An anti-slavery ‘missionary’ is exposed as a fraud

Thomas C. Cook was an American. In fact he described himself as a “a missionary from America for the abolition of slavery”. This was a noble purpose so one wonders why it had landed him at the bar of the Union Hall Police Court in November 1839.

Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and thereafter the Royal Navy intercepted slaving vessels and policed the now illegal trade. In 1834 slavery itself was formally abolished in all of Britain’s colonies and territories, and hundreds of thousands of slaves were freed. So by 1839 slavery had been abolished in Britain and its empire yet it persisted in the United States. Within a few decades the defenders of slavery would find themselves engaged in a bitter civil war that left America divided and millions thousands dead or wounded.

Cook had come over to either lend his support to the opponents of slavery or to learn from them so he could continue to campaign against the practice in the US. Sadly its not really clear what his position was because his appearance in court suggests he was something of a charlatan.

The landlord of a pub in Camberwell (The Perseverance) brought Cook to court to answer a charge of not paying for his drunks and dinner. Richard Petch told the Union Hall magistrate that Cook had entered his establishment and ordered a rump steak with oyster sauce. Having enjoyed his meal he supped on beer and smoked a cigar, while the the public bar filled up.

He soon engaged the locals in conversation and got involved in a long argument on ‘theological matters’ which , at some point, he then declared himself the winner of. He drank heavily and told anyone who would listen that he was an American recently arrived in London to ‘lend the aid of his talents to the abolition of slavery’.

As he became louder Mr Petch suggested he had drunk  enough and might like to settle his bill and leave. At this the missionary replied that ‘he had no cash on him’ but that he was promised some money by the Lord mayor of London. He promised to pay what he owed just as soon at his lordship settled with him. Petch was not inclined to wait on such a nebulous promise however and demanded payment; when that was refused he called for the police and Cook was taken into custody.

The magistrate asked him where he lived and how he maintained himself. ‘I have no home’, Cook replied, ‘I go about from place to place and sleep at those places that suit my convenience’. He added that, ‘I have been driven to great extremities since I landed on British shores, and my funds are all expended’.

When the justice admonished him for living way beyond his means and at others’ expense Cook claimed that he had come over with a manuscript to publish but had not the funds to do so. He had presumably intended (or hoped) that he could live off the proceeds of his polemic writing.

A police inspector testified that Cook had been seen going from place to place behaving in a similar manner, eating and drinking and claiming to be destitute at the end or promising to pay later when in a better situation. In legal terms it turned on whether Cook at wilfully committed fraud, in making the landlord believe he had the funds when he did not. In the end the magistrate (Mr Jeremy) gave the American the benefit of the doubt and possibly did so because Cook promised to endeavour to return to the US as soon as possible if he was released.

However, Mr Jeremy warned him that he came before him again for a similar action he would prosecute him under the Vagrancy Laws and he would face gaol. He advised the landlord to pursue a civil claim for the loss of payment.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 15, 1839]H

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