«Crimes of Blood Violence – both real and threatened – was endemic to eighteenth-century London. In the home, discipline was maintained with blows ...»
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Crimes of Blood
Violence – both real and threatened – was endemic to eighteenth-century
London. In the home, discipline was maintained with blows – husbands beat
their wives and masters and mistresses beat their servants. On the public stage
it was used to punish crime: felons were routinely hanged, whipped and
branded to the applause or derision of the public, or pelted with rotten eggs,
vegetables and even stones on the pillory by their neighbours. On the streets, violence was a normal way to settle a dispute – men fought duels and boxing matches or, more crudely, brawled outside pubs. It was also frequently used in popular protest. Crowds regularly marched through the streets, shouting, breaking windows and occasionally pulling down a house. But violence was rarely indiscriminate and these practices were accepted, within limits, as a part of the theatre of public life. It was commonly believed (although not technically true) that a husband could use a stick to beat his wife as long as it was no thicker than a man’s thumb; while in the eighteenth century few doubted that sparing the rod would spoil the child. Despite this backdrop of everyday violence, however, some things remained beyond the pale. Violent killing in all its guises normally led to criminal proceedings at the Old Bailey.
With the exception of infanticide, homicide was a largely male phenomenon, with men accounting for 90 percent of those put on trial. During arguments, and especially when their point of view was contradicted, men were quick to defend their honour by challenging their detractors to a fight.
In the early eighteenth century gentlemen frequently carried swords and were quick to draw them, while lower class men simply raised their fists. In many cases the parties would simply step outside the alehouse or coffeehouse where they were drinking to settle the matter. The resulting fights, conducted more or less according to accepted rules of fair play, normally ended when someone was injured or conceded defeat. Death was not the intended outcome, but given the crude state of contemporary medicine, injuries often proved mortal.
When formal duels were arranged between gentlemen they normally took place the next day. In the first half of the century duels were fought with 002-Hanging Court-cpp 4/10/06 06:06 Page 42 42 Tales from the Hanging Court swords and were frequently fatal. But as the century wore on, the pistol replaced the sword, makingduelling both more formal and, ironically, safer, owing to the clear rules which limited their use. Unlike duels, which normally took place in private (since they were illegal), boxing matches took place in public and attracted large audiences. Spectators’ interest in betting on the outcome often prolonged the matches beyond endurance and sometimes led to fatalities. Those responsible for causing deaths in fights and duels were always tried for murder, but sympathetic juries normally gave a verdict of manslaughter, under the pretence that the killing was not premeditated.
Whereas most male violence happened in public and involved other men, female violence typically occurred in or around the home, and claimed its victims from members of the household, both male and female. Women did not carry weapons, but there were plenty of possible instruments ready at hand, not least kitchen knives and pots and pans. Whereas male violence was circumscribed by unwritten rules, female violence was unexpected and therefore unregulated. As a result, while such violence was relatively rare, it occasionally led to brutal injuries and death.
Crowd protest was commonplace. Londoners were accustomed to taking to the streets to voice their grievances on issues as varied as politics, religion, working conditions and the sexual misdemeanours of their neighbours. By staging bonfires, shouting and chanting and marching through the streets, they called attention to their views. More aggressively, some crowds demanded that householders show support for their grievances by placing lighted candles in their windows. Those who failed to do so found their expensive panes of hand-made glass shattered by bricks and rocks. Where the target of mob hostility was associated with a particular place, such as a brothel, the house could be attacked and the entire fabric with the exception of the brickwork dismantled and burned in bonfires on the street. The violence of the crowd was typically focused on property, rather than individuals, but the sense of threat and fear felt by those who were the objects of mob attacks was nonetheless very real.
Riot was a misdemeanour and very rarely prosecuted at the Old Bailey. It could, however, be tried under specific statutes, notably the 1715 Riot Act, which made it a felony for 12 or more people to remain at the scene of a riot an hour after a command to disperse was read out by a magistrate, but prosecutions under this act were rare. The riots which generated the most trials were the Gordon riots in 1780, the most destructive in London’s history. Crowds roamed the city streets for almost a week, initially in protest against a Catholic Relief Act, but the demonstration quickly degenerated into an uncontrolled melée. Dozens of houses, chapels, and public buildings, including Newgate Prison and the Old Bailey Courthouse itself, were damaged or destroyed, causing at least £100,000 worth of property damage. But although hundreds died in the riots, most were killed by soldiers attempting to suppress the disorder – once again, the crowds attacked property, not people.
Despite the chaos of the Gordon riots, the general trend over the course 002-Hanging Court-cpp 4/10/06 06:06 Page 43
Crimes of Blood 43
of the eighteenth century was for public violence in London to decline.
Cultural acceptance of violence became problematic as male honour was redefined and linked to qualities other than the ability to knock someone else’s brains out. The homicide rate declined by a factor of six, to below modern levels, by the first decade of the nineteenth century. The development of the pistol duel, with its carefully orchestrated procedures and the mediating role of seconds, led to a significant reduction in fatalities, while boxing matches became more of a spectator sport, with the violence of the street transferred onto the stage. Crowd protest, fundamentally discredited by the excesses of the Gordon riots, became less common, and was largely replaced by new methods of publicising grievances, such as public meetings and lobbying conducted by clubs and societies. The increasing intolerance of violence can also be seen in changes in official punishments. Branding fell into decline and, together with burning at the stake, was eventually abolished.
At the same time, new punishments such as transportation and imprisonment made corporal punishment seem less necessary. Wife beating became increasingly unacceptable, while sports involving violence to animals (such as throwing at cocks) were viewed as unnecessarily cruel. At the Old Bailey there was a growing desire to bring everyone responsible for violent deaths to trial, even when the death manifestly resulted from an accident.
Despite this trend, violence remained a fundamental feature of London life, although it gradually became more hidden. Homicides were increasingly confined to the home and wife beating continued unabated, although less frequently discussed. Pistol duels were more popular than ever, but now took place at dawn in out of the way places and with no spectators. In 1790, in the first scandal of its sort in British history, London was convulsed by a panic over the activities of a serial attacker. The ‘Monster’ was a man who cruised the streets at night insulting women and stabbing them with sharp instruments, usually in the buttocks. Over 50 attacks were reported. The huge public interest in these attacks, more than the crimes themselves, reflects the continuing place of violence at the forefront of the public imagination and indicates that the modern world of sex crimes had arrived.
Regardless of these changes, there remained plenty of business for the Old Bailey.
She Came out Through the Casement Window The rules, both unwritten and written, which governed violence between men assumed that the two parties were essentially equals. Violence between the sexes had no such rules, with one exception. Men were entitled to ‘discipline’ their wives by beating them, as long as the violence did not cause serious injury. But as this was an unequal relationship the violence was difficult to police. Men did not appreciate interference in their relationships with their wives, and unsurprisingly this violence often got out of hand. Almost 10 percent of the killings committed by men and recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings were of their own wives.
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Holmes. She was a shortish sort of a woman. I think it is impossible to throw her out without breaking the glass, and there is but one pane broke now.
Other witnesses confirmed that it would have been impossible to throw her out of the window without a struggle, and that there was no evidence of a disturbance. Sarah Frances testified that, although the couple were prone to
quarrel, Thomas was not usually the aggressor:
I have heard her threaten several times, she would kill him. I have heard her cry out several times. Once I carried a pot of beer up, I looked through the key hole; and at that time, he was not near her when she cried out, Pray, dear Daniels, let me alone, he did not meddle with her.
The key hole was so large I could see from the chest of drawers to the window.
Others testified that Thomas was a ‘good-natured’ man and that his wife had frequently abused him.
When the jury met to consider its verdict it must have been aware that, with no eye witnesses to the actual events in the room apart from Daniels himself, it was impossible to establish with any certainty what actually happened. But, unable to imagine a situation in which a wife might mistreat a husband, the jury could only see these events in the light of a man attacking his wife. As a result the jury found him guilty of murder. The seriousness of the crime meant that the court immediately sentenced him ‘to be executed on the Monday following, and his body to be dissected and anatomised’. To increase the shame of his punishment, Daniels’s body would be handed over to the surgeons and be cut up for medical instruction in front of an audience in the Surgeons’ Hall.
Despite the limited time available, Daniels’s friends managed to get the hanging postponed while they petitioned for a pardon. On 10 October the execution was formally respited, owing to the fact that ‘several favourable circumstances have appeared in this case since his trial, which tend even to render doubtful the truth of the fact of which he was convicted’. On 26 October, following further investigation, he received an unconditional royal pardon.1 Nonetheless, Daniels’s reputation was in tatters and on 23 November he published a 24-page pamphlet, The Affecting Case of the Unfortunate Thomas Daniels, in which he tried to convince the public, and particularly women, of his innocence (he seems to have wanted to remarry). He argued that, atypically, he was the mistreated spouse in their marriage. He reported that Sarah was frequently drunk and beat him. She had taken up with another 002-Hanging Court-cpp 4/10/06 06:06 Page 48
48 Tales from the Hanging Court
man and was in the habit of wounding herself and then telling the neighbours that he had mistreated her. On the evening of her death, he claimed, she had struck him several times with a hand brush, but then because she thought she had killed him she jumped out of the window in despair.2 Whether his readers were convinced by these claims is impossible to tell, but if they had read the Old Bailey Proceedings they would have already been aware that there were two sides to this story.3 He was None the Best of Husbands Women could be as cruel and violent as men, or perhaps even more so, since there were no equivalent unwritten cultural expectations governing how they should use violence. Most female violence took place in the home, and was directed against members of their own families and households.
In March 1726 the residents of Westminster were shocked by the discovery of a man’s decapitated head floating in the Thames near the horse ferry. The head was cleaned up and placed on a pole in St Margaret’s churchyard, abutting Westminster Abbey, in the hope that someone would identify it.
Although it was viewed by a large number of people, after four days still no one had identified it. The smell became offensive, so it was placed in a bottle of spirits. A few days later, suspicion began to fall on Catherine Hayes. Her explanation for the recent disappearance of her husband John seemed suspicious and the head shared many of his features. A warrant was issued for her arrest and when the constables arrived, Catherine was found in her darkened room with Thomas Billings sitting on her bedside, without his shoes and stockings on. The press later interpreted this as clear evidence of a sexual relationship.
Both Hayes and Billings were committed to prison, as was Thomas Wood, who had been drinking with them the night John Hayes disappeared. Wood was the first to confess that they had murdered him. Billings followed and finally Catherine acknowledged the crime. But when she learned that she could be found guilty of petty treason and burned at the stake for killing her husband (since he was legally her master), she changed her mind and resolved to plead innocent, resting her case on the claim that she had not actually committed the murder herself. When they came up for trial at the Old Bailey, Wood and Billings pleaded guilty. Only Catherine Hayes was tried, for the offence of ‘being traitorously present, comforting and maintaining the said Thomas Billings in the murder of the said John Hayes, her husband’, an offence which was legally deemed to be as serious as the actual killing. At the trial her earlier confessions provided the strongest evidence of her guilt. Richard Bromage and Leonard Myring provided damning testimony.
Richard Bromage. After Catherine Hayes was committed to Newgate, I and Robert Wilkins, and Leonard Myring went to visit her. I am sorry, 002-Hanging Court-cpp 4/10/06 06:06 Page 49