April 08, 2010

John Smith, loose liver

There was a lusty young Fellow, John Smith by Name, tried for the sacriligious stealing of above Two Hundred Pounds worth of Plate, out of the Vestry of St. Giles's Church . The Beadle of the Parish suspected this man, because he was a loose Liver, and came to his Lodging, but found him not within: He asked his Neighbour for him, and he said, That at Nine of the Clock at Night he was within, but since he had not seen him. The Beadle promised him Ten Shillings, to b ing him word, when he was within; but the other when he saw him, told the Prisoner what the Beadle said; then he came not to his Lodging in a Months time: But at his return, he had notice given him by others, and he took a Constable with him, and came to his Chamber-door, and rushed against it, designing to break it open, but he could not. The Prisoner hearing it, got up, and asked, Who was there? The Beadle told him, That he was suspected for stealing away the Church-plate, and they had a Warrant to apprehend him. The Prisoner then told him, He was a Son of a Bitch, and he had nothing to say to him: And whilst they were breaking open the Door, he run up into a Garret, and got up upon the House, and ran along several houses in his Shirt only, when they found he was fled, they made it their business to catch him: And in order thereto a Youth was sent up, and at the end of the House he spied him: when he approached near, he said, You Son of a Bitch, get you gone, or I will split your Brains with a Tile; this nothing daunted him, for he returned the same expression to him, but presently he came running by the Youngman, and then there was the Beadle, that lay in ambush for him, so that he leaped out of the Frying-pan into the Fire.

He that Scylia seeks to shun,

Doth often on Charibdis run.

When he was thus backset and foreset, he could not hope for a release, but by the danger of breaking his Neck, so that he unwillingly became their Captive. At his Indictment he would not-plead, because a man was to give Evidence against him, that was a Party concerned; so that when nothing would prevail to make him plead, he was sentenced to be prest to Death: But through the Sheriffs Intercession, he was perswaded to plead; and then the Court would hardly be perswaded to revoke the Sentence but upon his Knees he entreated them very importunately: at last they condisecinded to grant him more favour than he did deserve, viz. A legal Trial; and then it was proved, that he was one of the three that broke in. There was an Iron-betty shewed, and some small pieces of the Plate, that were found in a house where the Plate was sold by his and their orders: It was proved that he was one of the three, that hid the plate in a Ditch, and received an equal share of the Money. And the Woman that had it of them, sold it to another for Three Shil. Eight Pen. an Ounce: so that the Jury could do no less than find him guilty of the Fact.

This comes from Old Bailey online and is about John Smith, accused of stealing Church silver, and the process by which he was caught and tried. The story is a fantastic one- involving everything you would expect in a modern police chase today which is one reason for making sure that you can read it in its entirity. There are two things though that are also interesting to think about in terms of early modern justice. The first is the kind of evidence that starts a prosecution and is admissable in court. In this case, the Beadle suspects Smith because he knows him. Many early modern and medieval prosecutions started the same way from reputation. At the court Smith is tried on the basis of the evidence of a witness who saw him and the exchange of money- we have here physical proofs of the fact that he did steal the plate. Without those physical proofs it would have been difficult for anyone to have proceeded further. What we have is wider grounds for suspision than we might have today, but fewer grounds for proof: although it is worth also remembering that this is the era before defence counsel were admitted to the court. A last detail suggests how macabre this court system was: pressing to death, the process of loading stones on a victim until they pleaded at the court, was a process used for those who would not enter a plea and acknowledge the court's jurisdiction. As we can see in this case it terrified Smith into entering a plea eventually and being tried. Generally when criminals acceded to it, they did so because if they died through this method they were not formally guilty and kept any property to hand on to their heirs: the ugliness of the death may have convinced many however, like Smith, that it was better to face a trial and its outcome.


James Higham said...

The addition today is that when there is a victim, he is guilty and the culprit is hard done by and let off.

The scene you describe is preferable to that, Tiberius.