How Clement Vallandigham Died Defending a Client in Court

Clement Vallandigham. Library of Congress description: "Hon. Clement Laird Vallandigham [?] of Ohio"
Clement Vallandigham, circa 1865.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

History is full of strange stories and horrible happenings. You can find so many exciting tales in your History books that you’d be amazed and baffled by the things the people in the past did to themselves or one another. 

Clement Vallandigham shot himself whilst representing his client in court. This story is so strange and bizarre you would be forgiven for thinking it was part of a comedy sketch show. 

Keep on reading and learn all about the curious case and find out that fate can be a funny thing. 

Who is Clement Vallandigham?

Clement Laird Vallandigham was the leader of the Copperhead faction, a group of Democrats who opposed the American Civil War. Clement served two terms in the US. House of Representatives (part of the United States Congress). But you’re here for his death. That’s the bizarre tale you want to hear. So, let’s start at the beginning.

Thomas Myers’ Murder

The court heard what happened during the fateful night in question. This event took place above a bar in Hamilton.

It was Christmas eve, and celebrations were well underway, as you would imagine. Plenty of drink, good food, and entertainment. We are told that Thomas Myres played cards in a private parlor with a few of his associates.

During the game, five thugs burst into the parlor and started a massive brawl; Myers rose fumbling for his pistol, and a shot rang out; though it was muffled, it was unmistakeably a shot. 

Myres finally managed to draw his pistol from his pocket. Fired off a few wayward shots, then slumped down – dead. 

Confusion and chaos reigned as gamblers and thugs fled in every direction; nobody could say for sure what had happened. 

Eyewitnesses later told their stories, and a familiar name came up in all tales. Thomas McGehan. It is unclear whether Thomas was unarmed that night, but he was one of those who broke into the private parlor. 

It is well known that the two Thomas’ had bad blood between each other, and fights between feuding people are regrettably common. 

Those who gathered around dinner tables, on street corners, and in shops believe that we have caught the right man. Thomas McGehan is our killer. 

Now, whether or not the court case played out exactly like this, we do not know. But the facts and the case are there to see. So it was that Thomas McGehan went on trial. 

The Trial and The Death of Clement.

C.L. Vallandigham photographed standing by Mathew Brady in the 1860s
Clement Laird Vallandigham, 1860s.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

And so, the trial began. Clement was keen to prove that his client, Thomas McGehan was innocent of the murder and prove that he could not be the killer. 

After the prosecution had given their closing arguments and everyone went home for the day, Clement decided to prove that they had got the wrong man. 

He took a piece of muslin cloth from the hotel he had been staying at and headed for a clearing where he would conduct his experiment. He was looking for residue left over from the gunshots at point-blank range. It would put the case to bed if he could find this evidence. 

After Clement fired his shots and examined the cloth, his pistol still had three rounds in the chamber (this will become important later). Clement cleared up, took the cloth, and made his way back to the hotel, enamored with his success.

On his arrival at his hotel, Clement was given a parcel by the postman. Inside, where the pistol that belonged to Myres was ready for examination and empty. He thanked the postman and went to his room. 

He laid the guns down side by side, still beaming from his fundamental discovery. His discovery would settle the case once and for all. He even was explaining this to a visitor that he met in the hotel. Then, an idea struck Clement. 

“A demonstration would put this case beyond doubt,” Clement thought. So, he grabbed Myres pistol, put it into his pocket, and settled to sleep.  

The next day, Clement explained to the court all about his findings, the amount of residue from the shot at close range, and the knowledge that McGehan could not have shot Myres and that Myres must have shot himself. 

It was time, for his demonstration. He pulled Myres’ pistol from his pocket, drew it and slowly turned the muzzle at his stomach. He pulled the trigger…BANG. 

Unknown to Clement, until it was too late, he had picked up his pistol instead of Myres’, and as we know, his pistol still had three rounds in the chamber. 

Back in his Hotel room, Clement sank into his chair. A mixture of pain and mortification overwhelmed him; he winced, “I have foolishly shot myself.”

After the Trial 

What happened after the trial? Surgeons tried to locate the bullet lodged in Clement’s stomach but were utterly unable to find the bullet. They thought that it was lodged in his bladder, but it evaded their probing. 

Vallandigham’s died the very next day; he developed Peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdomen) and passed away. His last words were expressing his faith in predestination. 

So, what happened to Thomas McGehan? He was acquitted. Although tragic, Clement’s demonstration proved that McGehan was innocent and that Myres did indeed shot himself. McGehan later was shot himself in Hamilton a few years later. 

You may believe in fate or call it coincidence, but this tale had one more strange twist in its tail. After Clement’s death, a demonstration took place. Now, demonstrations seemed to be cursed at this point, and I’m sure you can guess what happened next. 

Someone else was showing how Vallandigham had died. He drew his pistol, turned it on himself, and then…BANG. He had shot himself accidentally, precisely in the same way that Clement Vallandigham had shot himself. 


This story was strange. Three men had shot themselves in the stomach in less than a year. This goes to show – never point firearms at yourself no matter if they are loaded or not. 

We don’t need a practical demonstration when it comes to guns.  


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