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.

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