In the early decades of American history, the federal criminal legal system was small and federal capital cases were few. Federal capital cases arose less from federal statutes that enacted distinct federal crimes than from the Constitution, Article II, Section II of which provided federal jurisdiction for maritime (including piracy) cases and cases involving multiple states. The only other type of federal capital case that arose during this era was mail robbery, a crime against a federal agency. The first case of this type occurred in Maryland. In March 1818, notorious highwayman Joseph Hare, joined by John Alexander, robbed the United States mail near Havre de Grace, stealing tens of thousands of dollars. They were arrested in Baltimore soon after when their appearance and the money they were spending drew attention.
The men were convicted and sentenced to death in May 1818. Hare’s brother, Lewis, only 19 years old, was also convicted but subsequently pardoned. A fourth man, William Wood, tried in Philadelphia as an accessory before the fact to the crime, was found guilty and sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
Hare and Alexander were hanged before a large crowd on September 10, 1818.
In a posthumously published confession, Hare claimed to have been a prolific thief.