More from the Old Bailey Online: going beyond my stepmother research, I’ve been intrigued by the role of reputation in the records. While many appeals to reputation and motivation were formulaic, the character of the accused and the prosecutors could be critical. This character was determined through appeals to employers, neighbours and relatives.
Jane Wilson was charged with counterfeiting currency (“coining”) in 1746. Her trial illustrates how a woman many agreed was normally hard-working, honest and industrious could be described by others as “stirred and moved by the Instigation of the Devil”. But it wasn’t only Wilson’s reputation that was at stake in the trial. Susannah Jones, who made the accusation against Wilson, saw her own reputation tested and found wanting.
Susannah Jones was the chief witness in the trial of Jane Wilson. According to Jones, Wilson had forced her into counterfeiting. Wilson was described as the chief instigator in forging the coins and spending them in the market while Jones felt trapped and desperately sought for a way out of this criminal enterprise: “I was very uneasy about it; for sometimes she would get drunk, and then she would threaten me. I first sent to the Gentleman, Mr. Buckman, within these three Weeks, and I said, I am very uneasy now my Children are grown out of the Way; and I am frighten’d and threaten’d by a Person what she will do; and I will now leave it off.”1
Buckman, a tailor, corroborated Susannah Jones’ story and explained how Wilson came to be arrested by the authorities.
Q. (to Walter Buckman .) Look upon the Prisoner at the Bar, Do you know her?
Buckman. My Lord, I never saw her in my Life, ’till this Affair was discover’d. The Evidence, Mrs. Jones, sent for me: When I came she said, I am something concern’d I did not send to you before; I have sent for you for something besides the Coat. When she sent to me she was very sober, and under a great Concern; and I was very sober myself. She said, I do assure you, Mr. Buckingham, I have something upon my Spirits that concerns me; I am determin’d to make myself a voluntary Evidence. An Evidence, In what? I said. Says she, I have been concern’d in Coining, and putting off bad Money. I said I would go and speak to a Person that I knew, who was one Vernon.2
If we took Jones and Buckman at face value, as Vernon did, Wilson seemed a dangerous creature.
Other witnesses told a different story, describing Jane Wilson as hard-working, reliable, industrious and, most importantly, concerned about the coining activities she had discovered Susannah Jones to be carrying out, consulting with one long-time acquaintance, Mary Evans, to verify that the fake coin-molds would be useful for evidence. As their stories emerge, it was clear that rather than Jones’ immediately turning evidence against Wilson’s hardened counterfeiting, it had been Susannah Jones that was the counterfeiting mastermind until turning evidence (possibly aware that Wilson was about to spill the beans about her enterprise).
In contrast, Susannah Jones was described as a woman of bad reputation in the district who cursed and kept company in her rented room with “blackguards”. Her landlady, Sarah Brown, further testified that Jones was willing to lie in order to convict Wilson:
Brown. The Evidence, Jones, swore one Time, that she would swear through a Deal Board to be reveng’d of her[Wilson]; she swore this in my Mother-in-Law’s House.
Q. Did you hear Susannah Jones say this yourself ?
Brown. Yes, I did, at White-Horse-Court in Whitecross-street.3
Reluctantly, the judge was forced to an invidious judgment: he acquitted Wilson, who was clearly not the guiding force but could not convict Jones who was protected by having turned evidence. Nevertheless, he made the following statement:
There are two Things very plain, that Susannah Jones, the Witness, is an exceeding wicked Woman; that she hath been concerned in this Thing for a Matter of ten Years, and ’tis, I think, as plain, that before this Woman came acquainted with Jones, she was a hard-working Woman; that she was extremely concerned during the little Time she lived with her; and that she was drawn into this Practice; therefore I could have wished that Susannah Jones might have been prosecuted, and this poor Woman made an Evidence, &c.4
Although all the evidence was against Jane Wilson from the outset in Susannah Jones’ sworn testimony, reputation played a key factor in reversing the story. Wilson’s account became plausible in the judge’s eyes because of the many witnesses who testified as to her good character and honest conduct. Jones’ reliability took a dive as her reputation became manifest. But a bad reputation wasn’t enough to overcome the protection of turning evidence: Susannah Jones, ten years a counterfeiter, walked out of the Old Bailey as a free woman and disappeared from the court’s records.
1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 22 June 2011), April 1746, trial of Jane Wilson (t17460409-48).
3. Ibid. To “swear through a deal board” (i.e. a plank of softwood like pine) meant one was willing to forcefully back up a lie. See Eric Partridge, The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 933.