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“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced by the instigation of the devil,” were commonly used, perhaps to convey the sense that anyone committing murder cannot be of sound mind or soul? Perhaps in this case though they also serve to emphasise the beginnings of of what was to become a continuing struggle  to understand the mind of a murderer.

Up until 30th November 1787 James Carse had been a sailor on the frigate, “Boreas” having served for four years, mainly in the West Indies, under the captainship of the young Horatio Nelson. When he was signed off he was paid 50 guineas, a considerable amount of money at the time.

On December 2nd 1787, Carse went drinking with a group of friends, in a public house in Wapping called the “Ship in Distress.” Here he met a girl called Mary Mills, a “woman of the town.” Carse shared his drink (three pennyworth of rum and water) with Mary and asked if he could “go home” with her. She agreed and took him back to a room she shared with Sarah Hayes. Carse gave Sarah a shilling for the use of the bed and sent her out with half a crown to fetch him a pot of brandy. She came back with the drink and change of eighteen pence.

Carse and Mary started to get undressed while Sarah smoked a pipe in the chimney corner. Later, at the trial, Mary commented on the strange way Carse rolled his trousers into a bundle, “like a doll” and laid them at his side on the bed. He lay there for a while before sending Sarah out for more drink. She returned with the drink and food for him, insisting that he eat something. Suddenly, Carse jumped out of the bed, wearing only a shirt, and produced a knife. He grabbed Sarah by the throat and shouted “I will, I must, I must, I must” and stabbed the girl.

There was, and is, little doubt as to the guilt of James Carse. He was arrested at the scene, covered in blood and the knife still in his hand. He also later confessed to the murder. Nor is there any doubt as to the sheer brutality of his crime, in killing a woman who had shown him nothing but kindness and who had offered no provocation. Yet there do seem to be some grounds for questioning his soundness of mind. Carse said little in his own defence at the trial, other than, “I was threatened my life at the same time.” When asked who had threatened his life, he said, “This woman, and the woman that I killed.” Pressed further he added, “There were people round the house at the same time.

This hardly amounts to a credible defence, and the proceedings of the Old Bailey do not give an account of the impression he gave, standing in the dock. Yet while James Carse said little in his own defence two factors probably saved his life. His defence barrister was the renowned William Garrow (as depicted recently in the TV series – “Garrow’s Law“) and the witness who spoke up for his character was the Captain Horatio Nelson, not yet an Admiral and the victor of Trafalgar, but even then a respected and commanding presence.

First Garrow produced two witnesses who said that Carse had told them that he was being pursued by a gang of sixteen men who were after his money when he had left his ship; that he had paid them off once, but that they were still after him. They said he seemed obsessed with the idea that people were after his money and would kill him for it. (Hence the importance of Carse’s statement that he believed “There were people round the at the same time.“) Several witnesses also attested that Carse’s character had changed since he had returned from the Indies. (Nowadays he might have been described as suffering from paranoid delusions.) Then Garrow questioned Captain Horatio Nelson.

William Garrow: “Had you an opportunity of knowing the character of this man, as far as humanity and good-nature were concerned?

Horatio Nelson: “Perfectly; …when I heard of this affair, I said, if it is true, he must be insane, for I should as soon suspect myself, and sooner, because I know I am hasty; he is so quiet a man, and never committed a fault during the time I knew him; seamen, I know perfectly, when they come home, the landlords will furnish them with raw liquors; I saw myself thirty or forty people from that ship, that were made as mad as if they were at Bedlam, and did not know what they did: I know, that when seamen are furnished with British spirits, it turns the brain.”

Garrow: “Can you fairly say, that this man, under the pressure of a good deal of liquor, did appear to you to be insane?”

Horatio Nelson: “He was a cooper on board; and at the island of Antigua, I think it was, he was struck with the sun, after which time he appeared melancholy; I have been affected with it; I have been out of my senses; it hurts the brain.”

Garrow: Is he a man, from your knowledge of him, likely to commit a deliberate foul murder?

Horatio Nelson: I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.

After retiring for some time, the jury found Carse guilty of murder, but recommended, “that an enquiry should be made into the state of the man’s mind before execution“. The judge agreed and respited execution pending the Royal prerogative.

As far as I can ascertain Carse was later pardoned on condition that he re-join the navy. Perhaps a combination of William Garrow and Horatio Nelson had saved the life of James Carse, as an 18th century legal system struggled with the definition of sanity and the concept of “being of sound mind”? It also raises questions as to whether “celebrity” played a role in the outcome. Was justice done, perhaps we will never know. What is certain is that a young woman needlessly and innocently lost her life in a particularly brutal way.

The case is also interesting for what it tells us about the skill of Garrow as an investigator, and of the young Nelson and his relationship with those who served under him – the fact that he knew the members of his crew (Carse was not an officer and held a fairly lowly place in the ship’s hierarchy) and that he was was willing to speak out for them even in circumstances such as this.  Nelson’s testimony was also very frank and self-critical – “I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.” 

One other detail of interest from the indictment is the reference to “and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies.” It appears from examining reports of other murder cases in the Old Bailey archives that it was common practice to to record the price of the murder weapon, be it a pistol valued at five shillings or a piece of wood with a value of a penny. This probably has a precedent in law, but perhaps it was a way of commenting on the fragility or cheapness of life?

Further details of this case, as recorded at the time, can be found in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

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