The Boston Journeymen Bootmakers' Society was organized in 1835 primarily to raise wages; members agreed to strike, if necessary, to keep up their rates, to follow Society rules, and to refuse to work alongside bootmakers who were not Society members.
Those rules were challenged in 1840 after Jeremiah Horne, a member who had refused to pay a fine, complained that the Society had coerced his employer to fire him. The district attorney charged that the group was a criminal conspiracy designed to impoverish employers and workers who would not live by its rules. When the case went to trial in the fall of 1840, the prosecuting attorney argued that the Society's constitution was "anti-republican, tyrannical, illegal, [and] despotic" and the jury agreed, finding the defendants guilty of criminal conspiracy. (Read the indictment)
On appeal to the Massachusetts Surpreme Court in 1842, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw overturned the decision, ruling that the act of forming a journeymen's society -- or union -- was not in and of itself a conspiracy. Only those combinations intended “to accomplish some criminal or unlawful purpose, or to accomplish some purpose, not in itself criminal or unlawful, by criminal or unlawful means” could be prosecuted.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the case, for historians at least, is the testimony recorded in the 1840 case: Witnesses for the prosecution and the defense provide more information about this early effort to organize a union than is usually available.
Excerpts from Judge Thacher's original charge to the jury (1840)