On February 2, 1907, Chester Thompson (1885-1963) is found not guilty by reason of insanity by a Tacoma jury for the murder of Judge George Meade Emory (1869-1906) of Seattle. The sensational trial lasts for nearly two months, consists of 121 witnesses, and has a plethora of dramatic moments. The highlight of the trial comes from an extraordinary, two-day long closing argument for the defense which is proffered by Thompson's father and attorney, Will Thompson (1848-1918). Afterward, Chester Thompson will spend most of his life at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake (Spokane County).
It was a crime that shocked Seattle. Thompson had been infatuated for several years with Emory's niece, Charlotte Whittlesey (1887-1936), whose family lived next door to the judge and his family. But she had never considered him more than a friend, and by the summer of 1906 she had lost interest in him entirely. On the evening of Saturday, July 7, she was visiting the Emory home when Thompson called and asked for her. She declined to take his call, and Emory told him that he too did not want Thompson to contact them further.
Whittlesey subsequently left the Emorys and took a walk with a friend. The judge and his wife went out on the front porch of their house at 229 Denny Way, where they were soon joined by two acquaintances, Will Keith and his wife. As darkness fell on the warm evening, Thompson, armed with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson, suddenly stormed onto the porch. He asked for Whittlesey and, without stopping, entered the house. Emory went in after him, and seconds later Thompson shot him twice. He then charged upstairs and held two of Emory's young children hostage in a bedroom for nearly two hours until his father arrived and quickly talked him into surrendering.
Emory died from his wounds during the wee hours of July 9. Thompson reacted coolly when told the news: "Is that so? It's too bad, isn't it?" ("Thompson Shows ..."). He was charged with first-degree murder the next day. The crime was a big sensation in Seattle, where Emory was a well-known and respected jurist. He had practiced law in the city since 1890, and though his one-year term as judge on the King County Superior Court had ended in 1902, he had remained "Judge Emory" to most in Seattle afterward. "He was regarded by the lawyers of Seattle as one of the ablest men at the bar of King County and as one of the most promising men of the profession," explained The Seattle Times ("Biographical Sketch ...").
The trial was expected to be held in Seattle, but Thompson's attorneys filed for a change of venue, successfully arguing that there was too much prejudice against their client for a fair trial in King County. The case was assigned to Judge William Snell in the Superior Court of Pierce County, and jury selection began on December 6. This took just over a week, and 65 men were examined before 12 jurors were selected. The trial began in earnest on December 14. The state was represented by attorneys Kenneth Mackintosh, prosecuting attorney of King County; John Miller, deputy prosecuting attorney; Walter Harvey of Tacoma, and Thomas Vance of Olympia. Thompson was represented by his father and by attorney Will Morris.
Will Thompson was a well-known and highly respected attorney in Seattle. A Confederate veteran (he later received the honorary title of colonel), he moved on from the loss after the Civil War and was admitted to the bar in 1872. He arrived in Seattle in 1889, established a law firm, and served as general counsel in the West for the Great Northern Railway from 1896 to 1904, earning him recognition far beyond King County. His 1918 obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sums up his career: "He was recognized as one of the ablest men of the Washington bar, not only for his broad grasp and thorough knowledge of the law, but also for his almost unparalleled eloquence" ("Col. Thompson ..."). He also was an accomplished poet and writer.
Miller led off with an opening statement for the prosecution, essentially detailing the facts of the case. Thompson rose next to give the opening statement for the defense, but he didn't give the standard explanation of the defenses to the charges. Instead, he spent much of the day detailing the history of mental illness in his family. He said that his great-grandmother had suffered from insanity, that his brother Maurice had suffered from temporary insanity, and his brother Tom had been an "imbecile" ("Details Boy's Life ...") from birth. He told the court that his wife's family had also had issues with mental illness, and argued that mental illness was a hereditary trait.
With that background, he described how his son had suffered from paranoia and delusions for years. He gave example after example. The court, packed with spectators, was spellbound. His two other sons, Maurice (1878-1954) and Oscar (1887-1945), who often sat with their brother during the trial, were moved to tears. Chester Thompson, however, was unmoved. Displaying the marked indifference for which he became known during the proceedings, he "did not seem to care," reported the Post-Intelligencer ("Details Boy's Life ..."). The Seattle Times added, "Through it all the prisoner sat huddled in his chair almost as motionless as a bundle of clothing stuffed into a semblance of a human being" ("Insanity on Both ...").
Witness testimony began the next day, and 121 witnesses testified in all. One of them was Emory's long-time friend and law partner Daniel Kelleher. Though not present at the shooting, he visited Emory the following day and testified that the judge told him he believed that Thompson had come to his house intending to kill him and not Charlotte Whittlesey, though many felt otherwise. (Thompson always denied intending to kill Whittlesey.) According to Kelleher, Emory told him that Thompson had spoken to him in an angry voice in the phone call shortly before the shooting after he had asked Thompson to stop contacting them. However, Whittlesey's younger sister Laura, who also was present when Thompson called, testified that she heard no threats and there did not seem to be anything menacing about the conversation. Other witnesses who spoke with Emory after the shooting similarly did not corroborate Kelleher's statement that Emory believed Thompson had come to his house planning to shoot him.
There was testimony from mental health experts – six for the prosecution, six for the defense. The experts, called "alienists" in the early twentieth century, testified as one might expect: The experts for the state said they had found Thompson sane during their interviews of him in jail, while the experts for the defense said he was "a victim of paranoia, a mental disease" ("Celebrated Case ..."). The defense experts cited evidence of what they said were delusions (Thompson at times spoke of unrealistically big dreams for his life) and alleged hallucinations as support. There was testimony from others who had interacted generally with Thompson prior to the shooting who said they had not noticed much unusual about his mental state, though some said they thought the introverted young man was peculiar.
One of the most celebrated witnesses was Charlotte Whittlesey. She arrived to a courtroom full of witnesses eager to hear her testimony, which began on January 14, 1907, and continued the next day. Resplendent in a coat and costly furs, she came across as cold and arrogant. She told the history of her friendship with Thompson and said she had never had romantic feelings toward him. During her testimony, several letters which he had written her were introduced into evidence to show his state of mind. One letter, dated September 24, 1905, might give a glimpse:
"This earth is a mighty lonely place anyway. A poor little ball way off in space, going bravely along, plunging steadily ahead into the darkness ... It is awful to be alone in the woods at night. So the people gather together in cities, in the glare of lights and the sound of talk and laughter – and feel brave" ("Love Letters ...").
Another letter, written about a week earlier, says "It is a glorious day here, but I hate glorious days and have always hated them" ("Love Letters ...").
An Impassioned Argument
Closing arguments began on January 28. Later that week, Will Thompson gave an impassioned, two-day argument in support of his son that reverberated in the halls of jurisprudence for years. He talked for nearly 12 hours over the two days, and the Post-Intelligencer reported that he said approximately 130,000 words – roughly the equivalent of a 400-page book. His arguments focused as much on the emotional aspects of the case as the factual ones; he spoke more as a father than as a lawyer. Sometimes he spoke clearly and calmly, sometimes he was angry, sometimes he wept.
None of this was lost on the jury or anyone present in the jam-packed courtroom, with the exception of Emory's wife Josephine and Chester Thompson himself, who listened stoically. Explained the Post-Intelligencer of Will Thompson's oration: "... Before he was well started [in his argument] women cried aloud and men sat listening to the father's plea with tears coursing down their cheeks" ("His Plea ..."). He bitterly attacked opposing counsel for their repeated accusations of lax parental authority contributing to his son's condition: "Those men ... would have me whip that poor, weak-minded boy," he cried ("Father Pleading ..."). And he attacked Charlotte Whittlesey herself: "She is a beautiful girl, but she is absolutely without a heart" ("Thompson Still Pleading ...") and referred to her as a "barbaric worshipper at her shrine" ("A Dramatic Appeal ...").
And he dove to the heart of the case:
"We may see a great, heavy man, a cripple who can get about only by the aid of crutches. He falls, and in the falling goes down on a little child and crushes the child to death. Do we blame the man? No; we talk of the pity of it.
"But what if a mental cripple kills another? Then all hands are raised against him. And here in the presence of the law and under the shadow of justice I cry 'Is there any justice in that?'" ("Thompson Still Pleading…").
The case went to the jury late on the afternoon of February 2. The jury deliberated for four-and-a-half hours, and about 9:30 p.m. announced its verdict: Not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense team erupted with joy, but Thompson did not. "He sat in his chair in his unending attitude of morose gloom. Congratulations were not offered. He was past (sic) over and forgotten in the greatest hour of the life of the Thompson family" recounted the Post-Intelligencer ("Celebrated Case ...").
Was Will Thompson guilty of hyperbole when he told the jury of his family's mental history? Perhaps, but there was likely truth in his assertions. Mental illness was not just poorly understood in the early twentieth century; it essentially was not understood at all. Most considered it either a serious character defect or an excuse by the person affected to shirk his responsibilities, and it was a stigma that no one wanted. If few knew of Chester Thompson's problems, it's because the family, especially one with the standing of the Thompson family, would not have told them. A scathing editorial in The Seattle Times two days after the verdict was announced illustrates the point:
"Which would an honorable man rather do – have it understood that in his whole family line there is only one black sheep and let that black sheep be punished, or prove to the world that five generations had all been black sheep?
"Will H. Thompson, in order to save his alleged crazy son according to his own claim, proved that his grandfather – his father – himself and the mother of Chester Thompson had been, are now and expect to be crazy for the next thousand years!
"That may be Southern chivalry – but we know a lot of wood choppers from the back country of Washington who would rather go down in history as being sane men, and let any murderer of their blood to be punished according to the law – than to allow that murderer to escape as a lunatic, when to prove the fact it became necessary to prove the whole Thompson family crazy for five generations!" ("One Black Sheep – Or All Crazy").
Thompson soon filed a motion to direct Judge Snell to order a jury determination of his son's sanity, but the Washington Supreme Court denied it. In May 1907, Snell ordered Chester Thompson be sent to the insane ward at the state prison in Walla Walla. He arrived at the prison a month later and spent nearly a year there. In early 1908, his father filed a new motion for a hearing to determine of his sanity. Snell denied the motion but was overruled by the Washington Supreme Court.
The hearing began in Snell's court on May 18, and Chester Thompson testified as to his sanity over parts of the next several days. He presented well, and held up under a blistering cross-examination. But the prosecuting attorney, H. G. Rowland, had one more for him. As he was about to leave the witness stand, Rowland asked, "Have you at any time since July 7, 1906, ever spoken a word of regret because of your killing of Judge Emory?" "I have not," Thompson admitted almost inaudibly ("Would Not Plead ...").
The case went to the jury on June 3. After an initial closing argument for the defense by attorney Silas Shipley, the State rested its case rather than respond. This prevented giving Will Thompson, who also was representing his son, another chance to sway the jury with a stirring speech. Nevertheless, the jurors returned a verdict in either 15 minutes (per The Seattle Times) or 23 minutes (according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) declaring that Chester Thompson was sane; the swiftness of the verdict surprised everyone in the courtroom. This time when the verdict was read, Thompson smiled. Rowland filed an appeal but quickly dropped it, admitting that the chance of success was too slim to justify further time and expense. Thompson was freed on June 8, 1908.
Freed, But Not Free
He may have been freed from prison, but he was not a free man. He was accused of stalking other women. He was frequently asked what his travel plans were when he was interviewed by the press. When he went to a tennis match in hopes of seeing Whittlesey there, spectators seated near him got up and left their seats. His behavior was erratic, and it deteriorated further when Whittlesey married in September 1911. He was accused of sending anonymous letters to her mother and Emory's widow apologizing for the shooting. This time there was little dispute that Thompson was ill, and he voluntarily committed himself into Eastern State Hospital in November 1911.
Will Thompson died in 1918, and Charlotte Whittlesey in 1936. Chester Thompson faded from the news and became a forgotten man, so much so that it took the intervention of a local minister and his guardian to obtain his release in November 1957, when he was 72. "He might have been released before but he got lost in the shuffle," admitted a hospital spokesman. "He may be depressed at times again but he is going into a benign old age" ("Killer of Judge…"). He lived quietly for the next six years in a home in Spokane, where he became known for his long walks around the city wearing a wide-brimmed hat. He also continued his lifelong penchant for writing poetry, some of which was published in local newspapers. He spent his final two months in a Spokane nursing home before his death in December 1963.