I read a book titled True Crime, where an author who gained fame writing about baseball decides to turn his attention to lurid tabloid crimes which have been popular long before there were tabloids in America.
The book is an entertaining read, but don’t expect any great understanding of crime or criminals to be gained as there is little in depth analysis of any worth.
The author does provide an interesting look at how outrageous crimes which caught the attention of the public and the media have shaped the criminal justice system in the United States over the century. Sometimes accepted procedures that the cops or the courts have performed for years are changed when the public starts to yowl.
One such case, mentioned in passing, is that of Yale tutor John Dwight. He and another man were walking along in October of 1843 when they came across a group of underclassmen who were gleefully breaking windows. The gang of vandals broke up an ran, so John and his buddy gave chase.
Unfortunately, John Dwight was a fit and athletic 21 years of age. He caught up to one of the ne’er-do-wells, sophomore Lewis Fassitt, and was stabbed three times for his trouble. Mr. Dwight died a few days later.
Fassitt was arrested but he was released on a $3,000 bail, which is about $350,000 in today’s currency. Instead of subjecting himself to the blind scales of justice, he went back home to his wealthy family in Philadelphia and never set again foot in Connecticut for the rest of his life.
The police and prosecutors let him go without any attempt being made to go get their man. Their response to the predictable outcry was, Why should they? Fassitt forfeited his bond when he failed to appear for his day in court. What does the lay person think putting up money for bail is for, anyway? They smugly suggested that those untrained in the law should just shut up and let the professionals get on with the serious business of bringing justice to criminals.
Unschooled in the law they may be, but the general public knew when justice wasn’t being served. The case brought about an incredible sea change in the way suspects of crimes are treated by the courts. Bail was still set, bonds were still posted, and the accused was still released from jail for a time in order to allow them to prepare their defense. But the days where the accused could turn their backs on the cash and move outside of the jurisdiction where the crime was committed in order to escape justice were long gone.
Or were they?
This news article in USA Today states that this practice is far too common. It has been possible in recent years for people accused of major crimes such as murder to escape the long arm of the law by simply moving out of the state where they are wanted. If the suspect is picked up by local law enforcement at his new locale, such as during a routine traffic stop, then they will be turned over to the authorities for trial. But other than random chance bringing the accused under the thumb of Johnny Law, no attempt will be made to track them down.
Luckily, an expose printed by USA Today has shamed the Powers That Be into doing what they should have been doing since the 1850’s. Efforts will now be made to track down those accused of major crimes should they fail to appear. Or at least they will for a few years, maybe a decade. After that, I expect the old lazy ways to reassert themselves.
So what happened to Lewis Fassitt, the stabby window breaking vandal who changed the way the US criminal justice system viewed justice?
Near as I can tell, nothing much. This Philadelphia city directory from 1863 shows that there is a doctor named Louis Fassitt that was living in that town 20 years after the crime. There was also an L. Fassitt, whose profession is listed as “gentleman”, living in swank digs a few minutes away in the downtown area. Considering that the name of Fassitt is hardly common, I’d bet good folding money that they both were at least closely related to the accused. It also wouldn’t surprise me if the “gentleman” who is mentioned was the murderer himself, living large on the same family fortune that allowed him to escape justice in the first place.
The dead victim also has a brief footnote of fame in that his younger brother, Timothy Dwight, went on to become an influential and forward looking president of Yale. But it appears that the murder of his brother made an impression.
As is related at the last link, Timothy followed in brother John’s footsteps and worked as a tutor. When awakened by drunken student vandals he dutifully gave chase, but called out to the louts and urged them to greater speed when it appeared that he might actually catch one of them.
Can’t say I blame him!