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.
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