Mary Martin was a young Black girl or woman (newspapers described her as a “yellow girl” and a “colored girl”), “uncommonly delicate in her form, and modest in her appearance” (Long Island Star, May 4, 1826), who killed her newborn, apparently conceived outside of marriage, sometime in the spring of 1826.
Beyond that, little is known about Martin, her infant, or her crime. There are no surviving copies of Pittsburgh newspapers for 1826 and the case received only cursory attention beyond Pittsburgh. Neither do any trial records survive.
While infanticide was recognized as first-degree murder, there had been considerable reluctance to treat is as such going back to the enactment of the state’s original murder statute in 1794. (After reviewing the recent history of infanticide prosecutions in Pennsylvania, William Bradford noted at the time “[w]here a positive law is so feebly enforced, there is reason to suspect it is fundamentally wrong.”)
That reluctance was clearly evident in Martin’s case. After pleading not guilty, Martin was convicted on April 19, 1826; a verdict that is reported to have left the jailer in tears and the jury decidedly uncomfortable. She was immediately and unanimously recommended for mercy by the same jury, acting under advisement of the Pittsburgh Bar.
The presiding judge evidenced no such ambivalence. After her motion for a new trial was rejected, Martin was sentenced to death. In imposing sentence, Judge Charles Shaler, an outspoken white supremacist and defender of slavery, was firm in his view that she should be executed.
Martin’s pardon request was “recommended by the members of the Pittsburg Bar, the jury that tried prisoner, the prothonotary and Sheriff, and a number of other respectable Citizens of Allegheny County.”
Newspaper coverage of the Martin case was more ambivalent. The Gettysburg Compiler expressed its opposition to mercy, noting that “so long as our laws prescribe the punishment of death for such offenses, pardons should be cautiously granted.” The Allegheny Democrat was agnostic on the issue, but encouraged the governor to act quickly in that doing so “would confer a particular favor upon many of our citizens, who begin to be uneasy of the expense of keeping” Martin in jail.
A year later, on April 16, 1827, Mary Martin was pardoned by Governor Schulze. The circumstances of that pardon appear to be lost to history.
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