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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

BLIND LOVE

I am certain William Johnson believed he was dying in the name of love. And the object of his passion, Mrs. Jane Housden, may have believed the same thing. The official record tells us merely that this anti-Romeo and Juliet were charged with the murder of an innocent man in front of several hundred witnesses – they being witness, jailers, lawyers and judges. Murder in a open court is such an irrational act that you don’t see it very often. So when you do, it inspires contemplation, which follows.
The year was 1714, and the place was London. To describe life in this age as brutal and short is accurate, but a bit misleading. Average life expectancy was under 40 years of age, but that was because 12% of all children died before their first birthday. If you made it to thirty years of age in 1714 you could expect to live to sixty, unless you lived in Newport Market section of London, where the overcrowding and lack of sanitation almost seemed to guarantee you would still be dead by forty. But if you made it to sixty, even in Newport Market, you could expect to live till you were 72. There just weren’t very many who made it that far.
William Johnson (aka William Holloway) had been born in Newport Market (above). He was apprenticed as butcher, and then became a surgeon’s assistant. By 33 he fell into the profession of footpath, a thief who waylaid fellow pedestrians at gunpoint and robbed them. William was suspected of much more. He was known to have badly beaten several of his victims, and was suspected in at least two murders. But William also had the ambition to be a highwayman. And, alas, William fell victim to his ambitions.
 Early in 1710 he stole a bay gelding, the property of Mr. Evelyn Pierrpoint, a member of the peerage and a leader in the House of Lords. Pierpont was very popular in upper crust social circles, and closely tied to the crown. Being thus connected, the outrage against him was investigated with zeal, and it was not long before William was incarcerated for the theft.
It was not unusual for convicted thieves to be condemned to death, and on June 4, 1711, in the Old Bailey Courthouse, William was so convicted. But because he pleaded guilty his sentence was commuted to transportation to America. Five weeks later, while William was confined in the pestilent Newgate prison (above) awaiting shipment, he escaped. It was a singular achievement and was it may have been this further insult to the honor of the upper crust that resulted in the arrest of William’s own lady love, Jane Housden, charged with her third “coining” offense.
At the other end of the criminal hierarchy from highwaymen were clippers. In a world without paper currency, every coin was literally worth its weight in silver. In England the basic unit of currency was the “Pound Sterling”, which was minted from 16 ounces of real silver. This meant that merchants could short change their customers with the simple application of a file. Many “honest” shopkeepers rented out their cash boxes overnight to clippers, and many a shop’s customers found their change shaved of 2 or 3% of its face value, thus inspiring the descriptive phrase, “a clip joint” as a shop where you were cheated. This was the reason coins came with a date stamped on them. The longer a coin was in circulation the less reliable was its face value.
In the 1690’s the English Secretary to the Treasury, Mr. William Lowndes, wrote “it is a thing so easy…even women and children…are capable of the act.” The act was filing off silver from a coin, melting the filings and pouring them into a counterfeit mold. It was not uncommon for a raiding constable to discover “a woman sitting beside the fire finishing a pile of counterfeits with a knife and file, while her husband occupied himself with hot flasks and other coining tools.” It was estimated at the time that a pair of crooks …could produce twenty-five pounds of silver filings in a day - and this when a family could live quite comfortably on fifty Pounds a year.
Mrs. Jane Housden (aka Jane Newsted) had been arrested in 1701 for “coining”, and given a pardon. She was arrested again on September 9th, 1710, and pardoned again on June 6th. But officials then had warned that if she were arrested a third time for the same offense, there would be no pardon; which made it so serious when Jane was arrested once again on August 13th, 1714. I suspect that this time Jane’s arrest was part of a trap. From informers the authorities knew that Jane had often alerted William to wealthy travelers. (about 20% of all women in London worked at least part time as prostitutes.)  And they knew that Jane was William’s mistress. A warrant had been prepared in advance for William’s arrest, signed by Lord Chief Justice Parker, himself, just in case William should appear at Jane's trial.
The date was Wednesday, September 10th, 1714. Driven by passion William slipped into the central court room at the Old Bailey with two loaded pistols in his coat pocket. He waited by “Door at the hole”, where under guard, visitor were allowed to pass food, drink and money to prisoners waiting in the docket. He managed but a few whispered words with his Jane before a constable and a turnkey placed him under arrest.
The instant they attempted to clap him in handcuffs, William drew a pistol. The turnkey leapt upon him, knocking the gun from his hand. Both men tumbled to the floor, the turnkey knocked silly. Jane seized the weapon, but another constable knocked her to the ground. Enraged, William fought to his feet, and leveled the second weapon. The constable jerked William’s arm up and drove a shoulder into his waist, as the head turnkey, Richard Spurling, raced forward to help. In the struggle, the gun went off, firing over the Constable’s head, but striking Mr. Spurling in the chest, killing him instantly.
The judges, shocked at the interruption, decided there was no point in continuing Jane’s trial for coining, and immediately tried her and William for the murder of poor Mr. Spurling, A jury made up of witnesses to the murder was impaneled. The case was argued by other witnesses to the murder. The verdict was guilty for both defendants, delivered by even more wittnesses to the murder. The punishment was set by yet a third group of witnesses to the murder, as death -  all while the corpus delicti was still warm. It had been a singular day in the Old Baily.
This time there was no pardon and no escape. At 9:00 on the morning of September 19th, 1714, William and Jane were loaded into a cart along with their hangman and the prison chaplain. Lead by constables and followed by a squad of soldiers, the sad procession passed through Holborn Street, St. Giles Road, to Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street), with several stops along the way at pubs where the condemned were encouraged to imbibe. Finally they reached the traditional site of execution, where a large crowd waited, at a spot where there once had stood a tree.
As the old poem went, “I have heard sundry men oft times dispute, Of trees, that in one year will twice bear fruit. But if a man note Tyburn, 'will appear, That there’s a tree that bears twelve times a year.” And there, from a rude gibbet, a rough wooden beam, William and Jane, hopefully blind drunk, danced together at the end of their ropes. The prison chaplain read Pslam 51 3; “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” There was very little comfort in that passage, but then comfort was not the point.
The sin, in this particular case, was that William Holloway had murdered a man in open court, in front of witnesses, and Jane Housden had been foolish enough to love him. They were both sins that were to be repeated untold times over the next 300 years, and probably for another 300 after this.
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