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The Dark Side of James Wilson
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The dark side of James Wilson
BY NATALIE WEXLER, L’83
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Three years after the couple married, Wilson’s financial empire began to come crashing down. As a result of a general downturn in the economy, creditors began calling in their loans, and Wilson was either unable or unwilling to repay them. At a time when the country lacked a national bankruptcy law, debtors’ prison loomed as a very real possibility, and Wilson failed to show up at a couple of circuit courts, apparently fearing arrest. Philadelphia itself was no longer safe: in 1797 Wilson and his young wife hid out in nearby Bethlehem for several months, causing Wilson to miss the August sitting of the Supreme Court. But in the fall one of Wilson’s creditors caught up with him in Burlington, N.J., and had him arrested — conferring on him the dubious distinction of being the first, and only, sitting Supreme Court Justice to be imprisoned. “What shall we come to?” Philadelphia lawyer Thomas Shippen wrote in his diary. “One of the highest Court in the United States, one of the 6 Judges in a Jersey Gaol!”
 
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