The juries and courtrooms of the nineteenth century United States were not, in principle, so unlike those of today. There were, however, unique circumstances, intense religious institutionalization and female discrimination, not found in courtroom justice today, tendencies toward which the collective will of the people moved to overthrow what would seemingly be true justice. Two such cases can be used as examples of this. One is that of Stephen Merill Clark, who was put on trial for arson in 1821 and was consequently hanged. The other is that of Richard. P. Robinson, aka Frank Rivers, who was accused of murdering Helen Jewitt, a celebratory New York prostitute, and setting fire to her room in 1836 and was ultimately found not guilty. .
Clark was a troubled lad who had been prone to acts considered to be mischievous acts in light of the standards of early nineteenth-century rural Massachusetts life. The crime of arson was explained by the judge and prosecution explained that arson, in the Puritan society of wooden housing, was a greater capital offense than robbery, murder and treason. According to Clark, he and his alleged accomplice, Joe Lawrence, lit a candle in the barn of one William Cross and waited for it to burn down to light the hay in the barn. .
The prosecution argued that no arsonist would desire anything else but the destruction of life and property. Apparently, to the courts of Salem, Massachusetts in 1821, the intended effect was just as bad as the real thing. The prosecution sought to tell what the boy was thinking as he lit the candle. They speak of his desire to murder the young and old alike. This desire painted by the prosecution no doubt held sway in the minds of the jury. When Clark was informed that his friend, Hannah Downes, had turned him in, he gave a confession to the crime. His plea was entered as not guilty. The defense argued that his confessions were aquired under improper methods.