Friday, October 5, 2012

Items Deserving Notice, October: The Old Bailey

October was awfully quiet in London. Parliament is most often adjourned. Anyone who was anyone had wrangled an invitation to a house party or a shooting party somewhere in the country. Most of the theatres are closed, as are the amphitheatres like Astley’s. The weather is starting to turn gray and dripping. Ho, hum--what’s a young lady or gentleman to do for entertainment?

Perhaps take in a trial at the Old Bailey.

The Old Bailey was the central criminal court serving London and the county of Middlesex as well as crimes committed at sea. Located next to Newgate Prison, it held sessions several times a year, including October. You could pay to be a spectator and stand in the gallery to watch the trials. Prices ranged from a shilling for a lesser known offender to a guinea or more for big cases. Seats were limited, but if you couldn’t get in, you could have read the published Proceedings to see what had happened.

But it would have been a sight to see. While barristers and judges were present, most often the “prosecutor” was the person who had been wronged—the man whose watch had been stolen, the fellow whose daughter had been kidnapped. The accused stood in a box with a mirror positioned above so that light from the windows was reflected into his or her face. That way, it was believed, the jurors could see expressions better to judge the person’s innocence. Jurors generally sat on either side, with the judges opposite. Witnesses, for accused or accuser, stood directly before the judges to give testimony. Nearby were sets of manacles so those found guilty of certain crimes could be branded for the offense.

And the judges were more free to interpret the law then they would be today. For example, in May 1816, John Mackarel was indicted for river piracy, but the prosecutor didn’t show up on the day of the trial so he got off as not guilty. Wonder what happened to the prosecutor, hm?

In 1830, Sir John Gibbons had to prosecute a particularly vicious gang of poachers who were found with guns and bludgeons on his Stanwell Park estate. One of them had actually shot at him, and witnesses testified he would have been killed if it weren’t for the fact that the gun misfired (flash in the pan). Most of the men either pled guilty or were determined guilty and were sentenced to transportation for 14 years. One, a 17-year-old, asked that Sir John recommend him to mercy, which he did. The judge had him transported for seven years. I’m sure that made such a difference-ahem.

Then there’s the case of John-William Bishop AKA William Willian. Seems he married one lady under the first name and another lady under the second, within six months of each other and while the first was still living. Witnesses and church registers proved he had committed bigamy, yet he was acquitted because the judge thought the second wife’s name on the indictment was spelled wrong based on her father’s testimony! Mr. Bishop/Willian was indicted again for the same charge (no double jeopardy in those days, I guess), but it turned out her father had been wrong and the second wife’s name was originally right, so Mr. Bishop-Willian was acquitted again! At least that time, he was held over until a third indictment could be presented, but then only for an indictment of perjury. You see, wife number 2 was under aged and their marriage wasn’t legal anyway!

Bet you didn’t see that on CSI recently.

Curious to learn more? Look at the Old Bailey online, where you can search the records and read trial information from the 1600s to the early 1900s as well as details about the court’s history and legal proceedings in general.


J.Grace said...

Very interesting post, I believe I would have paid to see a trial the the Old Bailey.

(I was really excited to see Perfection on amazon this morning-it is a book I have been wanting to read for very long time and I'm glad its now available on kindle)

Regina Scott said...

It would certainly be interesting, J. Grace. From the few accounts I read, a few people got a bit testy. In one case, a man was accusing two women of robbing him of his watch, and the judge kept asking him, "Where you drunk?" "How many public houses had you been to last night?" "How many pints at each?" At least the judge thought the fellow had to be lying!

And thanks for your kind words on Perfection. It is indeed available on Kindle, at Barnes and Noble, and at Smashwords, which ought to cover most electronic devices. I hope you enjoy it!