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Odd Old Bailey: 9 incredible cases from London's most famous court

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The City of London website describes the Old Bailey as ‘the most famous criminal court in the world’, and it’s not hard to see why. Dating back to the late Tudor period, over the centuries it has judged some of British history’s most famous crims, from the regicides of King Charles I to the Kray Twins.

The number of trials heard at the Old Bailey over the years numbers is in the hundreds of thousands – and they make for fascinating reading. Some are scandalous, some are savage, some are comical, and some are heart-breaking. They all tell a human story.

Here we look at nine of the strangest and most shocking criminal cases heard at the Old Bailey from the 17th to 19th centuries.

(Some spelling and grammar in quotes have been modernised)

1. The man condemned because he could not read

In July 1677, Richard Hazelgrove was sentenced to death for the crime of bigamy, namely having two wives at the same time. Hazelgrove claimed ‘benefit of clergy’ which, as the contemporary account of the trial states, ‘was granted, but not being able to read, [Hazelgrove] was condemned and executed’.

This was because the law required those claiming the exemption to be able to read. The same account went on to reflect that this severe case should serve as a warning to parents to teach their children to read, and for children to study more.

Bigamy was a serious crime in Restoration England. The previous May, a man was tried by the court and executed for having four wives at the same time, although he was popularly reputed to have been simultaneously married to 17 women!

2. The case of the wagging dog

Also in July 1677, a strange and shocking case came before the Old Bailey, reportedly one of the most talked about trials of the time. An unnamed woman, referred to in the proceedings as ‘that monster who prostituted herself to a dog’, was sentenced to death for having carnal relations with her pet pooch.

The accused was a woman in her thirties living in Cripplegate, London. The court heard that she lived in lodgings that had a hole in the wall, through which her neighbours often watched her getting frisky with ‘villains’. One day, one of these eyewitnesses claimed to see her copulating with her dog.

Amazingly, the dog itself was brought into the courtroom. The canine was ‘set on the bar before the prisoner’ and the animal, while looking at the accused, apparently wagged its tail and made actions like it wanted to kiss her. This appears to have been taken as damning evidence by the court, as they found that the actions of the dog corroborated witness statements. The woman was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn.

3. The woman accused of witchcraft

A very weird case came before the court in June 1682. 60-year-old Jane Kent was indicted for causing the death of a young girl through ‘witchcraft and several diabolic arts’.

The tragic girl’s father told the court that after he had fallen out with Jane Kent over the sale of two pigs, his daughter fell seriously ill and died. After his wife became sick too, the desperate man went to a doctor who gave the husband a remedy to save his now-bewitched wife. The doctor told the man to take some of his wife’s hair and nails and boil them in a quart of her ‘water’. The man did as he was instructed, and as he was brewing up this mix he heard Jane Kent’s ‘voice at his door’, and then a scream from her. Kent was then seen to be ‘swelled and bloated’ the next day and was found to have a ‘teat’ on her back (long-held to be an identifier of a witch).

Despite the fact that a coachman also claimed that Kent had caused his vehicle to crash, the jury heard a great deal of evidence in Jane’s favour, and found her not guilty.

4. The elderly hellraiser

In May 1689, George Russel was brought to court and tried for killing John Fairbeard. The court heard that, on the night in question, Russel was a drunken, violent, murderous hellraiser – and he was 86 years old.

This old man, who may have been one of the last surviving persons born in the Tudor era, apparently went to Fairbeard’s house in Covent Garden accompanied by two women. There he demanded booze and, after refusing to pay for it, swore at Fairbeard.

Fairbeard took off his hat and squared up to the old man, at which point Russel took out a big knife and thrust it deep into Fairbeard’s shoulder. Fairbeard languished for weeks before dying.

The jury took pity on Russel on account of ‘him being very old’ and found him guilty of manslaughter. He was ordered to be branded on the hand.

There were plenty of occasions, however, where courts were not so kind to the elderly. In April 1874, a 99-year-old man was sentenced to a year in prison in for forgery, and in 1810, a woman of 80 was sentenced to a year’s hard labour. Her crime? Stealing a bedsheet!

5. The Holborn orgy

In July 1726, Margaret Clap was prosecuted for the offence of ‘keeping a brothel’. One Samuel Stevens, taking the witness stand, stated that when he went to Clap’s house in Holborn he found ‘50 men there, making love to one another’.

Clap was ordered to stand in the pillory in Smithfield, pay a fine of 20 marks, and serve two years in prison.

6. Death by a low blow

In August 1726, two men were acquitted at the Old Bailey in connection with the death of John Nevitt, who was alleged to have been brutally beaten up by a third man.

After the attack, Nevitt told his wife that the third man, Leneve, had ‘bruised and kicked him on the privy parts’. A ‘fever’ then apparently took hold, and two weeks later Nevitt was found dead.

Those who found him also said that his ‘privities were swelled as big as their three fists and turned as black as a hat’. Incredibly, despite the state of Nevitt’s body, including a smashed nose, the surgeon stated that he could not find evidence of ‘violent means’ of death.

7. The hanged child

Henry Gadd, who was convicted of theft and hanged at Tyburn on Christmas Eve 1744, was aged fourteen according to the account of the Ordinary of Newgate. And in a grim and shocking case in 1722, James Booty, fifteen, was hanged for rape.

There were certainly several under-eighteens hanged in London at the time, but it is difficult to determine who was the youngest.

In May 1681, Francis Russel, ‘a boy of about eight years of age’, was sentenced to death for pickpocketing. However, it is unclear whether the sentence, in this case, was carried out. Even the Stuarts and Georgians were reluctant to execute children this young, with condemned kids normally having their death sentences commuted or simply being freed.

Still, justice could certainly be rough for youngsters. In July 1679, four eight-year-old boys were up at the Old Bailey for stealing 48 bottles of ale. After confessing they ‘were immediately by the common hangman whipped out of the court’.

8. The London ‘Monster’

Between 1788 and 1790, a series of disturbing street attacks were causing alarm in the capital. Women, usually wealthy women, were being approached by a mysterious man who shouted abuse at them and then stabbed them in the backsides.

It is alleged that the ‘London Monster’, as he came to be known, may have attacked as many as 50 women in this way.

28-year-old Renwick Williams was arrested and tried for a handful of such assaults – but with such heightened public hysteria he was lucky he didn’t end up swinging. The court commended the jury for its coolness and impartiality, remaining ‘unconnected with the general mass of people’. In December 1790, Williams was ordered to serve six years in Newgate Prison.

The London Monster remains a curious case, with historians and commentators still unsure as to whether the attacks were the work of one culprit, and if Williams was guilty.

9. The false Jack the Ripper

On 15th November 1888, six days after the murder of Mary Kelly - widely believed to be Jack the Ripper’s fifth and final victim - a strange scene played out in a pub in Whitechapel.

Michael Hertzberg was having a quiet pint in the Golden Lion on Leman Street when he was accosted by John McCarthy, who asked Hertzberg if he was Jack the Ripper. ‘Do I look like Jack the Ripper?’ Hertzberg said. McCarthy pressed further, and Hertzberg said sarcastically that he was Jack the Ripper.

McCarthy and several others allegedly then took Hertzberg outside and assaulted and robbed him.

Florance Murphy, a worker at the Golden Lion, told the court a very different version of events. She said that Hertzberg had come into the pub and told the customers, ‘I am Jack the Ripper!’, and claimed to be able to prove it by writing something down. McCarthy apparently believed that Hertzberg might be Jack the Ripper, and so wanted to take him in, but didn’t attack or mug him, according to Murphy.

28-year-old John McCarthy was found not guilty.