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6 True Tales of Thievery, Murder, and Witchcraft from the Old Bailey's Court Records

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you always wanted to know exactly what sort of crimes merited being drawn and quartered hundreds of years ago, or how young a person could be and still be sentenced to death for theft, it's all just a click away—thanks to the Old Bailey Online's search engine. The central criminal court of England has transcribed and uploaded hundreds of court documents spanning the years 1674 to 1913, and made them all searchable by crime, punishment, verdict, name, or age. (A brief warning: The Old Bailey archives are detailed records of the criminal justice system at a time when “cruel and unusual” was more of a challenge than a criticism. The testimonies can be brutal and explicit. Also, their spelling was much different/terrible.) 

Below is an introduction to the records of the Old Bailey—and the glimpses they provide into what life was like for alleged criminals centuries ago.

1. The Accused: Jane Kent (1682)

The Offense: "Witch-craft"

The Case: Jane Kent was accused by her neighbor, a man named Chamblet, of “using several Diabolick Arts. They had an argument over the sale of a pig, which led to Kent “first Bewitching the swine,” then causing the death of Chamblet’s daughter, who passed away from “Swelling all over her Body, which was discoloured after a strange rate.” His wife was soon also afflicted. (It’s impossible to know what illness had actually struck the Chamblet family, but a number of different parasites can cause those symptoms.) What followed was a rundown of every witch trial cliché Hollywood has since exposed us to—except in this case, someone's life was on the line. Kent was examined and found to have the tell-tale “devil’s teat” on her back, and “unusual holes behind her ears.” For further proof, Chamblet boiled a mixture of his wife’s urine, fingernail clippings, and hair clippings in a clay pot, which resulted, he testified, in hearing the witch’s voice at his very door,and that she Screimed out as if she were Murdered, and that the next day she appeared to be much swelled and bloated.”

The Verdict: Not guilty. As airtight as the evidence was, urine-induced witch shriek and all, Kent had a solid defense. "But she producing Evidence that she had lived honestly, and was a great pains-taker, and that she went to Church, with many other Circumstances, the Jury found her not Guilty." 

2. The Accused: Mall. Floyd (1674)

The Offense: Temporary theft of child, permanent theft of child’s clothes

The Case: Mall. Floyd was noted in the casebooks of the Old Bailey as having discovered a “particularly remarkable” kind of crime. The clothing belonging to the wealthy of the era would have been made of the finest lace and cloth—and worth a great deal of money. The easiest way to snag some of these golden threads? By taking them from small children, of course. 

In this particular case, Floyd told “a pretty little Child of about 8 years” that she had been sent by her mother. She took the girl to a tavern far from home, then demanded that she remove her clothes so they wouldn’t be spoiled in the rain. Next, she dropped the child off at a crowded funeral in a churchyard, abandoning her in the crowd. The child “fell a crying, and was brought home that Night by some honest Inhabitant there abouts, where she told all the sad Story, but could not in the least declare who it was had served her so, or where she might be heard of.” Good fortune, however, soon played a hand, and “the very next day the Childs Mother passing up Holbourn, saw some of her Childs things hang up in a Shop to be sold, which She knew again and acquainted the people of the Shop there with, who after some time and much trouble found out this Woman that sold the things to them.” 

The Verdict: Guilty. Mall. Floyd confessed and was sent to Newgate prison, but not for long: “Having been often a distressed Lady before in that Inchanted Castle” (it seems as though court reporters were allowed to have a sense of humor back in the day!), she was sentenced "to be Transported to some of the Plantations beyond the Seas." 

3. The Accused: Hester Gregory (1725)

The Offense: Fraud

The Case: John Cockerell, a fairly well-to-do man in his 60s, is said to have frequently bothered a female friend of his about finding him a wife. A rich wife. He turned down many matches that did not meet his high standards. So when his friend Hester Gregory, apparently sick of his pestering, introduced him to “a very agreeable young Lady that is lately come from Barbadoes”and who supposedly owned a vast plantation bringing in enormous income—he married her within two days’ time. Though there was no real way to ensure her story checked out—remember, this was pre-Catfish—he was assured by Gregory and her pals that he had stumbled upon a goldmine, and that he better grab her before her many other potential suitors did. And so they married and spent the night together, thus cementing the marriage according to the laws of the day.

The following afternoon Cockerell found his bride taking tea. According to Cockerell’s deposition, the following conversation took place:

'I think, Sir, (says this pretended Lady of mine) that it's now high time to undeciive you: - I don't question but that you think you have marry'd a rich Lady of Barbadoes; when, indeed, you are quite mistaken.’

‘Mistaken! (says I in a great Surprize) Why, pray Madam, what are ye?’

‘I am now your Wife,’ says she; ‘but before you made me so I was Mrs. Eccleton's Maid.’

Enraged, Cockerell went to Gregory and demanded to know how she could be so wicked. Her response:

'Lord, Mr. Cockerell, what do you mean? I believe you have got a very suitable Wife: she had no great Fortune indeed; but she may save you one by her good Management: You had Money enough before; you only wanted an Heir to enjoy it, and in due time she may bring you one.'

Unsatisfied, Cockerell tried to gather evidence that his wife was a woman of ill-repute, but there was none. He then tried to bribe her into a divorce, promising her a small sum if she complied, which she, of course, would not. That would have made her a woman of ill-repute.

Verdict: Not guilty. The shifty matchmaker was let go, and greedy Mr. Cockerell was stuck with his penniless wife. The court found that since Cockerell had taken the marriage vow “for richer or poorer” he himself had negated his whole case. As the court records state, “That he took her (not for the Sake of a Barbadoes Plantation) but to live with her after God's Ordinance; that is, for the Procreation of Children, and for the mutual Society and Help of each other.” 

4. The Accused: Mary Broadbent, age 10 years (1726)

The Offense: Stealing

The Case: Mary’s father Paul ran a barber shop with his second wife. Mary’s mother—and Paul's first wife—had died two years prior. According to the record, Mary was frequently sent over to the neighbors for “succor.” At the trial, Paul Broadbent stated that he had been losing odds and ends (including aprons, plates, and rags) for quite some time. He had long suspected that his daughter was stealing from him after falling in with the ill-mannered children next door. One day, he “mist the Stay of a Child's Coat, and a Cloth that I used to wipe my Razors on. I and my Wife examin'd her, and she confest, and so we carried her, and the other 3 Prisoners, before Justice Ellis, and he committed them to Newgate.”

In general, it's probably not ideal parenting to bring serious charges against your 10-year-old, but in Broadbent's case, it was an especially lousy move. The witnesses for the defense totally destroyed whatever credibility he may have had. The neighbor mother accused of being the ringleader of little thieves had, by Broadbent’s own omission, been a friend to his deceased wife, and many of the “stolen objects” he’d found in her home had been given honestly. Plus, she was a part-time maid to many, all of whom testified to her honesty. His own sister denounced him, telling the court:

'He and his new Wife have used the child very barbarously. They beat her till they made her confest any thing that they desir'd. - They made her confess that she had stolen a Chintz Gown that was her Mother's, when her Mother never had such a Gown. And since the Child has been in Newgate, he has Charged her with stealing an old pair of Window Curtains, and yet he himself, gave these very Curtains to me, soon after his first Wife dy'd.'

Verdict: Not guilty. In an age when a child of 10 could be charged for theft of a rag and branded, pilloried, or transported to Australia, the court handed down a decidedly modern ruling: “And the Court thinking it improper she should go to live again with her Father and Step-Mother, brought him to an Agreement, to allow his Sister Mrs. Hudson, 10 lb. a Year for the Child's Board and Apparel, and order'd him to pay the Prisoner's Fees.”

5. The Accused: Elizabeth Lylliman (1675)

The Offense: Petty treason

The Case: Elizabeth spent most of her trial at the Old Bailey wailing and crying out that she wanted to see her husband. The jury was not impressed by the performance: “This appeared to the Court to be but a mad kind of Artifice, designed out of her feigned passionate Zeal to her Murthered Husband to take off the suspicion of her being instrumental to his death.” According to court records, her husband had left his home and gone to borrow a neighbor's knife in order to cut up a fish for his dinner. Moments later, “while the Fish was a broyling, the people of the house being gon out of the Room, at their return, they found poor Lylliman with the aforesaid knife in his body, and the blood streaming out.”

Elizabeth insisted she was innocent—never mind that the stabbed man had crawled to his doorway, called his neighbor over, and “then imbracing him, cryed out dear Countryman, my wife has stab'd me with a knife I borrowed of you, which words he reiterated 3 or 4 times, and then sunk down dead.” So yes: she was lying. But Elizabeth's real problem was that she had murdered her husband. In 17th-century England, the husband was viewed as the king of the household. To kill a king, of course, isn’t just murder; it’s treason. Thus, killing one's husband resulted in a charge of “petty treason.” Suffice it to say no merciful noose awaited Elizabeth Lylliman.

Verdict: Guilty. Ruled the court: “Elizabeth Lylliman, the person that killed her husband, her crime being petty Treason, had judgment to be burned to ashes.”

6. The Accused: Lodowick Muggleton (1677)

The Offense: Declaring himself the Last Witness of God with “absolute and irrevocable power to save and damn whom [he] pleas'd.”

The Case: Muggleton started his adult life as a tailor, eventually deciding the trade didn't suit him. For his second career, he decided to declare himself a religious figure, claiming he wielded more earthly power than God himself. Muggleton proclaimed that "the whole power of Witnessing, Blessing, and Cursing, devolved into his hands, which he as impiously practised upon the least affront or opposition; pronouncing persons damn'd by their particular Names, blasphemonsly adding, That God, Angels, or Men could not afterwards save them.'"

In other words: Should Our Heavenly Muggleton decide that the name “Brown” was not holy enough, all Browns were damned for eternity. End of story. But even more problematic in the eyes of the British government was Muggleton's publication of religious books and tracts, with which he “easily seduced divers weak and instable people (especially of the Female-Sex) to become his Proselytes, who from him call themselves Muggletonians.”

A raid on his house produced a great many of these writings, "filled with many wicked Passages so horrid and blasphemous, that we think fit to spare the Christian modesty of each pious ear, by not repeating the same here.”

Verdict: Guilty. To the heartbreak of devout Muggletonians everywhere, Muggleton was sentenced to “stand three days in the Pillory at three the most eminent places of the City, with Papers shewing his Crime.” Even more insulting: his heretic writings where to be chopped into three chunks and burned over his head during each pillorying. Muggleton was also sent to jail until he could pay his staggering 500 pound fine. We can only imagine the horrific punishments awaiting his persecutors once they entered Muggleton damnation in the Muggletonian afterlife.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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