentiary! And I have got another shot for any damned scoundrel who says I’ve done what was wrong!”
The State of Maryland took up the bold challenge and put Black on trial for murder. Dozens of witnesses testified in a proceeding that lasted for weeks. The jury deliberated for eighty minutes, including dinner, before returning a “not guilty” verdict by a vote of 10 to 2. Cheers greeted the outcome, for public opinion was with Black. It was to his mother that Henry Black first turned when the verdict was announced. As far as the jury was concerned, McKaig had it coming. And that was defense enough for Henry Black.