The account of the trial begins by announcing that Theodore Wieland has taken the stand for his defense. He began to speak, noting that everyone there knew him as a husband, father, and friend, and it was strange that he was now present as a criminal. He then admitted openly that he killed his wife and children but wondered why those present did not know what his motives were - did they not know him as an upstanding member of his community and a man of integrity and principle? There was no way malice could have urged him to kill his sweet wife or children. He announced that he would tell the jury what he did and why.
Wieland explained that everyone knew that devotion to God was his utmost passion. He unceasingly searched for a revelation of his Maker’s will but this eluded him and caused him much distress. He paused in his defense to thank God that the sacrifice he was called to make was no less than the sacrifice Abraham had to make. Continuing, he recounted the day of the murders. He and Catharine were waiting from Clara to return from her trip to the city and became somewhat nervous when she had not yet returned at a late hour. Wieland agreed to walk to her house to see if perhaps she had forgotten to come to their house. As he walked, he became lost in his thoughts; his emotions were unusually energetic and consuming that evening. At one point he stopped and turned his eyes upward, calling upon God to admit him to His presence. Sadness consumed him when he received no answer and he continued in this mood into Clara’s house.
Wieland was not thinking clearly or rationally and his steps carried him to Clara’s chamber, even thought the house was clearly empty. As he ascended the stairs a powerful and brilliant light burst before him. Amid this glowing luster a voice called to him to turn around. Wieland did so, and observed a face that was clearly of supernatural origin and cannot be described with mere words. The voice told him that he must sacrifice Catharine to prove his faith. The light, face, and voice vanished and Wieland was left in anguish over the thought that he must slay his precious wife.
His equivocation vanished and he ran home to execute the command given to him by God. Catharine was anxious over Clara and assumed something horrible had befallen her when Wieland burst into the room looking wild and disheveled. He told her to come with him to Clara’s home but would not tell her why. She tried to resist and compel him to tell her if Clara was well, but he refused. The two of them hurried to Clara’s house but when Catharine observed it was empty she nervously refused to enter. Wieland knew this was to be the place where he must sacrifice Catharine but his strength failed him and he could not bring her within. He inwardly lamented his cowardice, and his outward appearance convinced Catharine that Clara was inside, hurt or ill.
Wieland and Catharine finally entered the house and Catharine obtained a light. Wieland believed that “to rebel against the mandate was impossible; but obedience would render me the executioner of my wife.” When Catharine returned with the light and the two went upstairs to Clara’s room, she noticed the extremity of emotion in Wieland’s face and anxiously asked what was wrong with him. He could not bear her inquiry and broke away from her embrace. He finally cried out that he knew his duty and thanked God for revealing it to him, and that she must die.
Catharine was filled with terror and tried to dissuade Wieland from his course of action. He cut off her words by choking her to death. He despaired that it could not be a swifter death and that he had to slacken his grip three times. Finally Catharine stopped struggling and he realized with elation that he achieved his deed. Laughter burst from his lips and he clapped his hands in delight. This effusive display of pleasure rapidly faded and as he stared at the lifeless body of his wife, sorrow and horror flooded his mind. This mood, too, however, faded rapidly and his thoughts became serene and content because he had offered this sacrifice. Suddenly the voice heard earlier uttered the command that his sacrifice was incomplete and he must now take his children’s lives as well.
Clara had to stop reading Theodore’s testimony as she was overcome with the shock of learning her brother was responsible for those ghastly crimes. She fainted and her uncle had to summon her back to consciousness. Sickness ravaged her frame as well as her mind, and it was many days before she regained her health and full control of her senses. Even though she knew the testimony contained within it more horrors, her curiosity could not prevent her from returning to it.
One morning when she was left alone, she picked up the account of the trial and spent a few moments debating whether or not to peruse its contents. Finally she decided to undertake the endeavor and read the entire piece. The verdict was pronounced as guilty and Wieland was asked why he did not deserve the sentence of death.
Wieland’s reply centered on his assertion that his motives were completely pure; his “deed was enjoined by heaven”. Those who claimed he was guilty were “impious and rash” in subverting the will of their Maker. God was Wieland’s guide and he was grateful to be used as an instrument of His will. He did not fear death and awaited peace and glory in the afterlife.
At the close of these words Clara’s uncle entered the room and, when he observed what she was doing, anxiously inquired after her state of mind. She was not anguished, however, but simply filled with awe. Finally speaking, she expressed her wonderment that her brother committed these acts and her fear that he would receive death or that he may already be dead. Cambridge told her that Wieland did not receive the penalty of death but of life imprisonment due to insanity.
Clara was surprised that Wieland was considered insane and asked whether or not he might have really heard the voices. Cambridge asked her if she truly thought the voices were from heaven, but she replied that they were clearly evil. Surprised, he told her to ignore such fanciful thoughts but she clarified that she meant that they may have come from Carwin. She then asked if there was a history of madness in the family and remembered hearing something about her maternal grandfather, Cambridge’s father. He related the sad history of that figure.
Clara’s grandfather had a brother who died in youth; this threw him into a terrible depression and convinced him that his own death was at hand. Thankfully this state of mind passed and he lived twenty-one years of cheerfulness and peace of mind, marrying and having two children. One summer he and his family vacationed near the coast of Cornwall. All of the company was outside one afternoon enjoying the scenery. Suddenly Cambridge’s father became visibly alarmed, looked off into the distance, and then told his family that his brother had just delivered a summons. At this, he ran toward the edge of the cliff and threw himself off to his death. The clearest explanation for this was a madness of the mind.
Clara was intrigued that there was a family precedent for strange voices, and wondered if the same madness affected her and Pleyel as well as Wieland, since they had all heard mysterious voices. As she pondered this idea, she began to feel distressed that she had seemingly trodden the path from being a rational being to one who was a victim of fancy and fear. She seemed to be at the same abyss as her brother. Thoughts of her own death came upon her and this seemed like the wisest course to take. Her uncle noticed her thoughts tending toward suicide and he tried to dissuade her. He was successful and she returned to reason once more.
It was still difficult to decide what had truly happened to her brother. Was the apparition he saw inhuman? Evil spirits did exist, and perhaps this was one of them. Carwin was still a presence to be reckoned with. His talents were no mere witchcraft; they were dark and powerful. She still made the distinction between Carwin and the voice that served to aid her; these two forces were at odds with each other. Her thoughts returned to her brother. It was clear that he sincerely believed he heard a divine voice ordering him to murder his family and his conscience was actually clean. There was no other way he would have committed the crime. He believed it was a command from heaven and the acts were divinely approved.
In this very insular, almost suffocatingly intimate novel, the account of Wieland’s trial is one of the few times the outside world is depicted. Of course, it comes at quite a remove - Clara is narrating how she reads an account of Theodore’s testimony provided by another attendee of the trial. Here we get a glimpse of the legal system of pre-Revolutionary war America; Theodore Wieland is judged not by his God but by his peers, who find him guilty but forbear giving him the death penalty on the basis of his insanity. It is not surprising that Charles Brockden Brown structured his entire novel like a trial and peppered his text with legal language and themes, for he had extensive legal training. He spent six years reading law for and apprenticing under Philadelphia lawyer Alexander Wilcocks. Even though he chose not to pursue law as his career, as scholar Laura Korobkin writes in her influential article on the subject, Wieland is a “novel obsessed with the law.”
Korobkin explains how Clara Wieland “deploys an insistently forensic rhetoric that situates her narrative as both a witness’s testimony of what she has seen and heard (with all the biases and limitations implied by such an ‘interested’ role) and a lawyer’s final argument to the jury” where she assembles her evidence and presents her conclusion to the jury – her readers. She introduces other sources, such as her uncle with his information about her father’s death, to corroborate her story. She uses legal language to impress upon the reader the seriousness of her task.
Clara, however, abandons her role as judge by the end of the novel. She falls prey to madness and “seems to have learned that her only hope for happiness lies in ceasing to insist on evidentiary assessment and adequate verdicts.” Few believe her story; Wieland escapes from his fetters multiple times; Carwin is not convicted of anything and is free to wreak havoc upon new victims. All attempts at utilizing her senses and compiling forensic evidence do nothing to impel the institutions responsible for administering justice to indict the actual criminal – Carwin – and keep the madman – Wieland –from harming himself and others.
However, Clara’s abdication of her role as judge allows the readers, who perform the role of jury, to take over in judgment of the case. Korobkin believes Brown wants us as readers to become “critical, sharp-minded jurors” and that “our skill at sifting that evidence and rejecting the self-serving and inconsistent components of Carwin’s narrative” (found in chapters 22-24) is a test of just how well we read a novel. The contradictions of Carwin’s confession are found in later analyses of the novel, but for now we will look at Wieland’s culpability.
Wieland firmly believes that he was commanded by God to commit the ghastly murders of his family; he believes that his judge and jury’s reliance upon nature and the material world demonstrate their inability to judge this case. They cannot understand the purity of his intentions and are dangerously usurping God as judge. Because Wieland is insane, he cannot see that he was not a divine instrument. There was no official legal definition of criminal insanity before 1842, but as Korobkin’s research points out, “the most widely used standard was the predominantly moral test for ‘knowledge of good and evil’.” Wieland is unable to demonstrate the difference between good and evil. He sanely describes the horrible things he does and fails to see a gap between God’s will and his own. When he commits suicide after finally realizing he was not commanded by God, he is at his most rational and most sane because he understands the wrongness of his actions. Therefore, at the time of his suicide he is most punishable under the law but has become his own judge and his own jury. It is a profound sobering moment and poses interesting questions about sanity and the law.