Fiction in the archives

A watch is stolen from the room of Mary and John Beaumont. The proceedings of the court case at the Old Bailey contain two versions of the theft. One of them has to be a fiction, but which one? Even the cat in this court case is fictional…

On 27 February 1734, the carpenter William Collins was brought before court for the stealing of a silver watch from John and Mary Beaumont. The watch according to the record was stolen from John Beaumont, although he was not at home at the time of the theft. The informative ‘historical background’ section on the Old Bailey website explains that only an eigth of the prosecutors at the Old Bailey were women, since theft was the most common crime prosecuted, and most marital property was considered to be in the property of a husband: “Thus, even if a woman’s clothes were stolen from her home, if she was married her husband would have been labelled as the victim of the crime.” Another explanation for the lack of women prosecutors, the historical background section suggests, is that women on their own were reluctant to prosecute cases in the male-dominated environment of the courtroom. What is more, “there is some evidence that juries treated women more sceptically than men when they appeared as witnesses.” Whether this is the case here, I’ll leave the reader to judge.

Interestingly, it is Mary Beaumont who speaks for her husband and herself, and tells the court how the silver watch was stolen on the 25th of January that year. The couple lodge in a room on Windmill-hill, and Mary is an industrious and frugal housewife. She has noticed that carpenters are fitting up other rooms in the house where they lodge, and she goes to them to ask for some shavings of the wood, presumably to make a fire with. When William Collins, one of the carpenters, later knocks on her door, she is busy making a shift. The carpenter notices an expensive watch hanging by the chimney, and asks her about it. According to Mary Beaumont, he asked her “in case you was afraid of being robb’d of this Watch, where would be the properest Place to hide it?” — rather a suspicious strategy for a thief, perhaps. Interestingly, she also adds that he spoke smutty words after asking her this. Mary Beaumont is not thrown however, and tells him that the watch is very important to her and her husband, since it would get them through financially if either of them should fall ill. William Collins then proceeds to distract her attention from the watch, and this is where the cat comes in. She testifies that:

He stood a while, and then pointing to the other End of the Room, he cry’d, God damn the Cat. I turn’d my Head to see what the Cat was doing, but there was no Cat there. Then the Prisoner went to work in the next Room, and in eight or nine Minutes, (before any body else had been in the Room) I mist the Watch.

John Beaumont’s only contribution to the court case is this statement: “I left the Watch with my Wife, at three in the Morning, when I went to work.” The prisoner, William Collins, retorts with an unexpected question: “Are you married to her?” To which the husband answers “yes.” This exchange between husband and suspect puzzled me, but things become more clear when the prisoner and his fellow carpenters relate their side of the story.

According to these men, Mary Beaumont came to them not to ask for some shavings, but to plane a board with their tools. William Collins objected to this, thought she should pay for planing the board, and followed her to her room to ask for a Dram in return. Moreover, another man was in the house that day, the carpenters claim:

While she was in our Room her little Dog bark’d, and up came an old Gentleman, who look’d to be about sixty. Says she, My Dog knows my Customers. So she and the old Man went in and shut the Door. I thought some Game was going forward, and so I looked at the Key-Hole, but something was hung before it within Side. Then we found out a Crevice, and through that we could see ’em plainly. She was sitting in a Chair, and he stood before her. He thrust his Hand down her Bosom, and then up her Coats; she took out what she could find, and play’d with it, while the old Boy bill’d her, as if he would have eaten her up. After he was gone, she came into our Room, and we began to run the rig upon her, about what we had seen, and I called her – and – , which made her so angry, that she swore I and Gandy had stole the Watch.

The four carpenters all testify to this version of events, in which Mary Beaumont no longer features as a frugal housewife. She is still sitting in the same chair where she says she was making a shift, but she is now pictured as a stereotype of uncontrolled female lust, a woman who exploits her sexuality. Or are the carpenters exploiting the stereotype? Did the fact that Mary Beaumont spoke publicly in court, citing the carpenter’s supposed swear words perhaps contribute to the stereotype? The husband’s reaction to the carpenters’ testimony is not recorded, and perhaps unrecorded signs are what made the court decide that Mary Beaumont was not telling the truth. For the proceedings state that “the Prosecution appearing scandalous and malicious, the Jury acquitted the Prisoner.”

Read the trial proceedings


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