Respite’s End, 1692

In June of 1692, a Holborn woman, Ruth Phillips, was charged with high treason in the Old Bailey. Her crime? Clipping coins. This may not sound like a serious offence today, but in the early modern period, trimming bits of the currency of the realm was seen as an attack upon the monarch by undermining the country’s coinage. English money wasn’t in great repute in the 1690s – the beleaguered government decided in 1696 to remake all the coins in a new, reliable process but failed to recall and remake all the money in this ambitious scheme. Instead, coin clippers and counterfeiter continued their covert attacks on the cash that fuelled England’s economy and filled their own pockets.

We might think of currency crime as an activity of powerful bankers, financial wizards or vast workshops of cunning tradesfolk, but coining and counterfeiting were crimes that could be committed at home by men and women, young and old. All it required were a few basic tools and enough muscle strength to wrangle the metal of the coins in order to succeed. That, and a little privacy where you wouldn’t be discovered in the criminal act. The accusations made against Ruth Phillips came largely from women in her household. After showing the many tools of the trade that were found in a trunk in her house, one of Ruth Phillips’ maids testified against her mistress.

Swore that comming into the Kitchen, she saw the Prisoners Arm move up and down as if she Clipp’d Money or somewhat else like it; and that she saw both Broad Money and Clipp’d Money lie before her, but she could not say that she saw any Shears in her Hands, neither did she see her actually Clip

Another witness testified that she heard the clipping of the coins, metal screaming under the trimming of the shears. Those tools and a bag of freshly trimmed coins were produced as evidence. Phillips fought back, accusing various others, particularly a nurse in her household who spoke against the mistress. In Ruth Phillips’ account, the coining materials had been brought into her house by some of her servants. Furthermore, the accused countered, charging that the Nurse who had testified against her had robbed Phillips. Another witness was brought forward to substantiate Phillips’ claim and further suggest that the nurse had framed her mistress. The court seemed unmoved by these counter-claims and given that so much material had been seized in Phillips’ house, how could anyone believe she was ignorant of the operation?

We do not know if Ruth Phillips was married, unmarried, or a widow. After her attempt to frame the nurse failed, the accused woman then claimed that one Cha. Phillips, presumably a male relative, had left the bag of coins and clipping tools with her but the court was dubious. Two wildly different claims from Ruth Phillips swayed the judge not at all. She was found guilty and the punishment for high treason was death.

However, Ruth Phillips had an ace up her sleeves or so she might think. The court heard a “pleading of the belly” where the condemned claimed that she was pregnant and thus should not be executed while she was quick with child. Apparently a jury of matrons agreed, as Ruth Phillips’ sentence was respited for pregnancy. In some cases, the respite was permanent: expectant mothers might be entirely pardoned or sentenced to a lesser punishment such as transportation. The_Burning_of_Catherine_Hayes Sadly, Ruth Phillips was not so lucky. We have no information about her pregnancy, but in October her name appears in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account as she is readied for her execution.

According to the Ordinary, Ruth Phillips had hoped that her respite, like that of some others, would have continued. Instead, she was rudely reminded that a respite wasn’t necessarily permanent.

Ruth Phillips, Condemned about three Sessions since, then respited because quick with Child, and now brought back to her former Judgment. She denyed not the Crime: She confess’d that she had neglected her Duty to God, of which she was now very sensible. I declared to her, that I feared she had not improved her Reprieve to the advantage of her Soul, but grew secure, hoping that she should escape the Sentence of Death. She replyed, that the Concernment of making Preparation for her Death, was a secret Work betwixt God and her own Soul.

When brought out to the execution, Ruth Phillips sat while the men were hanged and then her own method of execution was prepared. As befits a female traitor, her end was different: she was not to be hanged, but burned at the stake. The Ordinary was disappointed that there was no final penitence from this wicked woman. Ruth Phillips rather maintained that she was a victim of her servants’ malice, but submitted to her execution calmly. She was strangled and then her body was burned: a salutary lesson to any others who might besmirch the royal majesty by clipping coins.

Sources:

Clifford, Naomi. “Pregnant and condemned: Pleading the belly and the jury of matrons.” Naomi Clifford: Life, Love and Death in the Georgian Era. 11 march, 2016. http://www.naomiclifford.com/pleading-the-belly-jury-of-matrons/

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 18 January 2018), June 1692, trial of Ruth Phillips (t16920629-32).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 18 January 2018), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, October 1692 (OA16921026).

Rock, Robert S. “Making Money Go Further – Clipping.” Coins, Crime and History 2 December, 2013. https://crimeandcoins.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/making-money-go-further-clipping/

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A Slippery Set of Stories, 1714-1715

In early April, “a little Boy” was brought before the Old Bailey. He was prosecuted by one who he might have looked upon as a friend and benefactor: John Saucer, his next-door neighbour. Saucer had an indictment against young James Blundel, claiming the youth had stolen eight yards of lustring, a shiny, fine and glossy weave of silk, as well as a silk hood, all from his house.

Blundel’s trial sparks interest on several grounds, despite the brevity of the account. First is the young boy’s circumstance: he is a parish child – an orphan, perhaps abandoned at birth or through the death of his parents left to rely upon the charity of the parish. This case occurring decades before the foundation of London’s Foundling Hospital, his care was very local. His parish, Harrow on the Hill, in London’s northwest, well outside the old city walls, secured the services of a nurse to care for young James. This was common practice, more than one in ten London women worked as nurses, caring for the sick, the poor, the young and the elderly. James Blundel’s unnamed nurse lived next door to John Saucer and his family, who thus came to know the young boy.

John Saucer, by the Proceedings‘ account, took a fancy to youthful James, apparently seeing him as a prospective servant. When the Saucers went away from home in February, 1714, the little boy was left in charge of their house. Saucer returned to discover the materials missing and accused his one-time favourite. The report asserts that the Saucers threatened to take the boy into London, to a Cunning Man. A lawyer perhaps? Or someone more terrifying? The record is sadly opaque.

What we do know is that the threat prompted young James to bolt. He ran away to his nurse and she apparently sheltered him against the Saucer’s wrath. How much protection could she offer, though? For all the month of March, from the time of the theft to the trial itself, did the child stay safe in her care or did he languish in Newgate? We do not know how he spent those long weeks.

However, when the accused eventually spoke in the court, he told a very different story that brings us to our second point of intrigue in the case. Young Blundel claimed that he was innocent, an unsurprising assertion. But the details of who he accused and how are unexpected. He said that it was not he but his nurse’s grandson, one James Cock, who only stole the Saucer’s silk. Furthermore, Cock didn’t act alone. No, he gave the stolen silk to his grandmother, Blundel’s nurse. She apparently received “whatever they stole”. In this version of the theft, James Blundel was nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for a practised set of thieves right there on Saucer’s door. Parish nurses didn’t enjoy a good reputation in early eighteenth century London. Popular belief suspected many of starving or mistreating their charges. To hear that one had a family given to thieving and that she had further acted to receive stolen goods might not have been a surprising claim for the court to hear.

James Blundel was acquited. The judge advised John Saucer to press his case against James Cock – there is no mention of the grandmother’s role so possibly her part seemed less substantiated. Saucer did just as the court advised in October of the next year, suggesting that Cock must have been an elusive soul to evade prosecution for so long. Despite Blundel’s earlier testimony, this wasn’t an easy victory for Saucer. As the Proceedings explains, with no evidence brought against Cock, he was acquitted. Was Blundel no longer in the neighbour’s custody to be able to speak on Saucer’s behalf?

The Saucers certainly got no satisfaction for their stolen silk. That said, we don’t know what happened to James Blundel. Did he stay with the nurse he’d accused of receiving stolen goods – that seems unlikely as he didn’t testify against Cock? Did the Saucers regret their prosecution and restore him to their household? Blundel’s absence from the second trial argues against this. Perhaps the first trial was simply an elaborate scam by Blundel, Cock, and the nameless parish nurse to evade justice in an early eighteenth-century precursor to Oliver Twist? It would be wonderful to find out more about their lives and how life carried on in this corner of Harrow after the prosecutions and acquittals!

Sources:

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 16 January 2018), April 1714, trial of James Blundel (t17140407-39).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 16 January 2018), October 1715, trial of James Cock (t17151012-46).

Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, “Parish Nurses”, London Lives, 1690-1800 (www.londonlives.org, version, 1.1 17 June 2012). https://www.londonlives.org/static/ParishNurses.jsp

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The Persistent Witness, 1715

You’re walking through the eastern parishes in mid-March of 1715, when a child is crying loudly as a young woman roughly takes off his clothing. Other passersby must have disregarded Mary Skip’s disrobing of this sobbing young boy on the bank beside the king’s highway before this one woman intervened. Even then, Skip’s affirmation that this was her own child could well have satisfied the curious woman that all she had seen was a dispute between a parent and child. This was the normal, everyday trials of family life in the growing city, or was it?
Painting of Two Young Children in Petticoats, c. 1755
Instead of accepting this explanation, the witness persisted, seeing the aggrieved child, Joseph Murrel, alone now and stripped of his warm stuff coat and petticoats (normal attire for a younger child at this point in history). The trial report from late April explains that this bystander

then came back again, and ask’d the Child if that was its Mother; to which it reply’d, No; upon which she seiz’d the Prisoner, with the Goods upon her, and found another Child’s Cloaths in her Lap

Found guilty of highway robbery, for stealing the goods of Joseph Murrel, Senior, in the form of the child’s clothing, Mary Skip was sentenced to death. She claimed to be pregnant and thus ineligible to be executed, but the jury of matrons confirmed only one such pleading of the belly from those sentenced on this day. There was no pardon: Mary Skip would hang for her crime.

In the Ordinary of Newgate’s account for 11 May, Mary Skip (or Ship) is painted even more unsympathetically than in the trial account. It notes that she was

condemn’d for robbing and stripping Naked two Infants, upon the King’s Highway, on the 18th of March last. She said, she was about 24 Years of Age, born in the Parish of St. Mary Magdalen Bermondsey, and of late Years liv’d in East-Smithfield: That she often help’d her Mother, who nurs’d Children , and at other times went to Washing and Scuoring ; by which Means she got a Livelihood, tho’ a very poor one; and, That it was meer Poverty (but, as I observ’d her, it was more the want of Grace) that occasion’d her committing this cruel Fact.

Sources:
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 11 January 2018), April 1715, trial of Mary Skip (t17150427-52).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 11 January 2018), April 1715 (s17150427-1).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 11 January 2018), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, May 1715 (OA17150511).

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From Shoe Lane to St. Giles in 1674

One of the first cases that drew me into the Old Bailey Online is a convoluted account from the first year of the published proceedings dealing with clothing theft that incidentally involved child kidnapping. It has little, if anything, of the legal particulars of the case, but Mall Floyd’s targeting of an eight-year-old girl drew the attention of the court. Coming upon a young girl in Shoe Lane (just a little bit to the west of the city wall) and

pretending She came from her Mother, carryed it with her as farr as St Giles’s , and had it into an Alehouse there, where seeing it rain, She pretended all the Childs Cloathes would be Spoiled, and under that pretence took away from it Severall Laces and peices of Linnen Knots and the like, and then carrying her into St Giles’s Churchyard where there then happened to be a Burial, She Lost her in the Crowd of People , who then not Knowing where She was, nor the way home, fell a crying, and was brought home that Night by some honest Inhabitant there abouts

It’s a fair distance from Shoe Lane (red line on the map below, generated from The Map of Early Modern London) to St. Giles north of Cripplegate (the purple church at the upper left). What a scary time for the child and her family that must have been!

Shoe Lane to St. Giles from the Agas Map

The Proceedings chattily explains that, while the child couldn’t identify her kidnapper, her mother saw some of the stolen clothing for sale in Holborn (so back near the Shoe Lane site of the girl’s kidnapping). That sighting led, after some serious detective work, to Mall Floyd, described as a frequent resident of the “Inchanted Castle” as the reporter cheekily characterized Newgate Prison.

Floyd was fortunate that her felony punishment was commuted to transportation to plantations beyond the seas – presumably service in the American or Caribbean colonies. Of Mall Floyd or her unnamed victim, we have no further record.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 10 January 2018), July 1674, trial of Mall. Floyd (t16740717-6).

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Shall We Play a Game?

I’m returning to the subject of crime history in this fall’s teaching: a third-year course on Crime & Punishment in England, 1500-1900. I was happy with a lot of material and activities that I used last time. I was even happier that I made some good notes about what not to do when I revisited the course (so students will do three projects using records of London criminal trials and not four).

What’s got me most excited is the prospect of building a game with the class. We’re going to use Twine 2.0 to create several text-based “choose your own story” adventures using material gleaned from the Old Bailey Online.

Each student will be responsible for suggesting some cases we might use in the storylines – a great way to get them to dig around in the archive – and also locating some images to add interest to the game as we develop it (along with documentation of where they found these so we can assemble a proper set of credits in the game).

They’ll also be expected to create some narrative choices for the game stories as we develop this: for instance, letting the player choose to either apprehend a suspect when someone shouts “Stop, thief!” or ask the complainant “What’s this about?”

Right now, I’m still working my way through the screencast tutorials while I prepare a sample game to start the course and spark their interest. When it’s up and running, I’ll link it here. But for now?

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Dog Days of Summer

It’s hot and hazy: we’re into the reality of summer, finally. At least this year the blueberry crop is plentiful enough for people AND for bears. That didn’t stop a black bear from wandering through our backyard the other week and leaving visible evidence of that passage and its recent diet, mind you!

I’m vacillating in my work between preparations for the fall term of teaching and scholarly writing of my own in crime history and the family. Since one of the courses I’m teaching is on the history of crime, there’s some overlap which is welcome. Otherwise, most days my biggest excitement is walking Xena.

All in all, not too exciting right now but that’s just fine. I’m involved in planning two big events in the coming months on campus. One of these involves a visit in late September from my esteemed blog-friend, Historiann, who also has had reason to blog about bears recently. It’s a small world sometimes!

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Reading to Fuel the Fire

You know what Erasmus said? “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Well, I bought another bunch of academic books this month. Eight in print depicted, one still on the way and one ebook awaiting me on my ereader. Oops? Eight books piled up

This fall term I’m teaching a bunch of familiar courses: Western Civilization from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Crime and Punishment in England, 1500-1900 and then our graduate course on research methods which is going interdisciplinary across the humanities thanks to the wonders of cross-listing. With that in mind, I’m expanding my mind and my reading list particularly as it comes to the last element. In between writing up my crime history research in hopes of having another article complete this summer, I’m reading in order to lead a wide-ranging class of students on the start of their own research journeys.

However, on the heels of presenting at Congress 2017, I’m taking the rest of this week as a bit of a vacation. The scholarly reading goes on hold but it’s hard when the books are so tempting. . . .

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