Sunday, November 08, 2009

Surgeon for the Defense

I offer another ramble in the magnificent Old Bailey Archives. From 3rd July, 1771 trial of three men: William Leegroves and John Bailis for stealing a silver tankard from the King James' Stairs public house in Shadwell; and of Joseph Lyons for fencing ("receiving") it.

Defense called Isaac Benjamin, a surgeon from Whitechapel to establish that Lyons was bedridden with illness during the time of the crime. He diagnosed Lyons with pleurisy and bled him, then:
Q. Cannot you tell us what you thought proper to prescribe for him?

Benjamin. Only boluses.

Q. What was the composition?

Benjamin. The composition in plain English, is Venice treakle and spermaceti, and this I prescribed for him.

Q. And any thing else?

Benjamin. And powders thrice a day, powders of crabs eyes.

  • Back in that day, a bolus was a small ball or a pill (today it's a bit different).Benjamin's statement that he gave only boluses is contradicted by a later defense witness and doubtless renders a blow to Lyons' case.
  • Venice Treacle "Venice Treacle contained 64 ingredients. In addition to viper flesh and opium, it included cinnamon, agarics and gum arabic. "
  • Spermaceti is a wax from the head of the sperm whale, used in making candles, cosmetics, and in leatherworking.
  • Crab's eyes weren't visual apparatus, they were "Crab-stones. Calcareous concretions contained in the stomach of the crawish."
If you don't want to read the whole case report (though it has many entertaining elements), all three defendents were found guilty. All were sentenced to transportation, so it's possible descendents of these men live in America today.

A few miscellaneous bits about this case:
  • The prosecutor made an unusual (for a prosecutor) statement after the finding of guilt. "My lord, I would humbly beg leave to recommend the prisoners to your lordship; they are neighbours children, and their parents are people in repute. I believe it is their first fact, and they were very much in liquor."
  • Two of the witnesses for Lyons were Jewish,: the above-mentioned surgeon Isaac Benjamin and a jeweller, Israel Jacob, with whom Lyons lived and lodged in a house in Petticoat Lane. (Perhaps someone is still selling jewelry there today. ) More Jews appear in the case, too, and there are reference to the Jewish Sabbath and to Synagogues without explication. Commendably, Jews have been integrated -- though with many impediments -- into the East End for centuries.
  • Though much testimony from Old Bailey in this era is compressed and not in question / answer format, the testimony by Isaac Benjamin is an extended Q/A that looks a lot like a contemporary court transcript (though, of course, it isn't as reliable). It fills in some quotidian details of the life of a surgeon who tends to ordinary people, not aristocrats, of the day.
  • Several witnesses refer to the King's Day celebrations, including fireworks and merry-making on Tower Hill, which took place shortly before the crime. Lyons blamed crushing by the crowd at the celebration for his illness.

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