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Indiana Law Review

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In November 1840, William Martin, an Indiana mail stage driver found himself standing in United States District Court, convicted of stealing a letter containing bank notes from the mail.^1 District Judge Jesse Lynch Holman reviewed the evidence that convinced the jury, and then lectured the defendant upon his future prospects:

The prospect before you is truly dark and dreary; yet there is a distant ray of hope that may enlighten your path You may do much by a patient submission to the law—by a reformation of life and an upright line of conduct ... to some extent, to regain a station among honest men. You may do more than this: By repentance and reformation, you may obtain the approbation of Him, whose favor is better than life or liberty, and far more valuable than an earthly reputation.^2

The Judge then sentenced Martin to the minimum penalty, ten years at hard labor.^ 3

Moral reformation, the attempt to improve society by improving the character of its citizens and their institutions, is a favored topic of historians of pre-Civil War America, and Judge Holman's words remind us that judges were among the many who were touched by the reforming spirit of that era. This paper is designed to suggest that issues of reform were in fact one of the features of the early District Court a century before the division that created the modem Southern District.


This article was originally published open access in Indiana Law Review, 2004, Volume 37, Issue 4.