Part 2 out of 4
A few days later Sir Thomas Nelson, the City Solicitor, served a
summons on Mr. H. C. Cattell of 84 Fleet Street, who had so annoyed
the bigots by exposing the Christmas Number of the _Freethinker_
in his window. Detectives also visited other newsagents and
threatened them with prosecution if they persisted in selling my
paper. It was evident that the City authorities were bent on utterly
suppressing it. They tried their utmost and they failed.
PREPARING FOR TRIAL.
There were many reasons why I did not wish to be tried at the Old Bailey.
First, it is an ordinary criminal court, with all the vulgar
characteristics of such places: swarms of loud policemen, crowds
of chattering witnesses, prison-warders bent on recognising old
offenders, ushers who look soured by long familiarity with crime,
clerks who gabble over indictments with the voice and manner of a
town-crier, barristers in and out of work, some caressing a brief
and some awaiting one; and a large sprinkling of idle persons,
curious after a fresh sensation and eager to gratify a morbid
appetite for the horrible. How could the greatest orator hope
to overcome the difficulties presented by such surroundings?
The most magnificent speech would be shorn of its splendor,
the most powerful robbed of more than half its due effect.
In the next place, I should have to appear in the dock, and
address the jury from a position which seems to require an
apology in itself. And, further, that jury would be a common one,
consisting almost entirely of small tradesmen, the very worst
class to try such an indictment.
For these and other reasons I resolved to obtain, if possible, a
_certiorari_ to remove our Indictment to the Court of Queen's Bench;
and as the first Indictment had been so removed, I did not anticipate
any serious difficulty. On Monday, February 19, after travelling
by the night train from Plymouth, where I had delivered three lectures
the day before, I applied before Justices Manisty and Matthew, who
granted me a rule _nisi_. But on the Saturday Sir Hardinge Giffard
moved that the rule should be taken out of its order in the Crown Paper,
and argued on the following Tuesday. Seeing that the Court was
determined to assist him, I acquiesced in the motion rather than
waste my time in futile obstruction. On Tuesday, February 27,
Sir Hardinge Giffard duly appeared, supported by two junior counsel,
Mr. Poland and Mr. F. Lewis. The judges, as on the previous Saturday,
were Baron Huddleston and Mr. Justice North. The former displayed
the intensest bigotry and prejudice, and the latter all that flippant
insolence which he subsequently displayed at my trial, and which
appears to be an inseparable part of his character. When, for
instance, I ventured to correct Sir Hardinge Giffard on a mere matter
of fact, as is quite customary in such cases; when I sought to point
out that the Indictment already removed included Mr. Ramsey and myself,
and not Mr. Bradlaugh only; Justice North stopped me with "Not a word,
sir, not a word."
Sir Hardinge Giffard made a very short speech, knowing that such
judges did not require much persuasion. He moved that the rule
_nisi_ should be discharged; put in a copy of the Christmas Number
of the _Freethinker_, which he described as a gross and intentional
outrage on the religious feelings of the public; alleged, as was
perfectly true, that it was still being sold; and urged that the
case was one that should be sent for trial at once.
My reply was longer. After claiming the indulgence of the Court
for having to appear in person, owing to my purse being shorter
than the London Corporation's, I laid before their lordships my
reasons for asking them to make the rule absolute. I argued that,
as a press offence, our case was eminently one for a special jury;
that the law of blasphemy, which had not been interpreted for a
generation, was very indefinite, and a common jury might be easily
misled; that as contradictory statements of the common law existed,
it was highly advisable to have an authoritative judgment in a
superior Court; that grave questions as to the relations of the
statute and the common law might also arise; that it was manifestly
unfair, while a sweeping Indictment for blasphemy was removed to a
higher Court, that I should be compelled to plead in a lower Court
on a similar charge; and that it was unjust to try our case at the
Old Bailey when the City Corporation was prosecuting us.
To none of these reasons, however, did their lordships vouchsafe a
reply or extend a consideration. Baron Huddleston simply held the
Christmas Number of the _Freethinker_ up in Court, and declared that
no sane man could deny that it was a blasphemous libel--a contumelious
reproach on our Blessed Savior. But that was not the point at issue.
Whether the prosecuted publication was a blasphemous libel or not,
was a question for the jury at the proper time and in the proper place.
All Baron Huddleston was concerned with was whether a fairer trial
might be obtained in a higher Court than in a lower one, and before
a special jury than before a common one. That question he never
touched, and the one he did touch he was bound by legal and moral
rules not to deal with at all.
Justice North briefly concurred with his learned brother, and refrained
from adding anything because he would probably have to try the case
at the Old Bailey himself. What a pity he did not reflect on the
injustice of publicly branding as blasphemous the very men he was
going to try for blasphemy within forty-eight hours!
The next morning, February 29, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp and I duly appeared
at the Old Bailey. Before the regular business commenced, I asked
his lordship (it was indeed Justice North) to postpone our trial
until the next sessions, on the ground that, as my application
for a _certiorari_ was only decided the day before, there had
been no time to prepare an adequate defence. His lordship refused
to grant us an hour for that absurd purpose. Directly I sat down
Mr. Poland arose, and begged that our trial might be deferred until
the morrow, as his leader, Sir Hardinge Giffard, was obliged to
attend elsewhere. This request was granted with a gracious smile
and a bland, "Of course, Mr. Poland." What a spectacle! An English
judge refusing a fellow-citizen a single hour for the defence of
his liberty and perhaps his life, and granting a delay of twenty-four
hours to enable a brother lawyer to earn his fee!
I spent the rest of that day in preparations for the morrow--writing
out directions for Mr. Wheeler in case I should be sent to prison,
arranging books and documents, and leaving messages with various friends;
and I sat far into the night putting together finally the notes for
my defence. I was quite cool and collected; I neglected nothing I had
time for, and I was dead asleep five minutes after I laid my head
on the pillow. Only for a moment was I even perturbed. It was
when I was giving Mr. Wheeler his last instructions. Pointing to
my book-shelves, I said: "Now, Joe, remember that if Mrs. Foote
has any need, or if there should ever be a hitch with the paper,
you are to sell my books--all of them if necessary." A great sob
shook my friend from head to foot. The bitter truth seemed to strike
him with startling force. Imprisonment, and all it involved, was
no longer a dim possibility: it was a grim reality that might have
to be faced to-morrow. "Tut, tut, Joe!" I said, grasping his arm
and laughing. But the laugh was half a failure, and there was a
suspicious moisture in my eyes, which I turned my face away to
During the day I had a last interview with Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant
at 63 Fleet Street. Mr. Bradlaugh told me he could find no flaw in
our Indictment, and his air was that of a man who sees no hope, but
is reluctant to say so. Mrs. Besant was full of quiet sympathy,
proffering this and that kindness, and showing how much her heart
was greater than her opportunity of assistance.
In the evening I attended the monthly Council meeting of the National
Secular Society. Mr. Ramsey was also present. We both expressed
our belief that we should not meet our fellow-councillors again
for some time, and solemnly wished them good-bye, with a hope that,
if we were sent to prison, they would seize the opportunity, and
initiate an agitation against the Blasphemy Laws. I then drove home,
and finished the notes for my defence.
Early the next morning I was at 28 Stonecutter Street. Being
apprehensive of a fine as well as imprisonment, I made hasty
arrangements for removing the whole of the printing plant to some
empty rooms in a private house. Mr. A. Hilditch was the friend
on whom I relied in this emergency; and I am indebted to him
for aid in many other difficulties arising from my prosecution.
My foreman printer, Mr. A. Watkin, superintended the removal.
By the evening not a particle of our plant remained at the office.
Mr. Watkin stuck loyally to his duty during my long absence, and
on my return I found how much the _Freethinker_ owed to his
One ordeal was left. I had to say good-bye to my wife. It was a
dreadful moment. Reticence is wisdom in such cases. I will not
inflict sentiment on the reader, and I was never given to wearing
my heart upon my sleeve. Let it suffice that I fought down even
the last weakness. When I stepped into the Old Bailey dock I was
calm and collected. All my energies were strung for one task--the
defence of my own liberty and of the rights of Freethought.
That very morning the _Freethinker_ appeared with its usual illustration.
It was the last number I edited for twelve months. My final article
was entitled, "No Surrender," and I venture to quote it in full,
as exhibiting my attitude towards the prosecution within the shadow
of the prison walls:--
"The City Corporation is lavishly spending other people's money
in its attempt to put down the _Freethinker_. Sir Thomas Nelson
is keeping the pot boiling. He employs Sir Hardinge Giffard
and a tail of juniors in Court, and half the detectives of
London outside. These surreptitious gentleman, who ought to
be engaged in detecting crime, are busily occupied in purchasing
the _Freethinker_, waylaying newsvendors' messengers, intimidating
shopkeepers, and serving notices on the defendants. What money,
unscrupulously obtained and unscrupulously expended, can do is
being done. But there is one thing it cannot do. It cannot
damp our courage or alienate the sympathy of our friends.
"There is evidently a widespread conspiracy against us. We
have to stand on trial at the Old Bailey in company with rogues,
thieves, burglars, murderers, and other products of Christian
civilisation. The company is not very agreeable, but then Jesus
himself was crucified between two thieves. No doubt the Jews
thought him the worst of the three, just as pious Christians
will think us worse than the vilest criminal at the Old Bailey;
but posterity has reversed the judgment on him, and it will as
certainly reverse the judgment on us.
"If a jury should give a verdict against us, which we trust
it will not, the prosecutors will probably strike again at
some other Freethought publication. The appetite for persecution
grows by what it feeds on, and demands sacrifice after sacrifice
until it is checked by the aroused spirit of humanity. After
a sleep of twenty-five years the great beast has roused itself,
and it may do considerable damage before it is driven back into
its lair. We may witness a repetition of the scenes of fifty
and sixty years ago, when scores of brave men and women faced
fine and imprisonment for Freethought, tired out the very malice
of their persecutors; and made the Blasphemy Laws a dead letter
for a whole generation. May our victory be as great as theirs,
even if our sufferings be less.
"But will they be less? Who knows? They may even be greater.
Christian charity has grown so cold-blooded in its vindictiveness
since the 'pioneer days' that blasphemers are treated like
beasts rather than men. There is a certain callous refinement
in the punishment awarded to heretics to-day. Richard Carlile,
and other heroes of the struggle for a free press, were mostly
treated as first-class misdemeanants; they saw their friends
when they liked, had whatever fare they could paid for, were
allowed the free use of books and writing materials, and could
even edit their papers from gaol. All that is changed now.
A 'blasphemer' who is sent to prison now gets a month of
Cross's plank-bed, is obliged to subsist on the miserable
prison fare, is dressed in the prison garb, is compelled to
submit to every kind of physical indignity, is shut out from
all communication with his relatives or friends except for one
visit during the second three months, is denied the use of pen
and ink, and debarred from all reading except the blessed Book.
England and Russia are the only countries in Europe that make
no distinction between press offenders and ordinary criminals.
The brutal treatment which was meted out to Mr. Truelove in
his seventieth year, when his grey hairs should have been his
protection, is what the outspoken sceptic must be prepared to
face. After eighteen centuries of Christianity, and an interminable
procession of Christian 'evidences,' such is the reply of
orthodoxy to the challenge of its critics.
"These things, however, cannot terrorise us. We are prepared
to stand by our principles at all hazard. Our motto is
No Surrender. What we might concede to criticism we will never
yield to menace. The _Freethinker_, we repeat again, will go
on whatever be the result of the present trial. The flag will
not fall because one standard-bearer is stricken down; it will
be kept flying proudly and bravely as of old--shot-torn and
blood-stained perhaps, but flying, flying, flying!"
Let me now pause to say a few words about our Indictment. It was
framed on the model of the one I have already described charging
us with being wicked and profane persons, instigated by the Devil
to publish certain blasphemous libels in the Christmas Number of
the _Freethinker_, to the danger of the Queen's Crown and dignity
and the public peace, and to the great displeasure of Almighty God.
The various "blasphemies" were set forth in full, and my readers
shall know what they were.
Mr. Wheeler's comic "Trial for Blasphemy" was one of the pieces.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were accused of blasphemy in the
Court of Common Sense. They were charged with publishing all the
absurdities in the four gospels, and in especial with stating that
a certain young Jew was God Almighty himself. After the citation
and examination of many witnesses, Mr. Smart, Q.C., urged upon the
jury that there was absolutely no evidence against the prisoners.
It was perfectly clear that they were not the authors of the libels;
their names had been used without their knowledge or sanction; and
he confidently appealed to the jury for a verdict of Not Guilty.
"After a brief consultation," concluded this clever skit, "the
jury, who had carefully examined the documents, were of opinion
that there was nothing to prove that the prisoners wrote the libels
complained of. A verdict of acquittal was accordingly entered,
and the prisoners were discharged."
Now, every person acquainted with Biblical criticism knows that
Mr. Wheeler simply put the conclusions of nearly all reputable
scholars in a bright, satirical way; and a century hence people
will be astonished to learn that such a piece of defensible irony,
every line of which might be justified by tons of learning, was
included in an indictment for blasphemy, and considered heinous
enough to merit severe punishment.
There were a few lines of verse picked out of long poems, and
violently forced from their context; and also a few facetious
"Answers to Correspondents," mangled in the same way. Certainly
any publication could be condemned on this plan. The Bible itself
might be proved an obscene book.
Then came eighteen illustrations, entitled "A New Life of Christ."
All the chief miracles of his career were satirised, but not a
single human incident was made the subject of ridicule. Now, if
_miracles_ are not objects of satire, I should like to know what
are. If they never happened, why should they enjoy more respect
and protection than other delusions? Why should one man be allowed
to deny miracles, and another man imprisoned for laughing at them?
Must we regard long-faced scepticism as permissible heresy, and
broad-faced scepticism as punishable blasphemy? And if so, why
not set up a similar distinction between long and broad faces in
every other department of thought? Why not let _Punch_ and _Fun_
be suppressed, political cartoons be Anathema, and social satire
Another illustration was called "A Back View." It represented Moses
enjoying a panoramic view of Jahveh's "back parts." Judge North
did his dirty worst to misrepresent this picture, and perhaps it
was he who induced the Home Secretary to believe that our publication
was "obscene." In reality the obscenity is in the Bible. The
writer of Exodus contemplated sheer nudity, but the _Freethinker_
dressed Jahveh in accordance with the more decent customs of
the age of reason. I would cite on this point the judgment of
Mr. Moncure D. Conway, the famous minister of South Place Chapel.
He expressed himself as follows in a discourse on Blasphemous
Libel immediately after our imprisonment, since published in
"Lessons for the Day":--
"The prosecutor described the libels as 'indecent,' an ambiguous
word which might convey to the public an impression that there
was something obscene about the pictures or language, which
is not the fact. The coarsest picture is a sidewise view of
a giant's form, in laborer's garb, the upper and lower part
veiled by a cloud. Only when one knows that the figure is
meant for Jahveh could any shock be felt. The worst sense
of the word 'indecent' was accentuated by the prosecutor's
saying that the libels were too bad for him to describe.
In this way they were withheld from the public intelligence
while exaggerated to its imagination. The fact under this is
that some bigots wished to punish some Atheists, but could only
single them out beside eminent men equally guilty, and forestall
public sympathy by pretending they had committed a libel partly
obscene. This is not English."
Frederick the Great, being a king, was a privileged blasphemer.
In some unquotable verses written after the battle of Rossbach,
where he routed the French and drove them off the field pell-mell,
he sings, as Carlyle says, "with a wild burst of spiritual enthusiasm,
the charms of the rearward part of certain men; and what a royal
ecstatic felicity there is in indisputable survey of the same."
"He rises," adds Carlyle, "to the heights of Anti-Biblical profanity,
quoting Moses on the Hill of Vision." To Soubise and Company the
poet of Potsdam sings--
"Je vous ai vu comme Moise
Dans des ronces en certain lieu
Eut l'honneur de voir Dieu."
Frederick's verse is halting enough, but it has "a certain heartiness
and epic greatness of cynicism"; and so his biographer continues
justifying this royal outburst of racy profanity with Rabelaisian
gusto. I dare not follow him; but I am anxious to know why Carlyle's
"Frederick" circulates with impunity and even applause, while the
_Freethinker_ is condemned and denounced. Judge North may be ignorant
of Carlyle's masterpiece, but I can hardly presume the same ignorance
in Sir William Harcourt. He probably sinned against a greater light.
Few worse outrages on public decency have been committed than his
describing my publication as not only blasphemous, but obscene.
And the circumstances in which this slander was perpetrated served
to heighten its criminality.
AT THE OLD BAILEY.
"George William Foote, William James Ramsey, and Henry Arthur Kemp,"
cried the Clerk of the Court at the Old Bailey. It was Thursday
morning, March 1, 1883, and as we stepped into the dock the clock
registered five minutes past ten. We were provided with chairs,
and there were pens and ink on the narrow ledge before us. It was
not large enough, however, to hold all my books, some of which had
to be deposited on the floor, and fished up as I required them.
Behind us stood two or three Newgate warders, who took quite a
benevolent interest in our case. Over their heads was a gallery
crammed with sympathisers, and many more were seated in the body
of the court. Mr. Wheeler occupied a seat just below me, in readiness
to convey any messages or hand me anything I might require. Between
us and the judge were several rows of seats, all occupied by gentlemen
in wigs, eager to follow such an unusual case as ours. Sir Hardinge
Giffard lounged back with a well-practised air of superiority to
the legal small-fry around him, and near him sat Mr. Poland and
Mr. Lewis, who were also retained by the prosecution. Justice North
was huddled in a raised chair on the bench, and owing perhaps to the
unfortunate structure of the article, it seemed as though he was
being shot out every time he leaned forward. His countenance was
by no means assuring to the "prisoners." He smiled knowingly to
Sir Hardinge Giffard, and treated us with an insolent stare. Watching
him closely through my eye-glass, I read my fate so far as he could
decide it. His air was that of a man intent on peremptorily settling
a troublesome piece of business; his strongest characteristic seemed
infallibility, and his chief expression omniscience. I saw at once
that we should soon fall foul of each other, as in fact we did in
less than ten minutes. My comportment was unusual in the Old Bailey
dock; I did not look timid or supplicating or depressed; I simply
bore myself as though I were doing my accustomed work. That was my
first offence. Then I dared to defend myself, which was a greater
offence still; for his lordship had not only made up his mind that
I was guilty, but resolved to play the part of prosecuting counsel.
We were bound to clash, and, if I am not mistaken, we exchanged
glances of defiance almost as soon as we faced each other. His look
said "I will convict you," and mine answered "We shall see."
Sir Hardinge Giffard's speech in opening the case for the prosecution
was brief, but remarkably astute. He troubled himself very little
about the law of Blasphemy, although the jury had probably never
heard of it before. He simply appealed to their prejudices. He
spoke with bated breath of our ridiculing "the most awful mysteries
of the Christian faith." He described our letterpress as an "outrage
on the feelings of a Christian community," which he would not shock
public decency by reading; and our woodcuts as "the grossest and
most disgusting caricatures." And then, to catch any juryman who
might not be a Christian, though perhaps a Theist, he declared that
our blasphemous libels would "grieve the conscience of any sincere
worshipper of the great God above us." This appeal was made with
uplifted forefinger, pointing to where that being might be supposed to
reside, which I inferred was near the ceiling. Sir Hardinge Giffard
finally resumed his seat with a look of subdued horror on his wintry face.
He tried to appear exhausted by his dreadful task, so profound was the
emotion excited even in his callous mind by our appalling wickedness.
It was well acted, and must, I fancy, have been well rehearsed. Yes,
Sir Hardinge Giffard is decidedly clever. It is not accident that
has made him legal scavenger for all the bigots in England.
Mr. Poland and Mr. Lewis then adduced the evidence against us. I need
not describe their performance. It occupied almost two hours, and it
was nearly one o'clock when I rose to address the jury. That would
have been a convenient time for lunch, but his lordship told me I had
better go on till the usual hour. As I had only been speaking about
thirty minutes when we did adjourn for lunch, I infer that his lordship
was not unwilling to spoil my defence. How different was the action
of Lord Coleridge when he presided at our third trial in the Court of
Queen's Bench! The case for the prosecution closed at one o'clock,
exactly as it did on our first trial at the Old Bailey. But the
Lord Chief Justice of England, with the instinct of a gentleman and
the consideration of a just judge, did not need to be reminded that
an adjournment in half an hour would make an awkward break in our defence.
Without any motion on our part, he said: "If you would rather take your
luncheon first, before addressing the jury, do so by all means."
Mr. Ramsey, who preceded me then, had just risen to read his address.
After a double experience of Judge North, and two months' imprisonment
like a common thief under his sentence, he was fairly staggered by Lord
Coleridge's kindly proposal, and I confess I fully shared his emotion.
Sir Hardinge Giffard had grossly misled the jury on one point. He
told them that even in "our great Indian dominions, where Christianity
was by no means the creed of the majority of the population, it had
been found necessary to protect the freedom of conscience and the
right of every man to hold his own faith, by making criminal offenders
of those who, for outrage and insult, thought it necessary to issue
contumelious or scornful publications concerning any religious sect."
In reply to this absolute falsehood, I pointed out that the Indian
law did not affect publications at all, but simply punished people
for openly desecrating sacred places or railing at any sect in the
public thoroughfare, on the ground that such conduct tended to a
breach of the peace; and that under the very same law members of
the Salvation Army had been arrested and imprisoned because they
persisted in walking in procession through the streets. Under
the Indian law, no prosecution of the _Freethinker_ could have
been initiated; and, in support of this statement, I proceeded to
quote from a letter by Professor W. A. Hunter, in the _Daily News_.
Judge North doubtless knew that I could cite no higher authority,
and seeing how badly his friend Sir Hardinge was faring, he prudently
came to his assistance. Interrupting me very uncivilly, he inquired
what Professor Hunter's letter had to do with the subject, and
remarked that the jury had nothing to do with the law of India.
"Then, my lord," I retorted, "I will discontinue my remarks on
this point, only expressing my regret that the learned counsel
should have thought it necessary to occupy the time of the court
with it." Whereat there was much laughter, and his lordship's
face was covered with an angry flush.
Later in my address I had a long altercation with his lordship.
I wanted to show the jury that such heresy as I had published in
the _Freethinker_ abounded in high-class publications, but Justice North
endeavoured (vainly enough) to prevent me. The verbatim report of
what occurred is so rich that I give it here instead of a summary
"Now, gentlemen, I told you before that one of the reasons,
in my opinion, why the present prosecution was commenced,
was that the alleged blasphemous libels were published in a
cheap paper, and I asked you to bear in mind that there was
plenty of heresy in expensive books, published at 10s., 12s.,
and even as much as L1 and more. I think I have a right to
ask that you should have some proof of this statement. I think
I can show you that similar views are expressed by the leading
writers of to-day--not, perhaps, in precisely the same language--
for it is not to be expected that the paper which is addressed
to the many will be conducted on just the same level, either
intellectually or aesthetically speaking, as a publication,
in the form of an expensive book, which is only intended for
men of education, intelligence and leisure; but such views are
put before the public by the most prominent writers of the day.
You will, of course, expect to find differences in the mode of
expression, and as a matter of course, differences of taste; but
I submit that differences of taste affect the question very little
unless, as I have said, they actually lead to breaches of the
peace. But in a case like this there ought to be no distinction
on grounds of taste. Surely the man who says a thing in one
way is not to be punished, while the man who says the same
thing in another way is to go scot free. You cannot make a
distinction between men on grounds of taste. I can imagine
that if there were a parliament of aesthetic gentlemen, and
Mr. Oscar Wilde were made Prime Minister, some such arrangement
as that would find weight before the jury; but, in the present
state of enlightened opinion, I do not think that any such
arrangement would be accepted by you. Now, gentleman, I shall
call your attention first of all to a book which is published
by no less a firm than the old and well-established house of
Longmans. The author of the book----
Mr. Justice North: What is the name of the book?
Mr. Foote: The book is the 'Autobiography of John Stuart Mill.'
Mr. Justice North: What are you going to refer to it for?
Mr. Foote: I am going to refer to one page of it, my lord.
Mr. Justice North: What for?
Mr. Foote: To show that identical views to those expressed in the
cheap paper before the court are expressed in expensive volumes.
Mr. Justice North: I shall not hear anything of that sort. I am
not trying the question, nor are the jury, whether the views
expressed by other persons are sound or right. The question is
whether you are guilty of a blasphemous libel. I shall direct
them that it will be for them to say whether the facts are proved
in this case.
Mr. Foote: I will call your attention, my lord, to the remarks
of Lord Justice Cockburn in a similar case.
Mr. Justice North: I will hear anything relevant to the subject.
My reason for asking you was to find out whether you were going
to quote a law book.
Mr. Foote: I will quote a verbatim report.
Mr. Justice North: I can hear that.
Mr. Foote: It is the case against Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant.
Mr. Justice North: By whom is your report published?
Mr. Foote: It is a verbatim report published by the Freethought
Publishing Company--the shorthand notes of the full proceedings,
with the cross-examination and the judgment of the court.
Mr. Justice North: There is no evidence of that. Did you hear it?
Mr. Foote: I did not personally hear it, but my co-defendants did.
Mr. Justice North: I will hear you state anything you suggest as
being said by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn.
Mr. Foote: Mrs. Besant was about to read a passage from
Mr. Justice North: You have not proved the publication.
Mr. Foote: Quite so, my lord; but although this is not formal
evidence, and only the report of a case, I thought your lordship
would not object to hear it.
[Mr. Foote here handed in a copy of the report to the judge,
and pointed out that the Lord Chief Justice had said he could
not prevent Mrs. Besant from committing a passage to memory,
or from reading books as if reciting from memory].
Mr. Justice North: I will allow you to go on, either quoting
from memory or reading from the book; but I cannot go into
the question of whether this is right or not.
Mr. Foote: I am not proposing that. I am only going to show
that opinions like those expressed here extensively prevail.
Mr. Justice North: That is not the question at all. If they
extensively prevail, so much the worse. What somebody else
has said, whoever that person may be, cannot affect the question
in this case.
Mr. Foote: But, my lord, might it not affect the question of
whether a jury might not themselves, by an adverse verdict, be
far more contributing to a breach of the peace than the publication
on which they are asked to adjudicate?
Mr. Justice North: I think not, and it shall not do so if I
can help it. It is a mere waste of time to attempt to justify
anything that has been said in the alleged libel by showing
that someone else has said the same thing.
Mr. Foote: In all trials the same process has been allowed.
Mr. Justice North: It will not be allowed on this occasion.
Mr. Foote: If your lordship will pardon me for calling attention
to the famous case of the King against William Hone, I would
point out that there Hone read extracts to the jury.
Mr. Justice North: Very possibly it might have been relevant
in that case.
Mr. Foote: But, my lord, it was precisely a similar case--it was
a case of blasphemous libel. Lord Ellenborough sat on the bench.
Mr. Justice North: Possibly.
Mr. Foote: And Lord Ellenborough allowed Mr. Hone to read what
he considered justificatory of his own publication. The same
thing occurred in the case of the Queen against Bradlaugh and Besant.
Mr. Justice North: We have nothing to do to-day with the
question whether any author has taken the views which are
taken in these libels, whoever the author was.
Mr. Foote: Does your lordship mean that I am to go on reading or not?
Mr. Justice North: Go on with your address to the jury, sir;
that's what I wish you to do. But you cannot do what you were
about to do--refer to the book you mentioned for any such purpose
as you indicated.
Mr. Foote: I hope your lordship does not misunderstand me. I am
simply defending myself against a very grave charge under an old law.
Mr. Justice North: Go on, go on, Foote. I know that. Go on with
Mr. Foote: Your lordship, these questions are part of my address.
Gentlemen (turning to the jury), no less a person than a brother
of one of our most distinguished judges has said----
Mr. Justice North: Now, again, I cannot have you quoting books
not in evidence, for the sake of putting before the jury the
matters they state. The passage you referred to is one in which
the Lord Chief Justice pointed out that that could not be done.
Mr. Foote: But the action, my lord, of the Lord Chief Justice
did not put a stop to the reading. He said he would allow
Mrs. Besant to quote any passage as a part of her address.
Mr. Justice North: Go on.
Mr. Foote: No less a person than the brother of one of our most
Mr. Justice North: Now did I not tell you that you could not do that?
Mr. Foote: Will your lordship give me a most distinct ruling in
Mr. Justice North: I am ruling that you cannot do what you are
trying to do now.
Mr. Foote: I am sorry, my lord, I cannot understand.
Mr. Justice North: I am sorry for it. I have tried to make
Mr. Foote: Does your lordship mean that I am not to read from
anything to show justification of the libel?
Mr. Justice North: There is no justification in the case. The
question the jury have to decide is whether you, and the persons
present with you, are guilty of a libel or not. For that purpose
they will have to consider whether the matters in question are
a libel. If so, they will have also to consider whether you
and the other defendants are guilty of having published it.
If they think it a libel, and that you have published it, they
will have answered the only two questions they will have to
put to themselves.
Mr. Foote: My lord, in an ordinary libel case justification can
Mr. Justice North: Go on.
Mr. Foote: I do not wish to occupy the time of the court
unnecessarily, but really I think your lordship ought to
remember the grave position in which I stand, and not stand
in the way of anything which I consider to be of vital importance
to my defence.
Mr. Justice North: I have pointed out to you what I consider
to be the question the jury have got to decide. I hope you
will not go outside the lines I have pointed out to you; but,
with these remarks, I am very reluctant to interfere with any
prisoner saying anything which he considers necessary, and I
will not stop you. I hope you will not abuse the concession
I consider I am making to you.
Mr. Foote: I should be very sorry, my lord. I am only stating
what I consider necessary."
This is a very fair specimen of his lordship's manners. Unfortunately,
it is also a fair specimen of his lordship's law. When I read similar
extracts in the Court of Queen's Bench, Lord Coleridge never interrupted
me once; nay, he told the jury that I had very properly brought those
passages before their notice, that I had a perfect right to do so,
and that it was a legitimate part of my defence. Since then I have
conversed with many gentlemen who were present, some of them belonging
to the legal profession, and I have heard but one opinion expressed
as to Judge North's conduct. They all agree that it was utterly
undignified, and a scandal to the bench. Perhaps it had something
to do with his lordship's removal, a few weeks afterwards, to the
Chancery Court, where his eccentricities, as the _Daily News_ remarked
at the time, will no longer endanger the liberty and lives of his
When I cited Fox's Libel Act and asked that my copy, purchased from
the Queen's printers, might be handed to the jury for their guidance,
his lordship sharply ordered the officer not to pass it to them.
"I shall tell them," he said, "what points they have to decide,"
as though I had no right to press my own view. He would never have
dared to treat a defending counsel in that way, and he ought to have
known that a defendant in person has all the rights of a counsel,
the latter having absolutely no standing in court except so far as
he represents a first party in a suit. "May they not have a copy of
the Act, my lord?" I inquired. "No," replied his lordship, "they
will take the law from the directions I give them; not from reading
Acts of Parliament." This is directly counter to the spirit and
letter of Fox's Act; and I suspect that Judge North would have
expressed himself more guardedly in a higher court. If juries
have nothing to do with Acts of Parliament, why are statutes
enacted? Judge North would be ashamed and afraid to speak in
that way before his superior brother judges at the Law Courts;
but at the Old Bailey he was absolute master of the situation,
and he abused his power. He knew there was no court of criminal
appeal, and no danger of his being checked by either of the fat
aldermen on the bench. They were in fact our prosecutors, and
they appeared to enjoy their paltry triumph.
As I have said, I began my address to the jury at one o'clock, and
at half-past we adjourned for lunch. Mr. Wheeler ran across the
road and ordered some refreshment for us, and pending its arrival
we descended the dock-stairs and entered a subterranean passage,
which was lit by a single gas-jet. On each side there was a little
den with an iron gate. One of these was filled with prisoners
awaiting trial or sentence, who gazed through the bars at us with
mingled glee and astonishment. They were chatting merrily, and
I imagine from their free and easy manner that most of them were
old gaol-birds. Perhaps there were some forlorn, miserable creatures
cowering in the darkness behind, with throbbing brows and hearts
like lead, on whose ears the light laughter of their callous
companions grated even more harshly than it did on ours.
The left-hand den was empty, and into it we were ushered by the
aged janitor, who regarded us with looks of mute reproach. He was
evidently subdued to what he worked in. His world consisted of
two classes--criminals and police; and without any further ceremony
of trial and sentence, the very fact of our descending into his
Inferno was clear evidence that we belonged to the former class.
As the den was only illuminated by a few straggling gleams from
the gas-jet outside, we were unable to discriminate any object
until our eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. While we were in
this state of semi-blindness, something stirred. I wondered
whether it was a dog or a rat. The doubt was soon resolved.
A human form reared itself up from the bench against the wall,
where it had been lying, not asleep indeed, but half unconscious;
and to our great surprise, it turned out to be Mr. Cattell, who
had surrendered to his bail at the same time as we did, and had
been shivering there ever since ten o'clock. After we left him
he continued shivering for three or four hours longer in that
black-hole of the Old Bailey, which struck a chill into our very
bones even in the brief period of our tenancy, and which could
hardly be warmed by any conflagration short of the last. It
appeared damp as well as cold, and a sinister effluvium came
from a place of necessity at the back. Six or seven hours'
incarceration in such a place might injure a strong constitution
and seriously damage a weak one. Surely it is scandalous that
unconvicted prisoners, some of whom are eventually acquitted,
should suffer this unnecessary hardship and incur this unnecessary
Presently our lunch arrived. The platefuls of meat and vegetables
had a savory smell, our appetites were keen, and our stomachs empty.
But a difficulty arose. There were forks, but no knives; those
lethal instruments being forbidden lest prisoners should attempt
to cut their throats. I subsequently had the use of a tin knife
in Newgate, but even that, which used to be common in prisons,
is now proscribed. The only carving instruments allowed the
guests in her Majesty's hotels is a wooden spoon, although the
tin knife still lingers in the Houses of Detention. Among other
elaborate precautions against suicide, I found that the prisoners
awaiting trial were furnished with quill pens. Steel pens had been
banished after the desperate exploit of one poor wretch, who had
stabbed away at his windpipe with one, and inflicted such grave
injuries that the officials had great difficulty in saying his life.
But _revenons a nos moutons_, or rather our forks. We disposed
of the vegetables somehow, and as for the meat, we were obliged
to split and gnaw it after the fashion of our primitive ancestors.
We drank out of the mouth of the claret bottle, passing it round
till it was emptied. It was probably a good honest bottle, but
in the circumstances it seemed a despicable fraud. We tried hard
for another supply, but we failed. Being anxious to prevent a
display of inebriety in the dock, or desirous to repress rather
than stimulate our audacity, the venerable janitor interposed the
most effectual obstacles, and we were constrained to reason down
the remnant of our thirst, which, if I may infer from my own case,
was almost as insensible to argument as the judge himself.
Feeling very cold, we essayed a little exercise. The dimensions
of our den, which were three steps each way, did not allow much
play for individuality. Erratic pedestrianism was clearly dangerous,
so we rushed round in Indian file, like braves on the warpath;
and, by way of relieving the tedium, we speculated on the number
of laps in a mile. Our proceedings seemed to strike the wild
beasts in the opposite den as unaccountable imbecility. They
grinned at us through the bars with as much delight as children
might evince in the Zoological Gardens at a performance of insane
monkeys. But their amusement was suddenly arrested. St. Peter
appeared at the gate, flourishing his keys. It was two o'clock.
What a strange sensation it was, mounting those dock stairs!
More loudly than my experiences below, it said--"You are a prisoner."
The court was densely crowded, and as I emerged into it, the sea
of faces, suddenly caught _en masse_, seemed cold and alien. The
feeling was only momentary, but I fancy it resembled the weird
thrill that must have swept through the ancient captive as he
entered the Roman arena from his dark lair, and confronted the
vague host of indifferent faces that were to watch his fight for life.
I resumed my address to the jury at two o'clock, and concluded it at
four. A considerable portion of that time was spent in altercations
with the judge, of which I have already given some striking specimens.
Let me now give another. It excited great laughter in court, and
I confess the situation was so comic that I could scarcely preserve
my own gravity. After quoting a number of "blasphemous" passages
from the writings of Professor Clifford, Lord Amberley, Matthew Arnold,
the author of "The Evolution of Christianity," Swinburne, Byron and
Shelley, I proceeded thus: "Now, gentlemen, I have given you a few
illustrations of permitted blasphemy in expensive books, and I will
now trouble you with a few instances of permitted blasphemy in cheap
publications, which are unmolested because they call themselves
Christian, and because those who conduct them are patronised by
ecclesiastical dignitaries." Here I produced a copy of the _War Cry_,
in which I had marked a piece of idiotic "blasphemy." Judge North
scented mischief, and gestured to the officer behind me. But that
functionary was too deeply interested in the case to make much haste,
and, not wishing to be frustrated, I read as rapidly as I could.
Before he could arrest me I had finished the extract. My auditors
were all convulsed with laughter, except the judge, who was convulsed
with rage. As soon as he could articulate he addressed me as follows:
Mr. Justice North: Now, Foote, I am going to put a stop to this.
I will not allow any more of these illustrations of what you
call permitted blasphemy in cheap publications. I decline to
have any more of them put before me.
Mr. Foote: My Lord, I will use them for another purpose, if
you will allow me.
Mr. Justice North: You will not use them here at all, sir.
Mr. Foote: May they not be used, my lord to show that an
equally free use of religious symbols, and religious language,
prevails widely in all classes of literature and society?
Mr. Justice North: No they may not. I decline to hear them
read. They are not in evidence, and I refuse to allow you to
quote from such documents as part of your speech.
Mr. Foote: Well, gentlemen, I will now ask your attention
very briefly to another branch of the subject.
The fact is, I was perfectly satisfied. I had purposely kept the
_War Cry_ till the last. It naturally ended my list of citations,
and his lordship's victory was entirely specious.
Those who may wish to read my address in its entirety will find it
in "The Three Trials for Blasphemy." For those, however, who are
not so curious or so painstaking, I give here the peroration only,
to show what sentiments I appealed to in the breasts of the jury,
and how far my defence was from boastfulness or servility:
"Gentlemen,--I told you at the outset that you, are the last
Court of Appeal on all questions affecting the liberty of the
press and the right of free speech and Freethought. When I say
Freethought, I do not refer to specific doctrines that may pass
under that name: I refer to the great right of Freethought, that
Freethought which is neither so low as a cottage nor so lofty
as a pyramid, but is like the soaring azure vault of heaven,
which over-arches both with equal case. I ask you to affirm
the liberty of the press, to show by your verdict that you
are prepared to give to others the same freedom that you claim
for yourselves. I ask you not to be misled by the statements
that have been thrown out by the prosecution, nor by the authority
and influence of the mighty and rich Corporation which commenced
this action, has found the money for it, and whose very solicitor
was bound over to prosecute. I ask you not to be influenced
by these considerations, but rather to remember that this present
attack is made upon us probably because we are connected with
those who have been struck at again and again by some of the
very persons who are engaged in this prosecution; to remember
that England is growing day by day in its humanity and love
of freedom; and that, as blasphemy has been an offence less
and less proceeded against during the past century, so there
will probably be fewer and fewer proceedings against it in the next.
Indeed, there may never be another prosecution for blasphemy,
and I am sure you would not like to have it weigh on your minds
that you were the instruments of the last act of persecution--
that you were the last jury who sent to be caged like wild
beasts men against whose honesty there has been no charge.
I am quite sure you will not allow yourselves to be made the
agents of sending such men to herd with the lowest criminals,
and to be subjected to all the indignities such punishment involves.
I am sure you will send me, as well as my co-defendants, back
to our homes and friends, who do not think the worse of us
for the position in which we stand: that you will send us,
back to them unstained, giving a verdict of Not Guilty for me
and my co-defendants, instead of a verdict of Guilty for the
prosecution; and thus, as English juries have again and again
done before, vindicate the glorious principle of the freedom
of the press, against all the religious and political factions
that may seek to impugn it for their own ends."
The court officials could not stifle the burst of applause that
greeted my peroration. I had flung all my books and papers aside
and faced the jury. I spoke in passionate accents. My expression
and gestures were doubtless full of that dramatic power which comes
of earnest sincerity. I felt every sentiment I uttered, and I believe
I made the jury feel it too, for they were visibly impressed, and
their emotion was obviously shared by the crowd of listeners who
represented the greater jury of public opinion.
Mr. Ramsey followed me with a speech which he read from manuscript.
It occupied half an hour in delivery. It was terse and vigorous,
and it really covered most of the ground in debate. I listened to
it with pleasure as an admirable summary of our position. But it
lost much of its force in being read instead of spoken extemporaneously,
and its very virtues as a paper were its defects as an address.
The points wanted elaboration. Before they had fairly mastered
one argument, the jury were hurried on to another. Mr. Ramsey is
by no means incapable of making a forcible speech, and I think he
should have trusted to his power of improvisation. There was no
need for a long effort. He might have concentrated himself on a
few salient points of our defence, and pressed them on the jury
with all his might. His own sentiments, naturally expressed, in
homely language, would have had a greater effect than any literary
composition. After an experience of three trials, I would give
this advice to every man who has to defend himself before a jury on
a charge of blasphemy or sedition--"Write out on a sheet of paper
the heads of your defence. Number them in the order you think they
should be treated, so that your address may have a logical continuity.
Fill in your sub-divisions, similarly numbered, under the chief heads,
beginning the lines half-way across the page, so as to catch the eye
readily. Think every clause out carefully. Fix every illustration
in your mind until it becomes almost a fact of memory. Don't write
out fine passages and try to remember them verbally. Write nothing;
it will only confuse you, unless you have long practised that method.
When you have systematised your thoughts, and think your written
arrangement is complete, ponder it clause by clause with the paper
at hand for constant reference. No matter if your thoughts seem
to wander, and the subject appears to grow vague; your mind is
dwelling on it, and ideas will fructify in your mind unconsciously
as seeds sprout in the dark. When the hour of trial arrives, arm
yourself with the familiar paper, trust to your own courage, and
speak out. You will have thoughts, and nature will find you words."
Justice North's summing-up was simply a clever and unscrupulous bit
of special pleading. Sir Hardinge Giffard had left the court, and
his friend on the bench conducted his case for him. He told the
jury that I had wasted their time, and indulged in a number of
other insults, which might be pardonable in a legal hack bent on
earning his client's fee, but were scarcely consistent with the
dignity and impartiality of a judge. His tone was even worse
than his words. He had no sympathy with us in our desperate
effort to defend our liberty against such overwhelming odds, nor
did we solicit any; but we had a right to expect him to refrain
from constant expressions of antipathy. That, however, was not
the whole of his offence against the rules of justice. He recurred
to the bad old example of Lord Ellenborough in devoting most of his
time to answering my arguments. Lord Coleridge remarked in the
Court of Queen's Bench that such a task was not for the judge,
but for the counsel on the other side of the case. I wish his
lordship had read a lesson to Justice North on that subject before
he presided at our trial.
There is only one passage of his summing-up that I wish to criticise
fully. It contains his statement of the Law of Blasphemy. But as
he made a very different statement four days later on at our second
trial, I prefer to wait until, by placing these discrepant utterances
together, I can give the reader a fair idea of Justice North's
authority as a legal oracle.
The jury retired at five o'clock. Justice North kept his seat,
probably fancying they would soon agree to a verdict of Guilty.
But as the minutes went by, and the result seemed after all dubious,
he resorted to a paltry trick. Notwithstanding the late hour, he
had Mr. Cattell brought into the dock for trial. By procuring a
verdict against _him_ our jury might be influenced. According to
theory, of course, the jury hold no communication with the world
while in deliberation; but it is well known that officers of the
court have access to them, and tidings of Mr. Cattell's fate could
be easily conveyed.
We stepped down the stairs, out of sight but not out of hearing,
and made way for Mr. Cattell to take our place in the dock. He
was very pale with cold and apprehension, and too timid to take
a seat, he stood with his hands resting on the top ledge. The
evidence against him was very brief. Instead of defending himself
he had employed counsel. That gentleman admitted the "horrible
character of the publication, so eloquently denounced by the
learned judge." He said that his client could not for a moment
think of defending it; in fact, he had only sold it in ignorance,
and he would never repeat the offence. On the ground of that
ignorance and that promise, it was hoped that the jury would
return a verdict of Not Guilty. Mr. Cattell declares that he
never instructed his counsel to say anything of the kind; but
all I know is that it _was_ said, and that while our cheeks
were tingling with shame and indignation, he heard it all
without a word of protest.
Judge North acted openly as counsel for the prosecution in this trial.
There was not the slightest disguise. He took the case completely
into his own hands, examined and cross-examined. His summing-up
was a disgusting exhibition. Naturally enough the jury returned
a verdict of Guilty without leaving the box; but sentence was deferred
until our jury had also agreed.
By this time, I felt convinced they would _not_ agree, and every minute
strengthened my belief. While they deliberated we were all conducted
to the subterranean den, where we kept each other in good spirits.
St. Peter brought us some water to drink in a dirty tin can. We tasted
it, found that a little of it was more than enough, and declined to
hazard a further experiment on our health. At last, after two hours
and ten minutes' waiting, we were summoned back to the dock. There
was profound silence in court, and as the jury filed into their seats
a painful sense of expectation pervaded the assembly. His lordship
said that he had called them into court to see whether he could assist
them in any way, and especially by explaining the law to them again.
The foreman, in a very quiet, composed manner, replied that they all
understood the law, but there was no chance of their agreeing. His
lordship invited them to try a further consultation, to which the
foreman replied that it would be useless. "Then," said his lordship,
"I am very sorry to say I must discharge you, and have the case tried
again." Then, turning to the Clerk of Arraigns, he added, "I will
attend here on Monday and try the case again with a different jury."
This was against the ordinary rule of the court, and the sessions
had to be prolonged into the next week for our sakes; but his lordship
could not deny himself the luxury of sentencing us. He had set his
heart on sending us to gaol, and would not be baulked.
We naturally expected to be liberated till Monday, and I formally
applied for a renewal of our bail. But his lordship refused my
application in the most peremptory and insulting manner. I pointed
out that I should require a proper opportunity to prepare another
defence for the second trial, to which his lordship replied, "You
will have the same opportunity then that you have now." He then
hurriedly left the bench, and we were in custody of the Governor
of Newgate. Several friends rushed forward to shake hands with
us over the dock rail, and there were loud cries of "Bravo, jury!"
Presently we descended to the Inferno again, from which we were
conducted by a long subterranean passage to Newgate prison.
Judge North's action was simply vindictive. Even if we were guilty
our offence was only a misdemeanor. We had been out on bail from
the beginning of the prosecution, we had duly surrendered to trial,
after the jury's disagreement we really stood in a better position
than before, and there was not the slightest reason to suppose that
we might abscond. On the other hand, it was clear that we were
fighting against long odds. The rich City Corporation was prosecuting
us regardless of expense, and their case was conducted by three of
the most skilful lawyers in London. Reason, justice and humanity,
alike demanded that we should enjoy freedom and comfort while
marshalling our resources for a fresh battle. Judge North, however,
thought otherwise; in his opinion we required a different kind of
"opportunity." He locked us up in a prison cell, excluded us from
light and air, deprived us of all communication with each other,
and debarred us from all intercourse with the outside world except
during fifteen minutes each day through an iron grating. Such
malignity is an unpardonable crime in a judge. There may have
been some bad criminals in Newgate when I entered it, but I would
rather have embraced the worst of them than have touched the hand
of Judge North.
The subterranean passage through which Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp,
Mr. Cattell, and I were conducted from the Old Bailey dock to
Newgate prison, was long and tortuous, and two or three massive
doors were unlocked and relocked for our transit before we emerged
into the courtyard. In the darkness the lofty walls looked grimly
frowning, and I imagined what feelings must possess the ordinary
criminal who passes under their black shadow to his first night's
taste of imprisonment. Another massive door was opened in the wall
of Newgate, and we were ushered into what at first sight appeared a
large hall. It was really the interior of the prison. Glancing up,
I saw dimly-lighted corridors, running round tier on tier of cell-doors,
and connected by light, graceful staircases; a clear view of every
door being commanded from the office at the west end of the ground-floor.
We were invited one by one into a side office, where we inscribed
our names in a big book. A dapper little officer, who treated me
with a queer mixture of authority and respectfulness, wrote out my
description as though he were filling in a passport. I was very
much amused, and finding he was not too precise in his observations,
I corrected and supplemented them in a good-humored manner.
After completing this task he requested me to deliver up the contents
of my pockets. Having passed nearly all my money to Mr. Wheeler,
I had little to deposit. Some prisoners, however, are less careful.
The officer told me that he occasionally received as much as ten
or twelve pounds from one visitor, although the majority were almost
penniless. My small change was carefully counted by us both, and
when it was stowed in my purse, I put my signature under the amount
in the register.
Then followed my other belongings. I had stupidly brought a bunch
of keys, which the officer eyed very suspiciously. Keys in a prison!
The official mind might well be alarmed. Next came some letters and
telegrams I had received while in Court, and a lead pencil, which
I took from my breast-pocket.
"Anything more in that pocket?" said the officer, catching hold of
the coat-lappet, and attempting to insert his hand.
"I beg pardon," I replied, disengaging his hand and stepping back;
"I can do that myself. See !" I said, turning my pocket inside out.
He was satisfied, but slightly annoyed. The man was simply doing
his duty, and I daresay he showed me far more courtesy than other
prisoners were treated with. Yet the process of searching is
unspeakably revolting, and I shrank from it instinctively; taking
care, however, by my rapid gestures to render it unnecessary.
Prisoners are regularly searched in Holloway Gaol, as well as in
other penal establishments; and being under the ordinary prison
regulations, like other "convicted criminals," I was of course
subjected to the indignity. I must in candor admit that the
officers made it as little offensive as possible in my case;
yet the touch of a man's hand about one's person is so repulsive,
that I always had great difficulty in suppressing my indignation.
If an officer owes a prisoner a grudge, he is able (especially if
the man is a little more refined than the general run of his associates)
to render the searching an almost intolerable infliction. Sometimes
the prisoners are stripped to their drawers or shirts, without
any particular reason; and the process can even be carried farther,
until they are in a state of complete nudity. On one occasion this
experiment was attempted on me, but I declined to submit to it,
and the brace of officers (they always search in pairs, to prevent
collusion) shrank from employing force.
All the requisite formalities being transacted, I was supplied with
a pair of sheets and a duster; and carrying these on my arm, I was
conducted upstairs to my apartment. Before leaving, however, I
shook hands with my companions, although it was in direct defiance
of the "rules and regulations."
My cell was Number One. It was considered the place of honor.
I was informed that it was once tenanted by the elder of two famous
brother forgers, who spent three weeks there preparing his defence
and writing an extraordinary number of letters. This information
was communicated to me with an air of solemnity as though so eminent
a criminal had left behind him the flavor of his greatness, and had
in some measure consecrated the spot.
The gas was lit, and the officer withdrew, banging the door as he went.
He seemed to love the sound, and I subsequently discovered that this
was a characteristic of his tribe. Only two men in Holloway Gaol
ever shut my door gently. They were the gallant Governor and a
clerical _locum tenens_ who officiated during the chaplain's frequent
absence in search of recreation or health. Colonel Milman closed
the door like a gentleman. Mr. Stubbs closed it like an undertaker.
He was the most nervous man I ever met. But I must not anticipate.
More of him anon.
Prison cells, I had always known, are rather narrow apartments, but
the realisation was nevertheless a rough one. My domicile, which
included kitchen, bedroom, sitting-room and water-closet, was about
ten feet long, six feet wide, and nine feet high. At the end opposite
the door there was a window, containing perhaps three square feet
of thick opaque glass. Attached to the wall on the left side was
a flap-table, about two feet by one, and under it a low stool. In the
right corner, behind the door, were a couple of narrow semi-circular
shelves, containing a wooden salt-cellar full of ancient salt, protected
from the air and dust by a brown paper lid, through which a piece
of knotted string was passed to serve as a knob. The walls were
whitewashed, and hanging against them were a pair of printed cards,
which on examination I found to be the dietary scale and the rules
and regulations. The floor was black and shiny. It was probably
concreted, and I discovered the next day that it was blackleaded
and polished. Finally I detected an iron ring in each wall, facing
each other, about two feet from the ground. "What are these for?"
I thought. "They would be convenient for hanging if they were three
feet higher. Perhaps they are placed there to tantalise desperate
unfortunates who might be disposed to terminate their misery and
wish the world an eternal 'Good Night!'"
As I paced up and down my cell, full of the thought, "I am in prison,
then," my curiosity was excited by a large urn-looking object in
the right corner under the window, just below a water-tap and copper
basin. I had noticed it before, but I fancied it was some antique
relic of Old Newgate. Examining it closely, I found it had a hinged
lid, and on lifting this my nose was assailed by a powerful smell,
which struck me as about the most ancient I had ever encountered.
This earthenware fixture was in reality a water-closet, and I imagined
it must have communicated direct with the main drainage. A more
unwholesome and disgusting companion in one's room is difficult to
conceive. I believe these filthy monstrosities still exist in Newgate,
although they are abolished in other prisons. Yet it puzzles one
to understand why prisoners awaiting trial should be poisoned by
such a diabolical invention any more than prisoners who have been
convicted and sentenced.
Just as I finished inspecting this monument of official ingenuity,
I heard a heavy footstep along the corridor, and presently a key
was inserted in my lock. It "grated harsh thunder" as it turned.
The door was flung open abruptly, without any consideration whether
I might be standing near it, and an official entered, who turned out
to be the chief warder. He was a polite, handsome man of five-and-forty,
with a fine pair of dark eyes and a handsome black beard. During my
brief residence in Newgate he treated me with marked civility, and
sometimes engaged in a few minutes' conversation. In one of these
brief interviews he told me that be had officiated at fourteen
executions, and devoutly hoped he might never witness another, his
feelings on every occasion having been of the most horrible character.
I also found that he was fond of a book, although he had little
leisure for reading or any other recreation. He looked longingly
at my well-printed copy of Byron; but what impressed him most
was my little collection of law books, especially Folkard's fat
"Law of Libel," which he regarded with the awe and veneration of
a bibliolater, suddenly confronting a gigantic mystery of erudition.
This worthy officer came to tell me that my "friend with the big head"
had just called to see what he could do for us. "Big-head" was
Mr. Bradlaugh. The description was facetious but by no means
uncomplimentary. Our meals had been ordered in from "over the way,"
and I might expect some refreshment shortly. While he was speaking
it was brought up. He then left me, and I devoured the coffee and
toast with great avidity. My appetite was far from appeased, but
I had to content myself with what was given me, for prison warders
look as surprised as Bumble himself at a request for "more."
When the slender meal was dispatched, the chief warder paid me another
visit to instruct me how to roost. Under his tuition I received my
first lesson in prison bed-making. A strip of thick canvas was
stretched across the cell and fastened at each end by leather
straps running through those mysterious rings. A coarse sheet
was spread on this, then a rough blanket, and finally a sieve-like
counterpane; the whole forming a very fair imitation of a ship's hammock.
It had by no means an uncomfortable appearance, and being extremely
fagged, I thought I would retire to rest. But directly I essayed
to do so my troubles began. When I tried to get on the bed it
canted over and deposited me on the floor. Slightly shaken, but
nothing daunted, I made another attempt with a similar result.
The third time was lucky. I circumvented the obstinate enemy by
mounting the stool and slowly insinuating myself between the sheets,
until at length I was fairly ensconced, lying straight on my back
like a prone statue or a corpse. For a few moments I remained
perfectly still enjoying my triumph. Presently, however, I felt
rather cold at the feet, and on glancing down I saw that my lower
extremities were sticking out. I raised myself slightly in order
to cover them, but the movement was fatal; the bed canted and
I was again at large. This time I had serious thoughts of sleeping
on the floor, but as it was hard and cold I abandoned the idea.
I laboriously regained my lost position, taking due precautions
for my feet. After a while I grew accustomed to the oscillation,
but I had to face another evil. The clothes kept slipping off,
and more than once I followed in trying to recover them. At last,
I found a firm position, where I lay still, clutching the refractory
sheets and blankets. But I soon experienced a fresh evil. The
canvas strip was very narrow, and as my shoulders were _not_, they
abutted on each side, courting the cold. Even this difficulty I
finally conquered by gymnastic subtleties. Warmth and comfort
produced their natural effect. My brain was busy for a few minutes.
Thoughts of my wife and the few I loved best made me womanish, but
a recollection of the malignant judge hardened me and I clenched my
teeth. Then Nature asserted her sway. Weary eyelids drooped over
weary eyes, and through a phantasmagoria of the trial I gradually
sank into a feverish sleep.
I was aroused in the morning by the six o'clock bell. It was pitch
dark in my cell except for the faint glimmer of a distant lamp
through the thick window-panes. A few minutes later a little square
flap in the centre of my door was let down with a startling bang;
a small hand-lamp was thrust through the aperture, and a gruff voice
cried "Now, then, get up and light your gas: look sharp." I cannot
say that I made any indecent haste. My gas was lit very leisurely,
and as I returned the lamp I saw a scowling visage outside. The man
was evidently exasperated by my "passive resistance."
My ablutions were performed in a copper basin not much larger than
a porridge bowl; indeed, it was impossible to insert both hands at once.
There was, of course, no looking-glass, and as the three-inch comb
was densely clogged with old deposits, my toilet was completed under
considerable difficulties. I never combed my hair with my fingers
before, but on that occasion I was obliged to resort to those primitive
When I was finally ready, the chief warder summoned me downstairs
to be weighed and measured. My height was five feet ten in my shoes,
and my weight twelve stone nine and a half in my clothes.
At eight o'clock breakfast came. It consisted of coffee, eggs and
toast. At half-past eight we were taken out to exercise. What a
delight it was to see each other's faces again! And how refreshing
to breathe even the atmosphere of a City courtyard after being locked
up for so many hours in a stifling cell.
The other prisoners were already outside, and we had to pass through
the court in which they were exercising to reach the one considerately
allotted for our special use. They presented a cheerless spectacle.
Silently and sadly, with drooping heads, they skirted the walls in
Indian file; a couple of officers standing in the centre to see that
no communication went on between them. Many eyes were lifted to gaze
at us as we passed. Some winked, and a few looked insolent contempt,
but the majority expressed nothing but curiosity.
Our courtyard was about thirty feet by twenty. It was stone-paved,
with a door leading to the Old Bailey at one end, and a row of high
iron bars at the other. The air was brisk, and the sky tolerably
clear for the place and season. Our pent-up energies required a
vent, and we rushed round like caged animals suddenly loosened.
"Gently," cried our good-natured custodian; but we paid little heed
to his admonition; our blood was up, and we raced each other until
we were wearied of the pastime.
Presently I heard my name called, and on advancing to the spot whence
the voice issued, I saw Mr. Bradlaugh's face through the iron bars.
After a few minutes' conversation he made way for Mrs. Besant. She
was quite unprepared for such an interview. Her idea was that she
would be able to shake hands; I, however, knew better, and for that
reason I had forbidden my wife to visit me, preferring her letters
to her company in such wretched circumstances. Mrs. Besant was
particularly cordial. "We are all proud," she said, "of the brave
fight you made yesterday." How the time slipped by! When she retired
it seemed as though our conversation had but just opened.
I was only entitled to receive two visitors, but by a generous arithmetic
Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant were counted as one. Mr. Wheeler was
therefore able to see me on business. We had much to arrange, and
the result was that I enjoyed scarcely more than half an hour's exercise.
Surely it is a grievous wrong that a prisoner awaiting trial should
be allowed such brief interviews with his friends, especially when
he is defending himself, and may require to consult them. And is
it not a still more grievous wrong that these interviews should take
place during the exercise hour? There is no reason why they should
not be kept separate; indeed there is no reason why the inmates of
Newgate should not be allowed to exercise twice a day. No work is
done in the prison, and marshalling the prisoners is not so laborious
a task that it cannot be performed more than once in twenty-four hours.
At the expiration of our miserable sixty minutes we were marched
back to our cells; but we were scarcely under lock and key again
before we were summoned to the Old Bailey, the officer telling us
that he thought they were going to grant us bail. We were conducted
through the subterranean passage to the Old Bailey dock-stairs.
Standing out of sight, but not out of hearing, we listened to
Mr. Avory's application for bail on behalf of Mr. Kemp. Judge North
refused in cold, vindictive tones; he had evidently let the sun go
down on his wrath, and rise on it again. Mr. Avory thereupon asked
whether he made no difference between convicted and unconvicted
prisoners. "None in this case," was his lordship's brutal and
supercilious answer; and then we were hurried back to our cells.
My apartment was execrably dark. It was situated in an angle of
the building; there was a wall on the right and another in front,
so that only a little light fell on the right wall of my cell near
the window. After severely trying my eyes for two or three hours,
I was obliged to make an application for gas, which, after some
hesitation, was granted. But I found the remedy almost worse than
the evil. Sitting all day at the little lap-table, with my head
about ten inches from the gas-light, made me feel sick and dizzy.
Mr. Ramsey, as I afterwards discovered, was made quite ill by a
similar nuisance, and the chief warder was obliged to release him
for a brief walk in the open air. I applied the next morning for
a fresh cell, and was duly accommodated. My new apartment was very
much lighter, but the change was in other respects a disadvantage.
The closet was fouler, and as the lid was a remarkably bad fit,
it emitted a more obtrusive smell. The copper basin also was
filled with dirty water, which would not flow away, as the waste-pipe
was stopped up. To remedy these defects they brought the engineer,
who strenuously exercised his intellect on the subject for three
days; but as he exercised nothing on the waste-pipe, I insisted on
having the copper basin baled out, and secured a bucket for my ablutions.
During my first day in Newgate, the officers occasionally dropped
in for a minute's chat with such an unusual prisoner. I found them
for the most part "good fellows," and singularly free from the bigotry
of their "betters." The morning papers also helped to wile away
the time. I was pleased to see that the _Daily News_ rebuked the
scandalous severity of the judge, and that the reports of our trial
were reasonably fair, although very inadequate. The _Daily Chronicle_
was under an embargo, and could not be obtained for love or money;
the reason being, I believe, that many years ago it commented
severely on some prison scandal, and provoked the high and mighty
Commissioners into laying their august proscription upon it. All
the weekly papers, or at least the Radical ones I inquired for,
were under a similar embargo, for what reason I could never discover.
Perhaps the Commissioners, who enjoy a reputation for piety,
exclude Radical and heterodox journals lest they should impair
the Christianity and Toryism of the gaol-birds.
Many letters reached me and were answered, so that my time was well
occupied until twelve, when dinner was brought in from "over the way."
Being well-nigh ravenous, I dispatched it with great celerity,
washing it down with a little mild ale. Prisoners awaiting trial
are allowed (if they can pay for it) a pint of that beverage, or
half a pint of wine.
After dinner I felt drowsy, and as there was no sofa or chair, and
no back to the little three-legged stool, I was obliged to dispense
with a nap. I walked up and down my splendid hall instead, longing
desperately for a mouthful of fresh air by way of dessert, or a few
minutes' chat with my friends, who I dare say were in exactly the
Tea, which came at five, brightened me up, and as Mr. Wheeler had
by this time sent in all my books and papers, I settled down to
three hours' hard work. The worthy Governor, a tall sedate man,
did not like the titles of some of my books, and inquired whether
I really wanted them for my defence. I replied that I did. "Then,"
said he to the chief warder, "they may all be brought up, but you
must take care they don't get about." At half-past eight, according
to the rules, I retired to my precarious and uncomfortable couch;
a few minutes later my gas was turned off, and I was left in almost
total darkness to seek the sleep which I soon found. Thus ended
my first day in Newgate.
My second day in Newgate passed like the first. Prison life affords
few variations; the days roll by with drear monotony like wave after
wave over a spent swimmer's head. We enjoyed Judge North's "opportunity"
to prepare our fresh defence in the way I have already described.
We were locked up in our brick vaults twenty-three hours out of the
twenty-four; we walked for an hour after breakfast in the courtyard;
and the fifteen minutes allowed for the "interview with two visitors"
was, as before, religiously deducted from the sixty minutes allowed
for "exercise." Mr. Wheeler sent in more books and papers, and I
devoted my whole time, except that occupied in answering letters,
to preparing another speech for Monday.
Sunday was a miserably dull day. No visits are allowed in that
sacred interval, a regulation which presses with great severity on
the poorer prisoners, whose relatives and friends are freer to visit
them on Sunday than during the week.
The confinement was beginning to tell on me. My life had been
exceptionally active, physically and mentally, and this prison life
was as stagnant as the air of my cell. Thus "cabin'd cribbed, confined,"
I felt all my vital functions half arrested. Dejection I did not
experience; my spirits were light and fresh; but the body revolted
against its ill-treatment, and recorded its protest on the conscious
How grateful was the brief hour's exercise on the Sunday morning!
The muffled roar of the great city was hushed, and the silence served
to emphasise every visual phenomenon. Even the air of that city
courtyard, hemmed in by lofty walls, seemed a breath of Paradise.
I threw back my shoulders, expanding the chest through mouth and
nostrils, and lifted my face to the sky. A pale gleam of sunshine
pierced through the canopy of London smoke. It might have looked
ghastly to a resident in the country, unused to the light London
calls day, but to one immured in a prison cell it was an irradiation
of glory. The mind expanded under the lustre; imagination preened
its wings, and sped beyond the haze into the everlasting blue.
Gallant Lovelace, in durance vile, boasted his unfettered mind,
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage."
True, but the model prison was not invented then, nor was the silent
system in vogue. Lovelace's apartment was, perhaps, not so scrupulously
clean as mine, but it commanded a finer prospect. He knew nothing
of the horror of opaque windows, and his iron bars did not exclude
the air and light.
At eleven o'clock my cell door was opened, and an officer asked me
if I would like to go to chapel. "Yes," I replied, for I was curious
to see what a religious service in Newgate was like, and any interruption
of the day's monotony was welcome.
Standing outside my cell door, I perceived Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp, and
Mr. Cattell already outside theirs. The few other prisoners still
remaining in Newgate (they are transferred to other prisons as soon
as possible after sentence) were ranged in a similar manner. A file
was then formed, and we marched, accompanied by officers, through
a passage on the ground floor to the chapel, passing on our way
the glass boxes in which prisoners hold communication with their
solicitors. An officer stands outside during the interview: he can
hear nothing, but he is able to see every motion of the occupants;
the object of this mechanism being to guard against the passage of
any interdicted articles.
The chapel was small, lighted by a large window on the left side
from the door, and warmed by a mountainous stove in the centre.
A few backless forms were provided on the floor for unconvicted
prisoners. We were accommodated with the front bench, and requested
to sit two or three feet apart from each other, the few other
prisoners occupying seats behind us being separated in the same way.
The convicted prisoners sit in a railed-off part of the chapel,
and I believe there is a gallery for the women. On our right,
facing the window, was a pulpit, below which was the clerk's
desk, flanked on the right by the Governor's box and on the left
by a seat for the officers.
After waiting some time, we heard footsteps at the door. In strode
the tall Governor and the Chaplain, the one entering his box, and
the other going to the clerk's desk, where he read the service,
which was rushed through at the rate of sixty miles an hour.
Mr. Duffeld started the hymns, but his voice is not melodious,
and he has little sense of tune. The singing, indeed, would
have broken down if it had not been for the Francatelli of the
establishment, who had exchanged his kitchen costume for the
official uniform, and sang with the fervor and emphasis of a
Methodist leader or a captain in the Salvation Army.
Mr. Duffeld mounted the pulpit to read his sermon. His text was
Matthew vii., 21: "Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall
enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my
father which is in heaven." This text caused me a pleasant surprise.
I had heard of Mr. Duffeld as a member of, or a sympathiser with,
the Guild of St. Matthew; and I fancied that he meant to condemn
our prosecution, not directly, so as to offend his employers, but
indirectly, so as to justify himself and satisfy us. I was, however,
greviously mistaken. Mr. Duffeld's sermon was directed against the
large order of "professing Christians," who manage a pretty easy
compromise between God and Mammon, between Jesus Christ and the world
and the flesh, if not the Devil. It had no reference to us, and it
was entirely inappropriate to the rest of the congregation, who,
I must say, from the casual glimpses I caught of them, were glancing
about aimless as monkeys, or staring listless like melancholy
When the benediction was pronounced, Mr. Duffeld marched swiftly away;
the tall Governor strode after him, and the prisoners filed in silence
through the doorway back to their cells. What a commentary it was
on "Our Father!" It was a ghastly mockery, a blasphemous farce,
a satire on Christianity infinitely more sardonic and mordant than
anything I ever wrote or published. Soon after returning to my cell
I was glad of the substantial dinner and drowsy ale to deaden the
bitter edge of my scorn.
After tea I settled down to the final preparations for my defence.
My gas was left on for an extra hour to afford me the time I required.
It was half-past nine when I retired to my hammock. Everything was
then finished except the interview I had requested with my co-defendants.
This the Governor was powerless to grant. He had applied to the
visiting magistrates, who protested the same inability. A "petition"
had then been forwarded to the Home Secretary, but no answer had
been received. While I was pondering this difficulty, my cell
door was suddenly opened, and the Governor entered. Apologising
for disturbing me unceremoniously at that unseasonable hour, he
informed me that a messenger from the Home Office had brought the
necessary permission for our interview. It took place the next morning.
We had just thirty minutes to arrange our plan for the approaching
battle, the consultation being held in the courtyard before breakfast.
The time was of course absurdly inadequate. We had a just claim
to better treatment, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp and I; we were charged
with the same offence; we pleaded to a common indictment; we stood
together in the same dock; we were involved in the same fate; and
witnesses would be called against us all three indifferently. Surely,
then, as the jury had disagreed once, and we had to defend ourselves
afresh, we were entitled to proper conference with our papers before
us. This _al fresco_ chat was the last of Judge North's "opportunities."
At ten o'clock we were once more in the Old Bailey dock, fronting
the judge and jury, surrounded by an eager crowd, and beginning a
second fight for liberty and perhaps for life.
THE SECOND TRIAL.
Before I had been in the Old Bailey dock two minutes on the morning
of my second trial, I found that our case was hopeless. The names
of no less than four jurymen were handed to me by friends in court,
every one of whom had been heard to declare that he meant to bring
in a verdict of Guilty. One of these impartial guardians of English
liberty had stated, in a public-house, his intention to "make it hot
for the Freethinkers." How many more had uttered similar sentiments
it is impossible to say, but it is reasonable to suppose that, if
four were discovered by my friends, there were others who had escaped
their detection. One of the four, a Mr. Thomas Jackson, was called
on the jury list. I at once challenged him. He was then put into
the witness-box, and on examination he admitted that he "had expressed
an opinion adverse to the defendants in this case."
Then ensued a bit of comedy between Judge North and Sir Hardinge Giffard,
who both assumed a wonderful air of impartiality.
"Judge North: Sir Hardinge, is it not better to withdraw this
juryman at once? Whatever the verdict of the jury, I should be
sorry to have a man among them who had expressed himself as
Sir Hardinge Giffard: Oh yes, my lord; I withdraw him. It will
be much more satisfactory to the Crown and everybody else concerned."
"I withdraw him," says Sir Hardinge; "I should be sorry to have him,"
says the Judge; both evidently feeling that they were making a generous
concession in the interests of justice. But as a matter of fact they
had no choice. Mr. Thomas Jackson could no more sit on that jury
after my challenge than he could fly over the moon. I smiled at
the pretended generosity of these legal cronies, and said to myself,
"Thank you for nothing."
Mr. Thomas Jackson's exit made no practical difference. I felt,
I will not say that the jury was packed, but that it was admirably
adapted to the end in view. Ours being the only case for trial that
day, it was not difficult to accomplish this result. A friend of
mine said to one of the officers of the court before I entered the
dock, "Well, how is the case going to-day?" "Oh," was the prompt
reply, "they are sure to convict." He knew the character of the jury.
Some of the "twelve men and true" had not even the decency to attend
to the proceedings. One was timed by a friend in court--dead asleep
for sixty minutes. When that juryman awoke his mind was made up on
the case. At the conclusion of a trial that lasted over six hours
they did not even retire for consultation. They stood up, faced
each other, muttered together for about a minute, nodded their
heads affirmatively, and then sat down and gave a verdict of guilty.
Several of the jury, however, I am bound to admit, had no idea that
Judge North would inflict upon us such infamous sentences, and they
were quite shocked at the consequences of their verdict. Four of
them subsequently signed the memorial for our release. A fifth
juryman vehemently declined to do so. "No," he said, "not I.
I'm a man of principle! They got off too easy. Two years' hard
labor wouldn't have been a bit too much." This pious gentleman is a
publican in Soho, and bears the name of a famous murderer, Wainwright.
But to return. Mr. Ramsey and I were represented this time on all
legal points by counsel. Mr. Cluer watched our interests vigilantly,
and performed a difficult task with great courage and judgment.
He bore Judge North's insults with wonderful patience. "Don't
mind what you think about, it, Mr. Cluer," "I don't want you to
tell me what you think;" such were the flowers of courtesy strewed
from the bench upon Mr. Cluer's path. Our counsel's colleague in
the case was Mr. Horace Avory, who represented Mr. Kemp. He also
had a somewhat onerous duty to perform.
There is no need to deal with the technical evidence against us.
It was of the usual character, and we merely cross-examined the
witnesses as a matter of form. One thing was brought out clearly.
Sir Henry Tyler's solicitors were aiding Sir Thomas Nelson, and
their clerks were produced as witnesses against us.
Judge North's reception of evidence was peculiar. Knowing that
there was no Court of Criminal Appeal, he set the rules of procedure
at defiance. Any tittle-tattle was admitted, and postmen and servants
were allowed to swear as to the directions on unproduced documents
alleged to have been addressed to me. When, several weeks later,
I was tried a third time in the Court of Queen's Bench, I heard
Lord Coleridge rebuke the prosecuting counsel for attempting to
put questions against which Judge North would hear no objection.
I understand now how much prisoners are at the mercy of judges,
and I feel how much truth there was in the remark I once heard from
a prisoner in Holloway Gaol, that "it's often a toss up whether you
get one year or seven."
Let me here also ask why Mr. Fawcett, the late Postmaster General,
allowed his letter-carriers to be employed as detectives in such
a case. It was proved in evidence that a policeman had called at
the West-Central Post Office, and obtained an interview with the
manager, after which the letter-carriers were instructed to spy
upon my correspondence. Mr. Fawcett subsequently denied that the
letter-carriers had ever been so instructed; but in that case the
Post Office witnesses must have committed perjury. I do not believe
it. I am confident that they merely obeyed orders, and that the
scandalous abuse of a public trust must be charged upon the district
postmaster, who probably thinks any weapon is legitimate against
Freethinkers. As Mr. Fawcett refused to censure the postmaster for
exceeding his duty, or the letter-carrier for committing perjury,
I cannot hold him altogether guiltless in the matter.
In opening my defence I took care to accentuate my appreciation of
Judge North's kindness, as the following passage will show:
"Gentlemen of the Jury,--I stand in a position of great difficulty
and disadvantage. On Thursday last I defended myself against
the very same charges in the very same indictment. The case
lasted nearly seven hours, and the jury retired for more than
two hours without being able to come to an agreement. They
were then discharged, and the learned judge said he would try
the case again on Monday with a new jury. As I had been out
on bail from my committal, and as I stood in the same position
after that abortive trial as before it commenced, I asked the
learned judge to renew my bail, but he refused. I pleaded that
I should have no opportunity to prepare my defence, and I was
peremptorily told I should have the same opportunity as I had
had that day. Well, gentlemen, I have enjoyed the learned judge's
opportunity. I have spent all the weary hours since Thursday,
with the exception of the three allowed for bodily exercise
during the whole interval, in a small prison cell six feet wide,
and so dark that I could neither write nor read at midday without
the aid of gaslight. There was around me no sign of the animated
life I am accustomed to, nothing but the loathsome sights and
sounds of prison life. And in these trying and depressing
circumstances I have had to prepare to defend myself in a new
trial against two junior counsel and a senior counsel, who have
had no difficulties to contend with, who have behind them the
wealth and authority of the greatest and richest Corporation
in the world, and who might even walk out of court in the
perfect assurance that the prosecution would not be allowed
to suffer in their absence."
Those who wish to read the whole of my defence, which lasted over
two hours, will find it in the "Three Trials for Blasphemy." One
portion of it, at least, is likely to be of permanent interest.
With Mr. Wheeler's aid I drew up a long list of the abusive epithets
applied by Christian controversialists to their Pagan opponents or
to each other. It fills more than two pages of small type, and
pretty nearly exhausts the vocabulary of vituperation. I added a
few pearls of orthodox abuse of Atheism, and then asked the jury
whether Christians had taught Freethinkers to show respect for
their opponents' feelings. "Nobody in this country," I continued,
"whatever his religion, is called upon to respect the feelings of
anybody else. It is only the Freethinker who is told to respect
the feelings of people from whom he differs. And to respect them
how? Not when he enters their places of worship, not when he stands
side by side with them in the business and pleasures of life, but
when he reads what is written for Freethinkers without knowing that
a pair of Christian eyes will ever scan the page."
It may be asked why I adopted a course so little likely to conciliate
my judges. My reply is that I did not try to conciliate them.
Feeling convinced that their verdict was already settled, and
that my fate was sealed, I cast all such considerations aside,
and deliberately made a speech for my own party. I was resolved
that my loss should be the gain of Freethought. The peroration
is the only other part of my defence I shall venture to quote.
It ran as follows:
"Gentlemen, carry your minds back across the chasm of eighteen
centuries and a half. You are in Jerusalem. A young Jew is
haled along the street to the place of judgment. He stands
before his judge; he is accused--of what, gentlemen? You
know what he is accused of--the word must be springing to
your lips--Blasphemy! Every Christian among you knows that
your founder, Jesus Christ, was crucified after being charged
with blasphemy. Gentlemen, it seems to me that no Christian
should ever find a man guilty of blasphemy after that, but
that the very word ought to be wiped from your vocabulary,
as a reproach and a scandal. Christians, your founder was
murdered as a blasphemer, for, although done judicially, it
was still a murder. Surely then you will not, when you have
secured the possession of power, imitate the bad example of
those who killed your founder, violate men's liberties, rob
them of all that is perhaps dearest to them, and brand them
with a stigma of public infamy by a verdict from the jury-box!
Surely gentlemen, it is impossible that you can do that! Who
are we? Three poor men. Are we wicked? No, there is no proof
of the charge. Our honor and honesty are unimpeached. It is
not for us to play the Pharisee and say that we are better than
other men. We only say that we are no worse. What have we
done to be classed with thieves and felons, dragged from our
homes and submitted to the indignities of a life so loathsome
and hideous, that it is even revolting to the spirits of the men
who have to exercise authority within the precincts of the gaol?
You know we have done nothing to merit such a punishment.
Gentlemen, you ought to return a verdict of Not Guilty against
us, because the prosecution have not given you sufficient
evidence as to the fact; because whatever legal bigotry is
gained from the decisions of judges in the past must be treated
as obsolete, as the London magistrate treated the law of
Maintenance; because we have done nothing, as the indictment
states, against the peace; because our proceedings have led
to no tumult in the streets, no interference with the liberty
of any man, his person or property; because no evidence has
been tendered to you of any malice in our case; because there
is no wicked motive in anything we have done; because the
founder of your own creed was murdered on a very similar charge
to that of which we stand accused now; and, lastly, because
you should in this third quarter of the nineteenth century
assert once and for ever the great principle of the absolute
freedom of each man, unless he trench on the equal freedom of
others. I ask you to assert the great principle of the liberty
of the press, liberty of the platform, liberty of thought and
liberty of speech; I ask you to prevent such prosecutions as
are hinted at in the _Times_ this morning; I ask you not to
allow sects once more to be hurling anathemas against each other,
and flying to the magistrates to settle questions which should
be settled by intellectual and moral suasion; I ask you not
to open a discreditable chapter of English history that ought
to have been closed for ever; I ask you to give us a verdict
of Not Guilty, to send us back to our homes and to stamp your
brand of disapprobation on this prosecution, which is degrading
religion by associating it with all that is penal, obstructive,
and loathsome; I ask you to let us go away from here free men,
and so make it impossible that there ever should again be a
prosecution for blasphemy; I ask you to have your names inscribed
in history as the last jury that decided for ever that great
and grand principle of liberty which is broader than all the
skies; a principle so high that no temple could be lofty enough
for its worship; that grand principle which should rule over
all--the principle of the equal right and the equal liberty
of all men. That is the principle I ask you to assert by your
verdict of Not Guilty. Gentlemen, I ask you to close this
discreditable chapter of persecution once and for ever, and
associate your names on the page of history with liberty,
progress, and everything that is dignified, noble and dear
to the consciences and hearts of men."
When I sat down there was a burst of applause, which the court officials
were unable to suppress. Mr. Ramsey followed with another written speech,
well composed and very much to the point. I noticed some of his auditors
outside the jury-box choking down their emotion as he touchingly referred
to his sleepless nights in Newgate through thinking of wife and child.
His Lordship, I observed only smiled bitterly.
Judge North's summing up was a fraudulent performance. He told the
jury that the consent of the Attorney-General had to be obtained for
our prosecution, as well as that of the Public Prosecutor, which was
a downright falsehood, unless it was a piece of sheer ignorance.
He pretended to read the whole chapter on Offences against Religion
in Sir James Stephen's "Digest of the Criminal Law," while in reality
he deliberately omitted the very paragraph which damned his contention
and supported mine. He also produced a new statement of the Law of
Blasphemy to suit the occasion. On the previous Thursday he told the
jury that any denial of the existence of Deity or of Providence was
blasphemy. But in the meantime the public press had condemned this
interpretation of the law as dangerous to high-class heretics. His
lordship, therefore, expounded the law afresh, so as to exempt them
while including us. The only question he now submitted to the jury
was, "Are any of those passages put before you calculated to expose
to ridicule, contempt or derision the Holy Scriptures or the Christian
religion?" This amended statement of the Law of Blasphemy went
directly in the teeth of our Indictment, which charged us with bringing
Holy Scripture and the Christian Religion into _disbelief_ as well
as contempt. The fact is, blasphemy is a judge-made crime, and
the "blasphemer's" fate depends very largely on who tries him.
Lord Coleridge holds one view of the law, Sir James Stephen another,
and Justice North another still. Nay, the last judge differs even
from himself. He can give two various definitions of the law in
five days, no doubt on the principle that circumstances alter cases,
and that what is true for one purpose may be false for another.
I have said that the jury, with indecent haste, returned a verdict
of Guilty. The crowd of people in court were evidently surprised
at the result, although I was not, and they gave vent to groans
and hisses. The tumult was indescribable. Suddenly there rang out
from the gallery overhead the agonising cry of my young wife, whom
I had implored not to come, and whose presence there I never suspected.
She had crept in and listened all day to my trial, never leaving
her seat for fear of losing it; and now, overwearied and faint for
want of food, she reeled under the heavy blow. My heart leaped at
the sound; my brain reeled; the scene around me swam in confusion--
judge, jury, lawyers and spectators all shifting like the pieces
in a kaleidoscope; my very frame seemed expanding and dissolving
in space. The feeling lasted only a moment. Yet to me how long!
With a tremendous effort I crushed down my emotions, and the next
moment I was mentally as calm as an Alp, although physically I
quivered like a race-horse sharply reined up in mid-gallop by an
iron hand. My wife I could not help, but I could still maintain
the honor and dignity of Freethought.
Order was at length restored after his lordship had threatened to
clear the court. Mr. Avory then asked him to deal leniently with
Mr. Kemp, who was merely a paid servant of ours, and in no other
way actually responsible for the incriminated publication. Justice
North listened with ill-concealed impatience. He was obviously
anxious to flesh the sword of justice in his helpless victims.
Directly Mr. Avory finished he began to pronounce the following
sentence on me, and while he spoke there was deadly silence in
that crowded court:--
"George William Foote, you have been found Guilty by the jury
of publishing these blasphemous libels. This trial has been
to me a very painful one. I regret extremely to find a person
of your undoubted intelligence, a man gifted by God with such
great ability, should have chosen to prostitute his talents to
the service of the Devil. I consider this paper totally different
from any of the works you have brought before me in every way,
and the sentence I now pass upon you is one of imprisonment for
twelve calendar months."
Twelve months! It was longer than I expected, but what matter?
My indifference, however, was not shared by the crowd. They rose,
and as the reporter said, "burst forth into a storm of hissing,
groaning, and derisive cries." "Damn Christianity!" I heard one
shout, and "Scroggs" and "Jeffries" were flung at the judge, who
seemed at first to enjoy the scene, although he grew alarmed as
the tumult increased. "Clear the gallery," he cried, and the police
burst in among the people. But before they did their work something
happened. From the first I resolved, if I were found guilty and
sentenced to imprisonment, that I would say something before leaving
the dock. My first impulse was to hurl at the judge a few words
of passionate indignation. But I reflected "No! I have been tried
and condemned for ridiculing superstition. Sarcasm is Blasphemy.
Well then, let me sustain my character to the end. I will leave
with a stinging _Freethinker_ sentence on my lips." Raising my hand,
I obtained a moment's silence. Then I folded my arms and surveyed
the judge. Our eyes flashed mutual enmity for a few seconds, until
with a scornful smile and a mock bow I said, "_Thank you, my lord;
the sentence is worthy of your creed._"
That retort has frequently been cited. It was a happy inspiration,
and the more I ponder it the more profoundly I feel that it was
exactly the right thing to say.
The officers behind gave me a pressing invitation to descend the
dock stairs, and I complied. For a long time I waited in one of
the little dens I have already described, pacing up and down,
revolving many thoughts, and wondering what detained my companions.
The fact is, the police had a great deal of trouble in executing
the judge's orders, and some time elapsed before he could strike
Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Kemp. Meanwhile I could hear through the earth
and the brick walls the roar of that indignant crowd which filled
the street and suspended traffic, and I knew it was the first sound
of public opinion reversing my unjust sentence.
Consider it for a moment. There is no allusion to outraged feelings,
much less any suggestion of "indecency." It is a plain declaration
of theological hatred; it breathes the spirit which animated the
Grand Inquisitors when they sentenced heretics to be burnt to ashes
at the stake. "Listen," says the judge. "I am on God's side.
You are on the Devil's. God doesn't see you, but I do; God doesn't
punish you, but I will. We have hells on earth for you Freethinkers,
in the shape of Christian gaols, and to hell you go!"
Presently Mr. Ramsey came down with nine months on his back, and then
Mr. Kemp with three. They had my sentence between them. Mr. Cattell
afterwards joined us without any sentence. He was ordered to enter
into his own recognisances in L200, and to find one surety in L100,
to come up for judgment when called upon.
People have wondered on what principle Judge North determined our
sentences. One theory is that he punished us according to the amount
of his time we occupied. I made a long speech and got twelve months;
Mr. Ramsey made a short speech and got nine; Mr. Kemp made no speech
and got only three; while Mr. Cattell cried _Peccavi_ and got off
with a caution.
"Ready," cried the old janitor, in response to a distant voice.
Our den was unlocked and we were marched back to Newgate for the
When we entered Newgate as "condemned criminals," we were theoretically
under severe discipline, but the officers considerately allowed us a
few minutes' conversation in the great hall before we marched to our
cells. We shook hands with Mr. Cattell, whom I rather contemptuously
congratulated on his good fortune. He went into the office to receive
back his effects, and that was the last we saw of him. Vanishing from
sight, he vanished from mind. During my imprisonment I scarcely ever
thought of him in connexion with our case, and in writing this history
I have had to tax my memory to record his insignificant _role_.
According to the "rules and regulations," all our privileges ended
on our sentence. We were therefore entitled to nothing but prison
fare after leaving the Old Bailey. But the hour was late, the cook
was probably off duty, and our tea and toast had been waiting for
us since five o'clock; so the head warder decided that we might
postpone our trial of the prison _menu_ until the morning. When
it was brought to me, my toast (to use an Hibernicism) proved to
be bread-and-butter. There were three slices. I ate two, but
could not consume the third, my appetite being spoiled by excitement
and the tepid tea.
The officer who acted as waiter informed me that the Old Bailey Street
had been thronged all the afternoon, and was still crowded. "We all
thought," he said, "that you would get off after that speech--and you
would have with another judge. But you won't be in long. They're
sure to get you out soon." I shook my head. "Take my word for it,"
he answered. Thanking him for his kindness, I told him I had no hope,
and was reconciled to my fate. Twelve months was a long time, but
I was young and strong, and should pull through it. "Yes," he said,
with an appreciative look from head to feet, "there isn't much the
matter with you now. But you'll be out soon, sir, mark my word."
I have learnt since that the crowd waited to give Judge North a warm
reception. But they were disappointed. His lordship went home,
I understand, _via_ Newgate Street, and thus baffled their enthusiasm.
Mr. Cattell was, I believe, less fortunate. He was hooted and jeered
by the multitude, and obliged to take ignominious shelter in a cab.
Strange as it may seem, my last night in Newgate was one of profound
repose. I was wearied, exhausted; and spent nature claimed an
interval of rest. For a few minutes I lay in my hammock, listening
to the faint sound of distant voices and footsteps. Memory and
fancy were inert; only the senses were faintly alive. Consciousness
gradually contracted to a dim vision of the narrow cell, then to a
haze, in which the gaslight shone like a star, and finally died out.