I indicated in my last piece – FACT AND FICTION – that the magistrate Mr Prout had no doubt that the man he went to interview in the cell was guilty even before they had spoken. 'Hanging material', Mr Prout had immediately thought, just judging by the man's disreputable appearance. Well, I suppose we all tend to make judgements based on first impressions.
The newspapers of earlier times always gave lengthy and detailed accounts of trials, often describing those charged with offences in the most unflattering terms, even before any verdict was reached. Today, of course, such reporting would result in fines for the newspaper and demands for a retrial.
My fictional character who sits manacled and fettered in prison is based on descriptions of members of the Isaacs gang who robbed and murdered and generally terrorised parts of Sussex, Kent and Surrey in the 1840s. These men led brutal lives, a shiftless crew, a gallery of reckless rogues, each seemed to match his neighbour in viciousness. They had little fear, less shame.
At the appearance of gang members charged with murder in the Guildford magistrates court in October 1850, the press had no hesitation, even before the decision to send them for trial at the Assizes, in describing them in lurid terms.
One member of the gang, 25 year old Richard Trowler, alias Hiram Smith, appearing as a prosecution witness to save his skin, is decribed as having 'the slight, active figure of the accomplished burglar with a cast of countenance at once cunning, cowardly and cruel. His face is extremely forbidding in expression, his features having that sharp prominent character which marks the rogue while the doubtful and hesitating glance of the eye indicates a disposition at once cunning and irresolute.'
Even his mother couldn't have loved him. As for the others, well...
One of the two men charged, twenty-nine year old Levi Harwood appears even less prepossessing. 'He is a ruffianly looking man, square built and evidently possessing considerable physical strength. His features are coarse and rugged and his face betrays the mastery of violent passions. He looks like one of those idle fellows, half-hostlers, half-anything else, who are seen loitering about country inns and waiting for any job that may turn up for him.'
The third man is hardly more appealing. 'James Jones is about middle-size, his features flat and repulsive and his whole physiognomy expressive of a life of depravity and crime. Both he and Levi Harwood look like bold determined fellows, capable of carrying through any deed of violence they may once have undertaken.'
At the Assiszes, Harwood and Jones were sentenced to hang for the murder of the Revd Mr Hollest at Frimley in Surrey. Perhaps in this case these newspaper reports did not affect the verdict but they certainly make for lively reading. Perhaps it's rather better the way we restrain the press today. After all they do like a story, don't they? And sometimes they do overstep the bounds!! Don't they?