January 02, 2011

Murder at Christmas

Thomas Sydens was murdered in London on Christmas Day 1683. He was murdered by Francis Johnson. The full record of the trial is below

Francis Johnson , Indicted for Killing Thomas Sydens ; also Arthur Grayham , and Richard Grayham , as Aiders, Abetters and Comforters of Mr. Johnson in the said Fact . It appeared upon the Evidence, that Mr. Johnson, and the two Grayhams, had been late a Drinking at the Castle-Tavern, near St. Fulchers Church, London, came out from thence about One a Clock, on Christmas-day in the Morning; That Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Arthur Grayham had some difference, and drew upon one another: as soon as they came out, that the Watchman upon the next Stand cried out, Watch, Watch, that the Constable and Watch came immediately; but that Thomas Sydens having been at the Watch-house to light his Candle, went that way in the very juncture of their Fighting, and that before the Constable could get up, Sydens was wounded, of which he suddenly died; that the Watch found the said Three persons with their Swords drawn: And by circumstances it appeared, that Mr. Johnson's Sword was sweared, as if with Fat or Grease, about Three or Four Inches next the point, that a wound of that depth was made in Sydens Belly: That none else had Swords but those Three. Many Witnesses were on each side; and the Trial so long, as not to be exactly herein particularized. In conclusion, the Jury found Mr. Johnson Guilty of Manslaughter , but acquitted the Two Grayham's.
This is all we know about what happened on Christmas Day 1683. The scene is vividly described. You can imagine the darkened alley way, the sounds of fighting, the constables coming down with their torches and the three men standing round a body with drawn swords. Whoever wrote this wrote it for an audience: the vivid detail and the exclusion of legal argument give this away. The account though is confusing: the original dispute was between Arthur Grayham and Francis Johnson who had been drinking together, but it was neither of them who were killed- rather it was Thomas Sydens, who disturbed their fight.

What we don't have is any account from any of the men about what they were quarrelling about, we don't know why two men were let off and one was sentenced. We do not even know- though we can guess- what the sentence eventually was for the guilty man: it is almost certain that he was hung. We have this very vivid record but even despite that, we do not actually know key things about what happened. We can all imagine the scene but we know nothing of the characters or consequences. Take for example the murderer: Francis Johnson was not an unfamiliar name to the Old Bailey in 1693, a Francis Johnson was prosecuted in April 1683 for 'Felonies to a small value' though he seems to have been transported. We do not know even though if this is our Francis Johnson or not: and if it is, why his transportation had not taken effect.

The record is silent and frustrating. In that sense it mirrors the past. Looked at another way though it gives us valuable detail. Think about the watch: we have here a description of how an early modern watch worked. A man heard something he didn't like, shouted for reinforcement and the watch from the next street and the constable came running to find the murder. Arriving too early at the scene could be dangerous though as Sydens discovered: he arrived and was murdered on the spot. Early Modern policemen might make judgements from the weapons used: Johnson was prosecuted and convicted possibly upon the basis that his sword was greased up to the length of the cut in Sydens' belly (how did they calculate that?) Alternatively we have a familiar scene from the modern world here- a night at the pub followed by drunken violence between men unfortunately carrying swords. Violence which took place on dark London streets (without lighting- Sydens had to light his candle).

This one incident can be over laboured. We don't know how typical it was. It is interesting though- partly because of how little we can actually say about events. The priorities of the past and the present are often different when it comes to the records we want them to have kept. (No socialist historian could use this for example in a class analysis of London- unless you knew where you were definitively- but though I have been able to find a Castle Tavern, just off Cheapside near St Paul's, I have not been able to find a parish of St Fulchers (There may be readers who do know where St Fulchers was, if so could you leave a comment).) All the incidental detail about the participants is missing so it is hard to generalise. What we have is an exciting story- given the nature of the published records, attempting to get sales against Exclusion crisis tracts and any number of other things in 1684, we might expect that.

What it does tell us is that public taste has not changed, crime outranks the specifics of legal process and technical description in the public imagination.

3 comments:

Neil Howlett said...

The circumstances are very similar to the death of the playwright Henry (or as Philip Henslowe would have it “Hairy”) Porter author of The Two Angry Women of Abington in 1599 (or indeed innumerable drunken stabbings since time immemorial). Porrter signed his last IOU to Henslowe on 26 May 1599. Leslie Hotson discovered the record of a case in the Southwark Assizes, which records the death of a Henry Porter on 7 June 1599 in Southwark. He is recorded as having been struck a mortal wound in the left breast with a rapier “of the value of two shillings” the previous day. The killer is named as John Day, almost certainly another playwright who worked for Henslowe. Day was charged with murder, but admitted manslaughter, on the grounds of self-defence, his plea in formal terms being that “he fled to a certain wall beyond which, etc”. The rapier was a fashionable but particularly dangerous weapon, more likely to cause death than traditional swords. It is ironic that one of the characters in The Two Angry Women laments “this poking fight of a rapier and dagger” saying that “a good sword-and-buckler man will be spitted like a cat or a coney”. As a lawyer I have worked with forensic pathologists who say that it is the point that counts – once that is through the muscle and vital organs offer little resistance. Measuring the depth of the wound is easy – a stick, or more probably a finger, and comparing that with the signs of body fat on the weapon would be damning - early modern CSI.
See Hotson, Leslie M., The Adventure of a Single Rapier, Atlantic Monthly, July 1931

Gracchi said...

Neil great comment and wonderful response on the death of Harry Porter. It is early modern CSI I suppose :)- as to the length you are right it wouldn't be too hard!

James Higham said...

Seems to be an awful lot of East End crime around Christmas time. Must be the season, I suppose.