Sunday, January 02, 2005


G'day, Inmate!

"Not so long ago Australia's middle classes were deeply ashamed of their criminal past," writes Robert Verkaik in The Independent. "Now Sydney dinner party conversations are dominated by boasts of convict ancestry as doctors, lawyers and politicians stake their claim to belonging to one of the "first families" of Australia. " What's got them so excited? Well, the Old Bailey's criminal records for April 1674 to October 1834 are in a searchable online archive, and the press is finally sitting up and taking notice.

I've been rooting through it for a year now and it's catnip for a primary-document freak like me. Here's a typical sample of a neighbor's testimony, taken from the murder trial of Anthony and Thomas Meadows, held on January 11th 1753:

Mrs. Kitson. I live within three doors of the prisoners. Near eleven o'clock that night Mr. Meadows came into the yard very much in liquor as I thought, and said every stick and stone of this place is mine, and that son of a b - h, G - d d - n him, I'll make him piss vinegar, and clapped himself by me on a bench at my door; by and by came the deceased up the yard; said Meadows, you little animal, you son of a b - h, what do you want here? said the deceased, I'll let you know I have as much business here as you have, I am going to my brother's. Meadows said he would send for a boy nine years old that shall kick your a - e ; he called Anthony out, who struck the deceased, and he fell down, and got up again ; they scuffled together, and fought up in a corner; his wife came and said, you dog, are you going to murder my husband? the woman squealed out, murder! three times; the deceased groaned, so I went to him and said, Anthony, don't kill the man; after which he let him alone. The deceased lay at my house that night; the next morning I said to Thomas Meadows , this man has been used very ill, he is sadly bruised, and has vomited a great deal in my room; I believe he vomited the quantity of a gallon and better. Thomas Meadows sent him a bed to lie on, and sent me for some Irish slate for him.

Turns out the deceased was suffering from edema (dropsy, in the old parlance), and not from anything the Meadows family did: they were found Not Guilty. For all the savagery in the Old Bailey verdicts, I've found a suprising number of Not Guilty pronouncements. Though if you want a Guilty case that will give you nightmares for days afterwards -- everything from the crime to the punishment will make you want to take your brain out and wash it -- there's always John Wiliamson's murder trial for January 15th 1767. I don't think any Australian will be boasting about a relation to that one.

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