Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tea, Taxes and Smuggling

The tea tax wasn't just a pain in the New World. Today's case at the Old Bailey is actually a two-parter, involving the same man apparently involved in evaded import taxes.

The first time Samuel Mitchell is charged, it's with stealing and hiding tea to avoid paying taxes. Or, as its described in the transcripts, "rescuing" the tea, which I find a very interesting choice of word.

It seems a bit of a twisted set of circumstances. Sam took the tea from the house of one James Langly, who hadn't paid the duty.

How did James Langly get the tea? Two "land-waters...having information of a large quantity of run tea, lodged in a barn in the parish of Harverton, on the 25th of February, 1766, went with Richard Viney , a waterman, and other assistance, and brought away the quantity mentioned in the indictment, and lodged it in the house of James Langly."

I can't find any explanation for "land-waters," but the transcripts aren't in the best of readable shape, so I'm wondering if the word is really "land-rakers." That means vagabond, especially one who steals (akin to "land-pirate" or "land-rat").

So two guys and Richard Viney took the tea from the barn to Langly's house, from which Sam supposedly "liberated" it.

"The evidence not amounting to the charge in the indictment," Sam's acquitted.

Then he's charged with being in a gang of smugglers who assaulted a couple of customs men.

The evidence against him comes from two other men, Thomas Gush (seriously, I cannot get over some of the names I'm finding in these transcripts!) and John Downs, who claim he was part of the gang. They also provide the interesting information that smugglers generally carry whips, although some had clubs.

It seems that their testimony isn't sufficient, or they must have seemed like shady characters, or maybe Sam had an innocent face, because Sam's acquitted again. I note he never spoke in his own defense, which seems a little unusual.

Here are what I'd be thinking about if this was a potential seedling:

Why doesn't Sam speak in his own defense?
Is it possible Sam wasn't involved and Gush and Downs had other reasons to testify against him? What if they're genuinely mistaken?
What if Sam was found guilty, but wasn't?
What if he is guilty? Why does he smuggle and how does he keep getting off? Or why does he keep getting caught?
What if Sam's the leader of a smuggling gang like the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (loved that Disney movie!)?
What if Sam's a woman?
What role does James Langly play in all this? He is like a fence? Is he good or evil?
What about the "land-rakers?" What more could they do in a story? What about the customs guys? Are they just civil servants trying to do their job? Or are they brutal in the enforcement of tax payments? Could that be why Sam's acquitted and doesn't speak in his own defense? Could the jury sympathize with him more than the tax men?
Were they really gangs of smugglers riding around assaulting tax men? What else did they smuggle? And what if the land-rakers and smuggling gangs were rivals, like in West Side Story?

And now I've got those songs stuck in my head...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Patsy and the Blind Beak

Today's case, a relatively simple one involving gambling, provides an interesting historical angle since one of the men mentioned is Sir John Fielding, the half brother of Henry Fielding. Sir John was blinded in a navy accident at 19, then went on to study law and become one of the men who formed the Bow Street Runners.


But on to the case, in which John Jones is charged with "fraudulently cozening and cheating" John Davis out of two guineas, one half guinea, and nine shillings.

John Davis was walking toward Holbourn when Jones met him and asked him if he "wanted a place," which I assume from later testimony means a job. Lo and behold, Davis does, so Jones says, "I just happen know a guy who broke his leg and needs some help. Come on and I'll introduce you."

So off they go to a tavern. There's no man with a broken leg there, but along comes Jones's supposed relative James Gawl, who suggests some "tossing up" (gambling). Jones is all for it, and they play a game called "hide in the hat." To be honest, I don't quite get the way this worked according to the testimony. Maybe you'll have better luck: "they tossed for a guinea. They put a halfpenny under a hat, and tossed at what they call the best two in three. The prisoner won the guinea;"

Was it a matter of heads and tails for the coin under the hat, or what? I have no idea.

Anyway, after Gawl goes out, Jones makes a proposal to Davis: "the prisoner wanted me to go his halves; I said, I have no money to sport with: he said, it was only venturing, there was no danger but that I should get money; so I agreed, that if he lost, I was to give him 6 d. and if he won, he was to give me 6 d."

Now, maybe I'm just not sharp enough today, or Davis isn't the best at describing this plan, but this makes Davis sound rather dim. It certainly sounds as if he could lose money if he has to give Jones 6 d. if Jones loses.

Fortunately, Jones wins, but "the prisoner won, and gave me 6 d: they tossed up two or three times more; the prisoner won every time, but gave me only one 6 d."

So Davis didn't get what he thought he was owed.

But it gets worse: "I would not go any more than a shilling; he put his hand upon mine, and said, this is the very thing; he took my money out of my hand, and said, go my halves: I said, I would not go all that, it is all the money I have: he said, you will be sure to get as much more. The man came in again, but I did not consent to it: they tossed up; then the prisoner said, it is all gone, I have lost 10 l. he would not give me my money; the other man took the money up."

So Jones took his money, gambled with it and lost it.

The hapless Davis continues: "Then the landlord came in, and said, I understand you are gambling, I would have you get out of my house; the kinsman paid for the wine, and paid something over the reckoning. I was frightened, and did not know what to do; it was all done in an instant; they went away, and I soon lost sight of them when they got into the street."

Another witness testifies that this isn't the first time Davis has been arrested for cheating.

Jones's defence? He claims the man who previously accused him was out to get him. He also says Davis offered to drop the case for a guinea, but he -- Jones -- refused, since he didn't do anything wrong. He also claims Davis had a chance to get his money back, but got greedy: "Whether you was not offered twenty five shillings in a cellar in the Strand, by the man that had won your money, and you said, take it back again; if you can give twenty-five shillings, you can give me fifty."

To which Davis replies: "One of Justice Fielding's men, named Wright, took me to meet a friend of the prisoner's, to make it up; he said, I should have all the money again, and I must come before Justice Fielding, and say I was satisfied, and I would not say so; then he said I might go about my business."

The accused replies: "This young man, named Wright, belonging to Sir John Fielding's office, came to me, and said, I hear there is a warrant out against you, and rather than you shall come to any trouble, I will make any satisfaction. He went over to the prosecutor*, who had given the man that took me up, orders to make it up, if he could have any reasonable satisfaction: the man that won the money, offered him twenty-five shillings, and he said, take it back; if you can give that, you can give fifty."

(* This refers to Davis, not an attorney for the crown.)

The jury believed Davis, because the verdict was guilty. Jones was ordered imprisoned a year in Newgate, had to pay a fine of 5 l. and find security for his good behaviour for a year afterwards.

So it seems that we have a con man with a partner who cheats people and when cornered, claims the victims are really out to extort money from him.

Now, there's no explanation for why Davis's walking to Holbourn, or why he needs a job. Davis sounds young to me because he seems naive and easily frightened, but he could be an older guy who falls afoul of skilled con artists who can also be intimidating.

I note that Davis is persistent and determined to see Jones punished, so he could very well be an older man. A younger one might be too embarrassed or afraid to persist.

So there are three characters I think Davis could be: the sibling of a hero or heroine, the father of a hero or heroine, or the hero. If he's the hero, I'd make him too young to know better and perhaps from a very small community where he's known everyone all his life; otherwise he'd seem a bit lacking in brain power, and I like my heroes intelligent.

If Jones is a con man, he could either be a smarmy villain who eventually faces justice, or a hero who's in need of redemption who regrets ripping people off (although he felt, at least in the beginning, it was necessary), or a villain with hero potential.

If he's a villain in one book but the hero of another, he needs a major epiphany somewhere along the way -- but if I'm writing it, the seeds for change have to be planted before he even meets the heroine. He has to have a conscience, the knowledge that what he's doing is wrong, but for some reason, he isn't yet willing or able to stop. Loving the heroine is what gives him that will, and makes him able to do what he must to live a better life.

If I were to use this as a story seedling, I'd be very tempted to have Sir John Fielding, who was called the Blind Beak and could supposedly recognize over 3,000 criminals just by the sound of his or her voice, a secondary character. I mean, can't you see this guy in a courtroom? Law and Order: the Blind Beak.

The other little seedling I find in this is the part of Jones's punishment involving a surety: "Convicts were sometimes required to find sureties. These were men of property who posted a bond to guarantee the convict's future good behaviour. The bond could be for a substantial sum of money, hundreds or thousands of pounds. If the condition of the defendants discharge was violated, the money was forfeited to the king."

It doesn't say how much money was involved in this case, or who, or even if, Davis was successful with this portion of his sentence. But what if you had a character who posted the bond and who then lost all the money because the convicted person ran off or perpetrated another crime?

What if that character was a parent? Brother? Sister? What if the loss of the money was a serious hardship? What might the bond-holder have to do to live? If it's a female, that opens up a whole host of interesting possibilities. What might the bond-holder do in retaliation if they meet/find the criminal responsible?

I suspect that, if I wanted to take a couple of hours, I could come up with a fairly decent synopsis based on some of these ideas. The reason I probably won't? Sir John died in 1780, which puts him in a time period that doesn't really float my boat.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Did the devil make him do it - or something else?

Today from Old Bailey Online:

John Warner was charged with stealing a great coat and jacket that a fisherman, William King, had been using as a blanket and pillow respectively as he slept in his boat.

Bill didn't realize they'd been taken until his brother woke him up and told him. The brother also "called out... stop thief! saying, he'd give any body a shilling to stop that man, for he had ran away with his brother's cloaths."

John was taken after "running over the vessels" (presumably from boat to boat, which is a great, dramatic visual), along with a man named William Godfrey, who testifies that John said, "it was the first time he ever had done such a thing."

John's explanation when he's first taken? he claims "he was bedeviled." (possessed)

John's testimony in court: "I was going to sea, or I had not taken them."

Which I interpret as, I was about to sail and I needed the clothes.

Not much of a defense there, Johnny!

Verdict? No surprise. Guilty. Sentence: transportation for 7 years.

I have no idea what happened to William Godfrey, which makes me think that, once again, he wasn't charged because he testified against John. Which really makes one wonder whether it was a case of who turned first that determined many, many fates.

A couple of interesting seedlings here.

First you've got the victim, sleeping so deeply that he doesn't wake up when somebody's stealing the jacket cushioning his head. Was he bone tired, or passed out? If he was passed out, would he have bothered to take off his coat and use it as a blanket or just laid down as he was?

The brother "called out in his smack" which I think might be smock, which could be his nightshirt. If so, that makes me think he was sleeping in the boat, too, which suggests a larger vessel, which means Bill King's probably sleeping on the deck.

The more I think about it, the more I think Billy was a few sheets to the wind.

So along comes John Warner and his "friend" Bill Godfrey. John's about to sail. Let's say it's a chilly night. He hasn't got a decent coat. He's shivering, he's miserable -- maybe he really doesn't want to sail. Why is he going? Is he a fisherman or...getting out the heck out of Dodge?

He does something he's never done before, or so he claims -- something comes over him and he steals the clothes, with the result that he gets a voyage, all right, but not the one he planned.

Maybe Johnny was a little sloshed himself. Or maybe just cold and desperate. Or maybe, if this is a paranormal story, he really is possessed. What if the "possessor" wants him arrested and transported -- punished. What if Johnny's flight has something to do with the reason the possessor wants him punished?

Or maybe the transportation, which seems like a disaster, is really for Johnny's benefit? What if he'd have been killed or murdered if he'd gone on that other voyage? What if he finds love and prosperity in the New World? Or what if his transportation was necessary for history as we know it to unfold? If he hadn't gone to America, it would have had dire consequences for the future.

One little word ("bedeviled") and I'm concocting a paranormal -- and that's not even my particular genre. The Old Bailey transcripts really are like a (Valentine's) box of chocolates....

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Quality of Mercy

Given the verdicts in many of the cases I'm using from Old Bailey Online, it seems pretty clear that justice was harsh back in the day. However, there are times when mercy makes an appearance. Today's case is an example.

Christopher Peterson, who also goes by the interesting moniker "Jack the Sailor" which is never explained, is accused of shoplifting. He and two others apparently stole some tea, the two others screening Chris as he took it from a shop. One of Chris's partners-in-crime was later transported for stealing two perukes (wigs). The one testifying against him was in Newgate and "bound to an Attorney." I'm not quite sure what that means, but believe he was likely released for turning evidence against Chris.

Chris's defense? "I have nothing at all to say. I leave it in your Hands, my Lord. I have no Friend in the World."

Verdict? Guilty. Sentence? Death.

But then the Jury recommended him for Mercy. Whether that means imprisonment or transportation, I'm not sure. What happened to Chris? I don't know. But clearly, the jury took pity on him. I must say "I have no Friend in the World" struck me as sad. It could be a ploy to gain the jury's sympathy, but it worked on me, too.

A couple of things intrigue me about this case and could be interesting to consider when plotting a story besides Chris's plea and the jury's recommendation.

The first is his nickname. Why Jack, when his name is Christopher? Why the sailor? Was he a sea-faring guy? If so, why not Jack the Seaman? Jack the Tar?

How come he has no friends to vouch for him?

He was clearly hanging out with thieves at one point, but he's certainly no criminal mastermind and the jury obviously didn't see him as a hardened criminal deserving of the noose.

How old was he? There's no way to tell.

So I'm free to imagine Chris as a young man who falls in with the wrong crowd, or is driven to that crowd by poverty. Or maybe it's peer pressure. Maybe he's not broke, but middle-class and this is a lark gone terribly wrong.

Maybe he's a young man who likes taking a walk on the wild side, hence he goes by "Jack the sailor" when he's wandering around the unsavory parts of town. Say he gets drunk and decides to go along with the theft. He thinks it'll be fun. Exciting. Dangerous. Maybe he thinks this will impress his "friends" and perhaps a girl.

Then he's caught. His family are horrified and ashamed. They throw up their hands or disown him. He figures he's doomed -- and justly so, as he realizes the shame he's brought them.

He's alone in the world and might as well die.

But the jury takes pity on him. They give him a chance to live and redeem himself. He goes to prison for a few years, or is transported, and when it's over, returns.

Maybe he wants to find out what happened to the girl he hoped to impress, and the others who were with him during the theft. Maybe they've come to bad ends, or perhaps they've prospered. What about the guy "bound to an attorney?" What if he's made a completely new life for himself and Chris's return threatens that? What if he's married or is about to marry, the girl Chris was so desperate to impress?

What about Chris's family? What if they aren't too thrilled to see him come back? What if some are, but others aren't? What if they thought he was dead?

What if Chris is a woman? What if she calls herself "Jack the Sailor" because she likes to be "one of the boys" and dresses accordingly so people think she is a boy or young man? What if she's the one seeking fun and excitement? What if she's caught and convicted and everybody still thinks she's a guy?

What if, instead of being convicted, she's found innocent, but somebody on the jury, or the judge, realizes she's a young woman? What if they also think she's really guilty but don't want to reveal the truth about her? This person could be the villain, using that knowledge to get her to do as he wants. He could be the hero who wants to help because he doesn't believe she's really guilty, or if she is, she had a good reason to steal. How does he feel when he finds out she was doing it for the thrill? What then? What if he starts off determined to use his realization of her true identity against her, then falls in love with her?

See, even a short, simple case can have plenty of fodder for story ideas. What starts out straightforward and simple can be made complicated, with lots of conflict and drama, by asking "what if?"

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fool us once, shame on you. Try to fool us twice, you're transported.

I laughed while reading the case on Old Bailey Online today, but not because of the crime itself, which was another theft. It was the snide opinion of the court stenographer that crept into the account.

Charles Dickens worked as a court stenographer. No wonder he wrote such colorful characters, especially the thieves and pickpockets. I bet he saw plenty of real Artful Dodgers in his day.

Now to today's case:

Samuel Cobb and John Ryley were charged with stealing two pewter gallon pots from a wine merchant. The evidence against them comes via their former partner-in-crime, John Brown, who escapes being charged by turning "evidence," or testifying against them. He says that Ryley was the look-out, Cobb the one who took the pots, which were hidden behind a pump before they went back intending to take the money-box. But by that time, the theft had been discovered, so they took the pots and ran.

Brown got paid off and went his own way. There was another man in cahoots with them, Moses Holloway, but he doesn't get charged, presumably because he turned evidence in another case of theft regarding some tea.

Cobb declares that they shouldn't listen to Brown, who's been twice transported (!!) under a different name.

Four people then testify as to Cobb's character -- that he's one fine upstanding citizen. Prior to forensics and video surveillance, this was the sort of evidence the court had to rely on.

Cobb and Ryley are acquitted.

However, Sam Cobb is ordered tried for another theft, of a gown from a clothesline. He was seen taking the gown and caught.

The man who caught him, James Jephson, is asked, "How came you to go after him?"

He replies (I imagine this with a look that says, Are you an idiot?"): "By Reason the last Witness cried out Stop Thief!"


So Cobb's caught red-handed, as it were. But lo! The court stenographer writes:

"All Cobb's Friends and Neighbours appeared for him again, as upon his former Trial, saying they never heard any hurt of him, a very sober honest Man;"

Then our anonymous court stenographer writes:

"either they must have been very ignorant of his Conduct, which can hardly be imagined, or, what is to be feared, much worse, all perjured; for he is the very Person that was tried the last Sessions; was taken among a Nest of Thieves, and appeared to the Court to be a very bad young Fellow."

Oh, snap!

Cobb is found guilty and ordered transported. But does he take this like the tough guy I can imagine he pretended to be? Nope.

"he cried, and pleaded hard not to be sent out of his native Country, but he was too well known to be suffered to remain any longer in his own."

Double snap!

But really, the thing I love about this is the point of view of the court stenographer that sneaks in. I can see a secondary character there for sure, and possibly a hero who somehow gets involved in a case.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A "very bad boy" or betrayed?

Many of the Old Bailey cases involve pick-pocketing, and today's case from 1754 is no exception.

John Weatley was charged with stealing the handkerchief of Charles Appleby. According to Appleby, "I saw the glimpse of something fly by the side of my face, and turning saw the prisoner with my silk handkerchief in his hand. I took him by the collar. He said he would go with me where I pleased. I took him to the Fountain Tavern, sent for a constable, and he was secured."

Appleby later testifies that he'd used the handkerchief about "three minutes" before. (Let me pause here for an "eeeuuww.")

John's defense: "I never did such a thing in my life. Please to examine Mr. Lilley to my character."

Wrong guy to ask, Johnny Boy, because Mr. Lilley says, "He is a very bad boy, I have seen him a drawer at an alehouse, he has been here two or three times, and is as bad a boy as can be."

A drawer can mean one who draws -- pours -- liquor. However, according to my dictionary of historical slang, to draw can also mean to pick pockets. I'm not exactly sure which one Mr. Lilley means here. However, I presume by "here" he means at the Old Bailey. In other words, Johnny's apparently been arrested and charged before.

Whatever he meant, Mr. Lilley's words are damning and John is sentenced to transportation for seven years. Value of the handkerchief he allegedly stole? Two shillings and sixpence.

Aside from the low value of the item that gets John transported, two things stand out for me here as story seedlings.

The first is Appleby's description of getting a glimpse of something flying by his face that alerted him to the theft.

Now, just how tall and how old is Johnny? Or was Appleby crouching? This sounds as if Johnny was waving it as he ran by, or pulled it out and held it aloft. Not too subtle there.

The other thing is Johnny's calling Mr. Lilley to speak up for him, only to have Lilley vehemently denounce him.

There's no hint as to what relationship Lilley had with the defendant, which means I'm free to come up with my own. Lilley could be a former employer, relative, or friend of the family. Clearly Johnny didn't expect him to denounce him, or surely he wouldn't have called on the guy.

So what's with the betrayal of Johnny? Maybe Johnny deserved it. Maybe he's been blackmailing Lilley and when he's caught, expects Lilley to get him off and Lilley doesn't, perhaps seeing this as a chance to get rid of Johnny.

Or maybe Johnny's not the "bad boy" Lilley paints, but Lilley wants him out of the way. If I were using this in a romance, Lilley could have designs on Johnny's sister and sees this as a chance to get him out of the picture.

How's Sis going to feel when she finds out what happened? How would Lilley excuse his testimony? What if Sis isn't in London? This is a minor case, so I don't think it'd make the papers; she'd have to take Lilley's word for what happened. He could lie.

What if Johnny's our hero and returns to England after seven plus years, only now he's rich, having made a bundle in America (Australia not being used for this purpose until 1788, although of course you could set this later) and has revenge on his mind? What if Sis is dead? What if Sis is alive and married to Lilley? What if there are kids?

What if Appleby was in on the false conviction? That might explain that rather fanciful description.

Either way, seven years transportation is one tough sentence for such a crime.
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