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

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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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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.


Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?


This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.


An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.


Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.


Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.


Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.


"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."


"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."


"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."


"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."


"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."


"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."


"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."


"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."


"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."


"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."


"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."


"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."


"True friends stab you in the front."


"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."


"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."


"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."


"Genius is born—not paid."


"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."


"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"


"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."


"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."


"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."


"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."


"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.


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