The trial of George W. Cole for the murder of L. Harris Hiscock elicited much public interest because of the prominence of the alleged murderer and his victim and of the attorneys involved in the case.
George W. Cole was a physician practicing medicine in Syracuse, New York, when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted in the 12th New York Volunteer Infantry and took part in several battles, including the First Battle of Bull Run. During the war, he was wounded in combat and received serious internal injuries when his horse fell on him during a cavalry charge. In recognition of his superior service, Cole had been promoted to brigadier general and major general, both by brevet. He was mustered out in 1866 and returned home.
L. Harris Hiscock was a leading Syracuse attorney, a founder of the law firm now known as Hiscock and Barclay, and Speaker of the New York Assembly. He was also a delegate to the New York Constitutional Convention and was in Albany to attend one of the convention meetings.
On the evening of June 4, 1868, in the reception room of Stanwix Hall, a leading Albany hotel, Cole took out his pistol and shot Hiscock in the forehead, killing him immediately. Shortly afterward, Cole stated: “He violated my wife while I was at the war; the evidence is clear, I have the proof.” Although Mrs. Cole had been Hiscock’s client, the only evidence of their unfaithfulness was a letter she wrote to her husband and which he had received two days earlier.
This case was twice tried, the first time at an Albany Oyer and Terminer where Justice Daniel P. Ingraham presided. The trial commenced on April 28, 1868, and the People were represented by Henry Smith, district attorney; Lyman Tremain, former attorney general; and Charles B. Sedgwick of Syracuse. Mr. Cole was defended by former justice of the Supreme Court Amasa J. Parker, William J. Hadley of Albany, William A. Beach of Troy, James T. Brady of New York, and David J. Mitchel of Syracuse, who raised a defense was insanity on his behalf. The case was submitted to the jury, but the jurors failed to agree on a verdict and were discharged on May 7, 1868.
The second trial came before Justice Henry Hogeboom. If the jury believe that the prisoner was sane just before the homicide and also just after, and the jury are unable to decide whether he was sane or insane at the instant of the homicide, should such a doubt go to the benefit of the prisoner or not?” Judge Hogeboom replied that “the jury must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt as to the condition of the mind of the prisoner at the time of the commission of the homicide. If they entertained a reasonable doubt, founded on the evidence, then the prisoner was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.” The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
L. Harris Hiscock’s son, Frank Hiscock, would later become Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
William J. Hadley. The People vs. Geo. W. Cole: Indictment Murder: Opening Argument of Wm. J. Hadley on the Second Trial of Maj. Gen. George W. Cole for the Murder of L. Harris Hiscock (1868).
Alden Chester, Editor. The Legal and Judicial History of New York, Volume III (1911).
New York Times, “The Cole-Hiscock Murder.” April 29, 1868.