“Die and be damned”

In the fall of 1742, William Bird was tried for two murders although six women died on his watch one hellish July night. Bird’s trials provide an interesting insight into the lives of marginal women and the slightly less marginal men who assisted in the catch-as-catch-can aspects of justice as it was practiced in eighteenth century London.

As watchhouse keeper of the St Martin’s Round-House, Bird customarily acted as constable, receiving and housing prisoners who would later be examined by a magistrate but he lacked the official standing. Still, Bird and his wife appeared quite settled in their managing of the roundhouse and its transient occupants. Those who could pay were kept in comfort, even to the extent of hiring a bed. Others were less comfortably kept. Poor women might languish in a section of the building known as “The Hole” described in the testimony of one Robert Churchman, a carpenter:

. . . you go up four Stone Steps into the Round-House, and this Place is below these Steps: The Height of it is six Foot two Inches; the Length and Breadth six Foot six, by six Foot two; the Window is two Foot six, by one Foot six; there are some Iron Bars, but no Glass, there is a Shurter which puts up with three Slits, about a Quarter of an Inch wide, and about 18 Inches long 1

Between eleven o’clock and four a.m. over the night of the 16th of July, 1742, upwards of twenty women were crammed into “The Hole” which others at the Round-House attested, normally accommodated eight or nine. The unprecedented number was the work of Thomas de Veil, Court Justice (who set up shop on Bow Street and was the immediate predecessor of Sir Henry Fielding) who had ordered a round-up of vagrants in Westminster on the night of the 15th.2 Whatever the cause, the Hole was simply inadequate to house this many, as the testimony of Robert Bushel, the Beadle, made clear:

Q. Do you know how many People were put into the Hole that Night?

Bushel. I believe there was about twenty People in all?

Q. Do you remember three Women being put down into the Hole?

Bushel. I was ordered to put three Women into the Hole by the Prisoner at the Bar, it was about five o’Clock in the Morning, before the Constable went away. I opened the Door of the Hole, and saw the Hole was so full that I did not think it reasonable to put any more in: – There is no Lock to it, only two Bolts.

Q. What Condition were the People in then?

Bushel. They seemed to be pretty much crowded, but did not cry out: said I to Mr. Bird, if you put them in you will stifle them; but if you bolt the upper Door, and open the Door of the Hole, there will be room enough for them: Mr Bird ran down pretty hastily, and put them in; and when he came up again, he said, Bushel, I have put them in in a Minute, though you would not put them in.

Q. Did you think there was any Danger in doing it?

Bushel. I did it out of Compassion to these poor Creatures.3

In the two trials, Bird emerges as a legally savvy character who is well aware of the ins and outs of the court. In the first trial, he speaks familiarly of all the King’s Councillors, for instance, accounting their whereabouts and availability. He’s able wrangle consideration for his wife to attend the trial without any hindrance, for instance, and counters some of those who bring evidence (who he’s also requested be brought in one by one).

Bird’s darker side emerges with the testimony of several around him in the second trial:

Q. What is the general Character of the Prisoner?

Colclough. When he is sober, he is very civil to the Prisoners; but when he is in Liquor, he will swear, and curse, and rattle; when he is out of Liquor, he is very easy. – He is reckoned unkind with respect to beating them, damning them, and the like.4

In the first trial, one of the woman made the case all the more clearly about Bird’s uncaring attitude. Sarah Bland was the cousin of the murder victim mentioned in the first trial, Mary Maurice. When they were brought to the Round-House, Bird sent Bland to the Hole and Mary, who it was implied might have enjoyed the liberty of the main floor, at least for a while, asked to go with her cousin. Neither woman could have had an idea of the ordeal they were about to endure:

Bland. I begged for a little Air, and in order to get some, I told Mr Bird there was a Woman in Labour, and that some were in Fits, and that there were two a dying.

Q. What did he say to that?

Bland. He said they might die and be damned.

Bird. What Hour was that?

Bland. I believe it was not five o’Clock in the Morning.5

Bird’s callous comment was repeated several times over in the two trials. His further cruelty of closing the shutter on The Hole that reduced the airflow further, and refused the women water (claiming they only sought gin and if allowed that, would be insensate when brought before the magistrate) all seemed consistent testimony to a character totally divorced from the people in his care.

But was that enough to cast him as a murderer? In the first trial, no. The King’s Council’s careful explanation of what counted as murder might have been tailor-made to get Bird off: the jury returned a special verdict, saying that since Mary Maurice had requested to go down with her cousin Sarah, that Bird could not be charged with forcibly confining her there. So while he satisfied the other criteria laid out by the King’s Council at the trial’s outset, he failed on this count and the jury could not find him guilty.

In the second trial, for the murder of Phillis Wells, Bird was found guilty because he had been the one to commit her to the Hole where conditions were hellish because of his decisions as one Sarah Stark testified:

And we asked him for Water and Air, and he told us we should neither have Air nor Water. – I am positively sure of it. – I am sure he was the Man that made Answer so several times. There was one Shilling offered for a Pint of Water; we raised among ourselves four Shillings for a Gallon; he said we should not have any; there was one Woman he gave a Blow on her Head. – He struck her because she wanted to get up Stairs to have a drop of Wine or something to comfort her. – He said we should all suffer for her, and might die and be damned. – I cried out Fire and Murder. – Bird shut the Window the last Time. – He said twice that we might die and be damned, and we should stay till let out by the High-Constable; and the last Time he came down he struck a Woman, gave her a Kick, and pushed her away from him.6

To the end, Bird did his best to dispute the characterization most of the witnesses painted against him, especially the testimony about his response to the women’s piteous request for water. Again, from the second trial:

Bird. Did you hear any Expression ’tis said I made use of, of Die and be damned?

Malpas. I did not hear any such Words.

Bird. If I did, it was an inadvertent Expression of my Tongue, and did not come from my Heart.7

In the end, however, neither verdict was enough to see William Bird hang for the women’s deaths. His sentence was commuted to transportation for life in January of 1743.8 Was it because the jury found Bird sympathetic or was it something more convoluted? As Tim Hitchcock has pointed out in his article, “‘You bitches …die and be damned’: Gender, Authority and the Mob in St Martin’s Round-House Disaster of 1742”, Bird seems to have been set up to take the fall for this disaster.9

Thomas De Veil, the Trading Justice, appears to have been stricken with fear that the public outrage and legal blame would rest with him. Painting Bird as the callous, incompetent gaoler (not a difficult task, given the abundant evidence of his drunken cruelty) who had let these women suffer horribly would satisfy the public and any politically-minded folk who had an eye on the justice. One clear verdict was enough to satisfy the public. One commuted sentence might have been enough to ease de Veil’s conscience if it was ever involved in the process.

Notes:

  1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 17 August 2011), September 1742, trial of William Bird (t17420909-37).

  2. Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, “Vagrancy”, London Lives, 1690-1800 (www.londonlives.org, 17 August 2011). Also see Nicholas Rogers’ “Policing the Poor in Eighteenth-Century London: The Vagrancy Laws and Their Administration” Histoire sociale – Social History XXIV, 47 (May, 1991), 127-147. For more on Thomas de Veil, read Philip Sugden, ‘Veil, Sir Thomas de (1684–1746)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/101038735.

  3. OBP September 1742, trial of William Bird (t17420909-37).

  4. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 17 August 2011), October 1742, trial of William Bird (t17421013-19).

  5. OBP September 1742, trial of William Bird (t17420909-37).

  6. OBP October 1742, trial of William Bird (t17421013-19).

  7. OBP October 1742, trial of William Bird (t17421013-19).

  8. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 17 August 2011), January 1743 (s17430114-1).

  9. Tim Hitchcock, “‘You bitches …die and be damned’: Gender, Authority and the Mob in St Martin’s Round-House Disaster of 1742”, Tim Hitchcock and Heather Shore, eds., The Streets of London: From the Great Fire to the Great Stink (London: Rivers Oram, 2003), 69-81.

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