Written for the “ Spirit of the Times.”

The following comedy of errors was enacted in a Court of Quarter Sessions in the West, a few weeks since.

The clerk of the Court called over the names of twelve jurors, who were empannelled, among whom were two jurors who answered to that rare and romantic name—JOHN SMITH.

The clerk well knowing that there was one certain John Smith, if indeed any John Smith can be certain, returned by the Sheriff as a Petit Juror, took it for granted that John Smith had answered twice to his name, and that by some mistake he, the said clerk, had written a duplicate of the name of John Smith.

Proceeding upon this absurd hypothesis, namely, that there could only be one John Smith on a venire, or in a box, he after a while succeeded admirably in bewildering himself and every body else.

Clerk : “ If the Court please, there is one juror wanting.”

Court : “ We have counted the Jury and there are twelve men in the box.”

Clerk : “ Some man must have got into the box by mistake who is not a juror.”

Court : “ Call their names.”

Clerk : “ Gentlemen of the Jury, please answer to your names.”

Here he called them over again, and the two indomitable John Smiths answered to their names like men.

Clerk : “ There must be something wrong, here.”

Court : “ How many John Smith’s are in that box ?”

“ One !” answered the two John Smiths simultaneously, for they were strangers to each other, and from the noise in the Court-room, and the crowd, it escaped observation that there were two John Smiths, and the John Smiths did not know it themselves.

Court : “ Send for the Sheriff!” [enter Sheriff.] Court continues, “ Bring your list of jurors till we compare it with the clerk’s list.”

Sheriff : [Perusing his list.] “ If the Court please there is but one John Smith here.”

About this time a constable bawled out, “ Clear the way for the Grand Jury ! [1]” And in the bustle and noise of their approach one of the John Smith’s slipped out of the Petit Jury box quietly and unobserved, and seated himself in the back row of the Grand Jurors.

Clerk : “ There are, as I said before, only eleven jurors in the box, and two of them I think must be John Smiths.”

Court : “ There are twelve, Sir ! I counted them, and if there are more John Smith’s than one, then there are thirteen jurors in the box, as a matter of course.”

Clerk : “ Their voices are wonderfully alike.”

Court : “ It is impossible there should be more than one John Smith in the box, as there is but one on the Sheriff’s list of jurors ; call them again.”

Here the clerk called them over again, and although there were but eleven jurors in the box, one of whom was a veritable John Smith, yet by this time John Smith was so obfusticated with what had transpired that he answered to the name twice, being called twice, and as he felt that the matter was becoming personal, he answered with tremendous vociferation, and highly excited. If he thought that a loud answer would clear up the mystery he was very much mistaken.

Here outspoke an attorney who thought himself very wise, and said that as the name of John Smith was a very common name, he had no doubt there were two men of the same name in the box.

Court : “ Sheriff, who summoned these jurors ?”

Sheriff : “ My deputy, John Smith.”

Attorney General : “ Is there no end to human calamities ?”

Here an unfledged attorney, who had read Shakespeare more than Blackstone or the Bible, exclaimed, “ I could not this believe without the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes,” and I may add, ears.

About this time the Attorney General’s eye, (who was growing very impatient) happened to gild the forehead of a young member of the bar who had responded from his youth upwards to the multitudinous name of John Smith, when the former broke out upon him with a jumble of misquotations :

“ Abjure thy country and foreswear thy name,
Let thy pernicious name stand aye, accursed in the catalogue.”

Court : “ We are making no progress in this afffair.”

Clerk : “ What supposing I call all the names except John Smith?"

Court: "Go on."

The clerk called all the names except the John Smiths, and there were only ten jurors in the box, barring the Smiths.

Clerk : “ I told your Honor before that there were but eleven jurors in the box.”

Court : (Counting the jurors, and elevating his dexter fore-finger at each individual he counted) “ It is even so ; there were twelve before. Lucifer has dropped into the box, in the shape of a John Smith, and vanished again without leaving the smell of brimstone behind him.” (Court continues.) “ Let all the John Smiths empannelled in the petit jury box stand up :” and accordingly one very diminutive individual shot up, his head scarcely taller than those of the other sitting members.

At this crisis, a very good looking man upon the jury, after looking carefully around him, told the Court there were two different and distinct jurors who answered to the name of John Smith, to the best of his knowledge and belief.

“ Silence, sir !” interposed the Court, but the remark had its weight with the Court for all that, as the Court had affirmed before there were twelve jurors in the box, and afterwards acknowledged there were but eleven.

Court : “ Sir, are you a veritable John Smith ?”

John Smith : “ If it please your Honor, I don’t understand ‘veritable.’ ”

Court : “ You dont ! is your baptismal name John ? Are you John Smith ?”

John Smith : “ May it please the Court, I never was baptised.”

Court : “ This is no time to trifle with the Court—you dont understand ‘ veritable !’ ”—“ Do you understand keel-haul ?” (The Court had been a sailor once.)

John Smith : “ No, sir.”

Court : “ Well, if all the John Smiths were keel-hauled [2] as they ought to be, they would then be baptised with a witness. Answer the question, sir ! Is your name John Smith ?”

John Smith : “ I am so flabbergasted that I hardly know my own name from any other body’s ; I believe my name is John Smith. I could [3] not conscientiously swear to it.”

Court: “ What is your trade, occupation, calling, report ?”

John Smith : “ I am a gunsmith.”

Attorney General : “ He is a son of a gun !”

Court : “ Are you not a nephew of old John Cannon, of Cyprus township ?”

John Smith : “ Yes, sir.”

Court (musing) : “ The family has degenerated wonderfully ; he is a mere pistol. Sheriff, stand nearer to the juror, or he will go off like his invisible namesake.”

Attorney General : “ The Court had better discharge him.”

Court : “ Sit down, John Smith. Clerk, see to the Grand Jury—they are coming in.”

Clerk : “ Gentlemen of the Grand Jury, have you any bills ?”

Foreman : “ I hold some bills in my hand, but he have no quorum. Upon calling the names in the Grand Jury room, the right John Smith was absent, and the John Smith as he calls himself, and fancies himself a Grand Juror, is not one at all ; he is a stranger to me.” [Grand Jury here retired, but John Smith went with them, and succeeded in persuading them that he was a grand Juror.]

About this time the little John Smith bustled up, and manifested a desire to go with the Grand Jury, when the Court interposed.

Court : “ John Smith, are you a Grand Juror ?”

John Smith : “ I don’t know, sir ; I am a Juror.”

Court : “ From what township ?”

John Smith : “ Moon !”

Court : “ I thought so. You have moon-stricken the whole of us.”

Constable : “ Make way for the Grand Jury.”

Clerk : “ Gentlemen of the Grand—"

Court : “ Call over their names.” And the names were called ; the last man who answered to his name was John Smith.

Clerk : “ May it please the Court, the Grand Jury has a quorum now with John Smith.”

Foreman : “ Here are six true bills, and four ignoramusses.”

Sheriff : “ If it pleases the Court, I think the last John Smith that answered to his name in the grand Jury box is a petit Juror, from Middlesex Township. I know him—he makes rifles for shooting matches.”

Court : “ He has rifled us out of a day’s work already. Call another petit Juror, and let us proceed to business.”

Attorney General : “ If the Court please, I now see a doubtful twilight dawning on this mystery : we have the corporeal John Smiths here, but I think they are each in the wrong box.”

Court : “ Sheriff, bring in your list of Grand and Petit Jurors.” And he brought in two boards with the names of the Jurors pasted on, which looked like two tomb stones inscribed with elegies written in short metre. The Court carefully read the lists of the Sheriff, from which it appeared that little John Smith of Moon, was a Grand Juror, and John Smith of Middlesex, who had usurped the Grand Jury box, was a Petit Juror. The township alone from whence they came could distinguish between the two John Smiths, gunsmiths.

Clerk : “ John Smith of Moon, you may retire, sir. John Smith of Middlesex, you may retire, sir.”

The two John Smiths would have retired into the arms of Zimmerman, and remained in solitude for ever, had not the Court interposed, and said in a loud voice, “ John Smith of Moon, go into the Grand Jury box. John Smith of Middlesex, go into the Petit Jury box. Why, indictments and verdicts are worth nothing with such strange mistakes !”

The John Smiths exchanged places, when the Court said, as well it might—“ Gentlemen of the Grand Jury, you had the wrong John Smith with you, and therefore had no quorum. Take back the indictments to your room.”

Attorney General : “ I think we may proceed to business now ?”

Court : “ What is the first cause ?”

Attorney : “ COMMONWEATH v s. JOHN SMITH, for assault and battery, with intent to kill.”

Court : “ Don’t make merry with our miseries.”

Attorney General : “ There is the indictment—read it for yourselves.”

Court : “ Continue his case, increase his bail, double his recognizance ! The name, the name alone ought to be an indictable offence. Who is his bail ?”

Attorney General : “ John Smith !”

Court : “ Adjourn the Court !”

Pittsburg, March 8, 1844. JOHN SMITH.

John Smith would beg to propound an interrogatory to Major Joseph Jones, of Pineville, [“ The Georgia Major !”] Joseph’s truly original courtship was crowned with success about the first frost of last fall, when he swung all night in the bag, like a pirate hung in chains ; his nuptials came off about Christmas, and lo ! young Henry Clay pops into this wicked world on the second of February, without even waiting for the twenty-second, when he would have been christened George Washington Jones, of course.

Now this seems like doing business rather fast. When early in March the tame pigeon pitches from the roof with an amorous flap of his wing, you may look out for squabs in about the same length of time that you might look for a protest on a sixty-day note. The prolific little rabbit makes the most of his time, too. The period of the gestation of an elephant is somewhat longer than his tusks, and the genus homo in the West takes a year, barring three months, for the same process. Now Major Jones of Pineville, was that night you swung in the bag the first night you passed on the premises ?



Source: New York Spirit of the Times 14.3 (16 March 1844): 25. University of Virginia Alderman Library.

Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.

[1] Original text substitutes question mark for exclamation point.
[2] Original text reads “keel-hau led.”
[3] Original text reads “ cou ld.”

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