About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Murder Trials at the Old Bailey in 1675, 1775 and 1875

In my last post I discussed the Old Bailey Online which contains records of criminal trials at the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913. Interested to see how the reporting of trials evolved I took a look at murder trials from July to December in each of 1675, 1775 and 1875.

The 1675 trials were recorded in 1-2 paragraphs clearly being summaries of evidence or assessments of the evidence as set out in this heart rending statement:

J. D. a little boy about 14 years of age, for murthering a Citizen and Silkman in Milk-street, which he confessed: Young in years but old in wickedness: yet had he been older he could not have been more sensible of his fact, nor more apprehensive of his approaching death, nothing more troubled him in the Prison, than that he was so dye so early, and that he had so soon imbru'd his hands in blood, this youth had not many words to express himself, but he supply'd that defect with his tears, weeping continually …..

A century later in 1775 there are actual transcripts with questions and answers recorded.

One trial involved a killing at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Captain David Roche was acquitted of killing Captain David Fergusson. Probably the most interesting part of the report is the ornate wording of the indictment:

THE Jurors for our lord the King upon their oath present, That David Roche, late of London, gentleman , not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 4th day of September, in the thirteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord George the Third, by the grace of God, king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, and so forth, with force and arms, at the Cape of Good Hope, on the coast of Africa, in parts beyond the seas without England, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault upon John Fergusson, then and there being in the peace of God and our said lord the King; and that the said David Roche with a certain drawn sword, made of iron and steel, of the value of five shillings, which he the said David Roche in his right hand then and there had and held, then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did strike, stab, and thurst the said John Fergusson in and upon the upper part of the breast of him the said John Fergusson , above the left pap of him the said John Fergusson ; and that the said   David Roche , then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did give to him the said John Fergusson, then and there with the drawn sword aforesaid, in and upon the said upper part of the breast of him the said John Fergusson, above the left pap of him the said John Fergusson, one mortal wound of the breadth of half an inch, and of the depth of five inches; of which said mortal wound the said John Fergusson then and there instantly died: and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oath aforesaid, do say, that the said David Roche, in manner and form aforesaid, then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder the said John Fergusson , against the peace of our lord the King, his crown and dignity.

By 1875 the lawyers representing the Crown and the Defence are set out in the heading to the report of the trial.

How a doctor examines a body in 1875 is considerably different from our current times:

Supposing a fall, the result of a push, I do not think that would cause such injuries as I saw on the head—it would be violence, but not sufficient to produce what I saw—it would depend on the force that came in contact with the body, there should have been some protruding body to have got under the lower jaw to produce what I describe, and I have no evidence to show me that there was anything of the kind—if she was expelled from the house and fell on the edge of a stone step, in my opinion that would not account for the abrasion and discoloration I observed on her head—I do not think that would account for what I saw—I made a careful examination—I did not open the body or head, my opinion was founded on the external appearances—I considered the external examination sufficient to enable me to account for the death—I am a surgeon of twenty years' experience, I have been an army surgeon, and have seen every kind of wound—I have been for many years in the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, where we have every kind of injury—I was nine and a half years in the army, and have seen every possible kind of injury that could be inflicted by force—I describe the abrasion as a slight one—the ribbon was tight but not sufficiently tight to—cause strangulation—it was pinned in the ordinary way—I described it as tight before the Magistrate—I should say it fitted accurately round the neck, but not so as to produce any injurious effect—I cannot suppose that it could cause strangulation if she were drunk and rolling about the road, because on removing the ribbon there was no mark of tightening, which must have been there if it had produced any injurious effect—there must have been a regular mark left on the neck, but there was not—there would have been a line all round the neck if it had produced congestion of the upper part of the head—I did not smell her breath, there was no breath to smell, it was all gone—I had no means of ascertaining whether she had been in liquor.

No medical examiner today would be given any credence without conducting an internal as well as an external examination of the body.

As well juries at that time could, as part of the verdict, recommend mercy for the accused.

Currently case reports cover the judgment given by the trial judge. Transcripts of a trial must be ordered and paid for by a Defendant or the Crown wanting a copy. In Saskatchewan court staff will burn a DVD of taped trial evidence (there have been no court reporters taking down evidence in Saskatchewan for three decades) within 1-2 days of evidence being given.

I expect to go back periodically to the Old Bailey Online to sample other trials. It is an immense trove of information on English criminal trials.


  1. Bill - This is absolutely fascinating. It reminds me of a Case Law course I took once. Admittedly none of the relevant cases went as far back as the first two of these do, but it was still so interesting to me to see the changes in the way cases are written up and what is deemed important. As you say, it's also a look at how people went about their work at the time.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. It seems we like to say more and write more from generation to generation. Now with computers we have so much more being written because it is so easy to write and revise.

  2. Very fascinating, Bill. We all know that trials and legal procedures have changed over the years, but interesting to actually read some examples.

  3. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. The Old Bailey Online lets everyone see how the modern criminal trial has come to be structured and conducted.