The Justice of the Peace Reports

Dealers in antiques often scatter leather-bound volumes, usually of small value, around their shops to create an atmosphere of elegant learning. Recently in one such shop, I picked up a volume, the Justice of the Peace Reports, Vol. LXII, for 1908.

It fell open at page 467 and I was, as addicts so dishonestly say, hooked at once. It was a report of a case in the newly-instituted Court of Criminal Appeal:

J. was found on a road cutting off the head of a woman with a table knife. When spoken to, he continued to cut off the head. On help being obtained, J. was found to have taken the body into a field, where he was cutting off the arm of the woman. On being spoken to again, he continued to cut at the arm. On being threatened with a crowbar, he threw down the knife and was secured, but he insisted on taking with him the umbrella, hat and corsets of the woman, and spoke to those arresting him of the prices he would get for these articles.

Doctors testified that J. was mad, but he was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to death. The appeal court sent him to hospital as a criminal lunatic.

There were many fascinating (and terrible) cases in this volume. A man appealed against his conviction for manslaughter:

The prisoner had assaulted his daughter, a baby, on November 13th, 1906, and again on December 29th, 1907; on both occasions the child received blows on the head. The prisoner was convicted and sentenced for each of these two assaults to four and six months’ imprisonment. On January 4th, 1908, she had convulsions, and on March 5th, 1908, she died. It appeared from the evidence that she died of meningitis set up by external injury to the head.

The man was found guilty of manslaughter, but his appeal was upheld because the judge misdirected the jury that it didn’t matter whether it was the injury of November 13th, 1906 or that of December 29th, 1907, that ‘set up’ the meningitis. But it did matter, because in English law you cannot be convicted of manslaughter if death occurs more than a year and a day after the original injury.

Then there was an account of the trial of a medical practitioner accused of procuring eight abortions on his mistress, a servant girl whom he first met when he treated her for ringworm. She agreed to the first seven abortions, but not the last, which he forced upon her. She wrote a letter to her friend that was intercepted by the doctor but later found by the police:

I fell in the family way in July and he brought on another miscarriage and I cried when he hurt me and I think he was  cross because I made a fuss has (sic) I have had seven miscarriages before this and have never cried or made any trouble about it.

But what really infuriated the poor young woman was that the doctor was simultaneously having an affair with his housekeeper, whom he refused to dismiss at her jealous demand. She therefore shopped him to a rival medical practitioner, who – whether from moral outrage or an eye to the economic main chance, or from some combination of the two – informed the police.

Although a uterine sound and the letter were found in the doctor’s consulting room, he was acquitted for lack of probative evidence.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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