Billiards, Servants and the Changing Views of Violence

I chose the trial I did for one reason: it was somewhat unique. It didn’t have as much detail as other trials from the era that I could find, but it covered quite nicely a subject that I could not find so well encapsulated in any of the other trials I looked at. There is an almost casual approach to violence displayed that would not be tolerated in today’s society. In one sense, this is not surprising, since assuming the past was simply “a more violent time” is fairly common. However, it’s a bit different to be immediately confronted with that fact. I, personally, am more used to thinking of the past as a setting for historical fiction, so to get a story like this and know it is real is a very different thing. Also, it is interesting to have and be able to examine official documentation of such violence, however minor it may seem.

The story starts, as so many do, in a bar in 1731. John Piggot and his friends were playing a game of billiards and enjoying their drinks. At some point in the evening, Piggot’s billiard stick was damaged, and the boy who works at the tavern, Matthew Morris, was sent out to get it repaired. While he was gone, an argument broke out between Piggot and his friends regarding the bet that had been placed on the game. When Morris returned from his errand, Piggot blamed him for the argument, saying that it would never have happened, had the boy been there. He then promptly took the billiard stick and hit Morris over the head with it. Morris started bleeding, and eventually fell to the ground. Several medical practitioners were called, but it was too late to save him, and he died of his wounds.

Now, although a doctor and an apothecary were both called to see to his wounds, they were not sent for immediately. For several minutes, Morris was bleeding, and had his head bandaged. The men there assumed that his wounds were not that severe, and that he would be back on his feet shortly. It was while the bandage was being wrapped around his head that he started shaking and fell to the ground. That was when the others became truly concerned, afraid that he had gone into some kind of fit. It was shortly after this that an apothecary and a surgeon were sent for. Morris died a little after this. The two men of medicine examined him, and managed to determine that, had they gotten there a bit sooner, they might have been able to save his life.

Where all of this gets interesting, at least to me, is in the type of reaction this crime received. As mentioned before, I had a difficult time finding a different case that dealt with similar themes. The obvious explanation is that incidents like this were not very common. However, obvious does not mean correct. Rather the opposite seems true. What makes this case unique is that it made it to court at all. Incidents of this nature were not uncommon, as it was no crime to strike your servant, and child abuse was fairly common.

What truly grabbed my attention to this case was reading the testimony of the other people who had been at the bar with Piggot when this all happened. Most of them were amazed that the boy reacted so poorly to a wooden stick being brought forcibly down on his head. The one that really amazed, and which perfectly sums up the casual attitude to violence that I find so fascinating, is the testimony by a Mr. Baron, who claimed that he had hit his own son far harder than Piggot had hit Morris and not done him any harm.

The general consensus of all the men questioned seemed to be that, ultimately, Piggot had done no wrong, as he was not a violent man, and he did not strike Morris with ill intent. This is amazing to me, since my modern sensibilities tell me that it should not be possible to hit somebody with no violent intent. Ultimately, however, this was the crux of Piggot’s defence. To an extent it did work. In the end, the judge did agree that Piggot was probably a decent man who killed Morris without intent. However, he still got charged with manslaughter, and was branded on the hand as punishment.

Now, this is where it is a bit less black and white, at least in regards to examining past actions with modern perspectives. Had this case happened today, what would have been different? We look at this story, and we think, “wow, that would never happen today”, and in the small details, that is probably true. Chances are the men who rushed to defend the character of John Piggot would have been slightly less eager to do so. A medical practitioner would probably have been called immediately, instead of several minutes later when they realized that Morris was not about to get back up on his own. And, chances are, the judge would not have been as understanding about what happened. However, one thing that would doubtless remain the same is the charge. Even in a modern court, this would get classified as manslaughter, since the death of Matthew Morris was not intentional. Times are different, but they are not so different.

I do feel that I should mention that Piggot does not seem to have actually been a bad person. He was the person who wrapped a bandage around Morris’ head when he started bleeding, and he was the one who sent for the medics, concerned, according to the page, that he had caused great injury to the boy. Also in his defense, both of the surgeons who examined the boy’s wounds were amazed that such serious injury could even be caused by a billiard stick, suggesting that perhaps Morris had other matters wrong with him before this incident occurred. All in all, this evidence suggests that the testimony of the other men at the bar was not entirely wrong: Piggot was not a violent or angry person.

And this again leads me to wondering about these events, and how this might have gone down in the modern era. He is described b a fellow shipmate as being very inoffensive man. According to this shipmate, one Capt. Mayne, on a long voyage to Barbados “he never saw him (Piggot) in a Passion, or strike a Man a Blow all the Voyage.” Several other men were also brought in who, according to the trial summary, described him as having “the Character of a good-natur’d, Honerable , and inoffensive Man.” Assuming this to be true, the question one has to ask, and which is not brought up in the document, is why Piggot would do what he did, given his nature. The most likely explanation seems to be the cultural difference between the centuries. As mentioned earlier, violence against servants and children was quite commonplace. It is possible that he struck the blow without really giving it much thought. He was annoyed, and was allowed to hit Morris, so he relieved his stress by doing so. Honestly, I doubt that even John Piggot really knew why he did it. It seems to be one of those spur of the moment, “it seemed a good idea at the time” sort of actions.

This highlights a large difference between how such legal proceedings would be handled differently today. Modern courts care a great deal about motive, while it was rarely an issue of concern in the 1730s. While looking through the various trials from the era, I found that an awful lot of them had very little interest in examining motive.

In the end, Piggot was not a bad person, but what he did was a product of the time he was living in. It seems likely that, in todays world, Piggot would never have tried to hit the serving boy. Even if he had, chances are somebody would have called for a doctor almost immediately, as soon as there was blood. However, it did not happen in the modern world. It happened in the 18th century, an era with a more casual approach to violence. It was not quite the middle ages, where death and violence could be found down any street and alley. But they also had not yet reached the level of today, where violence tends to be frowned upon and is viewed as a much more serious problem. It was a midway point. Not that I mean to say the modern era is enlightened, because it isn’t. But, we at least know better than to go around killing bar staff and beating our children.


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