Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 15 - On the Grand Jury

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BESIDE planting a tree, and adding at least a unit to the rising population, there is a third duty incumbent upon every Briton who is a householder - he must serve as a juror. There are three kinds of juries, grand, special, and petty; but since for the last two you get a guinea a day; attendance upon them is considered by some to be rather a privilege than a duty. The grand jury is an institution, for belonging to which no recompense is awarded, except kudos - the thanks of a grateful country - and hence many persons shirk it, if they can.* [* I am speaking of Londoners only: the country gentleman, whose desire is above all things to kill time, when there are no foxes, holds serving upon the grand jury as an entertainment of considerable attraction.] Some householders never do get [-157-] summoned. A guinea judiciously administered to the sheriff's officer, at a very early period of the threatened infliction, it is said, works wonders a stitch in time saves nine ; but I have no practical knowledge of this artifice. I know if one doesn't go, what happens. Three months afterwards, when the circumstance has faded from all but the Judicial mind, a letter arrives, in an infamous handwriting, to inform one that the next morning an officer and another (not an officer and a gentleman) will enter one's habitation and seize upon any article of furniture not exceeding the value of ten pounds, and confiscate the same to our Lady the Queen, by way of fine. Conceive one s American rocking-chair, one's inlaid ivory cribbage-board, one's stuffed Himalayan pheasant in a glass case, being transferred to Buckingham Palace from one's unambitious dwelling-house in St. John's Wood! It is probably by misadventure, however, that one does not obey one's country's call, for the Summons is of a character to terrify the most audacious recusant. It is said by the attorneys [-158-] (with reference to barristers who write books) that law suffers by any alliance with literature; I think I may be permitted to retort, upon the authority of the subjoined document, that literature is also liable to suffer by alliance with law.

By virtue of a warrant from the Sheriff of the county to me directed, I summon you to be and appear before her Majesty's judges and justices at the Central Criminal Court, at Justice Hall in the Old Bailey, in the suburbs of the city of London, on Monday, &c., at Ten of the clock in the forenoon, Precisely, to inquire, present, do, and execute all and singular those things you shall be then and there enjoined. Whereof fail not, as you well answer the contrary at your Peril.

I have placed the most striking portion of this elegant literary composition in italics, but it is all more or less admirable throughout. Its composer is unknown, I believe; but from its vague and melodramatic threats, combined with its professional iteration, I am inclined to think that some "super" at the Victoria Theatre, who is occupied by day in an attorney's office, must have thrown it off during a period of protracted intoxication. [-159-]  "Whereof fail not, as you will answer the contrary:" I clung to the hope that, for the credit of Her Majesty's judges and justices, the last word at least might have been a misprint for "country," which would have rendered the sentence less unintelligible ; but such was not the case. The whole document, it will be admitted, is calculated to alarm the female mind in the highest degree; and it chancing, in my own case, to arrive during my absence from home, the consequences to my unhappy wife, who opened it, were such as to shake her nervous centres very considerably. She thought, I believe, it was a writ for my immediate apprehension arid removal to the condemned cells of Newgate Prison. The circumstance occurred years ago, but I remember it, and all that followed, as though it had happened this very week.
    Upon the day and hour appointed, then, I found myself at "Justice Hall, in the suburbs of the city of London" (although no cabman would have known whither to drive under such direction), [-160-] listening to the names of my fellow-sufferers being called over by a barrister, and reiterated by an officer of the court. The barrister spoke distinctly enough, but the officer roared. It was like a pistol fired in a cavern; there was the report, and there were three tremendous reverberations:
    "Charles Jonathan Jones.
    "Charles Jonathan Jones.
    "Charles Jonathan Jones.
    "Answer to your name, and save your fine of two hundred shillings and eightpence."
    This was the peril darkly hinted at in the mystic summons, and a good many incurred it. Enough, however, remained obedient to their country's call to make up the requisite quorum of twenty-three, and we were politely requested to adjourn to the grand jury-room, and choose our foreman. Imagine two dozen Englishmen (save one), none of whom had ever set eyes upon his comrades, requested to make election, within five minutes, of who should be his representative man for the next three (lays. It was a position absolutely unexampled for [-161-] embarrassment; every man looked at his neighbour in dismay and hate, as though his lips were in the act of murmuring: "This gentleman, now, appears to me to be just the sort of man for a job of this exceptional character." As for myself, I was not alarmed, for I had made up my mind, in case of any such remark being made with reference to me, to smile, and say: "It was a very fine day at present, but likely to be wet presently;" by which it would be gathered that I was much too deaf for the situation. Some born genius, however, hit upon the device of inquiring whether anybody had served as foreman before; and another gentleman, of less intelligence, having been so weak as to own he had, he was elected by acclamation. Then we trooped back into court, and were sworn to keep the Queen's secrets (none of which, however, were confided to the present writer), after which we received the judge's charge, and in that dangerous condition returned to the grand jury-room. Now, whether it was the charge which caused some of us to want to "go off," or [-162-] whether it struck one or two that it would be pleasant to evade both the fine for non-attendance and the attendance also, but no sooner was our unfortunate foreman installed in his chair of state, than applications began to be made to him for leave of absence. Like the people in the parable, one had his merchandise to attend to; and another had taken a wife, by this time in an interesting condition, and requiring his attendance at home; and a third was under a vow to be at St. Katherine's Docks by noon; so that a too good-natured chairman might have found himself without a sufficient quorum wherewith to carry on the business of the day.
    In the first two or three cases, matters were made easy for us by the attendance of the solicitors for the prosecution, who knew exactly what questions bore upon the matter in hand, and put them as concisely as possible. But when these gentlemen of the law retired, and we ware left to ourselves, the unfortunate ship, Grand Jury, not being Al in undertakings of this nature, lay, as it were, a log [-163-] upon the judicial waters, beaten hither and thither by every wave of testimony. Beside this, there was mutiny on board, for one of the twenty-three laboured under the mistaken impression that he had a talent for cross-examination, and made whatever was in itself irrelevant, doubly foreign to the subject, by his curious inquiries; he would not only drink in all that the most voluminous witness had to tell us, but rendered the narrative still more impertinent by questions about his aunt and his mother-in-law; so that the rest of us had to refer to the calendar again and again, to remind us of the nature of that criminal charge from which we had strayed so far. I never was in the company of any gentleman who so strikingly reminded me of the philosopher Socrates, for tedious and microscopic Inquiry, although in other respects, perhaps, the parallel was not so complete.
    Then there was the too-scrupulous juryman, who, after everybody else was satisfied, begged (with the permission of the chair) "to put one question of great importance, which at present [-164-] had escaped consideration, he believed-namely, Had the witness been sworn?" - which, of course, he had. It would have been physically impossible for any fellow-creature to have entered that room upon any pretence whatever, and not to have been sworn. There was every convenience for taking testimony you can possibly imagine, for Christians, Jews, and even Turks; and when a Parsee came before us upon one occasion, the usher apologised, almost with tears in his eyes, that there was no instrument at hand (although I did suggest a camera) which would be obligatory upon the conscience of a sun-worshipper. However, he had something in his own pocket that looked like a washing-book, and had no cover, but which he protested was binding; and I hope it was.
    And while speaking of the unorthodox, let me ask one question, an answer to which would greatly oblige the present writer: How is it that the business of the Old Bailey is monopolised almost entirely by persons of the Hebrew faith? Was [-165-] the old court ever a synagogue, and borrowed by the Crown for the administration of justice, upon the condition that half its officers, half its counsel, half its attorneys, and half its prisoners, should be members of the Jewish Church? I can certify that at least half its witnesses were of that persuasion, on the occasion which I have in my mind. Any gentleman of a dark complexion, and who happened to have a cold in his head, was pretty certain to be presented with the Hebrew Bible, upon his appearance in our witness-box; and thus it was that the incumbent of a certain West-end church was sworn before us with his hat on,* [* Members of the Jewish persuasion are sworn with their heads covered.] in spite of his white tie, and protestations that he was a clergyman of the Church of England.
    On each of the two occasions when I have had the honour to serve upon the Grand Jury at the Old Bailey, the calendar has been a very heavy one, and we examined between four and five hundred witnesses. These, of course, were of all [-166-]  nations, creeds, and languages, and of almost every position in the scale of social life; their characters, too, were as various as their pursuits: the glib and the hesitating; the exaggerating and the cautious; the honest and the false. It was a perfect microcosm of man (and woman) kind. The most painful to listen to, except those who were manifestly perjuring themselves, were the stammerers, whose unfortunate defect was greatly increased by the nervousness consequent upon their position. There was one poor fellow, the prosecutor, if I remember right, in some Mint case, who was absolutely unable to tell us his story because it was all about bad Change - a word that seemed to be composed of from forty to fifty syllables. A far more troublesome sort of witness, however, and one by no means deserving of pity, was the Episodical Female. I don't know what else to call a lady who, having a plain statement to make, declines to do so, under either compulsion or persuasion, but becomes voluminous to the last degree about matters which are totally extraneous. This [-167-]  genus has a faculty peculiar to it, and the cuttlefish only, of concealment by mist of its own raising. Word upon word, sentence upon sentence, story upon story arise like dust-storms, and subside in nothing whatever. It is most curious and interesting to watch this unfortunate creature twisting her rope of sand.
    "It was the 13th, no, it was the 14th, yes, unless I am much mistaken, it was the 14th of March, 1858, leastways, gentlemen, you will understand it was 1859, begging your pardons; and we was a- moving, you see, because of the children, which was eleven, and another coming, and time cart was at the door. Then, says he, coming up with his arm in a sling, and as nice a-looking and honest a young man, that I will say-but fine feathers makes fine birds, and is but skin-deep-and shall I help you, says he; yes, says I, leastways if tuppence is any objeck, and besides, my husband, says I, who is in the sewerage, gentlemen, and a hinspector, which he may get you thirty-five shillings a week, young man, or forty, if you conduct yourself [-168-] respectable, and quite enough to marry and set up house for yourself -"
    "I beg your pardon, madam," observed the chairman, "but if you could make this story a little shorter. Now, with respect to the cap which he is said to have stolen from your house during this removal of your goods, as I suppose."
    "Not as I am aware on," remarks the Episodical Female, drawing herself up, and speaking in an offended tone. " Evin forbid as I should detrack from a young man's character, being on my oath, and swore. What I says is this; Maria, says I, how did you know the shutters of the back-parlour was unfastened; Mary-Jane, which is my name, as I generally goes by, having been christened Elizabeth, but there was another in the same family, which made it awkward, I see his 'ed and his 'and."
    Foreman, despairingly: "Who is Maria ?"
    "She is my husband's step-daughter, gentlemen, by his first marriage; and a useful steady girl, though I says it as shouldn't say it, though she [-169-]  ain't no blood-relation either exactly. There's a young man down at Croydon, gentlemen, in the hardware line -"
    "My good woman, we cannot stand this. Answer me this plain question: Did this Maria see the prisoner steal the cap?"
    "His 'ed and his 'and, sir, which had warts upon them, and rubbin' them hard with a weddin' ring, and singin' a verse or two:
    'Warts is here and warts is there-'"
    Foreman, sinking low in his chair, and speaking with anguish:
    "We don't care whether he had warts or not. Pray tell us this, only this: Where was the stolen property found ?"
    Witness, with a great effort, not to be episodical:
    "At No. 4, sir."
    "Ah! that was the prisoner's place of residence, was it?"
    "O dear, no, sir; leastways, I can speak to [-170-] the last fourteen years, ay, and fifteen, come next summer, which it's April at this present, and we was bound to whitewash one in seven, and repaper twice, except the outbuilding -"
    "Ah! then No. 4 was the house to which you were removing, was it ?"
    "O dear, no, sir, and gentlemen, quite the contrary, we was a-moving, you see, because of No. 12, which was a-coming, saving your presence -"
    "Stop, stop. Who did No. 4 - the house- belong to? Do, pray, tell us that? Who owned the house where the stolen property was found ?"
    "A lady, sir, of the highest respectability, which her uncle is on the Board of Guardians -"
    "Now, listen to me. Is this lady outside? Is she a witness in the case? Can we get at her?"
    "O dear, no, sir, and gentlemen; she's at her villa residence, at Barkling in Essex, but may be telegrammed for at a moment's notice ;" and so on, ad infinitum, until we call in the aid of the police.
    [-171-]  It is the policeman who makes all matters clear to us. His testimony may be prejudiced, but he at least knows how to give it intelligibly. Yet he, too, like all other witnesses of humble rank, is given to use the most grandiloquent language he can lay his tongue to. He "takes an observation," of "a certain establishment," and "from information received" (unless he has gone thither "permiscuous "), is so fortunate as to catch the prisoner in the act of "tendering false coin," or, in other words, passing a bad shilling at a pot-house. All the female witnesses in such cases are barmaids, gorgeously attired daughters of Israel, who wear the spoils of the Egyptians in their ears; and they are not nervous, and it is quite a treat to hear them. Some witnesses can't hear us. One who is employed in a powder-mill has lost his sense of hearing through explosions (as I suppose) and we can make nothing of him at all. The too-scrupulous juryman even suggests that he has never heard the administration of the oath; and, indeed, it turns out that he had imagined he was being asked whether he had any [-172-]  lucifer-matches in his pocket, which is the one great question put to persons of his profession upon entering any apartment.
    There is one outlandish person (in an Admiralty case) who can express himself in no language known to the grand jury, so an interpreter is introduced, who, taking snuff, and speaking through his nose, is equally unintelligible. The too-scrupulous juryman, over-elated by his success with the deaf gentleman, screams very loud at the outlandish witness, and is surprised that nothing comes of it.
    It is very remarkable upon what easy terms people, and of business habits too, seem to part with their property to persons of whom they know absolutely nothing, and who turn out to be thieves. This probably arises from excessive competition, which disinclines everybody, from a banker to a rag-dealer, to lose a chance of extending his connection. In robberies from the person, however, there is another explanation of this phenomenon. The prosecutor is almost always described as "not drunk - no, not to say drunk; he know'd what he [-173-] was about very well; he was what you would call, sir," [addressing the foreman] "arf-an-arf, you know."
    All this is the ludicrous side of that highly-coloured, many-figured picture which human life presents to the juryman; but the obverse is a very sad and serious one. Therein not only does Crime stand gigantesque in the foreground, naked, and not ashamed, but all the Vices throng around him: Avarice clutching its ill-gotten store so tightly, that Murder only can unloose the stiffened fingers, and Jealousy with eager eyes impatient for Revenge upon her rival, although she herself must share the punishment. These accessories are even worse than That which they surround, and out of which they gradually emerge, unexpected, abject, loathsome.
    There are horrors enough of the material sort, of course: forged documents, over which the fingers may have hesitated ere they wrote their fatal falsehood; stray slips of paper, which the knave and fool in one omitted to destroy, but whereon he has [-174-]  striven to imitate, a score of times, another's handwriting, that he may commit the fraud secure; tools of strange shape, unknown to honest hands, the evidence of an ingenuity perverse, which might have easily procured Competence for its possessor, and all that springs from it, and sweet Content - a home, a wife, true friends, in place of tawdry joys and traitorous companions, and the shuddering sense of the hair-suspended sword of the Law. Nay, there were knives clotted with the blood of murdered men, and bludgeons with gray hair stuck fast to them, and bottles with a little poisonous stuff still left at the bottom, from which men unknowingly had drunk to Death. But none of these things were half so sad - or so it seemed to me - as the apathy with which Father gave evidence against Son, and Son against Father, and Sister against Brother, and Wife (or she who had supposed herself to be so) against the man whom she had held to be her Husband for long years. And truly was I glad at heart when our business at the Old Bailey was over, and I had [-175-]  inquired, presented, done, and executed all and singular those things which I had been then and there enjoined as a Grand Jury-man.