[-back to main menu for this book-]
[-THE GREAT METROPOLIS, VOLUME 2-]
[-134-] CHAPTER III
THE OLD BAILEY.
General remarks—Description of the place— Observations about the proceedings—Central Criminal Courts Act—Prisoners’ Counsel Bill—Counsel practising at the Old Bailey—Passing sentence on prisoners convicted—Amusing scenes in the course of the trials—Anecdote of the late Mr. Justice Buller—Witty observations sometimes made by prisoners when sentence is passed—Miscellaneous observations—Mr. Curtis—The Recorder.
THE Old Bailey is to a
large class of the metropolitan community a very important place. It is
constantly present to the minds of many: there are thousands in London who think
of nothing else,—when they condescend to think at all. It haunts them by day;
it disturbs their slum-[-135-]bers by night. The very name grates on their ears:
mention it abruptly in their hearing, and they start and turn as pale as did the
Queen of Denmark when young Hamlet pressed home on her by implication, the
murder of his father. Why is the Old Bailey, it will be asked, constantly before
the minds of the persons referred to? Why so great a bugbear to them? Why have
they so great a horror of the very name? Because, conscious of deserving a
temporary lodgment in it, with the unpleasant consequences which follow, they
live in the constant apprehension of it. These, however, are not the most
confirmed criminals: the latter class have been too hardened by guilt to have
any thought or fear on the subject.
But though the interest attaching to the Old Bailey is peculiarly great in the case of the parties to whom I allude, it is a subject which from the prominency with which some unfortunate circumstances or other always keep it before the public, is more or less interesting to all.
Independently of what is going on in the in-[-136-]terior during the sitting of the Central Criminal Courts, the scene exhibited outside is always well worth seeing. But to be seen to the greatest advantage, one should visit the place on a Monday morning when the courts open. On the street outside, in the place leading to the New Court and in the large yard then thrown open opposite the stairs leading to the Old Court, there is always, at such a time, a great concourse of what may be called mixed society with a propriety I have seldom seen equalled in any other case. There you see both sexes, in great numbers. There are persons of all ages, of every variety of character, and in every diversity of circumstances. There are the prosecutors and the witnesses for and against the prosecution. The judges and the persons to be tried are the only parties you miss. A considerable number of those you see, are the relatives and friends of the prisoners; but, perhaps, a still larger number consist of confirmed thieves, whose moral feelings, if they ever had any, are so completely blunted by a long and [-137-] daring perseverance in crime, that they can be present at the trial of others without ever troubling themselves about their own guilt. It is amazing to see the number of such persons in the galleries, when the proceedings have commenced. Some of them go from a sheer love of being present at the trial of criminals like themselves. Others, and a considerable part of them, are attracted to the place because some of their acquaintances—their coadjutors in some previous crime—have got themselves, to use their own phraseology, into trouble. But on other days as well as on the first day, at the commencement of the proceedings in the courts, the place outside is more or less crowded with all the varieties of character to which I have adverted. As the sessions draw towards a close the numbers diminish. It is not, however, only at the opening of the courts in the morning, that there is a crowd of persons outside the Old Bailey: a great number are to be seen hanging on all day long. These chiefly consist of parties who are either prosecutors, witnesses, or [-138-] the relatives of the prisoners to be tried. In the area leading to the New Court, that area being much more comfortable than the place leading to the Old Court, the attendance is always greatest. There is nothing but bustle and confusion. Every one is walking about, and every one is talking, if not to anybody else, to himself. A silent or motionless person would be quite a curiosity there.
The Old Bailey is divided into two courts. Formerly there was only one court; but for a number of years past there have been two. The one last established is called the New Court; the court which previously existed is called the Old Court. The most important cases are usually disposed of in the Old Court; indeed the New Court is rather looked on as an assistant to the other than as being on an equality with it. Some of the judges, according to arrangements among themselves and the Recorder, usually preside in the Old Court. Mr. Serjeant Arabin and Mr. Common Serjeant Mirehouse administer justice in the New. It is necessary that [-139-] one or more of the aldermen of the city, or the Sheriff of London, be present on the bench while the trials are proceeding. They seldom, however, take any part in what is going on. The Sheriff, usually attended by his under-sheriff, seems to have no ambition to gratify in sitting on the bench, beyond that of being seen to advantage with his gold chain around his neck. As for the aldermen, again, as they have no such imposing badge of office to display, nothing indeed but their plain aldermanic gowns, you almost always find them engaged in reading the newspapers.
The New Court does not sit the first day of the session. The ceremony of opening the sessions always takes place in the Old Court, the presence of all the jurymen and other parties interested in the trials being required there while the Recorder delivers the charge.
The interior of both courts is tastefully fitted up. They have of late been re-altered and repaired at an expense of several thousand pounds. The judges in either court sit on the north side. [-140-] Immediately below them are the counsel, all seated around the table. Directly opposite the bench is the bar, and above it, but a little further back, is the gallery. The jury sit, in the Old Court, on the right of the bench: in the New Court they sit on the left of the bench. The witness-box is, in both courts, at the farthest end of the seats of the jury. The reporters, in both courts, sit opposite the jury.
The proceedings at the Old Bailey are usually much more interesting than those in courts of law. The parties tried are generally persons whose mode of life has imparted something of peculiarity to their characters. The circumstances under which the offences charged have been committed are, for the most part, of a singular kind, while the rapidity with which one witness succeeds another, and the ludicrous scenes which are so often exhibited in the examination of witnesses, give altogether so much variety and interest to the proceedings, that it is impossible for any one ever to tire of them. Hence, both courts are usually full of specta-[-141-]tors: nay, such is the interest which some persons take in the proceedings, that they will scarcely, on certain occasions, be absent for an hour from the commencement to the close of the sessions. They will even pay their sixpences every day for admission to the galleries, though the consequence should be the privation of a dinner for eight days to come.
Before the Central Criminal Courts’ Act came into operation, which was in 1834, the Old Bailey sessions were only held eight times a year. Since then, the extension of the jurisdiction of these courts to part of Kent, Essex, and Surrey, has been followed by so great an addition to the Calendar, that the number of trials each session—the courts now sit twelve times a year—are as large as before. The average number of cases at each sessions is about three hundred. The comparative prevalency of the various offences with which the prisoners are charged will be inferred from the following table respecting the parties convicted in the course of 1836
[-142-] Bigamy 4
Cattle Stealing 3
Child Stealing 2
Cutting and wounding with intent to murder 6
Forging and uttering forged instruments 12
Horse stealing 7
Larceny, &c. 734
Larceny in a dwelling-house, above 5l. 61
Letter, stealing from the Post—office a 3
Letter, sending a threatening 1
Receiving stolen goods 35
Sheep stealing 4
Shooting at with intent to Murder 4
Transportation, returning from 1
The usual proportion of acquittals to the convictions may be conjectured with a confidence amounting to certainty, when I mention that at one of the late sessions they stood thus :—Acquittals 96, convictions 202, making about one acquittal for two convictions.
[-143-] In October, last year, the Prisoners’ Counsel Bill came into operation, and the consequence, as was to be expected, has been the protraction of each session, and an increased expense. Formerly the average duration of the sittings was seven days: now it is ten. Counsel are now allowed to address the jury; formerly they were restricted to an examination and cross. examination of the witnesses. The permission to make a speech has been turned to good account. Addresses of considerable length arc made by the counsel on either side in every important case, which circumstance accounts for the protraction of the sittings. The expenses of each session used formerly to average something less than 3501.: now they exceed 8001.
Sir Peter Laurie and others have strenuously objected to the Prisoners’ Counsel Bill on two grounds. The first is, that it leads to the more frequent acquittal of guilty parties. The second objection is, the great additional expense incurred.
[-144-] With regard to the first objection, did it never occur to Sir Peter and the other gentlemen to whom I refer, that if the consequence of the prisoner’s counsel being allowed to address the jury be the escape, in some few instances, of the guilty, the consequence of the previous want of such permission was the conviction of the innocent? The probability is immeasurably greater that the innocent formerly suffered, than that the guilty now escape. The prisoner, in the great majority of cases, is not only unacquainted with the forms of the court, and has none of the dexterity of counsel, but his mind is too much affected by the unpleasantness and perilousness of his situation to be able so far to collect his thoughts, as to turn the circumstances, which he may know to be in his favour, to their proper account. By giving him the benefit of an address to the jury, on the part of his counsel, he is only put in a better situation to establish his innocence, if he be innocent, than he was before. If the result of such a privilege, should be in some cases the acquittal of a guilty person, that [-145-] is an evil which is scarcely worthy of the name, compared with that of convicting the innocent. “Better that ten guilty persons should escape, than that one innocent man suffer!” So said the excellent Sir Matthew Hale, and so say justice and humanity. He is not a fit subject for being reasoned with, who would maintain that a man’s right to establish his innocence, if he can do so, should be taken from him because a guilty party, by availing himself of the same permission, may contrive to delude the jury into the belief that he is innocent. It is one of the clearest dictates of reason, humanity, and justice, that no means by which a man may establish his innocence should be withheld from him. Besides, Sir Peter Laurie and those who like him are haunted with apprehensions that the consequence of the new course at the Old Bailey may in some instances be the escape of the guilty,—should console themselves with the reflection that the probability is, that those who escape on one occasion will be convicted and duly punished on some future one; for it will be [-146-] found in the far greater number of cases, that those who have committed one offence will go on committing others until they have, to use their own expressive phraseology, got themselves fairly booked for Botany Bay, or some other place of punishment.
As regards the objection grounded on the additional expense, it is unworthy a moment’s notice. No expense can be too great where the ends of justice are to be promoted. And what, after all, is the expense in this case? Something more than double what it was, it is true; but still it is an expense which will not be felt by the community; and even though it were, they would not, under the circumstances, complain of it.
But this is a digression; my justification of it is in the importance of the subject. The Old Bailey courts sit from nine in the morning, till nine, ten, and sometimes eleven at night. Nine is the usual time for rising; but when a case goes on up to that hour, the courts usually sit until it is finished. From the meeting of the [-147-] courts in the morning, till five in the afternoon, country juries sit. From five to the rising of the courts, London juries sit.
The number of counsel usually attending the Old Bailey, is from twenty to twenty-five; but the business may be said to be monopolised by five or six. The four gentlemen who have the largest share of business are Mr. Charles Phillips, Mr. Clarkson, Mr. Adolphus, and Mr. Bodkin. Mr. Phillips, I am inclined to think, makes more money by his Old Bailey practice than any other counsel. Mr. Clarkson is, no doubt, next to him. In the course of one session, some years ago, Mr. Phillips was employed in no fewer than 110 cases. And it is nothing uncommon for him to be counsel in from 700 to 800 cases in one year. I will not undertake to give an estimate of the annual receipts of either of the gentlemen I have named, from their Old Bailey business, because I have no data on which I can confidently .ground such estimate. Their fees vary, according to the circumstances of the parties by whom they are employed, and the [-148-] importance of the case, from one to ten guineas. Taking their average amount of fees at three guineas, which possibly is not far from the fact, Mr. Phillips’s practice at the Old Bailey would be worth from 2,000l. to 2,500l. per annum.
The average number of cases daily tried at the Old Bailey can easily be inferred from the fact of three hundred being disposed of, according to the new system, in ten days. I have known instances, however, in which in the New Court alone, from forty to fifty cases have been decided in one day. The most protracted trial ever known, I believe, to have taken place at the Old Bailey, was one last year, arising out of a death which was caused by the racing of two omnibuses. The trial lasted five days.
Very few of the prisoners receive sentence at the time of their conviction. Most of them are brought up to the bar of the New Court, when all the cases have been disposed of, to receive their respective sentences. They are sentenced in classes. Five or six, or some other limited number of them, who are destined to receive the [-149-] same amount and description of punishment, are called up at a time, and the Recorder, naming them individually, or “each and all of them,” as the technical phrase is, pronounces the sentence of the court on them. I have sometimes seen fifty or sixty poor creatures standing at the bar at the same time. And a more affecting spectacle, before all is over, is seldom witnessed. The desperate bravado is visibly depicted in the countenances of some; while the anxious mind, the palpitating heart, and the deepest feeling of sorrow and shame, are as clearly to be seen in the countenances of others. The transition from one emotion of mind to another, is sometimes exceedingly violent and sudden. I have seen the down-cast eye and the trembling frame of the prisoner who expected some severe punishment, succeeded in a moment by the most manifest tokens of joy, when the punishment to be inflicted was comparatively lenient. I have seen, on the other hand, persons—female prisoners especially—who had remained unmoved up to the last moment, as cheerful and composed [-150-] as if nothing had been the matter, because they laid the flattering unction to their souls that they would get off with a few months’ imprisonment, or some very lenient punishment,—turn pale as death, look for a moment wildly about them, then close their eyes, and uttering a heart-rending shriek, fall down in a swoon, when the sentence of transportation for life has been passed upon them. Such a sentence comes with a most appalling power, even to the strongest-minded and most hardened criminals of our own sex, when it comes unexpectedly. To many, I am convinced, from what I have myself witnessed, such a sentence is armed with more terrors than would be even death itself. They look on it virtually as death in so far as all their friends are concerned; while the imagination pictures to itself, very often in deeper colours than the reality warrants, the horrors of that state of slavery which can only close with the close of their life.
But these are not the only affecting scenes which are witnessed at the Old Bailey. It is [-151-] often a most touching thing to look on the party at the bar, coupled with the circumstances under which such party stands there. In many cases it is a first offence, and the prisoner may perhaps have been prompted to it by stern necessity. I have seen a mother stand at the bar of the Old Bailey charged with stealing a loaf of bread; and I have seen it proved beyond all question, that the woman had been induced to commit the offence in order to save her children from starvation. I have seen a poor mother, in other circumstances, charged with a very trivial offence, with an infant hanging at her breast, standing pale and trembling at the same bar. I have seen the child looking in its mother’s face, and playing its innocent tricks, while every word which the witnesses were speaking against her, went like so many daggers to her bosom. I have seen this woman torn from her children, —they consigned to the workhouse,—and she sentenced to transportation for life. I have seen on repeated occasions the father appear as prosecutor against his own son. I have seen him [-152-] shed tears in profusion while he stated the circumstances under which he had been compelled to appear in a situation so revolting to his feelings. I have seen the mother prosecuting her own daughter, and with a heart sobbing so violently as to render her words inarticulate, beseech the court to transport her, in order to save her from a worse and still more ignominious fate. These are affecting scenes which are far from uncommon at the Central Criminal Courts.
Were a stranger to drop into the Old Bailey while the process of passing sentence is being gone through, without being aware of the nature of the place, he would form a thousand conjectures as to the character of the business transacting in his presence, before he hit on the right one. Counsel, reporters, spectators, everybody, look as unconcerned as if nothing were the matter. The alderman, if there be only one on the bench, is, you may depend on it, reading the newspaper; if there are two of them, they are joking and laughing together. The scene altogether has certainly, in ordinary circumstances, [-153-] more the appearance of comedy than of tragedy in it.
This is to be regretted; but it is perhaps in some measure a necessary consequence of the frequent repetition of the same sort of proceedings. It is curious to reflect on the influence which familiarity with anything has on the human mind. Scenes which in the first instance most powerfully affect one’s feelings, cease to make any impression whatever, or to be looked on in any other light than as mere matters of course, when we become habituated to them.
But there is one part of the proceedings at the Old Bailey when the ceremony of passing sentence is being gone through, for which no extenuation can he offered. I refer to the practice of passing the sentence of death on groups of prisoners convicted of offences of lesser magnitude, when it is not intended that such sentence shall be carried into effect. This is a species of solemn judicial trifling, to call it by no harsher name, which cannot be too severely reprobated; it is practically to make the judge [-154-] utter a falsehood: what other construction can be put on his gravely telling an unfortunate person that he will be executed when nothing of the kind is in reality intended? To be sure, it is not the judge’s fault: he cannot help himself: the anomalous and absurd constitution of the law on the subject imposes on him the necessity of acting as he does. It is gratifying to find, that government have it in contemplation to do away with this most unbecoming state of things. Nothing could be more calculated to inspire contempt for the law of the land, than the witnessing the enaction of this solemn farce month after month at the Old Bailey. I am sure the judge himself must often deeply regret that the duty should be imposed on him of passing a sentence which it is not meant to carry into effect; for in addition to the abstract impropriety of the thing, he must be pained to see the prisoners on whom the sentence of death is in such cases pronounced, laughing, and winking, and making faces at their acquaintances in the gallery, while he is performing his part of the solemn farce.
[-155-] But let me now turn to some of those amusing, and ofttimes ludicrous scenes which are so frequently to be met with at the Old Bailey. A person who has not been present could hardly think it possible that so much cause for laughter could occur in a place appropriated to the administration of criminal justice. Usually the most fruitful source of merriment is found in the examination of witnesses. Mr. Charles Phillips is celebrated for his tact in extracting the laughable and ludicrous from witnesses, while subjecting them to the process of an examination or cross-examination. And yet it is a matter of frequent occurrence for him and other counsel to be completely put down by some happy and unexpected observation of the witnesses whom they are trying to make ridiculous. Not long since, I saw an intelligent looking female, seemingly about thirty-five years of age, turn the laugh against the counsel—one of the most eminent at the Old Bailey—who was trying to show off his wit at her expense. After asking whether she was married, and be-[-156-]ing answered in the negative, he put the question to her—” Have you ever, madam, had the offer of a husband?”
The witness paused for a moment, evidently thinking with herself that the question was one which she was not called on to answer.
Counsel—Perhaps, madam, you may think the question an improper one; but— Witness—It is an improper one.
Counsel—Pardon me, ma’am, but it is one which I must insist upon being answered. Have you ever had the offer of a husband?
Witness—(Looking to the judge) I cannot see what it has to do with the present case.
Counsel—It’s not, madam, what you can see, but it’s what I ask, that you have to do with.
Pray come, do tell me at once, have you ever had the offer of a husband?
Witness—Do you mean to propose yourself, Mr —, that you seem so anxious to know?
A burst of laughter proceeded from the bench, the jury, the other counsel, and all parts of the court, at this retort, which derived an infinite [-157-] additional force from the peculiar manner in which it was delivered.
Counsel Well, ma’am, as you seem disinclined to answer the question, I take it for granted that you have had no such offer.
Witness That’s your opinion, is it, Mr. —?
Counsel—It is, madam.
Witness—Then allow me, Sir, to inform you that you are quite mistaken.
Counsel—O, then, you have had an offer of a husband, have you, Miss —? May 1 take the liberty of asking how it happens that you did not accept the offer?
Witness—That is my affair, not yours, Mr.— Counsel—Really, Miss ——, you seem inclined to be impertinent.
Witness—Then, I am only following the example you have set me, Mr.—.
Here again a peal of laughter proceeded from all parts of the court, to the manifest mortification of the counsel. Annoyed at the thought [-158-] of being discomfited by a female, he resumed his interrogatories.
Counsel—What may your age be, madam? perhaps you will condescend to tell us that.
Witness—I’m old enough to give my evidence, and that is all you have anything to do with.
Counsel—Allow me, Miss —, to tell you that you know nothing of what I may or may not have to do with it.
Witness—Then if I don’t know what you have to do with it, I sha’n’t tell you my age.
Counsel—I insist, madam, on knowing what is your age.
Witness—If you are so anxious to know, you’ll find it in the parish register.
A deafening shout of laughter again proceeded from all parts of the court. Mr. — looked amazingly foolish.
Counsel—Well, madam, you have no doubt sufficient reasons for maintaining this reserve about your age. Perhaps you would have no [-159-] objection to tell us whether you have any expectations of ever being married?
Witness—I’ll answer no such impertinent question, Mr. —Counsel—Really Miss - —, you seem determined to be very saucy to day.
Witness—That is the only way to deal with such persons as you.
Counsel—Come, come, now, Miss ——, do tell us whether you would accept of a husband if you had another offer of one?
Witness—That would depend on circumstances, Mr. ——. I certainly would not accept of such a conceited, impertinent fellow as you.
Counsel—Stay, stay, Miss ——, it’s time enough to refuse me when I offer myself to you.
Witness—O, but I wish to tell you in time, that you may save yourself the trouble.
Here a loud peal of laughter again burst simultaneously from all parts of the court; and Mr.—, finding he had caught a tartar, pro-[-160-]ceeded to examine the witness as to the real points of the case, which related to the stealing of some articles from a dwelling-house.
The dexterity which some of the younger prisoners—for those, I have always observed, who are from fourteen to eighteen years of age are usually the cleverest — display in cross-examining the witnesses against them is often surprising. I have seen many prisoners manifest an acuteness in this respect which I have never seen surpassed by the examinations of the most practised counsel. I have frequently on such occasions thought with myself, that some unlucky star must have been in the ascendant at the time of their birth, and that instead of being pickpockets they ought to have been lawyers. From the numerous specimens I have seen of dexterity of this kind on the part of juvenile offenders during their trials at the Old Bailey, I am convinced that Botany Bay swarms with legal geniuses of the highest order, though circumstances, unfortunately for themselves, have prevented their talents being turned into their [-161-] proper channel. At the December sessions of last year, a striking illustration of the singular acuteness displayed at their trials by some juvenile offenders, was given. Four prisoners, whose several ages varied from fifteen to eighteen, were put to the Bar, charged with having stolen a chest of tea from a cart in Shore-ditch. The policeman who made the discovery was only, in the first instance, able to take one of the number into custody. The others were soon after apprehended, and were all lodged in the station-house. There was no question as to the identity of the one the watchman caught in the act, but the other three stoutly declared they knew nothing of each other. Two out of the three subjected the policeman to one of the most rigid and ingenious cross-examinations I have ever witnessed; but I am not, at this distance of time, able to give the questions and answers in that connexion which could convey any idea of the acuteness of the prisoners. I remember that one fact on which the policeman laid great stress, as proving that the prisoners [-162-] were all connected with the theft, was, that on going to the watchhouse at a late hour in the evening, he overheard one say to the others— “Vy, if so be as one on us go, we’ll all on us go ;“ on which another struck up some sort of a song the chorus of which was—” Across the water we vill go—across the water we vill go.” This the policeman understood to mean that they all expected transportation. He added, that afterwards the whole four joined with a heartiness he had never seen surpassed, in some flash song. One of the prisoners, the one who stood next to the jury, on the witness concluding this part of his evidence, observed, that he had a question or two to ask the policeman. “Very well,” said the Recorder, “put them to him.”
Prisoner—Vaut makes you think that ven one said, “Vy, if so be as one on us go, ve’ll all on us go,” it meant as how we expected to be transported?
Witness—I don’t know; but that was my impression.
Prisoner—Vas it not as likely as how we [-163-] meant that all on us were to go to our trial at this ere bar?
The witness here hesitated a few seconds, and the prisoner winked knowingly at the other prisoner nearest to him.
Prisoner—Might it not, I say, a’ meant this ere Old Bailey?
Witness—It might, certainly; but my impression was, that it meant what I have said.
Prisoner—It might, certainly: please, my Lord, to take that down. We have nothink to do with this ere person’s impressions.
The prisoner pointed to the witness as he spoke, and gave another significant twinkle of his eye to his fellow-prisoner farthest off.
Prisoner —You said as how you heard one of us sing something about going across the vater.
Prisoner—Vell, and vaut about it? Is one’s liberty to be taken from him ‘cos as how he sings a song? And, my Lord, I should jist like to ax your Lordship vether a person cannot sing [-164-] about crossing the vater without being sent across the vater?
A shout of laughter followed the latter question.
Recorder—That, certainly, will not of itself be the means of sending you across the seas.
Prisoner—Thank your Lordship. Jist one or two more questions to you (addressing himself to the witness). You said as how you heard all on us a singing a flash song.
Prisoner—Vaut was the song about?
Witness—I don’t know that.
Prisoner—Can you repeat any part of it?
Witness— I cannot.
Prisoner—How then do you know as how it was a song at all?
Witness—Because you were all singing it.
Prisoner—How do you know as how it vas a flash song?
Witness—That was my impression.
Prisoner here turned from the witness to the [-165-] Recorder and the jury, and exclaimed—”My Lord, and gentilmen of the jury, you see as how ‘es come to impressions again.” Then fixing his eye again stedfastly on the prisoner, he said— “Sir, do you know vat flash means?”
Prisoner—Then per’aps as how you vould have no objection to let’s hear it: vat is flash?
The witness hesitated for some time.
Prisoner—He’s a takin’ good time to give us his answer any how, observed the prisoner, looking expressively at the jury.
Prisoner—I ax’d you vaut the meanin’ of flash is?
Witness (faulteringiy)—Why it means—it just means—flash.
Loud laughter followed from all parts of the court, in which the bench joined.
Prisoner (addressing himself to the court)- My Lord, and gentlemen, there’s a witness for you to swear away our rights and liberties. I von’t ax that ere witness no more questions.
[-166-] The witness then withdrew, and others were examined. When the whole evidence was taken, the same prisoner went as minutely into it as the most experienced judge could have done, and pointed out with an ingenuity and clearness I have never seen surpassed, the slightest discrepancy or improbability that could be detected in it. It was still, however, too strong for him and his companions in crime. A verdict of guilty was returned, and the sentence of the court was, that “Across the water they should go.”
On some occasions, I have seen clever prisoners overreach themselves at the Old Bailey, and undo by a single unguarded expression, all that they had done in their own favour by the ingenious manner in which they had cross-examined the leading witnesses against them. About six months ago a little rascal, not more than fourteen years of age, was charged by a merchant in Long Acre with having broken into his premises at twelve o’clock at night, and stolen various articles. Having been alarmed in the [-167-] act, he escaped into the street, but being closely pursued was soon taken. He stoutly denied having committed the offence for which he was arraigned; and said he would soon convince the jury, by putting a few questions to the prosecutor, that he had been taken up by mistake. The prisoner then put a string of questions to the prosecutor, which had the effect of causing some doubt in the minds of the jury as to the identity of the offender. After having finished his cross-examination, the little fellow said he hoped he had got enough out of the witness to show that no reliance could be placed on his testimony, and then observed with an air of supreme scorn towards the prosecutor, and of infinite self-importance, that he had done with him. The prosecutor was in the act of quitting the witness-box, when the prisoner, addressing himself to the Recorder, said—” My Lord, though I’ll have nothing more to do with that person,” looking contemptuously towards the prosecutor, “per’aps you will ask him a single question.”
[-168-] “O certainly,” said his Lordship; “ as many as you please. Prosecutor, stand up again.”
The prosecutor stood up again in the witness-box.
“Now, then,” said his Lordship, addressing himself to the prisoner, “what question would you wish rue to put to the witness?”
“Just be kind enough to ax him whether the robbery was committed in the dark or by candle-light,” said the prisoner.
“Witness, you hear the question of the prisoner: was the robbery committed in the dark or by candle light?” inquired the Recorder.
“In the dark, my Lord,” answered the prosecutor.
“O what a ———. lie,” shouted the prisoner; “for I had a lighted candle yen I did it.”
The court was convulsed with laughter at the singular rudeness and energy of manner with which the juvenile rogue made the remark.
[-169-] The unfortunate admission he had thus unguardedly made flashed across his mind in a moment. He asked no more questions. There were two other witnesses against him; but they had it all their own way: he awaited his doom in sullen silence. That doom was twelve months imprisonment in the House of Correction.
It may be right to mention, that the cause of the prosecutor’s mistake about the business was, that though the prisoner had a lighted candle with him when in the act of committing the theft, his being suddenly alarmed by steps on the staircase, caused him to extinguish the light while hurrying to the door, so that the prosecutor did not see it.
By far the most amusing scene which has occurred for a considerable time past, was exhibited a few years ago. Two fellows had been put to the bar on a charge of stealing three geese. Three of these fowls had been stolen from the prosecutor, and the same number of geese had been found in the possession of the prisoners on [-170-] the following day. The whole question, therefore, before the court turned on the identity of the geese. The prisoners knew that it would be much more difficult to establish the identity of the “articles” stolen in this case than it was usually found to be in the case of other articles. They consequently declared in the most positive manner, that the geese which had been found in their possession, were not, and never had been, the property of the prosecutor. The principal witness as to the fact of identity was the prosecutor’s daughter, and she being rather a soft young woman who had been all her life in the country, the fellows thought they could easily, to use their own expression, “bother” her when in the witness-box. On being put there, the first important question the judge put was,— “Are you quite sure that these three birds are your father’s property?”
Witness—Quite sure, my Lord.
Judge—As most geese are so like each other, have you any peculiar means of identi-[-171-]fying those found in the possession of the prisoners as having been part of the contents of your father’s dairy?
Witness—Yes, my Lord.
Judge—Would you be so good to as tell us how you know they are your father’s geese?
Witness—I know by their cackle, my Lord. Here a burst of laughter proceeded from all parts of the court.
Judge—I had always thought there was no great difference in the cackle of geese.
“No more there is, my Lord,” interrupted one of the prisoners, in a gruff tone of voice.
Judge (to the prisoner)—Will you allow me to finish what I am going to say?
Prisoner—Certainly, I ax your Lordship’s pardon for the hinterrupshin.
Judge—Are you sure you may not be mistaken as to the point, young woman?
Witness—There is no mistake, my Lord.
Judge—Can you describe any peculiarity in the cackle of your father’s geese which makes you so confident as to their identity?
[-172-] The witness was quite confounded by this question. She was silent.
“Oey, show us how your ‘uns cackle,” exclaimed the same prisoner, looking exultingly in the face of the witness.
The other prisoner rubbed his hands, while there was a most expressive leer in his countenance, at the perplexing request of his associate in crime.
The court was convulsed with laughter, and the simple witness was still more confounded than before. In a short time she partially recovered her presence of mind.
Judge—Do not be alarmed, young woman, the court will not be so unreasonable as to ask you to comply with the prisoner’s request and imitate the cackling of a goose. Should you know the birds if you saw them again?
Witness—Yes, my Lord, I should.
Judge—Officer, just produce the geese and show them to the witness. A peal of laughter followed the injunction.
“All of them at once, my Lord?” said the officer.
[-173-] “No, one goose is enough at a time,” observed his Lordship, amidst deafening shouts of laughter.
One of the geese was accordingly taken out of a sort of cage in which the three had been brought to court, and put on the breast of the witness-box, amidst roars of laughter. The way in which the officer held the bird in his hand for fear it should escape, was not the least ludicrous part of the scene.
“Is that one of your father’s geese?”asked his Lordship.
The poor girl looked hard at it, and said she thought it was, but was not quite sure unless she heard it cackle.
The goose, as if comprehending in the clearest manner what was going on, uttered a tremendous cackle that instant which made the walls of the court resound again. The poor bird’s cackling, however, it is right to add, was immediately drowned amidst the roars of laughter which proceeded from all parts of the house, caused partly by the cackling of the bird and partly by the irresistibly droll effect produced by one [-174-] of the officers singing out, “Silence there Silence in the court!” The poor functionary was standing at the door at the time in earnest conversation with an acquaintance, and consequently very naturally mistook the cackling of a feathered goose for a noise caused by a goose of another description.
“That is one of my father’s geese,” observed the girl, as soon as the cackling of the bird and the loud laughter in the court, would allow her voice to be heard. “That is one of my father’s geese.”
“Then, officer, put that one away,” said his Lordship, “and produce another.”
The goose as in the former case was put on the front of the box, the officer holding it in the same way as before.
“I wonder,” said his Lordship, “whether this bird is to afford as prompt an opportunity of identification as the other.”
“O!” said the witness, looking at its feet, just as his Lordship made the observation, “O, I can prove this to be my father’s goose already.”
[-175-] “What! without cackling?” said the judge. “Yes, please your Lordship,” said the witness.
“Well, in what way?” inquired his Lordship. “By its feet, my Lord: I marked the webbing of its feet when a gosling.”
“You are quite sure that it is your father’s property?” said his Lordship.
“Quite sure of it, my Lord.”
“Then let that goose be removed. Officer, take away that goose, and produce the other.”
The other was on the front of the witness-box in a few seconds.
“Now, young woman, by what means do you propose identifying this goose?” inquired his Lordship.
“Why, my Lord,” said the girl, taking hold of one of the bird’s feet rather hastily, “why, my Lord, I am …”
Before the last word had fairly escaped the lips of the damsel, the goose gave a violent flap with its wings, and raising a tremendous cackle [-176-] escaped out of the officer’s hands, and dashed against his Lordship with a force which nearly upset his equilibrium, as it did entirely the gravity of every person in court. Not liking a seat on the bench, the goose next paid a hasty visit to the jury, and then flew through all parts of the court, scattering lawyers’ briefs in all directions, and fluttering the spectators as Coriolanus did the Volscians, wherever it went. At last it fell down exhausted among the reporters, who at that time sat immediately under the jury.
The singular simplicity of some witnesses is amusing. They appear quite amazed at what they deem the impertinent curiosity of the counsel in asking them so many questions. Not long ago, a plain country-looking man, of great muscular energy, seemingly about thirty-five years of age, was subjected to a long examination. it was visible to all that he answered every successive question with increased reluctance. At last the counsel, trying to invalidate his testimony, asked him if he had ever been in prison.
[-177-] “Vat’s that you said, Sur?” said be, evidently doubting the fidelity of his ears.
“Have you ever been in prison, Sir?” repeated the counsel.
“Have I ever been in prizzon?” echoed the witness, drawing back his head in amazement and indignation, “Vell, Sur, your assurance beats everything. If I only had you outside, Sur, I’d answer your — impertinent question.” As the indignant countryman uttered the latter sentence be shook his clenched fist in a significant manner in the face of the affrighted counsel, who was only two yards distant from him.
I have sometimes been amused with the contrast which the eventual communicativeness of witnesses affords to the reserve they show at the commencement of their examination by counsel. About eighteen months ago, one of the leading counsel was endeavouring to demolish the credibility of the testimony of a witness named Goldsmith, by extorting from him an admission of certain facts prejudicial to his own character.
[-178-] For some time it was with great difficulty the counsel could elicit a single admission from the witness which was of any service to his client. The witness either evaded the question or found it convenient to repeat the non-mi-ricordo game. “Ah, master* (The counsel to whom I allude is in the habit of calling all the witnesses hostile to his client by the prefix of “Master.”) Goldsmith, I see you’re not willing to tell us anything about yourself, but I’ll bring it all out before I have done with you; so you may just as well answer my questions at once.”
The witness shrugged up his shoulders, just as if he had been about to swallow some most nauseous medicine.
“Come, come, master Goldsmith,” resumed the counsel, “come, come, do tell us what you know about certain courts?”
“About certain courts?” answered the witness, hesitatingly, and looking up to the ceiling as if he had been trying to comprehend the counsel’s question.
“Aye, about certain courts,” repeated the [-179-] counsel; “you know there is such a place as the Insolvent Debtors’ Court, and there is also this court, the Old Bailey, master Goldsmith.”
“O, I see very well what you’re driving at Mr. --,“ >said the witness, becoming quite reckless from a conviction of the impossibility of concealing anything—” I see, Sir, what you’re driving at. I have passed through the Insolvent Debtors’ Court three times. I have been four times in the Court of King’s Bench. I have been five times tried in this court on charges of assaults and swindling; on three of these occasions I was acquitted, and the other two found guilty. I was once sentenced to the tread-mill for three months, and another time to the House of Correction for six months. Now, Sir,” continned the witness, addressing himself to the counsel, “now Sir, there you have the whole of my character and the leading events of my life. I could not tell you more though you were to question me till this time to-morrow.”
“O, I don’t want anything more,” said the counsel, “that is sufficient; you may sit down, master Goldsmith.”
[-180-] In the examination of policemen as witnesses, I have sometimes seen amusing scenes, chiefly arising from a peculiar way they have of speaking among themselves. Not long ago, one policeman who had assisted with several others in taking an Irishman of great muscular energy into custody, was asked by the judge “whether he made any attempt at resistance?”
“He did, my Lord.”
Judge—Do you mean to say that he was violent?
Witness—He was, my Lord.
Judge—Was he very violent?
Witness—He was werry wiolent.
Judge— What did he do? Did he strike any of you?
Witness—He did, my Lord.
Judge—Were the blows severe?
Witness—They were werry sewere.
Judge—Did he knock any of you down?
[-181-] Witness—Yes, my Lord, he knocked down 175
Judge (with great emphasis and with marked surprise)—He did what?
Witness—He knocked down 175.
Judge—Are you aware of what you are saying?
Witness—I am, my Lord.
Judge—And you mean to say on your solemn oath, that when the police constables went to take the prisoner at the bar into custody, he knocked down 175.
Witness—I do, my Lord.
Judge—Why, man, you must be out of your senses. The thing’s impossible.
Witness—He did do it, my Lord.
Judge (throwing himself back in his seat)— I do not, Sir, know what to make of your testimony.
Witness—I’ve a-spoken nothink but the truth, my Lord.
Judge—What you state, Sir, is a perfect impossibility.
Witness—It’s quite true, my Lord.
Judge—Hold your tongue, Sir, don’t tell the court any more of such absurdities. Gentlemen, (turning himself to the jury-box,) you have heard [-182-] what this witness has stated, and which he still persists in: I am sure you will agree with me that no dependence is to be placed on his testimony.
The jury seemed to look the same opinion, though they said nothing. The counsel and all present were also equally at a loss how to reconcile such a fact with the solemn and oft-repeated declarations of the witness.
Judge (to the witness)—You still persist in saying, that the prisoner at the bar, when the police went to take him into custody, knocked down 175?
Witness—I do, my Lord.
Judge—And how long time may he have taken to perform this wonderful feat.
Witness—He did it in a few seconds, my Lord.
Judge (to the jury)—You see, gentlemen, it’s of no use to proceed further with this witness. I am sure you must agree with me, that no reliance whatever is to be placed on anything he has stated this day.
[-183-] The foreman of the jury here inquired of the judge whether he might ask the witness one or two questions.
“O, certainly,” answered the judge.
Foreman of the Jury (to the witness)—You say that the prisoner knocked down 175 policemen. Will you be kind enough --
“O no, Sir,” interrupted the witness, “O no, Sir, I did not say that.”
“Well, I appeal to the court,” said the jury-man, “whether that was not what you stated.”
“You certainly said so,” observed the judge, addressing himself to the witness.
“No, my Lord, I did not say that.”
“Why, do you mean to tell us that you did not swear that the prisoner knocked down 175 policemen?”said the judge, looking the witness sternly in the face.
“Certainly, my Lord: I only said that he knocked down 175.”
“Why, the man doesn’t appear to be in his senses. Why, gentlemen,” addressing himself [-184-] to the jury, “why, gentlemen, he has repeated the same thing just now."
“No, my Lord, certainly not. He only knocked down one,” observed the witness.
“Only one! What then,” said the judge, sternly, “what, then, did you mean by saying 175?”
“Why, what was the policeman’s number, my Lord? He was 175 of the G division.”
The bursts of laughter which followed this explanation were altogether deafening, in which the judge and the jury heartily joined.
But some amusing scenes are occasionally witnessed in the Old Bailey before the trials:
I mean while the process of “swearing in the jury” is being gone through. One cannot help admiring the ingenuity which is displayed in assigning grounds for exemption from the duties of jurors. One of the most laughable affairs of this kind occurred a short time since. On the name of an Essex farmer being called, a plain blunt man stepped into the witness-box, and being duly sworn that he would speak [-185-] the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so far as it should be asked him, the judge accosted him with the usual question of—” Well, what is the ground on which you claim to be exempted?”
“I am a farmer, my Lord,” was the answer.
“Well, but you do not mean to tell the court that you ought to be exempted because you are a farmer?”
The Essex man was silent.
“That is no reason at all why you should be exempted. Almost all our country jurors are farmers. Have you any other ground of exemption to state?” said the judge.
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Well, let us hear it?”
“My services are required at home, my Lord.”
“In what way and for what reason?” inquired his Lordship.
“Because there is a great deal of illness, my Lord.”
“I am sorry to hear that; what may be the extent of the illness?” said the judge.
[-186-] “Why, my Lord, there are no fewer than six all laid up at home.”
“That is a very extensive illness, indeed,” observed the judge.
“It is, indeed, my Lord,” said the other, with a deep sigh, and looking with a downcast air on the breast of the box.
“Are they very ill?” inquired his Lordship, who is a very humane man.
“They are, indeed, my Lord.”
“Not dangerously so, I hope?”
“I have reason to fear the worst, my Lord: I have, indeed.”
“There are no deaths, I hope,” said the judge, in a very sympathetic tone and with a very sympathetic expression of countenance.
“Yes, my Lord, there has been one,” said the other, looking most sorrowfully towards the floor.
Pray how long ago is it since that calamity occurred?”
“Only last week, my Lord.”
“And you are apprehensive that others are dangerously ill?”
[-187-] “I am, indeed, your Lordship,” said the Essex man, with another deep sigh.
“This poor man is suffering great family affliction,” whispered the judge to the alderman who was sitting beside him.
“ It is one of the most melancholy cases I ever heard of,” responded the city functionary.
“We must excuse this unfortunate man,” added the judge.
“O most certainly,” said the alderman.
“You are ex——; stay just for one moment,” said the judge, before he had finished the sentence excusing the party—” Stay for one moment. Are there any at all at home in good health?”
“O no, my Lord,” answered the other, giving a most touching shake of the head, “O no, they are all ill.”
“Then, I suppose, your farming operations are at a complete stand-still?”
“They are, indeed, my Lord. Nothing has been done for the last eight days”
[-188-] “Of course, you have a doctor attending them?”
“O yes, my Lord, the best horse.doctor in the country.”
“The best what?” said the judge, looking the farmer as significantly in the face as if at a loss to decide in his own mind whether the latter had really uttered the words, or whether his own ears had not deceived him.
“The best horse-doctor in the country, my Lord.”
“Why, the man is clearly out of his senses; his afflictions have deranged his mind;” observed the alderman to the judge, in a whisper.
“He certainly talks like an insane man; but he does not look like one,” answered the judge. “I will ask him another question or two. Are they,” turning to the farmer, “ are they all confined to bed?”
“To bed, my Lord!“ said the Essex farmer, with a look of infinite surprise.
“Yes, to bed, when they are so ill as you represent.”
[-189-] “O dear no, my Lord, none of them are in bed.”
“Then they surely cannot be so ill as you say?”
“They are, indeed, your Lordship.”
“You astonish me. Do they, then, rise and go to bed at the usual hours?” inquired the judge.
“Why, my Lord, they never go to bed at all,” answered the Essex man, evidently much surprised at the question of his Lordship.
“ Not to bed at all!” exclaimed the judge, looking the party with infinite amazement in the face.
“Never, my Lord; not one of them was ever in bed in their lives.”
“I am afraid,” whispered the alderman into the ear of the judge, “that what I before stated is too true; the poor man’s afflictions have impaired his intellects.”
“It certainly is very extraordinary,” observed his Lordship.
“Attend, my man,” said the judge, evidently [-190-] resolved to clear up the mystery some way or other,—” Attend for one moment; are they, then, confined to the house?”
“To the house, my Lord!” answered the farmer, quite as much surprised as before,— “to the house! They were never in the house at all.”
“They are never what?” asked the judge, his astonishment waxing still greater and greater.
He looked the alderman in the face on which the latter, with much self-complacency observed, “ It’s just what I said: the poor man’s calamities have deranged his intellects.”
“Never in the house at all, my Lord.”
“O,” said his Lordship, as if a solution of the enigma had suddenly shot athwart his mind, “O, I see how it is, though you say they are at home, perhaps they are in the hospital.”
“In the hospital!” exclaimed the farmer, with great emphasis and amazement, “no, my Lord, none of them ever crossed an hospital door.”
“Then where are they; in the name of won-[-191-]der?” said the judge, with some haste, his surprise being now wound up to the highest pitch.
“Why, my Lord, they are all in the stable, to be sure,” was the answer.
“They are where?” said the judge, rising partially from his seat in the greatness of his amazement, and looking the farmer hard in the face.
“In the stable, my Lord,” repeated the Essex man.
The judge looked at the alderman, the alderman looked at the counsel at the table below, and the counsel and everybody else in the court looked at one another.
“Are you aware of what you are saying?” inquired his Lordship, with great seriousness.
“Perfectly so, my Lord.”
“ And you mean to say that your sick family are all in the stable?”
“My family, my Lord!” said the farmer, overwhelmed with amazement at the question; “no,
[-192-] not my family, but my six horses, who are ill of the influenza.” (This was some years ago, when a great many horses throughout the country were seriously ill of this disease.)
It is impossible to describe the shouts of laughter with which the whole court were convulsed for full five minutes after the farmer gave this last answer.
Many amusing scenes used to occur during the Old Bailey proceedings, when the late Mr. Justice Buller presided. The remarks which he was in the habit of making while the cases were proceeding with naturally led to this.
Of these scenes, however, I do not mean to speak at length. I mention his name with the view of stating that it was a common practice of his to anticipate the question which counsel meant to put to the witnesses, and to let observations drop in the course of the trial which clearly showed that he knew what would be the result. It was observable, however, that he did this most frequently in those cases where a ver-[-193-]dict of guilty was likely to be returned. Hence his name became proverbial among those of the lower orders in the habit of frequenting the Old Bailey proceedings, as “the judge vot condemned men before they were tried.” This piece of information was communicated to himself one day, in the latter part of his life, under very amusing circumstances. Being in want of a horse, and intending to purchase one, he stepped on one occasion into a repository to see whether any one would suit him. He was at this time dressed in a blue coat, leather breeches, top-boots of a very antiquated make, and wore a three-cornered hat. His appearance was consequently so different from what it was when presiding at the Old Bailey, when he had on his wig and was muffled up in his robes of office, that even those in the habit of most frequently seeing him at the latter place, would have no chance of recognising him without an unusually close scrutiny of his features. On entering the place, he inquired of a horse-jockey he saw rubbing down a good-looking animal, whether he [-194-] had got any superior horses of a particular description.
“This is a prime un, Sir; I’ll be bound there’s ne’er a better in Lunnun,” said the jockey, meaning the animal he was rubbing down.
“ I should like to see how he runs with a rider on his back,” said Mr. Justice Buller.
“That you shall do presently,” said the jockey, leaping on the horse’s back. “There’s not a better running animal than this ere ‘os in the kingdom,” he continued, applying his heels, in the absence of spurs, to the sides of the beast.
“Stop, stop, my man,” exclaimed Mr. Justice Buller, before the horse had proceeded a dozen steps; “stop, stop, my man, that horse won’t do.”
“ Von’t do !“ said the jockey, stopping the horse and eying the justice with a most expressive glance from top to toe, “Von’t do! vy, I’ll be blowed, old chap, if you bean’t like Judge Buller, who condemns the poor coves* (Prisoners) before he [-195-] tries them. Come, old boy, you’d better not try any more of this ere gammon again; if you do, I’m blessed if you don’t cotch it.”
Mr. Justice Buller used to tell the story with great zest.
I have spoken, in a previous part of the chapter, of the indifference with which some of the more hardened of the criminals receive their sentences. I have repeatedly seen them ironically thank the judge for transportation, and tell him that they felt particularly obliged to him. On some occasions their remarks are exceedingly witty. Some years ago, an Irishman, on being sentenced to transportation for life, accosted the judge with, “ Is there anything I can do for your honour in Botany, since it’s myself would have plaisur in obleeging your honour in that same place?” “Remove him from the bar,” said the judge to the officer. “Well, then, your honour,” said Paddy, “I’ll send you home a monkey to divert your honour, at any rate.”
Another Irishman, on being sentenced to transportation for life across the seas, turned [-196-] back, after being removed a few paces from the bar, and looking the judge significantly in the face, said, “Will your honour allow me to spake one word?”
“Certainly,” said the judge, thinking he was about to make confession of the crime of which he had been found guilty.
“Well, then, your honour, it’s myself will be happy to carry out letters to any of your honour’s friends in Botany Bay.”
“Take him away,” said the judge, addressing the officer.”
“Throth, and that’s the way in which your honour rewards my politeness, is it?” said Pat, on being dragged away by the collar from the dock.
In addition to the scenes which so often occur in the course of the examination of witnesses, there are occasionally some of an amusing nature, which take place from the loss of temper on the part of the counsel on the opposite sides. Such scenes, however, have not been so frequent of late years, as they used to be.
[-197-] When Mr. A—, who died some years ago, was practising in, the Old Bailey, he and another of the counsel almost invariably quarrelled when they happened to be on different sides. And their quarrels were not like the sham quarrels so common among lawyers. They were quarrels of the right sort, as one of the parties used to call them. Not content with fighting each other with their tongues, they had recourse to more solid weapons. Walking canes, umbrellas, books, or anything else of a substantial kind, that was nearest at the time, were put in requisition; and with these they used to belabour each other in open court. The most singular feature in the implacable enmity with which the gentlemen in question regarded each other, and the endless insults which passed between them, was, that neither ever sent a challenge to the other to fight a duel, though often advised to do so by there friends as the best way of settling their disputes. Each excused himself on the ground that there was something so disreputable and ungentlemanly in [-198-] the conduct of the other, that it would be lowering his own character to go out with him.
The counsel in the Old Bailey are occasionally very fond of trying their hands at puns. The best one I have heard perpetrated there for some time past owes its authorship to Mr. Charles Phillips. Not long since a prisoner was tried for unlawfully obtaining money by falsely representing himself as being an officer in some regiment of horse, the name of which I forget. After the case was finished, Mr. Common Sergeant Mirehouse, who presided on the occasion, said it consisted with his personal knowledge, that the prisoner was not an officer in the regiment in question; for that he himself had once had the honour of holding a commission in the same regiment. On this Mr. Charles Phillips remarked..... “Although your Lordship has changed your position, it is clear that you have not been promoted; but that, on the contrary, you have been reduced from the rank of a captain to that of a “ Common Sergeant.” This pun, as Lord Brougham would [-199-] say, is by no means amiss; it told with excellent effect.
There is one eccentric character whom it were unpardonable to pass over in a chapter devoted to the Old Bailey: I allude to Mr. Curtis, who is as constantly to be seen in the New Court as the judge himself. Mr. Curtis is known to everybody in and about the place, and nobody can know him without being attached to him. A more honest, kind-hearted, or inoffensive creature, does not exist. For nearly a quarter of a century has he been in constant attendance at the Old Bailey, from the opening to the close of each session, never, so far as I am aware, being absent, with the exception of two occasions when attending the county assizes. He writes short-hand; and has, I understand, a stenographical work in the press, to be called “Short-hand made Shorter.” He is so passionately fond of writing the trials, that he takes down, for his own special amusement, every, case verbatim which comes before the New Court. What his horror of the Old Court [-200-] arises from, I have never been able to learn; but one might as soon expect to find the Bishop of London in a Dissenting chapel, as to find Mr. Curtis in the Old Court. He is celebrated for his early rising: four o’clock in the morning he considers a late hour. It is quite an era in his life to lie in bed till five. By seven, he has completed his morning journeys, which usually embrace a distance, including doubles—for he is particularly fond of going over the same ground twice, if not thrice, in a morning—of from six to eight miles. Among the places visited, Farringdon Market, Covent Garden Market, Hungerford Market, and Billingsgate, are never under any circumstances omitted. Farringdon Market has the honour of the first visit, because, as good luck (for it) would have it, he chances to reside in that neighbourhood. His own notion is, that he has walked as much within the last thirty years, before seven in the morning, as would have made the circuit of the globe three or four times. He is, perhaps, the most inveterate pedestrian alive; locomotion seems to be [-201-] a necessity of his nature. It is the severest punishment that could be inflicted on him to be obliged to remain for any length of time in one place. There is only one exception to this rule; and that is, when he is taking down the trials at the Old Bailey. He regards it as the greatest favour that could be conferred on him, to be asked to walk ten or twelve miles by an acquaintance. He frequently inquires of his friends, whether they have occasion to go to any of the villages in the neighbourhood of London; adding, that in that case, he will be happy to take “a step” with them. He some time since kindly offered to give me a “full, true, and particular account” of the eventful vicissitudes of his life, if I would take a walk out to Hampstead, or any other village in the vicinity of London, with him. I would with infinite pleasure have accepted his offer, but that it chanced to be a very rainy evening. He is particularly partial to wet weather, and is as fond of a rainy day as if he were a duck. He is never so comfortable as when thoroughly [-202-] drenched. Thunder and lightning throw him into perfect ecstasies. Some years since, he luxuriated for some hours on Dover cliff, in one of the most tremendous thunder-storms ever witnessed in this country. A year or two ago, he walked down to Croydon and back again on the three consecutive days of the fair; making, with his locomotive achievements in Croydon, a distance of nearly fifty miles a day; and this without any other motive than that of gratifying his pedestrian propensities. He has a perfect horror of cabs, coaches, omnibuses, and all sorts of vehicles; nobody, I believe, ever saw him in one. Rather than submit to be wheeled through the streets in any vehicle whatever, he would a thousand times over encounter the fate of poor Falstaff when Madams Ford and Page, in the “Merry Wives of Windsor,” caused him to be pitched out of a clothes’-basket into the river Thames. I have my doubts, indeed, whether a submersion in the Thames, or in any other water, would be any punishment to Mr. Curtis at all; for, judging from his extreme partiality [-203-] to heavy showers of rain, it would look as if he were, to a certain extent, an amphibious being. This much is certain, for he has often told me the thing with infinite glee himself, that he was once thrown into a pond without suffering any inconvenience. The benefits of air and exercise are manifest in his cheerful disposition, and healthy-looking, though somewhat weather-beaten countenance. I have often told him that he is the happiest little thick-built man alive.
He possesses a singularly strong constitution. I have spoken of his early rising; I should have mentioned, in proof of the vigorousness of his frame, that he is also late in going to bed. On an average, he has not, for the last twenty years, slept above four hours in the twenty-four. He is often weeks without going to bed at all. It sufficeth him, as Wordsworth would say, to have two or three hours’ doze in his arm-chair, and with his clothes on. In the year 1834, he was seized with the, ambition of performing an unusual feat in this ‘way. He aspired to the reputation of being able to sit up one hundred [-204-] consecutive nights and days, without stretching himself on a bed, or in any way putting himself into a horizontal position, even for one moment. He actually did, incredible as it may appear, accomplish the extraordinary undertaking. For one century of consecutive nights and days, as he himself loves to express it, Mr. Curtis neither put off his clothes to lie down in bed, or anywhere else, for a second. Any little sleep he had during the time, was in the shape of a doze, as just mentioned, in his arm-chair.
His taste for executions, and for the society of persons sentenced to death, is remarkable. He has been present at every execution in the metropolis and its immediate neighbourhood, for the last quarter of a century. This may appear so improbable a statement, that it may be proper to mention I have it from his own lips; and nothing in the world would induce him to state what is not true, Nay, so powerful is his propensity for witnessing executions, that, some years since, he actually walked down before breakfast to Chelmsford, which is twenty-nine [-205-] miles from London, to be present at the execution of Captain Moir. For a great many years past he has not only heard the condemned sermon preached in Newgate, but has spent many hours in their gloomy cells, with the leading men who have been executed in London during that time. He was a great favourite with poor Fauntleroy. Many an hour did Mr. Curtis spend in Newgate with that unfortunate man. He was with him a considerable part of the day previous to his execution. With Corder, too, of Red Barn notoriety, he contracted a warm friendship; sleeping, I think he has told me, repeatedly on the same bed as that unhappy man had been accustomed to sleep on. Immediately on the discovery of the murder of Maria Martin, he hastened down to the scene, and there remained till the execution of William Corder, making a period of several weeks. He afterwards wrote “Memoirs of Corder,” which extended to upwards of three hundred pages. The work was published by the present Lord Mayor, then Mr. Kelly; and being published in sixpenny numbers, had [-206-] a large sale. Three portraits, all engraved on one piece of plate, embellished the work, They were portraits of William Corder, Maria Martin, and Mr. Curtis himself. I believe this is the only literary work of Mr. Curtis; he is proud of it: nothing pleases him better than to be called the biographer of Corder.
By some unaccountable sort of fatality, Mr. Curtis, where he is unknown, has always had the mortification of being mistaken, under very awkward circumstances, for other parties. He was never at Dover but once in his life, and on that occasion, he was locked up all night on suspicion of being a spy. When he went down to Chelmsford, to be present at the execution of the unfortunate captain, whose name I have already mentioned, he engaged a bed early in the morning the day before the execution, at the Three Cups Tavern. On returning to the inn in the evening, he saw everybody stare at him as hard as if he had been a giraffe. The female servants rushed out of his sight the moment they fixed their eyes on him. Among [-207-] the men-servants, in addition to the feeling of horror with which they clearly regarded him, he heard a variety of whispers, without being able to understand the why or wherefore. At last, the landlady of the Three Cups advanced a few steps towards him, though still keeping at a distance of some yards, and said in tremulous accents and with quivering frame,— “We cannot give you a bed here; when I promised you one, I did not know the house was so full as it is.”
“Ma’am,” said Mr. Curtis, indignantly, at the same time pulling himself up—” Ma’am, I have taken my bed, and I insist on having it.”
“I’m very sorry for it, but you cannot sleep here to-night.”
“I will sleep here tonight; I’ve engaged my bed, and refuse it me at your peril,” said Mr. Curtis,. thrusting his right hand into the breast of his waistcoat, and assuming an aspect of offended dignity.
“It’s impossible, it’s impossible, it cannot [-208-] be,” observed the landlady of the Three Cups, with great eagerness and emphasis.
“Why, madam? I should like to know the reason why,” taking off his glasses, and buttoning his coat.
“I’ll pay the price of your bed in any other place, if you’ll only go and sleep somewhere else,” was the only answer of the relict of the late Mr. Boniface.
“No, ma’am,” said Mr. Curtis, with an edifying energy, the brilliant indignation of his eye proclaiming with expressive eloquence, the spirit with which he resented the affront offered to him, “No, ma’am, I insist on my rights as a public man; I have a duty to perform to-morrow. As he spoke, he took three or four hasty paces through the room.
“It’s all true. He says he’s a public man, and that he has a duty to perform,” were words which every person in the room exchanged in suppressed whispers with each other.
The waiter flow stepped up to Mr. Curtis, [-209-] and taking him aside, said—” The reason why Missus won’t give you no bed, is because you’re the executioner ;“ and, as he uttered the words, he drew himself back from Mr. Curtis, as if the latter had been a walking cholera. Mr. Curtis was on the first announcement of the thing somewhat astounded; but in a few moments he laughed heartily at the mistake. “I’ll soon convince you of your error, ma’am,” said Mr. Curtis, walking out of the house. He returned in about ten minutes with a respectable gentleman of the place, with whom he was acquainted; and the gentleman having spoken to the fact of his identity being different from what had been supposed, the landlady made a thousand apologies for the mistake, and as the only reparation she could make him, she gave him the best bed in the Three Cups Tavern.
This was, in all conscience, a sufficiently awkward mistake; but it was nothing to one which was made on another occasion. I have already mentioned the zest with which he enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in Corder’s bed. That, [-210-] however, was not enough; nor did it satisfy him to spend night after night with him in prison. He accompanied Corder to his trial, and stood up close beside him at the bar all the time the trial lasted. A limner had been sent from Ipswich to take a portrait of Corder, for one of the newspapers of that place. And what did he do? Nobody, I am sure, would guess. Why, the stupid animal, as Mr. Curtis justly calls him, actually took a sketch of Mr. Curtis himself, mistaking him for Corder; and in the next number of the provincial print, Mr. Curtis figured at full length as the murderer of Maria Martin! Mr. Curtis regards this as one of the most amusing incidents in his life; and I speak seriously when I say, that while expressing his anxiety that I would omit none of those adventures of his which I have here given, he was particularly solicitous that this incident should have a place. I promised I would attend to his wishes. I have kept my word.
I have glanced at Mr. Curtis’s excellent moral character. He has often told me that he has [-211-] done everything in his power, though without effect, to induce the authorities of Newgate to write in legible letters above the door of every cell in that prison, the scriptural axiom—” The way of transgressors is hard.” Here Mr. Curtis’s judgment is at fault. It were of little use to tell the unhappy criminals, after they are shut up in their gloomy cells, that the way of transgressors is hard; they find that it is so in their bitter experience. If any way could be devised of convincing them of the fact when meditating the commission of a crime which would send them thither, there would be sound philosophy in the thing. In the case to which Mr. Curtis alludes, it were only an illustration of the old adage of “After death the doctor.”
While thus referring to the excellent moral character of Mr. Curtis, I beg I may be understood as speaking with all sincerity when I say, that notwithstanding all his eccentricities, which, by the way, are of the most harmless kind,—he has done a great deal of good to prisoners sentenced to death. I speak within bounds when [-212-] I mention that he has, from first to last, spent more than a hundred nights with unhappy prisoners under sentence of death, conversing with them with all seriousness and with much intelligence, on the great concerns of that eternal world on whose brink they were standing. I saw a long and sensible letter which the unhappy man named Pegsworth, who was executed in March last for the crime of murder, addressed a few days before his death to Mr. Curtis, and in which he most earnestly thanked Mr. C. for all the religious instructions and admonitions he had given him, adding, that he believed he had derived great spiritual benefit from them.
There are some other characters of some eccentricity to be seen at the Old Bailey; but they are not worthy of a special notice.
Of the way in which the criminal justice of the country is administered at the Central Criminal Courts, which is flow another name for the Old Bailey, there is not, nor can there be, two opinions. That is a point, therefore, on [-213-] which it would be unnecessary to make any observations; but I cannot close the chapter without paying the tribute of my special admiration to the Recorder of London—on whom devolves the most onerous duties as judge, at the Old Bailey—for the way in which he discharges the functions of his office. He presides during the greater part of the sessions in the Old Court, where, as before observed, the most important cases are tried. The Hon. Mr. Law has now filled the situation of Recorder for the city of London for about four years. He is son of the late, and brother of the present, Lord Ellenborough. He is well versed in the criminal jurisprudence of the country; and the soundness of his judgment is admitted by all. But these are not the qualities in the judicial character of Mr. Law, on which I would chiefly delight to dwell The qualities to which I allude are chiefly of a moral kind. It has been my fortune to see a great many judges in Scotland as well as in England, presiding in courts of justice; but I have never seen one who seemed to me to be [-214-] more deeply or more permanently impressed with a sense of the serious responsibility of his situation, than the present Recorder of London. He unites in a rare degree the gravity of the judge with the mildness and manners of a gentleman. He is ever anxious to anticipate the wishes of the unfortunate parties at the bar; and to afford them every opportunity of doing everything which the law allows, to procure their acquittal. He listens most patiently to everything they have to say, at whatever sacrifice of his own time, and however great the amount of personal labour to himself. He does this even when his most decided impression is, that there is not the slightest chance of an acquittal. A more humane judge never sat in a court of justice: you see kindness in his looks; humanity shows itself in every word he utters. His leanings, wherever the case can admit of leaning, are always on mercy’s side; and nothing could be more affecting than the way in which he passes sentence in all those cases in which the magnitude of the offence or the serious [-215-] criminality of the prisoner, has rendered it necessary that an example should be made to deter others from pursuing the same course of conduct. It is plain in all such cases that he is doing violence to his own feelings, in order that he may faithfully discharge his duty to his country. I have reason to believe that his admonitions to prisoners, in passing sentence, have more frequently been attended with beneficial effects to the unhappy individuals them. selves, as well as to the spectators, than those of any other judge who has sat in any of our criminal courts, for a long series of years.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]