Samuel Wilson; The Burnt Swordsman
As Captain Samuel Wilson stepped into the Tilt-Yard Coffee House on January 20th 1743, he had no idea that the night’s events would lead to him almost dancing the Tyburn Jig. Wilson was accused of dealing the fatal blow to a Captain Skerret during a drunken sword fight gone wrong. The outcome of the trail would determine whether Wilson had acted with forethought, or if he reacted to the situation. The difference between murder and manslaughter was the difference between an execution and a burn on the thumb. A letter M burned on the thumb would forever mark Wilson as a man convicted of manslaughter in 18th century England. A slap on the wrist to some people; a haunting reminder to others. The mark that might seal his execution someday, even if he only played a minor part in some illegal activity. If he was placed in a kill or be killed situation again, execution would be the price of his self-defence. In this second offence scenario the court system would not be able to differentiate between manslaughter by self-defence and murder; both actions would be met with execution.
To truly understand the actions of all involved, a retelling of the events must take place. It is important to note that the following story is a culmination of the testimonials given at the Old Bailey. Having discovered fellow military men residing at the Tilt-Yard Coffee House, Samuel Wilson was invited up for drinks with Captain Caugh and Captain Skerret. The three Captains began drinking just past four and continued into the night. At around ten o’clock Wilson had wanted to go see the play, but Skerret wanted to stay and drink. Skerret was eventually convinced and the three made the trip to the playhouse, only to find the play had concluded. Returning to the coffee house, Wilson found that a Captain Richardson was inquiring about him. When Wilson broached the idea of introducing Captain Richardson to the other captains, Skerret replied, “Damn him! He will not come into my company,” and a quarrel broke out between Skerret and Wilson. The quarrel didn’t last long and ended with Wilson walking away from Skerret. Caugh tried to talk sense into Skerret, and accused Skerret of trying to cause a fight all night. Skerret took this badly and called Caugh “a Rascal,” to which Caugh responded “If you have a Mind to quarrel with any Body, I am your Man.” A small scuffle between Skerret and Caugh ensued, but was quickly ended when a few of the Coffee House staff intervened. Caugh and Skerret settled down, shook hands, and met back up with Wilson. As they sat down, more words were exchanged, and Skerret and Wilson both bolted at each other; taking their quarrel outside the Coffee House. The argument heated further as swords were drawn and attacks were made. Richardson, seeing this take place, called for the city guard. A trio of guards reached the duelling duo and stopped the fight momentarily. As Wilson was returning inside, Skerret broke free of two guardsmen and renewed the swordplay. Caugh stepped in and added his sword to the mix; parrying the attacks of the two gentlemen. Suddenly Skerret dropped his sword, fell to his knees, said “I have had enough for tonight,” and died.
Wilson’s evening developed with respect to the interaction of three parts: Skerret’s progressively foul attitude, The mass imbibing of alcohol and coffee, and the poor response and action of the guards called on the scene. The interaction of these parts lead to the conflicts and death of Captain Skerret and were all seemingly beyond the control of Samuel Wilson. Don’t forget about Captain Caugh, he also played an interesting part in this tale, but more on that later. Even with the evidence shown to the court, Wilson was judged guilty of manslaughter and given a burn on the thumb.
Captain Skerret’s drunken mood grew fouler as the night progressed. His original desire to stay at the coffee house was ignored, and he was dragged to the play. What’s worse is that the play had already finished, sending the trio back to the coffee house. Skerret was probably thinking that if the group listened to his plan in the first place, they wouldn’t have wasted so much of the evening. Furthermore, Wilson wanted to introduce a new Captain to the group, of which Skerret and Caugh were the original members. In my mind, the feeling of exclusion would be enough to deeply upset most people, especially when drunk. To Skerret, Wilson was the outsider, and was invading their evening and calling the shots. While not an issue for a sober officer, the alcohol they drank brought Skerret’s mood deeper into anger. Like a jealous teenager, the derailed evening made him speak harsh words and escalate the conflict.
Being at a coffee house, the trio would have been regularly drinking. Wilson testified that they drank from four until ten. The prosecution asked Henry Gadsdon, an employee of the Tilt-Yard Coffee House, if the “deceased was very drunk,” to which Gadsdon said “They were all in Liquour.” The depth of this was shown later, as Gadsdon testified that Skerret “was very drunk but not so drunk that he couldn’t stand.” As we of the modern era know, caffeine and alcohol provide an interesting effect when combined together. While Skerret might have been blackout drunk, the coffee would act to sober him; helping his ability to walk when he would otherwise be unable. In addition, the caffeine would put him on edge while keeping him alert enough to drink more alcohol.
Upon Wilson and Skerret’s quarrel in the street, Mr. Richardson called for the city guards and three guards responded. John Cluer was the Centinal on guard with two officers named West and Wight. The three intervened in the fight; it was Cluer and West that had hold of Skerret, but he broke free. Skerret showed extreme strength for a drunk man, wrenching himself free of two trained guardsmen and showing his devotion to hurting Wilson. Interestingly, the opposite idea could also be true. Even though Skerret was drunk and feeble, if the guards’ handled the situation poorly enough, it would provided Skerret with an opening to rekindle the conflict. The third guard, Wight, has no further mention in the trial showing how he had no further connection between Skerret and Wilson.
In this time period, with duels being an accepted practice, some doctors would be specifically trained to examine the wounds of duelists in order to determine if the final strike was “honorable” and straight. While the inspecting surgeon was not trained in duel-wounds, he speculated it was received as Skerret was recovering from a lunge. During the entirety of the evening, a number of wounds were found on Skerret’s body. The fatal wound was believed to be the one passing slightly through Skerret’s heart, at a slight leftward angle with a second serious wound found piercing between the ribs and lung. Another three wounds marked Skerret’s body; all of which were not seriously deep or fatal. With proper inspection by a specifically trained professional, the details of the fatal strike might have shown Wilson in a different light.
Throughout the trial the issue of the mortal wound continued to come up. Precisely where on the property was the wound inflicted? Was it done in the street before the guards intervened, or in the Coffee House? Well, remember Capt. Caugh? Its time to shed a possible solution to this question. As Gadsdon testified that Capt. Caugh “was the first (first person in the shop’s history) to draw his sword in the Tilt-Yard” we know he had his sword drawn at the time of the final scuffle. As Capt. Caugh testified himself that he added his sword, “beating down passes” as much as he could. Also as the guards were unable to see if Wilson had a sword drawn, they would also likely not be able to see Caugh’s sword-play. If we believe that the fatal wound was inflicted on Skerret during that final fight, it can be within reason that Caugh’s sword might have made the fatal stroke. While I am not saying it is likely that Caugh maliciously planned Skerret’s demise; I believe his actions are similar, if not equal to Wilson’s. Both Captains had harsh words with Skerret, both had fought with Skerret, both were present at the point of Skerret’s death, and yet only Samuel Wilson was charged.
For Wilson’s defence, two Generals and a Colonel all testified to his good character. General Blakeny and General Wentworth both provided good character references for Wilson. Furthermore, the Colonel testified that Wilson “is neither addicted to quarrelling, or any vice whatsoever.” This shining defence helped to show how Wilson did not act in malicious forethought, but just reacted to the situation around him. For a captain to have very powerful friends in high places should be a testament to his good nature. The most striking lines of this trial is when the Wilson’s defence asked General Wentworth if Wilson could have received a court martial by not defending himself. To this the General said “They pass severe Censures on such Occasions.” In response the court claimed “That is a strange Question in this Court” and passed the verdict of manslaughter.
Samuel Wilson was a victim of an escalating situation, in which he had to defend his life. He did this not only because it was the right thing to do, but because of the military punishment he might receive otherwise. In doing so he was found guilty of man-slaughter and branded on the thumb. This verdict was passed not by a court of moral compassion, but by a court of strict, stone-etched laws. The 18th century was a very different time and the courts had to be very strict with murder and manslaughter. In our time period, Captain Samuel Wilson might still have been found guilty of manslaughter, but possibly be hailed as a hero who defended himself when threatened.
Information on branding
Information on Samuel Wilson Trial
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