I was browsing the Old Bailey Online for seasonal crimes, as one does, and came across this case from the Proceedings of 27 May 1691:
Rebekah Williams, Widow, was Tryed for Robbing Edward Veron , on Easter-day last, of Goods to a considerable value. Mr. Veron swore, That his Shop was broke open at Ipswich, and that the Prisoner offered several of the Goods to sale in London, at a Goldsmiths, where she was taken; but she proving her self a Married Woman, by vertue of the Covering she was Acquitted.
We have, in other words, a woman who allegedly participated in stealing from a shop on Easter, but escaped unpunished because she was married at the time.
Early Modern John recently described an Old Bailey case from around the same time as ‘both amazing and infuriating at the same time’ – and the case of Rebekah Williams undoubtedly falls into that same category. The record includes tantalising hints about the culture of the time, but also fails to explain the parts that seem to be most in need of explanation.
The first question is about the significance of the day of the crime. It is obvious why criminals might plan a break-in for ‘Easter-Day’ – presumably everyone else would be at church and the theft would be less likely to be detected. But what would the jurors think of such a crime? Would they be inclined to treat the accused more severely because the crime was both a theft and a profanation of the year’s holiest day? Would the prosecutor draw attention to this? Sadly, the record is entirely silent on this point.
The second issue is influence of Williams’ marital status. This seems to be a case of ‘feme covert’. As the OBO explains:
The legal principle of the feme covert, by which women could not be held responsible for crimes committed in the presence of their husbands (since they were presumed to be following their husbands’ commands) was not often applied, but it may have led juries to exonerate some married women, particularly when their husbands were convicted for the same crime.
The principle had a much more significant role in commerical affairs and inheritance than in criminal law, but it theoretically applied to cases of theft as well.1 But why, then, was Williams listed as a ‘widow’? How did she ‘prove’ her marriage? Why wasn’t her husband mentioned and, in fact, prosecuted? I’m inclined to imagine a scenario something like this … Williams and her husband robbed the shop in Ipswich, but only she was caught selling the goods in London. She admitted the crime but claimed that she was coerced by her husband, who – conveniently – died before the trial. But this is all merely speculation. Here too the record is silent.
In the end, what we are left with is a woman who seems to have committed a potentially capital crime on the most sacred day of the Christian calendar, and who walked away from the court unscathed.
1 For the significance of ‘feme covert’ in the economic sphere, see Joanne Bailey, ‘Favoured or oppressed? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660-1800′, Continuity and Change, 17:3 (2002), pp. 351-372 (ungated); and the work of Amy Erickson. For the role of gender in early modern crime, see Jenny Kermode and Garthine Walker (eds) Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (1994); Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (2003). The law of coverture is also described on Wikipedia.
More speculation: maybe she claimed that she couldn’t legally be in possession of the items she was caught with because she was under coverture. That shouldn’t have carried much weight if they legally belonged to the man they were stolen from, but Old Bailey juries could reach some unconventional conclusions. For example, see this horse theft case, where the ostler rode away on a gentleman’s horse after being given it to hold, and the jury decided that this counted as lawful possession!
Great case, Gavin: ‘he was not Guilty of Stealing the Horse, for that as they said they understood the Gentlemans Horse was delivered to him to hold while the Gentleman went in, which made a Lawful possession, and therefore could be no Felonius taking him away, but the Court seemed to be of another opinion.’
Perhaps in both this case and with ‘widow’ Williams, the jurors may have been committing ‘pious perjury’ wherein they found a way to lessen the charge because they were sympathetic to the defendant. That’s certainly suggested by the final line in the case of the ostler: the judge knew the jury was (intentionally?) wrong and tried to change their mind.
A pair of really fascinating cases: for the latter, I assume the fact that a (gentleman’s) horse is involved makes it unusual for the jury to exercise mercy? And the jury certainly seem reluctant to impart blame when it comes to the horse, not the money. I suppose the circumstances of the robbery suggest that is what the ostler was really after – he could have stolen the horse at any time, but it was when the gent left his money behind that he gave in to temptation.
The sabbath breaking widow is also intriguing, presumably these must have been very distinctive goods that were stolen, given that they were recognised when they turned up in London?
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