Monday, 24 June 2013

'The Real Moll Flanders: 18th Century Criminal Trials and Punishment’: Part 2, the case of Hester Norton.

Before the advent of a national police force victims of crime were expected to take the lead in the detection, arrest and committal of suspected criminals. In those circumstances, local knowledge and the support of the community were essential in bringing a suspect before a magistrate. Until that point, magistrates generally took a passive role in the investigation or detection of infractions of the criminal law, issuing warrants to local constables or bailiffs to search and arrest suspects at the request of a victim of crime.

Once a suspect was detained the role of a magistrate was to examine the victim, accused and any witnesses. Examinations were taken in the presence of a legal clerk, whose role was to ‘create’ written statements based on the questions put by the magistrate and answers elicited from each witness. They were then signed by the witness and the examining magistrate. Sworn statements were used to form the basis of an indictment which was put to a grand jury to determine the validity of an accusation and might be produced to the grand jury to enable them to reach that decision.

The case against Hester Norton began when she tried to sell a silver tumbler to William Thompson. Although Thompson lived seven miles away from Hester’s former home he was aware of her bad character and, suspecting that she had stolen the tumbler, he reported his suspicions to a magistrate.

City of York -The information of William Thompson of the City of York, taylor, taken on oath the 9th day of May 1735.
Saith that on Wednesday last after Norton, spinster, came to this informants’ house and brought along with her a silver tumbler marked TE which she left at this informants’ house along with her clothes and told this informant she received the said tumbler from one Elizabeth Varey of Marston in satisfaction of a guinea the said Varey owed her. And this informant having heard a bad character of the said Hester Norton went over to Marston to enquire into the truth of the facts of the said Elizabeth Varey who told this informant that she knows nothing of this tumbler and that the said Norton never had it from her from whence and other concerning circumstances this informant verily believes the said tumbler hath been stolen by the said Hester Norton from some person or persons unknown or present to this informant.
Sworn before James Dodsworth    Signed: William Thompson
The relevance of Thompson’s statement is that it emphasises the seriousness of the offence by value, bringing it into the category of felony by stating the value of goods in excess of the one shilling threshold. It further alleges evidence of her bad character, possibly to persuade the magistrate to prosecute the offence. Finally, William Thompson signs his own name, providing evidence of his education and social status.
As a result of enquiries made following Thompson’s allegations George Gray of Stillingfleet, Hester’s former employer, was identified as the owner of the stolen goods. He identified the silver tumbler as his and listed a range of other valuable items missing from his home.

City of York - The information of George Gray of Stillingfleet in the County of York, yeoman, taken upon oath the 10th day of May 1735.
This informant saith and deposeth that on Saturday night last he was in his own right possessed of a silver tumbler, four half crowns which were in the cup, a pair of silver studs and two pair of little silver buttons, a suit of mobbs, five pounds and half penny, two gold rings, a black silk hood which have been since stolen by some person or persons unknown but saith that the silver cup now in the hands of William Thompson is the very cup so stolen and the gold ring in the hands of William Musgrave is one of the rings so stolen as aforesaid and were respectively delivered to them and this informant was told by Hester Norton who was lately this informant’s servant who stole all the said goods and money as this informant believes.
Sworn before James Dodsworth                      Signed: George Gray
                Bound in £20 to [prosecute]
Gray’s statement includes confirmation that he was the owner of the goods, as proof that goods were taken from an identifiable person. It states the value of items taken and evidence of the seriousness of the alleged crime through the breach of trust by a servant who stole from her employer. Gray’s signature provides evidence of his literacy and his statement is marked to show that Gray was bound by a financial bond to prosecute Hester at the following assizes.

City of York - The Examination of Hester Norton, singlewoman taken the 10th day of May 1735.
Being charged with stealing a silver tumbler, four half crowns, a pair of silver studs, two pairs of little silver buttons, a suit of mobs, five pounds and half penny, two gold rings, a black silk hood.  Confesseth she stole the said Tumbler and two rings from George Gray on Saturday night last but denys she stole any besides.
Taken before James Dodsworth     Hester Norton  X
Hester’s statement takes the form of her confession to having stolen all the items recovered and a denial in respect of any other items reported stolen by Gray. Without further proof Hester was indicted only for the theft of items she attempted to sell. Hester’s mark demonstrates the inequalities between the accused and accusers.
Committal papers prepared for trial at the assizes provide a useful tool for examining how suspects were identified and evidence gathered. However, depositions are not wholly transparent and the modern reader should bear in mind that witness statements are legal constructs, drafted to achieve specific aims. Details of a crime might be exaggerated or minimised, depending on the outcome desired by the victim, while witnesses might edit their evidence in order to avoid implicating themselves as an accomplice.
York Castle, from a 1820 watercolour by Samuel Waud: including the Sessions House, County Gaol and Jury House.
Hester Norton appeared at the assizes for York city in March 1736 where she was charged with domestic burglary and felony of goods valued at 50 shillings. It is likely that Gray led the prosecution and, without legal guidance, may have found it difficult to argue successfully that Hester was guilty of burglary when she was permitted to be in his premises as an employee. As a result, Hester was found not guilty of burglary but guilty of felony. Nevertheless, the goods stolen greatly exceeded the capital threshold so that a capital sentence was inevitable. The presiding judge, Sir Lawrence Carter, kt, recommend Hester to the secretary of state (and ultimately the king) as a ‘fit object of mercy’, in order that her sentence might be commuted to transportation to America for fourteen years. Her reprieve was confirmed at the summer assizes, August 1736. Hester would have been held in gaol for over one year before being transported, that is, from the first time she was brought before a magistrate until the order for transportation was carried out. However, time served on remand or pending transportation was not taken into consideration and the term of transportation would have been for the full term imposed.

 English Convict Transportation to  America. c.17th to early 18th century. A group of English convicts being transported as indentured servants (Anon), accessed 30 August 2013.

Statements transcribed in this blog can be found in The National Archives, series ASSI 45/20/2.

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