Contempt charges: ‘Twas ever thus
I’m not going to comment directly on the news that the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, has brought contempt of court charges against the Sun and Daily Mirror over their Joanna Yeates coverage, since the matter is now clearly sub judice, other than to raise a quizzical eyebrow that a certain national daily newspaper we might all have expected to be included has not been. But the matter is now firmly one for m’lud.
Instead, I wish to turn to a particular instance of journalistic history. By happy coincidence and through the auspices of the Raynes Park Public Library, I happen to be reading Judith Flanders’ rather good The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. I’m currently engrossed in Chapter Two, Trial by Newspaper, in which she outlines a particularly juicy and sensational murder, that of William Weare, on or about October 24, 1823 (so it actually preceded the Victorian age by 14 years).
Briefly, the facts of the case were that the victim, who claimed to be a solicitor who lived in Lyon’s Inn (once an Inn of Chancery), but who seems to have earned his living through more rakishly Regency occupations such as waitering, billiards-making, gambling and promoting crooked fights, fell in with John Thurtell, a failed mercenary (during the Napoleonic Wars), failed cloth merchant, failed publican and failed gambler, but who considered himself a “man of the fancy” – ie, a prizefight promoter. A star-cross’d bout, as Shakespeare might have said if he were a man of that particular fancy.
Weare arranged to go for a weekend’s shooting with Thurtell and his friend Joseph Hunt at Gill’s Hill, now part of Radlett, Hertfordshire, staying in the cottage of William Probert, a spirit merchant who seems to have run a lucrative sideline supplying dodgy credit. It was later alleged that Thurtell was the perpetrator of a murderous conspiracy involving Hunt and Probert to kill Weare and relieve him of the enormous wealth (about £2000) he was rumoured to habitually carry about with him.
The weekend seems to have run with all the smoothness of a Ben Travis farce – Thurtell arrived before Hunt, whom Probert had dropped off at an inn to await Thurtell, who was waiting for Hunt at the cottage etc – but it ended in tragedy for Weare, who was shot in the face, then bludgeoned to death before having his throat slit, being stuffed in a sack and dumped in a nearby pond. This was not the end of his indignities: the perpetrators later recovered the body and then dumped it in a pond in Elstree. The proceeds were rather less than the expected £2000 windfall – about £15, plus a few trinkets.
The police – in the form of the Bow Street Runners – arrested Thurtell, Hunt and Probert. Hunt quickly grassed, and fingered Thurtell as the main man. You can read the rest of the case in Flanders’ book, or, if you must, on Wikipedia, but what I’m interested in is one particular newspaper’s coverage of the case at this stage: ie, after arrest, but before trial.
This newspaper, says Flanders, ran a “stream of vitriolic – and completely unsubstantiated – stories” about Thurtell. On November 6, for example, it said: “Thurtell is reported to have been with Wellington’s troops at the siege of San Sebastian, where he lurked behind the lines to murder and rob a fallen officer.” According to the newspaper, Thurtell boasted:
I thought by the look of him that he was a nob, and must have some blunt [money] about him; so I tucked my sword in his ribs, and settled him; and found a hundred and forty doubloons in his pocket!
Readers commented that 140 doubloons would be more than a soldier could easily carry from a battlefield. At this remove it’s hard to tell, since at the time “doubloon” seems to have referred to any gold coin of Spanish origin. But it’s interesting that the newspaper’s readers were prepared at this stage to call it up on what they judged to be over-excitement in what was clearly an excitable age.
Not that it stopped this particular paper: it also reported that an airgun in the shape of a walking stick had been found in Thurtell’s lodgings. Nothing more was ever heard of this cunning device, but no matter: the paper later reported that a James Wood, supposedly Thurtell’s rival for the fair hand of Miss Caroline Noyes, the sister of Probert’s wife, had been evilly lured into a trap in a tenement where he was attacked with a pair of dumbbells – and, wouldn’t you know it – such dumbbells had been found in that building.
As if that were not proof enough, the paper reported that Probert had testified (note that this is still before the trial) that Thurtell “had picked out 17 persons of substance that he intended to rob and murder, and that [Weare] was one of them.” The other 16 obviously had a lucky escape “from the late horrid conspiracy”, the paper noted.
Another who had a lucky escape was one Sparks, who had declined to go into business with Thurtell, thus evading by the skin of his teeth “a horrible doom, which otherwise, in all probability, awaited him”.
As far as this paper was concerned, it was all done and dusted when a week later, and still to come to trial, it pronounced Thurtell, Hunt and Probert as “the guilty culprits.”
The question of the day is: which newspaper is this?
Clue: It’s not the Sun, nor the Daily Mirror, nor the other paper I hinted at previously. None of them were around at the time.
Award yourself a fluffy toy if you guessed it was this.
FOOTNOTE: The Weare murder trial inspired many a rhyme, something that is sadly lacking today. One such was:
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.
William McGonagall eat your heart out.
The Thurtell case is also memorable for the testimony of Mrs Probert who, when asked “Was supper postponed?”, replied “No, it was pork.”