On November 21, 1901, a King County jury finds John Considine (1863-1943) not guilty of a first-degree murder charge stemming from the shooting of former police chief William Meredith (1869-1901) the preceding June. The shooting and the trial captivate Seattle during the summer and autumn of 1901, and remain an evocative episode in the city's early history.
It was a shooting that shocked Seattle. Considine and Meredith had been friends for most of the 1890s; in fact, Meredith had worked for Considine for several years. Relations between the two men then cooled and by the time Meredith became Seattle's police chief in November 1900, they were bitter enemies.
The fight continued with Meredith in office. Considine operated the People's Theater, a well-known "box house" in Seattle. (A box house was a live theater that had gambling and served liquor; many of its waitresses also offered more personal services on the side, which they frequently provided in small rooms that lined the interior walls of the theater.) However, there was a law the city that prohibited women in box houses from serving liquor, and police began enforcing the law -- but only on Considine's block. Then, in the spring of 1901, the Seattle City Council began investigating charges of corruption against Meredith. He was found to have accepted bribes, in part because of testimony from Considine, and was forced to resign as police chief on June 22. Two days later, Considine sent word to Meredith threatening to sue him for defamation for falsely claiming that Considine had impregnated one of his performers.
Meredith loudly -- and publicly -- threatened revenge. He wasn't bluffing. On the afternoon of June 25, armed to the hilt, he tracked Considine down and confronted him at the G. O. Guy drugstore in Pioneer Square. He shot twice at Considine with a shotgun but only wounded him slightly. He then drew a .32 revolver, but before he could use it Considine and his brother Tom (1857-1933) attacked him. After a ferocious fight Tom Considine managed to wrestle the gun away from Meredith and struck him in the head five times, fracturing his skull in two places. As Meredith dazedly swayed against a showcase, John Considine drew a .38 revolver and shot him three times, killing him on the spot.
The Talk of the Town
The Considine brothers weren't popular with many of Seattle's more respectable citizens, who were looking for any excuse to run them out of town. The shooting provided this excuse, because there was a real question as to whether it was a legitimate case of self-defense. Many who saw the end of the fight said Meredith appeared to have been disarmed (he actually had another pistol and a small knife on him) and may have been incapacitated before Considine shot him.
And that was from those who agreed that Meredith started the fight. On June 28 The Seattle Daily Times published a lengthy front-page article explaining that it was actually the Considine brothers who had stalked Meredith and provoked the fracas. A second front-page article took it a step further. Captioned "Tom Considine Undoubtedly Fired the First Shot," the article explained that Tom Considine had rushed Meredith and shot at him with a pistol. Meredith, who was said to have cleaned out his desk at police headquarters earlier that day and just happened to be carrying three guns and a knife, supposed that John Considine had shot at him and had responded in kind. A third front-page article theorized that a mysterious additional shot had been fired just before Meredith opened fire, based on the discovery of what appeared to be a bullet mark on the storefront of the G.O. Guy drugstore. This became known as the "sixth shot" theory.
There was but one problem with this theory. It was wrong.
Though the Times may have been wrong, its reporting at least had the ring of rationality. The day after the shooting, the Seattle Star published a front-page editorial captioned "Drive Considine Brothers Out of Seattle" that edged toward the hysterical:
"On a slab in a morgue in this city lies the body of a young man. The limbs are cold and rigid, the features stiff in death. There are gaping bullet-wounds in the body. From hour to hour curious persons approach the shut doors, pause silently, and noiselessly go away. Tragedy guards the stillness of the place.
"In a darkened home on Twenty-seventh street a white-faced woman sits. Two little children, a boy and a girl, are with her. Intrude not on their grief. It is sacred. The cruel hand of Tragedy rests with sickening weight upon the woman ... .
"It cannot justly be charged that John Considine MURDERED ex-chief Meredith. It is, however, significant to note that when Considine poured the contents of his revolver into Meredith's body, Meredith not only HAD NO WEAPON IN HIS HAND, but was even in a DAZED, INCAPACITATED CONDITION, HE HAVING BEEN BEATEN ON THE HEAD, with a gun, BY CONSIDINE'S BROTHER TOM, witnesses state, UNTIL HIS SKULL WAS FRACTURED IN TWO PLACES ....
"It is within the province of every LAW-ABIDING CITIZEN OF THIS COMMUNITY, to DEMAND THAT JOHN CONSIDINE AND TOM CONSIDINE BE DRIVEN OUT OF SEATTLE, ONCE AND FOR ALL TIME" (Seattle Star, June 26, 1901).
The State did not share the Star's sentiment that John Considine could not justly be charged with murder. Less than 24 hours after the Star's editorial hit the streets, both John and Tom Considine were charged with first-degree murder, and the death penalty was sought. The State decided that it would try John Considine first, and his trial was set for November 4, 1901.
The shooting and resulting murder charges were the talk of the town during the summer and autumn of 1901. The verdict was anyone's guess, though during the trial the (Seattle) Argus reported that betting odds were on a conviction. But while many had set opinions, others changed theirs as time went on. Despite whatever distaste they had toward the Considines -- or gambling, liquor, or box houses -- there was considerable evidence that Meredith had provoked the fight and had intended to kill Considine. His loud proclamations of his intentions before the shooting only underscored it.
Considine's trial started on Monday, November 4. Given the number of potential witnesses -- the defense alone listed 130, though not all of them were expected to actually testify -- most expected the trial to last for the entire month. It was covered by all three of Seattle's daily papers. The Times took its coverage a step further with sketches of some of the principal players, including John Considine. These weren't serious sketches but were instead drawn by the Times cartoonist and noted accordingly -- a good thing, because Considine was depicted as a plaid-bedecked scoundrel, squinting, scowling, and slouching in his chair, nervously twirling a pen in one hand and resting an outstretched foot on a spittoon.
By and large, the trial went smoothly, though it wasn't lacking in theatrics. Perhaps the most exciting act came on November 15, when Tom Considine testified. Described the Times:
"When Considine told of the first shot fired by Meredith, and of the hat sent flying from the head of his brother by the charge which cut its way through it, he arose in his seat and exclaimed in a most dramatic way: 'I thought part of his head was shot off ... . He seemed to fall forward on his hands and knees, like this,' and the witness stepped down to the floor and described the action of his brother ... As he did so his sentences were broken and he began to weep. A pin dropped in the large courtroom could have been heard as Considine stood still a moment before continuing his story" ("John Considine Tells...").
The State played hard on the mysterious sixth-shot theory, providing a number of witnesses who claimed they had heard a shot just before Meredith opened fire with his shotgun. The State argued that this shot was fired either by Tom Considine or someone friendly to the brothers, thus provoking Meredith's response. But even the Times saw the holes in the State's argument, admitting "The strange part of this sixth shot theory is the fact that those who were closest to Guy's drug store, and who were in the store at the time of the fight, heard but five shots" ("Hammond Is On ...").
The State's other argument was that Meredith was so severely beaten when Considine shot him that he was no longer a threat. The defense parried this with testimony from Considine that he'd seen Meredith dropping his hand toward his right coat pocket (which contained the bulldog revolver), feared he was about to draw another weapon, and drew his own gun to protect himself. Several witnesses testified they saw the same thing. Others said they did not.
The trial was a Rubik's Cube of fascinating but conflicting testimony. This wasn't missed by the Star, which remarked at the trial's end on the "peculiarly thrilling circumstances surrounding the tragedy, and the strangely conflicting accounts of it by unquestionably credible witnesses" ("John Considine's Fate ...").
The case went to the jury on November 21. Judge George Meade Emory (1869-1906) delivered the jury instructions and explained the differing degrees of homicide (first and second degree murder, manslaughter) and the standard of proof required for each. He instructed the jury to acquit if it was not satisfied that the State had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
At 2:30 p.m. the jury began its deliberations, and about 4 p.m. the jurors asked to be provided with a copy of the judge's instructions. Silence fell over the courtroom; many suspected that the jury was debating whether to convict Considine of manslaughter or murder. About 5 p.m., a rush of noise erupted from the jury room, startling those in the courtroom. They had no idea what it meant. Some thought the jurors had briefly gotten into a fight. Then they realized it sounded like cheering, and indeed it was. The jury had just reached a unanimous verdict: Not guilty. At 5:30 p.m. the jurors returned to the courtroom and the verdict was read.
The next day the Star illuminated the intrigue behind the verdict. On the first ballot the jury voted six for acquittal, five for manslaughter, and one for murder in the second degree. At first none of the jurors would budge from their positions. Then they began to debate what Judge Emory had said in his instructions; not remembering precisely, they asked the court for a written copy. After reviewing it, the five jurors who had voted for manslaughter switched to acquittal. One juror, identified as O. A. Carr, briefly stuck to his guns to convict Considine of second-degree murder, but before long he too agreed to acquit.
The State subsequently dropped charges against Tom Considine.
The story still resonates in Seattle's history, and it has another surprise ending. John Considine went on to become a powerful and respected members of Seattle society. He established a vaudeville chain that eventually grew to include dozens of theaters in the United States and Canada. He later moved to Los Angeles, where his descendants enjoyed considerable success in movies and television.