William Davis Shipman

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William Davis Shipman
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
In office
March 12, 1860 – April 16, 1873
Appointed byJames Buchanan
Preceded byCharles A. Ingersoll
Succeeded byNathaniel Shipman
Personal details
Born(1818-12-29)December 29, 1818
Chester, Connecticut, U.S.
DiedSeptember 24, 1898(1898-09-24) (aged 79)
Astoria, New York, U.S.

William Davis Shipman (December 29, 1818 – September 24, 1898) was a United States federal judge. He notably presided over the trial of the first person to be convicted and executed in the U.S. for illegal slave smuggling, in 1861.

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Chester, Connecticut, Shipman read law to enter the bar in 1849 and entered private practice in East Haddam, Connecticut. He was a probate judge, Hartford, Connecticut from 1852 to 1853, a member of the Connecticut General Assembly in 1853, and the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut from 1853 to 1860.


On March 2, 1860, Shipman was nominated by President James Buchanan to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut vacated by Charles A. Ingersoll. Shipman was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 12, 1860, and received commission the same day.

United States v. Nathaniel Gordon[edit]

Among the notable cases over which Shipman presided, was the case of the United States v. Nathaniel Gordon. The case resulted in Gordon's execution, which is the only such execution ever under the Piracy Law of 1820. In sentencing Gordon, Shipman said:

Let me implore you to seek the spiritual guidance of the ministers of religion; and let your repentance be as humble and thorough as your crime was great. Do not attempt to hide its enormity from yourself; think of the cruelty and wickedness of seizing nearly a thousand fellow beings, who never did you harm, and thrusting them beneath the decks of a small ship, beneath a burning tropical sun, to die in of disease or suffocation, or be transported to distant lands, and be consigned, they and their posterity, to a fate far more cruel than death.

Think of the sufferings of the unhappy beings whom you crowded on the Erie; of their helpless agony and terror as you took them from their native land; and especially of their miseries on the ---- ----- place of your capture to Monrovia! Remember that you showed mercy to none, carrying off as you did not only those of your own sex, but women and helpless children.

Do not flatter yourself that because they belonged to a different race from yourself, your guilt is therefore lessened – rather fear that it is increased. In the just and generous heart, the humble and the weak inspire compassion, and call for pity and forbearance. As you are soon to pass into the presence of that God of the black man as well as the white man, who is no respecter of persons, do not indulge for a moment the thought that he hears with indifference the cry of the humblest of his children. Do not imagine that because others shared in the guilt of this enterprise, yours, is thereby diminished; but remember the awful admonition of your Bible, "Though hand joined in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished."

— Worcester Aegis and Transcript; December 7, 1861; pg. 1, col. 6.

Shipman served on the federal bench until his resignation on April 16, 1873. He then resumed private practice in New York City, until his death, in Astoria, Long Island, New York.


Legal offices
Preceded by
Charles A. Ingersoll
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
Succeeded by
Nathaniel Shipman