A confident thief says he’ll take his chances with a jury

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I enjoy the way in which the nineteenth century press occasionally rendered the testimony of witnesses at the Police Courts in the vernacular. It was probably done to amuse the usually middle-class readership, and is very far from being ‘pc’ but it does give us a sense of how people spoke.

In February 1839 Denis Burns was accused of stealing a coat and the following exchange with a witness took place at Mansion House Police Court in the City of London.

A groom at a livery stables close to St Mary’s Axe (now home to the Gherkin building) testified that he saw Burns open the door of a carriage and remove a coat from within.

Prisoner:’You saw me take the coat! Mind vot you say my good young man. Take time to consider and remember your precious soul’.

Witness: ‘You made no bones about it at all, but lugged it ou’ and throwed it over your arm, and away you toddled and me arter you’.

Prisoner: ‘Oh, dear me! Please you my Lord! the precious babe as never see’d the light till next year a’nt more innocent than myself, and he knows it b____y well.I’m a poor but honest man’.

The Lord Mayor (sounding rather tired of lame excuses from the dock) asked Burns how it had come by the coat, given that he admitted to having it in his possession.

Burns explained:

‘You see my Lord, as I was walking along. looking for a job, a man turns quick out of a yard, with this here coat over his arm. “I say, old fellow”, says he to me, “you look as if you was hard up; there’s a coat for you, for its no go;” and throws the coat bang at me’.

So, the Lord Mayor asked him, the man made a present of his coat because he didn’t need it any more? Yes, replied Burns, although he admitted he’d be wary of accepting such a gift in the future. The Lord Mayor told him he was going to ensure he had no more similar ‘presents’ in the future and committed him for trial for the theft.

Burns was defiant: ‘Then if ever there was an innocent man sent to Noogate for doing of nothing, I’m the poor unfortunate man’.

His defence was somewhat undermined not only by the groom that saw him filch the garment from the coach, but also by a policeman who appeared to say that he had admitted the theft when he was arrested. He told the court that Burns had said he took it only because he was desperate and ‘in distress’.

‘S’help me God’, Burns blurted out, ‘all I said was I was quite in distress, ’cause they said I’d do such a thing’ (this caused laughter in the courtroom).

To this the Lord Mayor replied:’Well, you must prevail upon a jury to believe you’. ‘Depend upon it, I will’ was Burns’ response.

There is no Denis (or Dennis) Burns in the Old Bailey Proceedings but perhaps it wasn’t written up and printed (not all trials were). If he was convicted he might have faced transportation; a few years earlier and he would have been on trial for his life.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 28, 1839]

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