Robert Irwin: Suffering & Mistake

18th Century Execution

Crime in the 18th century was so different than crime in the 21st century in the 18th century pretty well all crimes were a form of severely torturous punishment in such a way that no matter what you were going to be harshly punished with a punishment that made you pay for the crime that was committed. The typical punishments if found guilty resulted in things like death by various forms, for example hanging, and execution. In the 21st century crimes are usually punished by fines, or jail time of various lengths. A man by the name of Robert Irwin got caught up in an 18th-century crime that carried a very serious form of punishment; the problem with Mr. Irwin is that his crime could have been one that was prevented if he had help in starting his new life as a civilian and leaving the fighting behind. The big question to be answered is the idea of why wasn’t he given help to prevent the crime, and how useful was his punishment? I argue to say if Mr. Irwin was given a little support and help the outcomes of the crime would not have happened. Help can change the outcome of many situations because usually when one receives support they open their mind to many different views. Problems are easier to solve when they are talked out with someone rather than letting it continue to build up and cause stress by keeping things inside.

In 1731, Nearly 5 years after the original crime had taken place, Robert Irwin stood in the Old Bailey Courthouse in London being charged with the murder of the door man to the gaming house the Phoenix. He was surrounded by a jury that was looking to find him guilty of the murder that was caused during a night of Irwin engaging in heavy drinking. In the end he was executed for this act of violence.

Robert Irwin was an older man who had military background he was a member of the foot guard’s second regiment in England. He was a very valued solider, and fellow comrades looked up to him for the jobs he was able to accomplish; he was very highly respected for his position. His job gave him some very special perks in the way of leave from active service in order to go home and enjoy some relaxation and leisure activities. As a way to relax he chose to go out and have a few drinks and enjoy a break from all of his hard work. He chose to take a comrade by the name of John Biggins out to enjoy this time with him. This is where his troubles began to start, and in the end this is what resulted in him having to go to court and be sentenced for the crime.

The mistake Irwin made was choosing to drink alcohol after just coming back from military activities. He was not in the greatest state of mind because of the actions that he was used to witnessing when doing his duty as a soldier. Being in this off state of mind is what led to his crime while out drinking Robert and his friend went to a gaming house to try and collect a payment from someone. However, upon arriving Irwin was told by the doorkeeper Charles Piercy that he would not be allowed to enter because on previous occasions he caused a disturbance and the fellow patrons did not like this. Upon hearing this Irwin became angry and irate which led him to pull out the bayonet that he was carrying on him, being a soldier he was used to carrying around a weapon as a safety net of protection. He felt threatened by the comments of the doorkeeper, so in a moment of quick thinking he drew his weapon and stabbed it through the door. Right into the chest of the doorkeeper, the wound went right through Charles’ heart leaving a gash that was one inch long and five inches deep.

After Robert Irwin realized what he had done he then made a run for it from the location, deserted his regiment, and fled to Ireland where he thought he would be safe. The only problem with this move was the fact that at first he played it safe and undetected but then his unstable mind got the better of him and he started appearing out in the open. We know this because we are told that “had his mind been undisturbed he would have remained concealed” This led him to decide to go back to London and try to check into a local hospital as a person who was discharged from the military. In doing this he was only home for a few days when he was contacted by a man by the name of John Roberts, who is the man responsible for apprehending Robert Irwin to make him face up to the murder charge of killing Charles Piercy.

At his trial, Irwin had many eye witnesses present their side of the story. Each of them had the same thoughts in what had happened and how Irwin should be treated in response to it. Two of them claimed to have heard Piercy go answer the door and then come back and say “Robert Irwin has killed me after this they say Charles Piercy was taken away where he died a quarter of an hour after the incident took place”  Another key witness was Charles Piercy’s wife Ann she told the court that her husband “left home around 5 o’clock and was brought back home wounded around 6 or 7 o’clock, he couldn’t speak, he begged for goodness sake to be laid down, and died immediately.” The last key witness was the doctor who did the autopsy on Piercy the value of this witness was the fact that he was able to verify the injury that was sustained during the stabbing.  Each one of these people was on Charles Piercy’s side because there accounts were all proving that they knew about the incident and who had done it or knew that what had happened was in fact true. His final witness was the fellow comrade John Biggins, who told the courts “that he had personally seen Irwin deliver the fatal blow against Piercy”. This witness point blankly made it clear that Irwin had committed the fateful crime, whether the crime was 100% intentional or not he wasn’t letting Irwin get away with something he didn’t have to go and do in the first place. Biggin’s forced Irwin to be punished for what he did.

In his defense statement during the trial, Robert Irwin denied the allegations of what he was being charged for he even took it upon himself to call on his sergeant to say what kind of person he was. In the end it was determined that he was a passionate man but he also had a rocky past life of crime that haunted him he had a previous stabbing crime that he committed at another time. With this the court raised the major question as to why he was apprehended right away because in a way he wasn’t safe right from the start. With this Robert Irwin was convicted and found guilty and sentenced to death in the form of execution at the Tyburn.

I think this trial is important because if we tie it to today’s society military personnel still can go AWOL (Absent Without Leave) now which means that even today we still see soldiers who desert their troops if they become unstable in action. In this day and age if a solider kills someone else depending on the circumstances, if it’s a fellow solider or someone else that isn’t a part of the war they are fighting they will typically get a discharge from the military and then usually go to court on the charges that they receive. However, today Canada doesn’t have the death penalty per say which in a way means the charges for the more harsh crimes aren’t nearly as strict because this means that you aren’t sentenced to death right away no matter what. Usually today a person is just fined for minor crimes and sentenced to long jail terms for the worse crimes basically you just sit in jail for a while to think about what you have done. Even though it is possible to be stuck in jail till you die it doesn’t mean you are really given what used to be called the death penalty. One major difference on how to deal with soldiers that come home from serving active duty is in the 21st century there is counselling to help with dealing with disorders like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) It is hard to tell if this is possibly what Irwin was dealing with because there is no proof as to why he committed the crime. One possibly however is the idea that a man who was to be present at the gaming house – The Phoenix where Irwin and Biggins were drinking owed Irwin “six pence” and if he received payment he would buy himself and Biggins “a treat”.  In the end whatever the reason was I think if he would have had someone to talk to when he came home from battle his mind would have been a lot more relaxed in such a way that it would be easier to deal with his problems.

Irwin also had an issue because he has a past life of crime. When someone commits a crime at one time it is hard to not to re-commit the same crime again or at least one similar. This means that once someone is drawn into a life of crime it is very hard to put that life behind them and usually it catches up with the again in some way or another. Basically Irwin’s past life of crime mixed with his drinking habits and becoming drunk didn’t help with his actions. In the end he resorted back to crime to help him solve his problems. This type of thing is still seen in today’s society when someone goes to jail for committing a crime, especially one of a long sentence they have a hard time readjusting to society. In order to fix this they usually end up getting caught up in a crime again and going back to jail because this is the lifestyle they are now used to.

All of this shows us how far things have progressed since the 18th century because we have eliminated the formal death penalty, the crimes are handled with various punishments depending on how severe it was and there is help out there for soldiers to regain a sense of a normal life. Without these things I think the world would still be a very unforgiving place on crime of any kind. In reality I think if our world was the same now as it was in the 18th century I think we would have a much harder time with dealing with crime because people would commit the crime and then take off knowing that they had no chance at life from that point on, but also I think it would affect families a lot more because at least today if someone’s family member goes to jail, for the most part they can still visit and call and be a part of their lives for a least a little while. Whereas if you are killed right away for a crime both the person who commits the crime and their family loses out on someone in their life which is unfair for everyone involved.

This is a little insight to the Story of Robert Irwin and how crimes have changed between the 18th century and 21st century. To find out more visit,

All the quotes have come from the Old Bailey Sessions Papers: Robert Irwin and the Newgate calendar.


2 comments on “Robert Irwin: Suffering & Mistake

  1. thefogmaster says:

    Hi Jalesa,

    I think you did a great job of portraying this immensely interesting case in a way that shows the reader something about the society of the 18th Century,
    My advice for you is as follows:
    1. I found quite a few comma splice errors. It won’t be a big deal to fix, just make sure you go over your post really closely and they should pop right out at you.
    2. I really enjoyed the conversational, slightly less formal way you have of writing. I think it really shows that you have a good grasp of the material and that you find it interesting. However, I found that it sometimes got in the way of being direct in what you were trying to say, and also just a little bit distracting.

    As I said before, I really enjoyed this post, and I think that if you’re able to fix these two minor issues, the post will be very strong!


  2. thestetson says:

    I too enjoyed how you presented your piece, making it more conversational. However, I would be careful with your casual word choice- make sure it doesn’t distract from the seriousness of the subject. I also like how you related modern military events to the trial, and I think your points would be stronger if you perhaps introduced the connection between the trial and today’s military in the opening paragraph. Overall, good job!

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