Philobiblon: Another astonishing piece of blogography*

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Another astonishing piece of blogography*

Way back in July 2004, when I was a total blog neophyte, with my second-ever post I asked about a pamphlet that I'd stumbled across in the British Library:

The Confessions, Prayers, discourses and last dying sayings of Mr Edward Harrison, who was try'd and convicted and deservedly sentenced the Sixth and Ninth of this Instand April 1692, for the late unheard of Murder of Dr Clench, and accordingly Executed in Holbourn, on Friday the Fifteenth following ... this Day about the Hour of Eleven, carried from Newgate to Holbourn, against Furnivals-Inn, where a Gibbet was Erected."

I wrote then: "The execution site is about 50m from where I live, so I couldn't help being interested, although the pamphlet reads like it was written entirely by the Ordinary of Newgate, being full of pious injunctions to friends and other young males not to follow in his footsteps. Frustrating it contains no information about him and his crimes. Does it ring any bells out there?"

This was typical of my early posts - this blog was initially going to be about snippets of historical research only - and now look at the monster ....

But anyway, would you believe it? On the Head Heeb Jonathan has just posted the whole story, and it was indeed no ordinary London murder. The victim was a distinguished member of the Royal Society, and he was lured out one night with a tale of a patient urgently needing his services ...

As the coach proceeded through the city streets, the passengers twice ordered coachman John Sikes to stop and run errands, ostensibly for things that would help in the patient's cure. When the coachman returned from the second errand, he found the mysterious gentlemen gone and Dr. Clenche motionless in his seat. In an attempt to revive him, Sikes "pull'd him, and cried, Master, Master, for I thought he had been in Drink," but it soon became clear that the doctor was dead. ...
His murderers had placed the coal against his windpipe and then fiendishly garrotted him with the handkerchief. The killers were, of course, no longer around to be questioned; both men had fled into the night, leaving passers-by with but a fleeting glimpse of their faces.

But, just like in bad novels, that handkerchief was to prove the murderer's undoing ....

Jonathan posted this in conjunction with his plan to host the first Internet symposium on the Old Bailey online database. It contains: "The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674 to 1834: A fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court." And the project now has funding to extend the digitisation project up to 1913.

This stupendous resource - one which I wrote a story for The Times in 2004 - certainly deserves to be highlighted and celebrated in this way.

You might not be a historian, but if you've read this far you're almost certainly interested in history. This symposium is meant to be broad-ranging: maybe you'd like to do a little research for it, or maybe if you write fiction you might want to use one of its tales as a foundation, and thus participate in the symposium, which is to be on February 12?

Just picking out today's trial, as possible inspiration (there is one case featured on the site each day):
Joseph Taylor (otherwise Cutler otherwise Turner) was sentenced to death for "having been found at large in the city of London before the expiration of the term for which he had received sentence to be transported". You might think that a tough sentence, but there was more to it. A city centre resident testified:

"I live at the corner of the Old Jewry in the Poultry, on Sunday evening the 15th of January, I saw the prisoner and another man at my back door, I observed the prisoner endeavouring to open my door; I collared him, after some struggle he was secured and took to the Compter; there was a picklock in my door and eight or nine more found in his pocket."

The convict himself testified that he'd been to Philadelphia, where the city authorities had put him on a ship back to Bristol. His must have been quite a life-story.

*I invented the term blogography (no, I didn't spend hours dreaming it up), after an earlier similar cross-fertlising research development, about the Mary Lady Broughton widow and Keeper of the Gatehouse Prison. I have had accepted for publication my first-ever academic article about this phenomenon. The (online) journal was due out in the middle of last year, so I'm hoping it will be published soon ...


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