Reposted: 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.


(Originally posted October 2005)

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