Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Summer Break

I'm going to be pretty busy for July and August this year, so I'm taking a break from the Story Seedlings blog until September.

Have a safe and happy summer!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Just minding his own business when...

Today's case at the Old Bailey Online involves theft, specifically two women accused of pickpocketing. The prosecutor (in those days, the victim, John White) contends that he was just walking along at 11 o'clock at night, minding his own business, when two women accosted him and "asked him to go to their lodgings." He refused, but "they carried him down into an Alley" and as they stood talking, one woman, Hannah Ramsey, picked his pocket, stealing six guineas, or just over six pounds.

When he realized the money was gone, "he charg'd her with taking it, and got them secur'd, and sent them to the Compter, but the Constable did not search them. The Watchman depos'd, That Ramsey denied that she had any Money, but half a Crown, which the Prosecutor gave her to lie with them."

And that's all we get before the verdict - the victim's accusation and explanation, and Hannah's defense. There is no evidence but the victim's story, and no defence except the accused's denial and explanation.

Okay, what's wrong with this picture?

What's John White doing out for a stroll at 11 p.m.?
How puny is John White that two women can "carry him" (if not literally, this at least implies they forced him) down an alley?
What were they talking about as his pocket was picked? (He doesn't say he was arguing with them. It sounds as if they were having a chat.)
Why was no search done?
How much time had elapsed between the time John and the women were "talking" and he realized his money was gone and he apprehended them? If Hannah had six guineas and the arrest was almost immediate, that would prove John's story. If she didn't...

If these questions were asked and answered, it's not in the record of the case.

What is in the record is that Hannah was found guilty and sentenced to death. Her "partner in crime," Sarah Mackdonald (interesting spelling) is found guilty "only" of a felony, in that she wasn't the one who actually took the money. Her sentence? Transportation. (I note that there's a link to "respited for pregnancy" with the punishment, but I couldn't find anything specifically about this case.)

Frankly, without knowing what John White was doing walking around at 11 at night, I find it a lot easier to buy Hannah's explanation for his presence in the street.

Unfortunately, I can also believe that Hannah and Sarah saw an opportunity to help themselves to more money as one kept White preoccupied.

But guilty or not, how harsh is it to be sentenced to death for stealing a little more than six pounds? Or being sent off to the wilds of America for seven years of what was little better than slavery?

What story seedlings do I find here?
The key point that intrigues me is that lack of a search. It seems such an obvious thing to be done, why wasn't it?

Did the Constable just decide they were obviously guilty? Did he simply accept White's accusation - and if so, why? Were these women known to him? Or was he too lazy to do his job?

Or was there another reason he didn't want to search? Did he think they were diseased or too filthy?

The more I think about the Constable, the more potential I see for a secondary character and complications for an otherwise straightforward mystery element in a novel.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hannah Herring tells a tale

Today's case at the Old Bailey is about a simple theft, of an apron, in 1745. What got my attention first was the name of the supposed victim of the crime - Hannah Herring. Really. You can't make this stuff up - or if you do, I can just see some snarky reviewer complaining.

Anyway, it seems Hannah and her aunt, who was pregnant, were just ambling down the street when Thomas Carter approached them. According to Hannah, he "gave her (the pregnant aunt) some ill language, and then he tore my apron off my sides, and d - d me, and carried the apron away with him; then I cried out murder and thieves, and some people came to my assistance."

She claims that after Thomas was apprehended, "He fell down on his knees, and asked pardon."

According to the aunt, Thomas approached them and "called me an imposturous B - h - I suppose it was, because I told him I was with child, and desired he would not meddle with me; then he laid hold of Hannah Herring , and she cried out, and the three men took him, and brought him back."

"Imposturous" means deceitful. I had to look it up and once again, I was impressed by the language people used in everyday speech back in the day.

Thomas's defence? "When I came up to her, I said, are not you a preposterous creature? and I went to kiss them, but I did not take the apron."

The constable produces the apron, but he doesn't say where it was found, a rather amazing lack of information, considering the charge and the evidence.

Three character witnesses are brought forward to testify to Thomas's honest reputation and we discover Thomas is a "dealer in hair" and sells it to a wigmaker.

Thomas was acquitted.

A few points this writer ponders about this case and testimony:

Whatever actually happened, the women clearly had a beef with Thomas Carter. What exactly was their relationship before the apparent apron-snatching? Specifically, I'd like to know about Thomas's relationship with the pregnant aunt.

I note the similarity of "imposturous" and "preposterous." Preposterous means absurd, so that's not exactly flattering, either. I don't think Thomas thought much of the aunt.

Hannah herself says she shouted "murder" after the alleged assault. That's a bit over the top, isn't it? She also claims he went down on his knees and begged pardon, although nobody else mentions this. Hannah sounds like a bit of a drama queen to me, and I think I'd be a loathe to convict a man (especially considering the severe penalties at this time) on her testimony. Although the constable produces the apron in question, Hannah has decided to press charges. Why? What does she hope to gain, except to see Thomas punished?

Thomas says he was going to kiss them. Why? As a simple greeting, or was there something else going on, especially if he was angry? Was he trying to kiss them against their will? Even based on his own testimony, he apparently said something like, "You're an absurd creature. Now give us a kiss." I wouldn't be impressed either, if I were Hannah and her aunt.

Where does a "dealer in hair" get the hair?

Although I have a lot of questions about the relationship between the accused and the accusors, I tend to side with the jury, in part because Hannah seemed to be a melodramatic witness and it's very much in doubt as to whether or not he absconded with the apron.

That said, I'd love to know what this was really all about, because I don't think it was about an apron.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reckless Driving and Character Guilt

If you ever wanted to give your character a heavy backstory, today's case at the Old Bailey offers a situation with major guilt potential. And possibly revenge, too.

William Liecester was charged with murder in the death of a boy, John Corbet, who fell under the wheels of his cart: "the Deceas'd was running a Truck to and from in the Highway, and the Truck threw him suddenly under the Wheel of the Prisoner's Cart."

I was confused about what exactly was going on until I looked up the word "truck" and found this part of the definition: "a small barrow consisting of a rectangular frame having at one end a pair of handles and at the other end a pair of small heavy wheels and a projecting edge to slide under a load —called also hand truck."

If the boy who died had been pushing such a thing, holding onto the handles, and it veered into the path of the cart, that could have caused him to get hit.

The accused said he never saw the boy until after the accident, and "it was thought by the Evidence that he could not help it if he had seen it, it was so sudden, thereupon the Jury acquitted him."

The record doesn't indicate how old John Corbet was, but he's referred to as "the boy", so we can assume he's probably less than 16.

How does William feel about what happened? All we have is "The Prisoner pleaded he did not see the Boy before the Accident was over." "Pleaded" doesn't necessarily mean he was upset; it may simply mean that was his testimony in court.

There isn't any specific testimony from other witnesses, although presumably there was, as there is "evidence," which at this time, would mean eye witness testimony.

However, if you want a guilt-ridden character, it doesn't get much worse than accidentally killing a child, and in a manner that would be very painful.

One other thing strikes me about this case - why was Leicester indicted for murder, and not manslaughter? That option certainly existed for cases where the death wasn't intentional. And who charged him? At this point (1717), a person would have brought the charges, not the Crown. So who accused Leicester of the more serious crime of murder and why murder?

This is where the novelist's imagination can really go to town.

What if it really was an accident, but Leicester is notorious for driving his cart too fast and too recklessly and for overburdening it so it couldn't stop quickly? He's been warned, but ignored everybody until the accident.

What if he had a beef against the boy or the boy's family, so people can believe he deliberately ran the boy down?

What he has an enemy who sees a way to use this terrible accident to get rid of Leicester?

What if Leicester has a drinking problem and doesn't know himself if he could have stopped the cart in time if he'd been sober?

What if Leicester really is guilty? What if really did run the boy down - but the jury believes his bogus remorse? What other avenue for justice does Corbet's family have? What might one of Corbet's loved ones do to get revenge?

If you're into paranormals, what if Corbet's ghost can't rest easy because of the way he died or because Leicester got off? Or what if that particular stretch of road is cursed?

What if it's not William Leicester who kills the boy, but Willemina? What if she was driving - maybe being determined to prove she can, or to escape from another situation - and she accidentally hits the boy? What if, instead of charging her with a crime, society shuns her?

What if a man was considered guilty, condemned by local gossip, but never charged or convicted, so the truth never really becomes known? How would that affect his life if he was innocent? If he was guilty?

Yep, lots of good backstory potential here, whether you decide to make Leicester innocent, guilty of manslaughter or guilty of murder as charged.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

And he took my hat, too!

Today's case concerns a man, one Matthias Fream or Frame, who's charged with perverting justice for helping his wife escape custody and also with grand larceny for stealing the constable's hat.

Mrs. Fream was charged with shoplifting, along with another woman. They were being taken from location to another in the custody of the constable when "the Prisoner and eight or nine more attacked us, broke the Coach-Doors to pieces, and rescued the Woman."

(I find the use of the word "rescued" interesting, since these are court documents.)

Not only did they free the women from custody, Fream took the constable's hat that had been knocked off his head.

Because the accused didn't have legal counsel until the Prisoner's Counsel Act of 1836, Fream himself cross-examines the constable and asks only one question:

"How can you be sure that I took it when several others were there?"

According to the constable, Fream was "the last Man of the Mob: The rest were gone a little before when he took my Hat up" and he knew Fream because he'd visited his wife while she was in custody.

Fream was found guilty and sentenced to transportation.

His wife, however, was acquitted.

What this case offers, I think, is a good set-up for a reunion romance - the husband attempts to save his unjustly accused wife and he winds up transported for a number of years. Then he comes home and finds...what?

Does she still love him? What's happened to her in the meantime? Does she understand why he did what he did? Does she think he was a fool to interfere? Has he changed so much she won't recognize him, or have anything more to do with him?

What if she's got an interfering, overbearing family who didn't want her to marry him in the first place? What if the other woman charged was a friend who's always had a thing for her husband? They were transported together - what's the wife to think?

Has the husband changed? What does she think of his ill-fated attempt at rescue?

Will they be able to get back together? Will it work? How do the events of the intervening years influence their relationship?

Yep, this could make for a very interesting story.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Duel Nobody Won

In today's Old Bailey Online case, a duelist is charged with murder.

Robert Trimble, a gentleman, was accused of killing Moses Pierce, a carpenter who fancied himself skilled with a sword. Seems ol' Mose always wore a sword and liked to brag of his skill, so much so that his "Behaviour founded upon that Conceit" became "unsupportable."

Trimble and Pierce got into an argument about how to hold a sword, and subsequently dueled, with the result that Pierce lost, dying in what sounds like the "only a flesh wound!" scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail: "the fatal Wound was given; but they found the Deceas'd holding the Prisoner's Sword very thirsty and desirous of a Dram of Brandy; crying out, he would fight the Prisoner again, he would have his Blood, and presently after fell down dead."

The jury found Trimble guilty of manslaughter. His punishment? To be "burnt in the hand" -- branded.

I can see using this in a romance, by having the hero convicted of manslaughter and being branded in the hand. Scars are interesting, a very visible sign of something significant in the character's past.

Would I use the same excuse for a duel? Perhaps, especially if this happened when the hero was young and/or drunk.

And the heroine? Related to or friends of the dead man would make for plenty of conflict. Perhaps the hero discovers the heroine by accident and wants to make amends, and keep the secret of his scar.

Maybe he seeks her out to make amends -- or maybe he's bitter and feels he didn't deserve to be convicted, that he acted in self-defense.

Maybe he's ashamed and remorseful, and has hidden himself away. The heroine comes to make amends or perhaps find out exactly what happened, only to be rebuffed. I do like a Beauty and the Beast story!

What I'll mainly keep in the ol' memory bank from this case is the brand on the hand. It's interesting and unique, and provides all sorts of seedlings for future use.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Where's the beef?

I don't have time to do a true Story Seedlings blog post, but I just couldn't resist noting today's case. A guy was accused of stealing 34 pounds of beef that was hanging in a stall. He was apprehended in an alehouse called the Hole in the Wall. The prisoner's explanation? He bought it off some guys in Wapping.

The result -- "this not being prov'd, nor believ'd by the Jury, and the Butcher being positive it was his Beef" -- guilty. Sentence? Transportation.

Here's what I want to know. Granted, the prisoner's explanation is pretty vague, but how did the butcher really know it was his beef?

And how does a guy walk off with 34 pounds of raw meat?
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