Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Pleasure of Primary Sources

My most recent blog post was a byproduct of research for a chapter on 18th century English criminal law, a snippet from a several hundred page report by a parliamentary committee written in the early 19th century. The report is full of other interesting stuff. There are multiple interviews dealing with corruption at the parish level by a magistrate named Merceron, a local boss in the habit of illegally altering property taxes to reward his friends and punish his enemies and refusing to license public houses unless they agreed to buy their liquor from his preferred supplier. We get to see the accusation by the local rector, questioning of various people who did or did not get their public houses licensed, and Merceron's testimony in his defense. 

More relevant to my current project are the views of law enforcement institutions expressed by those testifying. The system in London included both unpaid constables—the norm elsewhere—and a small number of constables employed, under the direction of magistrates, at a low salary. There were substantial parliamentary rewards on conviction for serious felonies, shared among the private prosecutor, the witnesses, and any constables or private thieftakers who played a role in apprehending and convicting the defendant. There were also rewards offered by crime victims for recovering their property and/or catching and convicting the criminal responsible. 

A question that comes up repeatedly is the effect of the reward system on the incentives of the constables. The rumor is that they deliberately let someone get away with a string of minor crimes for which there is no reward until he "weighs forty pounds," commits a felony for which there is a forty pound reward. Practically all the witnesses questioned on that matter, most of them magistrates, insist that their constables would never do such a thing. Their concern is rather that jurors may disbelieve the testimony of constables on the unwarranted suspicion that they are biasing it to guarantee a conviction and thus a reward. That is offered as one argument for replacing the system of parliamentary rewards conditional on conviction with one of rewards given at the discretion of the magistrates whether or not the defendant is convicted. The chairman doing the questioning is pushing that idea, as well as other reforms, and most of the magistrates agree.

The most interesting witness is John Townsend, a prominent constable whose job at times included protecting the Prince Regent.  His opinion of his fellow constables is less optimistic:
I have, with every attention that man could bestow, watched the conduct of various persons who have given evidence against their fellow-creatures for life or death, not only at the Old Bailey, but on the circuits, and I have always been perfectly convinced that would be the best mode that possibly could be adopted to pay officers, particularly because they are dangerous creatures; they have it frequently in their power (no question about it) to turn that scale, when the beam is level, on the other side; I mean against the poor  wretched man at the bar: why? This thing called nature says profit is in the scale; and, melancholy to relate, but I cannot help being perfectly satisfied, that frequently that has been the means of convicting many and many a man; and I told Sir Charles Bunbury my opinion upon that subject thirty years ago, when he wanted to get rid of rewards, it should be in the breast of the judges on the circuit, and the judges at the Old Bailey, or the judge who tries at the Old Bailey, whether they have convicted or not convicted the party; … they should have a discriminating power to pay that officer according to the nature of the case: then the officer does not stand up and look at this unfortunate creature, and swear to this or that thing, or the other thing, for what? For the lucre–for nature is nature, do with us what you will; and therefore I am convinced, that whenever A. is giving evidence against B. he should stand perfectly uninterested.
He agrees that rewards on conviction are a bad system—not because they lead to guilty men being acquitted by skeptical juries but to innocent men being convicted by the testimony of constables in search of blood money.

My favorite 18th century source is Casanova's Memoirs, the autobiography of a talented con man, gambler, entrepreneur, poet, author and adventurer. During a visit to London, Casanova observed window signs advertising the available of perjured testimony, was arrested on perjured testimony, encountered Sir John Fielding, the famous blind magistrate of Bow Street, was released after a night in jail when two respectable tradesmen agreed to stand bail for him. 

His younger contemporary John Boswell, a Scottish lawyer famous mostly as the biographer of Samuel Johnson, kept a journal most of which has survived.  It describes in great detail his unsuccessful attempt to get a pardon for a convicted client. The story provides an inside picture of the working of a legal system where almost all serious crimes were capital but only a minority of those convicted were executed, the rest being pardoned on condition of transportation, pardoned on condition of enlistment in army or navy, or given a free pardon, sent home, and told not to do it again.

All three of those are relevant to my current project, although I originally read both Casanova and Boswell for unrelated reasons. But there are lots of other readable, entertaining, and informative sources from other times and places. The Icelandic sagas, histories and historical novels written down in the thirteen and fourteenth century, many of them set and possibly composed in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, provide a readable and realistic picture of a medieval society. For early Islamic history try Mohammed's People, a history done as a pastiche from period sources, the memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh, a Syrian Emir and older contemporary of Saladin, and Tabletalk of a Mesopotamian Judge, a collection of anecdotes by a tenth century judge who, finding the stories told in polite company less good than the ones he remembered, decided to write down all of the latter.

Some of these have proved useful for my academic work, but that is not the main reason to read them. Good primary sources are a window into the past, showing you other times and places not filtered through modern historians but as lived by contemporaries. They are the nearest thing we have to a time machine.


Jonathan said...

I remember from my childhood a book (quite old even then) called "They saw it happen", containing eyewitness accounts of historical events; but I don't remember the editor's name, and I see that there are now multiple books using the same title.

Francesco said...

Great post! For your readers, another vividly written/entertaining primary source: The First Voyage Round the World by Antonio Pigafetta.

Stephen Dawson said...

I was interested in the testimony you quote. Apparently two hundred years ago at least some people used 'uninterested' to mean 'disinterested'. Right now we are in the process of 'disinterested' being redefined through usage to mean 'uninterested'.