Edward Aveling Time, October 1890
Source: Edward Aveling, “At The Old Bailey” Time, October 1890, p.1098-1107;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Walter Alfred Hargan, b.1854, ex-Colour-Sergeant, shot and killed John Wheeler and William Lambert, local “roughs” who were pursuing him from a “rough” pub as Hargan was carrying a revolver (not then illegal) bought in America. After much media interest he was released after one year in September 1891. It is unclear what he was doing in the pub and what these men were pursuing him for. He was from Hackney where Aveling was born and there may have been some connection. Note by transcriber, Ted Crawford information from Deborah Levin.
This article was to have been something about Norway, about journeying thither in the very best of company, actual and shadowy. The shadows were the creatures of that new world of Norwegian literature that we have discovered in this later part of the nineteenth century. And the article was to have been about journeying Norwaywards by the best of ways. And that, at least, let me tell the readers who are already beginning to plan out routes for 1891. It is by boat, and not by train, from London to Hull, and thence across sea, right away to Trondjhem, there making acquaintance with human Norway at its best, in the person of my delightfully typical Norwegian friend, Thane, of the Hotel d’Angleterre, and so work south. Place yourself, unless you have great dread of the sea, at the mercy of the General Steam Navigation Company, with their bird-named boats, and let them bear you down the Thames, and then round the corner to the left, and along the eastern coast to Hull; and thence place yourself at the mercy of the Wilson Line of boats, whose names are like the Spanish language, as old Camden has it, “majestical, and running ... much upon the O.” They are all Junos, or Eldorados, or Heros, or Ariostos.
But, somehow, it is impossible to write the article that had been planned. Not that the infinite beauty and strength of Norway have faded away from mind as its shores have melted into the waters of the North Sea below, and the northern heaven above. They will be an ever-present remembrance. But, unfortunately, since the return, I have been to the Old Bailey, and that has driven, for the time, all memory of fjord and mountain inwards. Everything that is beautiful and strong is overlaid by the immediate remembrance of the sordid and miserable sights and sounds there. It is not so much the wretched prisoners that have impressed me with a sense of shame and despair, as the not less wretched paraphernalia, human and otherwise, surrounding them, and the feeling that society is in its way as criminal and degraded as the outcasts it has bred.
Going Newgatewards is, on the whole, rather different from journeying Norwaywards. Not that it is without excitement, if you go by one of the early morning omnibuses that are racing to the city. As it sways, and jerks, and skims the wheels of other flying vehicles, and the passengers turn pale and hold on to the seats, you speculate, as you close your eyes and wait for the crash, whether the driver ought to be tried for murder or manslaughter.
In the Old Bailey, quâ Street, there is the usual crowd that hangs around law courts, whether they are in the Strand or in the City, or are but the shabby-genteel form of court known as County. Police officials, reporters and the strange members of the general public, whose idea of spending certain hours pleasantly and profitably is to haunt the law, police, county courts and batten on a stuffy atmosphere, physical and moral. Everybody that has to do with courts of this kind has a more or less hang-dog appearance. With the casual visitor it is a look of absolute guilt as marked as that of one going for the first time on a pawnbroking expedition. With the habitué, official or otherwise, the look has become a sort of chronic and shifty mistrust of everything and everybody.
They make it as difficult to get into the Old Bailey court as to get out of Newgate. You have to run the gauntlet of interminable legions of policemen and ushers, all of whom I found, personally, politeness but firmness itself. Fortunately, I had a friend, literally, at court, whose name was one with which to conjure. By aid of it I passed policeman No. 1, at the bottom of the stone stairs, and policeman No. 2, braving like a blue-coated Horatius, after Lartius and Herminius had left for home, the battalions of invading cockneys. P.C. Horatius squeezed me through a wooden doorway, like that of a pew in a dissenting chapel, and then shut out the rest of the struggling congregation. The next obstacle was a closed door with a square hole in it framing a segment of policeman No. 3’s face. The name again, and I am passed through. Not through the square hole, bien entendu.
The door closing behind me, giving me an odd sensation of being a prisoner, I am in a sort of passage with doors, as the play-books say, R. and L. One of them, L., is labelled “Bench,” and through this I find I am entitled to pass. A genial usher, who seems less officialised than most of his companions, directs me to a fairly comfortable seat, and one certainly well-placed for the brave show we are to have, of society and the law, and all the respectabilities going deliberately and by the strictest legal procedure for a man’s life. For to-day is that of the trial of one Walter Alfred Hargan, only 27, who has very indubitably shot through the head two of his fellow-sinners.
Outsider that I am, nevertheless, I am fortunate in being well-placed for the performance, in that to my left is a large family pew with newspaper men who can tell me what everything, and who everybody, is. One of them, who has a kind of hereditary right to be the father of the press family, tells me that this court is the Old Bailey, and dates back ever so many years, and that where the domino-box labelled “Jury” stands facing us, in the old days, the highwaymen days, the prisoners used to stand. In their place this morning are gathered together a dozen very common-place looking gentlemen, stolidly and quite unsuccessfully trying to look as if they were weighed down with a sense of responsibility. Through the three windows above their twelve uniform heads, the stone walls of Newgate look in upon the motley crowd of us.
In truth “motley’s the only wear.” In the well below me on the other side of which are the twelve responsibilities, there are barristers in all the preposterous and ludicrous professional array of wig and gown; solicitors anxious to find the brains for the men they have instructed, and to whisper forgotten points into their ears; sight-seers that have been smuggled in upon this pretext or that; and going rapidly to and fro those limbs of the law, the boys belonging to either barrister or solicitor.
To my right is the bench, resplendent in much red, and strewn with irritatingly soft and plump cushions for the men in high places. There are six desks, and over the chair belonging to the most central is a sounding-board with the arms of this most Christian country stuck a-top. Beneath the sounding-board, and at the back of the seat, is a huge and very beautifully-fashioned sword, suspended handle downwards. Away to the left, facing the bench, is a large square pew – the dock. Over that, the clock and the gallery for the public. What, with its sounding-board, its gallery, its air of depression, its atmosphere of sin, the court is for all the world like a dissenting chapel.
An impression deepened when a gentleman in a rusty gown, after the likeness of those affected by the average dissenting minister, suddenly lets off twelve consecutive oaths. Each oath is apportioned to one of the responsibilities, and is delivered by the clergyman with a sonorous and unctuous voice that replaces the dissenting parson theory by one in favour of a parish clerk in a country church.
And now enter the two accidental poles of this queer world. On to the bench stalks, with much flow of scarlet robe, the Judge. He is accompanied by an old gentleman, even more grandly dressed, who, somebody says, is the presiding alderman. During the day, other gaily dressed beings flit in and out on the bench, who are under-sheriffs, or some such absurdities. And the odd thing is, that they all try to look as if they had never done anything wrong in their lives, although I don’t mind betting that not one of them, or for the matter of that, not one of the rest of us in the body of the court, but has done, or at least gone perilously near to doing, something that makes us claimants for the dock; but being out of it for the present, we are all as smug as smug can be.
And here is the opposite social pole in this topsy-turvy world. That is the dapper little man, neat, perfectly self-possessed, with brown shooting-coat (absit omen!), buttoned up to the throat, who now steps demurely into the big pew, and becomes from that moment the most entirely unconcerned, and yet the most deeply interested person in the court. That is the man that we call with our exquisite English sense of fairness, “the prisoner.” Of course, every man in this noble land is innocent as long as he has not been actually proved guilty. That is the reason why, when we are trying a man for his life, or some such trifle, we handicap him in his struggle towards the city of refuge by calling him all the time we are trying to head him off from the city, “the prisoner.”
Hargan has been a soldier, and he certainly stands like one. Quite erect, with his hands folded behind his back, or, when that position becomes wearisome, folded on the rail before him. As far as I, not unobservant, and most assuredly, not unsympathetic, noticed, he never once lost command over himself. The first time some one or other gave a circumstantial account of the shooting, he lowered his eyelids, and shifted his feet. During the time that the judge, with a studied professional cruelty, was summing up against him, the little soldierly man sat down calmly, and looked straight at the judge. By the way, I noticed that this latter puppet in the game we were all playing never once looked at his partner in it. And that seemed to me the most human thing about the judge, that he had a sort of shame and was just sufficiently dimly conscious of the wicked absurdity of the relative positions of himself and his vis-à-vis not to care to meet the eye of the little, self-possessed fellow-creature standing for the most part quiet and erect face to face with him.
By this time our eager mob had settled down more or less decorously into place, and the two fine ladies, out of the five actually present, who were immediately behind me, had arranged their dainty skirts and got their gold-rimmed eye-glasses in poise, and the exquisite cut-glass flagons of smelling-salts within reach; although my ladies were both so highly scented intrinsically, that for the life of me I could not imagine what more either of them wanted if a faintness came over her than to lean an inch or so towards her neighbour.
And then Mr. Avory began the tragi-comedy. He, and indeed all the barristers who took part, must be men capable of triumphing over great difficulties and of marvellous self-control, scarcely less than that of our friend Hargan. The greatest of the many difficulties that the players in a piece of this nature have to overcome must be the having to speak plainly with their tongues in their cheeks. And only think of the self-command necessary to prevent one from suddenly shrieking aloud, “What a mockery the whole affair is, and why in the name of thunder am I doing all I can to hang this man instead of being retained for the defence?”
There was one point at which even Mr. Avory’s gravity nearly gave way, and the tongue in the cheek almost got the better of him. That was when he asked the jury to put away from their minds all that they had heard or read about the case before they started on it. In the first place, why should they? – in the second place, how can they? Much more reasonable, from the point of view of the particular game he had to play was the ad captandum, et ad timorem, appeal to the twelve responsibilities’ sense of fear. “You, oh my beloved brethren also, may, in such a day and an hour as ye think not, be suddenly confronted in the street with a loaded revolver and an angry man at the other end of it. How would you like, after pursuing an inoffensive man through the streets, to be shot off in the error of your more or less devious ways with a well-directed bullet through your head, empty except of alcohol?” Unfortunately, the appeal ad timorem had oddly enough its effect later in quite the opposite direction.
Then came the cloud of witnesses. And as they came one after another, I saw a new reading in the old Biblical phrase. It ought to be cloudy witnesses. A matter of life and death, and yet the most reckless, the hardest of swearing, and, even where some of them were struggling to tell the truth, such endless confusion, such lapses of memory, such hopelessness of stupidity. They started with a policeman of an artistic turn of mind, who goes about making plans. Not the plans of the ordinary detective, but ground plans and elevations, with murder for the corner-stone of the building. The artist-policeman was better looking than some of his fellows in court. They say that people who live together for many years grow like one another in face and feature. Something of the same sort may perhaps account for the fact that more than one of the gaolers and constables had caught the brutal, or at least, the sullen or hangdog look that marks the disease of criminality.
The plans of our artistic policeman were handed about in duplicate to judge and counsel, and the jurymen were each supplied with them, as worshippers are supplied with hymn-books at the dissenting chapel. After the which came a less artistic thing. A youth, unmistakably of the criminal class – one silly Charlie, Jones, and half-a-dozen other names. This young ruffian had, on his own admission, in a voice that proclaimed drink and crime in every dull, laboured syllable, been with the dead ruffians when they were going for Hargan. I don’t know which reflection was the most curious, that this degraded thing was a common enough type, or that he was only acting up to his code of morals and of honour in doing his best to swear away the life of the man who had killed his pals, or that it was but the merest chance that one of them was not in his place committing perjury, and silly Charlie dead.
Even this wretch had his humorous side. He was really deaf, but the variations of his deafness were as infinite as the variety of Cleopatra. Now, you would have the clerical usher bawling into his unwilling ear the awkward questions of the cross-examining counsel – anon, he was answering an inquiry of Mr. Geoghegan, almost before it had left that gentleman’s broguish lips. And bless you, he didn’t know what he had meant, when he had declared that they were “going for the prisoner.” Why, they were not after him – not a bit of it. They were going to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, to visit the sick child of one of the late deceased. The witness-box at the Old Bailey is placed between the jury and the judge, and it was a sight for angels and men, if there be any such that love contrasts, to see silly Charlie and his Lordship poring over one of the artistic constable’s plans, refined cheek by square jowl.
Silly Charlie had thrown some light, necessarily lurid, as coming from that emissary of darkness, upon the manners and customs of the Arcadian neighbourhood of Kingsland. Now came all sorts of lights, having but the one thing in common that they were all lurid. Thrown by publicans, whose main occupation in life appears to be the chucking out recalcitrant and impecunious customers; by publicans’ wives, the frequent target of pewter-pots; by men; who vegetate, at best, in public-houses, hour after hour, and day after day; by policemen, who declare that the neighbourhood is a desperate one; by organ-grinders, with a distinct leaning towards crime; by little girls, who look through the doors of public-houses, and see the flourishing of revolvers; by chimney-sweeps out of work by reason of a temporary sojourning in gaol.
Altogether a very charming and typical part of our London. The only physically and morally sound inhabitants that swam within our ken were a shoemaker and an ex-prizefighter. The shoemaker looked like an old Chartist, and very likely was one. He appeared to be the only inhabitant of the neighbourhood, of the male sex, who did not live habitually in the “Wagon and Horses,” except Mr. William Knifton, ex-prizefighter. Mr. Knifton I had read of in sporting papers as the 81-tonner but he has evidently turned over a new leaf. He is now an officer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – an oddly incongruous calling for a man that has been a prize-fighter. As things go at present, Mr. Knifton’s exceptionally fine bodily frame is topped with a head that reminds me – I am not joking – of the head of a Greek statue. He is clothed in the Society’s uniform, and in his right mind. Somehow, he will call to my mind the end of Bret Harte’s “Tennessee’s Partner.” The partner dying, you remember, sees Tennessee, dead some time before, coming towards him “sober, an’ his face a-shining.”
And all this time, the central figure of all the ugly past we are painfully piecing together is still the calmest and most self-possessed of us. He is no otherwise when the particular counsel who happens to have the job of defending instead of attacking him, pleads in the usual high falutin’ clap-trap fashion on his behalf. Mr. Geoghegan, like Mr. Avory, knows the commonest weakness of the bourgeois. It is physical cowardice, and to this he appeals. “You, also, oh, my beloved brethren, may, in such a day and an hour as ye think not, be in a desperate neighbourhood, and find three hulking blackguards, maddened with drink, stumbling after you, with oaths and curses, and the clear intent of going for you. If you should defend yourself, would you not be justified?” And so on, and so on.
Witnesses to character and the summing-up. Here, more than anywhere else, perhaps, the artificiality, and, if the issue were not so serious, the ridiculous nature of the whole business forces itself upon me. First, there is the ludicrous get-up of the licensed condemner to death. Somehow he seems to me in much the same category as the hangman, whose immediate forerunner he is. Second, there is the professional tone, with cant of fairness, as distinctive and unmistakable as that of the parson or the professional beggar. It is very amusing to note how the barristers, who are moving up towards the heights of the judicial bench, have caught something of this tone and practise it as much as they can. Good Mr. Avory is a case in point. Then there is the laying down the law, and the eulogy of this cumbrous and ineffective machine, so unjust in its methods, so unjust in its administration, so unjust in its incidence. Finally, there is the usual advice of the “Don’t put him under the pump” order. “Of course, if you really think he is not guilty, say so; or if you think it was only manslaughter, say so; but I think it was murder, and you ought to think so too.” Mr. Justice Charles, by what he said, and by the way in which he said it, very emphatically said to the twelve responsibilities, “Hang.”
Then the jury went away and the unruffled Hargan was officially swept out of the square pew and out of sight. The people, who were supposed to know all about it, said that if the jury came back within a reasonably short time that would bode ill for the prisoner. The question was between murder and manslaughter, and with a summing-up so dead against the man as be nearly vindictive, the average responsibility would be at the outset inclined to hang. In the meantime, there is no lack of sport for the hunters waiting for the fate of the chiefest quarry. An old man is hauled up and arraigned for manslaughter, pleads “Not Guilty,” and is hauled down again to wait his turn. A strange, obscene-looking animal, curiously like a wild beast, follows. The moment it comes to the front of the dock, one of the plates in Havelock Ellis’ “The Criminal” rises before me. It is Plate VI. Of the six criminal heads there pictured, this man’s head might be a “composite photograph.” Before the clerk has read out the indictment, I say to my neighbour: “They will have to clear the court of women, after the quaint English manner of morals.” I am right, and I fancy my neighbour takes me for a policeman or a gaoler or a lawyer or some other unpleasant person. The fact is, that I recognise the head and face as of the type represented in “The Criminal” as that of the sexual offender.
And there was some very young game for us. Two unhappy boys, less than thirty years of age in sum. Their master was prosecuting them for an offence, as it is called, that some of the most moral men of this time do not consider as coming within the category of crime at all. The two youngsters were, we may take it, unhappy. But for my own poor part, I would most assuredly have stood in the place of one of them rather than in that of the smug-faced publican, smirking and oozing out British virtue at every fat pore, who stood in that palladium of British virtue, the witness-box. He had handed the two infants, in the eye of the law, to a constable, to prison, to the Old Bailey, when a better and wiser man would have reproved, suggested, and taken to treating them more like human beings than lower animals.
However, away with them downstairs, after the aged man, slaughterer of women, and the sexual “criminal,” and into the stews below, where crime festers and pullulates. For the responsibilities are returning, within a quarter of an hour. And our wiseacre, who has not nicely balanced the two ad timorem, appeals, shakes a wiseacre and expectant head and says, “Hargan is doomed.”
When all is still again and the verdict of all the responsibilities and respectabilities comes out, lo it is only “manslaughter.” Most of us give a sigh of relief and satisfaction. Over the refined face of Mr. Justice Charles a light wave of something perilously near vexation passes. Our friend Hargan is as impassive as ever. Then the judge takes it out of him as much as he can. “Twenty years penal servitude.” He says it as sonorously, as lightly, as he said “Seven years” to the pleading-guilty sexual sinner, and with exactly the same absolute incomprehension of what he is doing, of what he has done, of what an accidental puppet he is in the great game of life and death, of the ghastly iniquity of the whole sorry business.
Hargan is swept away, very swiftly this time, the judge settles himself in his seat comfortably, as one that has done his duty and is supremely satisfied with things as they are. And some of us go out into the free air, pondering.