So begins George H. Westley's Convicted By a Dream (9 Green Bag 356 (1897)) and so begins the story of how I stumbled across Westley's essay this evening. Westley recounts his discovery of an earlier Green Bag article, Dreams Before the Law Courts, which inspired him to pen an essay on the strange case of Eugene Clifford.
Clifford, a deserter from the British Army, took up residence in Fairfield, Vermont in 1840. He soon married a widow who lived in that town with her two children. Several months into the wedding, a bedraggled Clifford returned from a nearby lake and claimed that his wife and children had drowned as they attempted to sail across. Despite several suspicious circumstances (Clifford remained drenched despite walking several miles from the lake and he had not stopped at the houses nearest to the lake before reporting the tragedy), Clifford - though initially arrested - was released.
The story took a strange turn, however, with the introduction of Mrs. Marvin - a woman who lived several miles from the place where Mrs. Clifford and her children drowned. When Clifford set sail with his family, his wife and children were wrapped in shawls. Westley writes of Marvin's recurring dream:
She dreamed that she saw Clifford, after he had drowned his wife and children, come out of the water bearing the two shawls in his arms and, proceeding to a point some fifteen or twenty rods from the shore, through timber and undergrowth, deposit them in a clump of alder-bushes, twisting them together and matting and tangling the grass over them. The spot was fixed in the dreamer's memory by a fallen tree beside the hiding place.
Thus far the dream related to the past, but before it ended she also saw what was to be Clifford's punishment. She dreamed that he would be tried, and upon her testimony convicted of the crime of murder; that he would not be hanged, but would remain in prison until, by slow decay, mind and body should perish.
After reporting this dream, Marvin lead two of her neighbors to the location she had seen in her dream. After locating the alders and the fallen tree, they dug through the grass and found two shawls. The authorities were notified and Clifford was arrested again and indicted for the murder of his wife. During the jury trial, Marvin testified about the contents of her dream, but did not mention the portion relating to Clifford's punishment. During jury instructions, the judge told the jury that they were to disregard Marvin's testimony. Nevertheless, Clifford was convicted and sentenced to a year in solitary confinement before being hanged.
This is not the end of the story. Westley concludes:
Shortly after Clifford was put in solitary confinement, his mind began to weaken, and each succeeding month found him less and less himself and less and less a man. He became possessed with the idea that the jury who had tried him, instead of finding him guilty, had declared him not guilty. So persistently did he harp upon this, that the warden of the jail was induced to write his lawyers to ascertain if there were or possibly could be any mistake about the verdict. The reply he received assured him that there was not. Clifford's mental and physical decay went rapidly on. Before a year had expired he had become a hopeless wreck in body and mind. He was transferred from prison to the insane asylum at Brattleboro, Vermont, and there he soon afterwards died, his career closing exactly as had been foretold in Mrs. Marvin's dream.