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Burke and Hare

In Edinburgh’s sensational body-snatching trial of 1828, William Burke was tried and sentenced to death, while his equally notorious accomplice William hare got off scot-free for turning King’s Evidence. The pair of them had murdered to provide bodies for an anatomist to dissect, Burke was hanged before a vast crowd in January 1829 and his corpse was hanged over to the College of Surgeons ironically, for purposes of dissection.

A Perfectly Ordinary Little Case

Mr. Mervyn Griffith-Jones, prosecutor at the lady Chatterley trial, has been immortalized for asking jury members whether they would ‘wish your wife or servants to read it?’ But he is almost as well remembered for another splendid utterance in a different trial. ‘It is a perfectly ordinary little case of a man charged with indecency with four or five guardsmen,’ he said.

Not naughty Enough
Times have changed since lady Chatterley trial. In May 1984, a 26-year-old Sussex plumber filed a complaint against a local sex-shop, claiming that five pornographic videos he had hired to view with his ex-wife were not explicit enough. The court at Worthing found in his favour, awarding a £ 15 refund. After the hearing the plumber said, ‘I think I have proved the point that these shops cannot get away with taking customers for a ride simply because they are too embarrassed to complain.’

A Georgian Gender Bender

The Countless of Bristol may have enjoyed supreme scandal in her day. But if quantity rather than quality of bigamy is to be the standard then the West Country’s Mary Hamilton far outshone her.

On 7 October 1746, this remarkable woman was tried at Taunton in Somerset for wrongfully marrying no fewer than 14 times – in each case marrying other women. The 14th wife appeared to give evidence against her, describing how they had undergone a lawful marriage and bedded and lived together for more than three months before she suspected that her partner was another woman. The ‘vilest and the most deceitful practices’ had, it seemed, been employed to mislead her. The judges appeared to have uncertain about the legal sex of Mary Hamilton (alias Charles Hamilton, alias George Hamilton, alias William Hamilton), but they ruled that ‘he, she, the prisoner at the bar,’ was an uncommon notorious cheat and was to be gaoled for six months during which time she was to be whipped in the towns of Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells and Shepton Mallet. Sentence was duly carried out, ‘ In the severity of the winter’. The Witches of Salem Perhaps the most famous witchcraft trials in history opened at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.

Ten young girls accused Tituba, West Indian slave to a local preacher, of bewitching them. Under flogging, Tituba falsely accused two confederates and a flood of hysterical Charges and counter-charges ensued. A special court was set up to try the accused, but the judges themselves succumbed to the mood of public panic and hundreds of people were imprisoned: 14 women and 5 men were hanged, while another person was pressed to death (crushed under weights —a traditional punishment for those who refused to plead). Before the end of the year, the mania had subsided. The court was dissolved, in May 1693, Governor Phelps ordered the release of all prisoners held on witchcraft charges, and bereaved families received compensation.

Boiling to Death

The great British poisoners of the last hundred years could count themselves lucky that they did not live in an earlier era. Horrible to relate, the capital punishment of boiling to death was once on the statute book for poisoning. The act was passed under Henry VIII in 1531, and the occasion was the trial of a man named Richard Rosse (or Coke), who was alleged to have poisoned 17 people in the household of the bishop of Rochester, two of them, a man and a woman died. Found guilty and duly sentenced, the cook was publicly boiled at Smithfield. Margaret Davy, a young woman, suffered the same fate for a similar crime on 28 March 1542. The act was repealed five years later.

Fingers of fate Petty criminals Alfred and Albert Stratton made British legal history through their trial in May 1905. The brothers were the first people ever convicted of murder by the evidence of fingerprints. In the course of a housebreaking, the Strattons had killed an elderly Deptford shopkeeper and his wife. Alfred had left a clear thumbprint on a rifled cash-box, and it was produced in evidence at the Old Baily. In a fiercely contested forensic battle, a defence expert pointed to certain discrepancies between Stratton’s print and that found on the box. But the prosecution replied that these were only minor differences resulting from the thumb pressures applied. The point was dramatically illustrated when jury members themselves had their prints repeatedly taken, and discovered similar discrepancies. The jury was won over. Despite a cautious summing up from the judge on the value of fingerprint evidence, the Strattons were found guilty. They hanged together.

The Law West of The Pecos

Among the legendary judges of the past was whiskey, whiskey-sodden Roy Bean, whose Texas saloon at Langtry comprised the ‘Law West Of The Pecos’ for two decades. He often stopped trials to serve liquor to the court, and once discharged one of his regulars (accused of murdering a Mexican) on the grounds that ‘ it served the deceased right for getting in front of a gun’. Thumbing through his battered Texas Statutes, he discharged another (accused of murdering a Chinese workman) on the grounds that ‘ they ain’t a damn line here now here that makes it illegal to kill a Chinaman’. The Judge also did funerals and weddings. He once fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon, and always concluded marriage ceremonies with the words, ‘ May God have mercy on your soul.’

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