In 1862, there was a degree of outcry over the lenient sentences being meted out by magistrates on those who had committed violent assaults or had acted as accessories in murders.
The gang problem was becoming a great problem, and, in the eyes of many, the magistrates were not ensuring that the punishment fitted the crime in the cases of attacks on people by gangs.
Indeed, many were observing that magistrates were handing out severer punishments to those who stole and damaged property than they were to those who injured people.
The Cork Constitution, in its edition of Wednesday, 12th February 1862 raised this issue:-
MURDER MADE EASY
There are few men in the world who deserve so well of their fellow men as the London Stipendiary Magistrates, but if any ruffian should within the next few weeks rip up one of these gentlemen, or cut off his nose, or smash in his head, or lay open his shoulder with a wood-chopper, or kick him in a dangerous place, or break in one of his ribs, or throw vitriol on his trowsers, or practice on him any one of the amenities in which London ruffianism has of late begun to indulge, we could find it in our hearts to vote for that man’s acquittal.
He will have committed a crime deserving seven years’ penal servitude, but he will also have prevented rowdyism from becoming an institution, by awakening London Magistrates to the value of human limbs.
OUTRAGE IN INEVITABLE
They seem to have lost all sense both of the end for which they exist, and of the proportionate mischief created by different crimes.
They are ceasing, like Magistrates in New Orleans, to be a terror to any evildoers except thieves.
Constantly surrounded by criminals, accustomed to listen calmly to stories which make other listeners shudder, working, as it were, in legal hospitals where women are nearly beaten to death and men injured for life daily present themselves for assistance, they have come to regard outrage as something almost as inevitable as disease.
THEY DO NOT PUNISH
It is reprehensible, certainly, and they speak sometimes very severely, but they do not punish, and those who have perhaps been blinded by his adversary listen to the sermon with a smile of critical approval unchecked by any trace of fear.
The luxury of ripping a neighbour up is worth even the penalty of listening for ten minutes to a Magistrate’s weary talk.
It is at this moment safer in London to cut off an enemy’s nose than to snatch a half-quartern loaf, to assist a murder than to steal a silver watch.
Indeed, we do an accessory to the murder a great injustice by the comparison, for the magistrates evidently bold his offence scarcely worthy of notice.
A BUTCHER MURDERED
Let us lake two cases in illustration out of two days’ reports.
On Monday last, a man in South Street, Manchester Square, one of the quietest quarters of the town, was loading a cart with some bones taken out of a butcher’s shop.
Four men, doubtless half drunk, came careering down the street in the regular rowdy style, overturning everything they met.
The bones seemed capital playthings, so they flung them about at the carter, till the butcher began to remonstrate.
He was driven back to his shop, and was followed, threatened, and stabbed to death, having given no provocation whatever.
AS BAD AS ELSEWHERE
What could the Plug-uglies or Blood-tabs of Baltimore, or the Camoristi of Naples, or the Facchini of Florence, who are just now the subject of so much vituperation have done worse?
The murder in Florence the other day, which has furnished the Legitimists with such food for denouncing the “powerless” Italian police, was absolutely identical in character.
Dr. Carter was stabbed because he would not let a porter interfere with his luggage.
Mr. Wincott, the butcher, was stabbed because he would not permit a rowdy to interfere with his work.
NOMINAL SENTENCES INFLICTED
The difference is that the “powerless” Government will assuredly punish the murderers, while the British magistrate actually caught the men and inflicted a nominal sentence.
One man who kicked the poor butcher was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment, and two others to only four.
They would have had as much for a common assault.
ONE CHARGED WITH MURDER
Moreover, their fourth comrade, who at their instigation used the knife, and in whose guilt they are all legally as well as morally accomplices, will be tried for murder, and assuredly receive, if not a sentence of death, at least one of penal servitude for the rest of his evil life.
We may be told that the men never intended murder. Very possibly; but what is that to the point?
They did intend to go as near to death as they dared, else why the production of knives, the brandishing of the woodchopper, the order to “stick” the poor butcher?
They intended to do an illegal act, and, in doing it, they killed a man, and, if that be not a case for a jury, what are judges and juries for?
Is every man involved in a street row at liberty to menace his enemy, and stab him if he remonstrates?
These men may have owed no grudge, but a trial was necessary, if only to elicit that fact.
MARGARET KELLY THE ORANGE GIRL
Two days after this murder Margaret Kelly, an orange girl plying her trade on London Bridge, snatched a watch from a passenger’s waistcoat pocket.
She pleaded “guilty”, and she was sentenced at once and without a lecture to six months hard labour at Wandsworth.
There was no violence used, no assault committed, no circumstance of aggravation. The crime was, though legally highway robbery, really an act of larceny.
Yet the woman was punished at once, and with sufficient severity.
PROPERTY VALUED MORE THAN LIFE
There is but one logical deduction from the two cases.
The magistrates hold property to have exactly six times the value of life.
Margaret Kelly was too avaricious.
She might have stolen the engineer’s nose, or one of his eyes, or a bit of his shoulder, or half a leg, or any other portion of him, at scarcely a sixth of the risk, and with the moral advantage of a lecture into the bargain.
Limbs are not property in magistrates’ eyes, and it is only in offences against property that they have the heart to punish.
ASSAULTS, NOT BROKEN WINDOWS
If the men who assaulted Wincott had attempted to touch his beef or had encouraged each other to steal his bones, or even broken his windows, they would have received sentences adequate to their deserts.
Ruffians may cut off an ear from a man’s body, but not steak from his beef; smash his eyes, but not his glass window.
Indeed, the latter article has recently been specially protected, and the ruffian who crushes a skull with fearless enjoyment would shrink back horrified from the idea of crushing plate glass.
NOT THE FAULT OF THE LAW
It is too bad, and the worst of it is that it is not the fault of the law.
Opinion could alter that, but opinion has no more weight io police-courts than the common law seems to retain.
When magistrates allow a parcel of ruffians to mutilate their police without sending them up for trial, what protection can the public expect?
It is fortunate for London, as well as for the general interests of society, that murder cannot be tried before a stipendiary magistrate.
If it were, we should soon have assassination a trade, as it is in Rome, and manslaughter held to require only a moral rebuke.