A seventeenth-century detective

In responding to a comment by Kristine on the post about ghosts, I brought up the strategies and choices of witnesses concerned to persuade local officials of the truth of their accounts of events. The use of the supernatural in narratives about murder was just one way, and a relatively unusual one, of doing that. Moving away from homicide (because sometimes I do!) to the more common and mundane area of theft, many witness testimonies in the early modern court records bring quite straightforward evidence of suspects caught in possession of stolen goods shortly after the theft. But not always, and the most interesting detective stories come when this sort of material evidence was unavailable.

Here’s an example from 1688. Hugh Dod was in charge of Mr Edward Brereton’s malting kiln, at Borras (near Wrexham). In his deposition, he explained that on the morning of 27 November he went into the kiln and on entering he noticed some “lyme mortar falln upon the killn floore” and saw that part of the wall was “broaken or crushd”. He asked his underling, John Griffith about the damage and John said that he didn’t know.

Hugh then went up the stairs to view the malt, and found that several measures had been taken out of a pile of dried malt in one corner; he noted that the malted barley that was still in the process of drying (“withering”) “was so spread over ye rest of ye floore & so neare to the heape of dryed malt, that noe stranger might have come to ye dryd malt without passing over ye withering malt”. He asked John Griffith, “What is gon with the malt, have ye sent any to ye mill, & it so lately dryed”, to which John answered, none that he knew of, unless Mrs Brereton had sent some while he was busy. Hugh sent John to ask (the answer came back negative).

Meanwhile, Hugh went round to the back of the kiln where the wall was broken and

found more mortar the outside then ye inside soe that he believes the wall was broak from within meerely out of colour & not to convey ye malt out that way for ye breach was so litle & noe malt spilt or lost within side or without side ye breach, & ye bricks were sett up againe & ye joynts or crevices were stopt up with fearne & grass…

So he concluded that the malt had in fact been taken out of the kiln door… and finished up by noting that “John Griffith had all ye keys belonging to ye said killn with him the begining of ye night that ye said malt was stolne”.

Jonathan Cawdo, a young servant, was the second witness. He told the magistrate that he had gone along with John Griffith into the kiln the previous evening at about 10pm, ostensibly to check that the fire was out. But another servant, Sarah Andrew, came after them and asked them what they were doing there “at that tyme of ye night & tould them that her master was very angry that they were at ye killn at that unseasonable tyme”. Jonathan left the kiln and told John to hurry up after him, “whereupon ye said John came out and lockt ye killn dore as this deponent thought, but left the inner dore that went in to ye withering floore unlock’d and delivered but one key & left ye other key in ye killn”.

John Griffith was charged with the theft at the next Great Sessions. The indictment notes that Hugh appeared as prosecutor. But his careful tracing of his process of observation and deduction, and the account of John’s possibly suspicious (but maybe just careless) behaviour the night before the theft, did not result in a conviction.

The problem was that the evidence against John was entirely circumstantial; what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Denbighshire juries preferred was evidence directly and physically linking the accused to the stolen property. Prosecutors who could not produce such evidence might well set out in detail the detective work that had focused their suspicion on a particular person (and these narratives are fascinating to me as a historian); but this sort of evidence was much less effective in the court room.

But I rather doubt that John Griffith kept his job for very long.

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27 Responses to A seventeenth-century detective

  1. Chris Williams says:

    Nice one. Do you have records of anything approaching forensic awareness? Plaster on the hands, mud on the feet- that kind of thing. I’ve seen a c.1800 constables’ manual that talks about the importance of preserving footprints, but I’m interested in when courts began to pay attention to material as well than human testimony.

  2. Sharon says:

    I can’t think of anything quite like that. (But I’ll have a browse.) I do have a case (1710s or 1720s) where a victim looking for a missing cow ‘discerned’ and followed the trail of a cow’s hoofprints and a man’s clogs (which petered out near the house of a butcher…), but nothing to suggest anyone thought of preserving the tracks as evidence. (See also tracking a distinctive footprint in this 1770 murder case.) Or there was the poisoning case (1680s) where witnesses talked about searching the suspect’s house and the nasty-looking stuff they found there. But what then happened to it? I don’t have accounts of the trials (or coroner’s inquests), so I don’t have any way of knowing. But my guess would be that this is the sort of thing that starts to matter much more once defence lawyers arrive on the scene; a witness’s testimony about material evidence on its own could be undermined, safer to actually produce the thing in question to back it up.

    If you’ve got a strong stomach, I can also tell you the story of how an early-18th-century doctor attempted to find out whether a flask of brandy had contained poison. (Not suitable for dog-lovers.) Primitive forensics, oh yeah.

  3. Chris Williams says:

    I reckon that I can work out what happened to the dog. Was the experiment conducted in court or at/before the committal hearing?

  4. Sharon says:

    Shortly after the death; the coroner’s inquest wasn’t held for over 4 months (very unusual to have such a delay), and I’m not sure exactly when the suspect was arrested. But it was worse than I remembered. It wasn’t the contents of the flask. The two doctors opened up the body a couple of days after the death, and one of them took a sample of the contents of the deceased’s stomach home with him and did his, um, experiment there. But there are some other witnesses talking about a flask. Quite apart from the poor old dog, you might find it interesting. I’ll email you the file if you’d like.

  5. Kristine says:

    Oooh, don’t you just love detective stories? I’m not sure I’d like to hear more details on the poor dog, though. But your post and Chris’s comments made me wonder whether any early modern plays feature forensic methods in crime detection — and I thought of at least one. It would have made rather a long comment, so I posted it on my blog instead.

  6. Chris Williams says:

    Yeah, go on Sharon. I’ve had my tea already.

    Good quote Kristine – and check out Sharon’s comments on it too, all you early modern detective fans (and early modern ‘inventive modes of execution’ fans, too).

  7. Sharon says:

    For some completely incomprehensible reason, Kristine’s trackback went off to another post altogether: go here for her post.

  8. Kristine says:

    The incomprehensible reason is that blogging is relatively new to me, and sometimes incomprehensible — but I’ll soon get the hang of permalinks and trackbacks, I hope.

    Thanks for your comment on my blog – I loved it. Do you, (or anyone else reading this) know of any (cultural-) historical studies into the history of forensic analysis that also look at the early modern period? I googled a bit, but most (Foucauldian) studies of the history of forensic criminology seem to focus on the nineteenth century.

  9. Sharon says:

    I can’t think of anything at the moment, Kristine, but I’ll give it some thought. I’m not sure there would be: in scientific terms, early modern forensics are very rudimentary (and often intertwined with phenomena like cruentation, ie corpses bleeding at the murderer’s touch, which turns up in the play you posted about) and probably not very interesting to modern historians. Meanwhile the standard line in early modern histories of crime tends to be that most cases were brought to court on very basic evidence – a thief being caught red-handed within minutes of the crime, direct observation of the events, confessions, etc. Any kind of detective work (let alone of the kind we might call forensic) was crude and insignificant. Well, some of this amateur detection could be crude, but it could also be rather sophisticated, and it certainly wasn’t insignificant. (Quick plug for my article…)

  10. Kristine says:

    Thanks for pointing me to your article! The “amateur” detective work you discuss there was precisely what I meant: investigations carried out by individuals or by the community in the absence of an organized police force or a forensic science as we now know it. I think it’s a really interesting subject, because it touches upon so many themes of community relations, the workings of the law, and individual agency. It’s not only the sophisticated forensic methods that fascinate me, but also the social position of such “detectives.” In a sense, the position of such investigators resembles that of the revenger in revenge tragedy (as Lorna Hutson also remarks) – it is someone who is not part of the legal system but tries to achieve justice by means of an individual investigation. But where my dramatic revengers often work alone, or are part of of a group that has isolated itself from society, your detectives are very much part of the community (they also finally put their trust in the legal system, whereas my revengers do not). Now that I am on to matters of social position, just out of curiosity: Do you think that certain members of the community were “called in” on cases, on the basis of their reputation for such detective work, or their authority within the community? Or did only those who were themselves affected by the crime do such research?

  11. How very neat! Although I should probably mention that now “This is the house that Jack built” is stuck in my head.

  12. Sharon says:

    Kristine: usually, it seems that it was those who were directly affected in some way who did the work. Usually the victims and their friends, relatives and servants (an important group among detectives); sometimes people who had happened to be on the spot and intervened because they saw something suspicious; or who had unwittingly become involved by buying stolen goods or animals. Crime probably didn’t affect the rural communities I’m familiar with often enough for anyone to build up a stock of detective knowledge that could be called on. But it was a bit different in cities, especially London. ‘Thief takers’ emerged in London certainly by the late Stuart period (perhaps earlier; I’m not too sure) – there’s a chapter by Tim Wales in Griffiths and Jenner (eds), Londinopolis. And then there’s the work of the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid-18th century. Justices of the Peace rarely took an active role in detection, but there were exceptions: John Styles, ‘An eighteenth-century magistrate as detective: Samuel Lister of Little Horton’, Bradford Antiquary, n.s. 47 (1982). For 18th-century London, it’s also worth looking at Robert Shoemaker’s The London mob and Elaine Reynolds’ Before the Bobbies.

  13. Kristine says:

    Sharon, you are an incredible font of knowledge!

  14. Sharon says:

    (Is there a blushing emoticon?…)

    Well, maybe but in a rather narrow field (but that’s what a PhD does to you). It seems impressive because you keep asking the right questions! :)

  15. Chris Williams says:

    There’s another article on the way: ‘Early detection: the Bow Street runners in late 18th century London’ by J.M. Beattie, which is in _Police Detectives in History, 1750–1950_ edited by Clive Emsley and Haia Shpayer-Makov. Ashgate. Feb 2006, they reckon.

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  17. I’m interested in when courts began to pay attention to material as well as human testimony.

    That’s a fascinating question which will probably have me poking through a great many court records today when I really ought to be working. One form of forensic evidence which caught on very early, though, was medical analysis of death wounds. I’ve seen plenty of 17th-century murder cases in which surgeons testified as to the cause of death, and the practice may go back before that. I’d guess that this practice derives from coroners’ inquests, but I couldn’t prove it.

  18. Sharon says:

    The online OBP could be a very good source for this question; unfortunately I doubt that it’d be possible to use keyword searches in order to get this sort of information without some rather laborious trawling.

    17th-century coroners quite often heard evidence from both surgeons and laypeople about the wounds and injuries observed on a corpse, along with the witness’s opinion of whether the observed injuries had been the cause of death (there was often a good deal of uncertainty on this point).

  19. Another common kind of physical evidence was identifying marks used to prove ownership of stolen goods. In some cases, the goods themselves were produced in court, although I’ve noticed that this happened most often when the prisoner had counsel.

  20. Chris Williams says:

    Hmm . . . what about the deodand?

    I’ve just marked a project that has a bearing on this discussion, but for reasonably obvious reasons I can’t post about it til the mark gets ratified some time in late November. Can y’all wait?

  21. Sharon says:

    Jonathan, this is the intriguing question. You can find witnesses talking about identifying marks – including earmarks on livestock – in the early 17th century and probably before. No question that this was part of the detective process. But how early were such things actually produced in court to back up the witnesses’ descriptions?…

    Oh my. I’ve just remembered something. I think a new post is in order.

    (Plus, I’ll try to get back to Chris on deodands; he commented while I was writing this.)

  22. I can think of a few search terms to use in the OBSP database, dealing with the type of clues that an 18th-century investigator might be likely to find. In any event, it seems on cursory examination that two types of physical evidence appeared fairly often. One is when accused criminals were caught with the tools of their trade (e.g., when plaster molds and mercury were found in a coiner’s apartment). The other is forged documents which were produced and examined in court, often with analysis of the handwriting or markings. This happened frequently in the lottery fraud cases (such as this one), with the tickets being produced in court and lottery clerks testifying about the markings made prior to sale.

  23. Here’s a 1686 case in which forged documents were produced in court and identified by expert (printer’s) testimony:

    John Nowell, was Indicted for a Cheat, in Forging and Counterfeiting a False Writing or Brief, to Collect Moneys in the King’s Name, under the Sign Manual, bearing date at White Hall, the 23 d. of October, &c. The Evidence for the King witnessed, that he had Printed several Copys of the Brief, with the Kings Arms on the Top, which were produced in Court, and proved to be the same by the Printer and others, &c.

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  26. Sharon says:

    An update: I’ve learned from John Styles that his article on the 18th-century detective magistrate can now be found online here:


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