Changing Paradigms: The John Hunter Trial

“You keep the title of ‘president’ even if you only served one term.  The same goes for rapists.”

Christy Leigh Stewart

Today, if you asked how many people would agree with this quote, it can be estimated that only a small percentage would not.  This is because in the 21st century, we live in a society that believes in safety, freedom of choice, and justice.  Unfortunately for ten year-old Grace Pitts, she was born three centuries too soon.  The reason Grace Pitts’ case sparked my interest was because of how extremely unjust it was.  I went through numerous cases from both the 17th and 18th centuries before deciding that I wanted to focus on a case involving rape.  I made this decision because while scrolling through the Old Bailey Online, I recognized a pattern.  A pattern that consisted of far too many rape cases ending in the phrase, “The Prisoner was acquitted.”  Because I certainly fall into the category of people who would agree with the quote mentioned above, it enraged me to see how many rapists were getting off scot-free, and being released back into society.  Grace Pitts’ case was especially alarming due to the reasoning behind the final verdict.

The trial took place on April 29, 1747.  It began with the council introducing the case to the courtroom.  The defendant, John Hunter, was being charged with the rape of ten-year-old Grace Pitts.  The first witness called to the stand was Hannah Wilkinson, whom Pitts lived with at the time.  She stated that she realized something had been done to the child when she noticed that her clothes were soiled.  She was also questioned about Pitts’ demeanor, her health, and her relation to the Prisoner.  Following Hannah Wilkinson’s testimony, the Council for the Prisoner asked that Grace Pitts not be used as evidence because of her young age.  However, in the end, it was decided that the victim would be allowed to testify.

The council asked Pitts to tell the story of what happened to her.  She explained that she went to John Hunter’s house to speak with one of his maids.  Hunter told the child that they were not around, but if she would go into the back room with him he would give her an orange.  Pitts explained that she did not see any harm in taking the orange, so she followed him.

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When they were in the room, Pitts tells the court, “He shut the Door and used me ill; he set himself down in the Chair, and pulled something out of his Breeches, and pulled me to him.”  Pitts was asked multiple times if the act had hurt her, to which she replied that it did.  She was also asked multiple times if she cried for help, to which she replied that she would have had she not been threatened by Hunter and told not to do so.  After the act was complete and she had returned home, Pitts said that she did not tell anyone what had happened because she was afraid.  It was not until Hannah Wilkinson inquired about the condition of her linens that she shared the story.

The other witness called upon in support of Grace Pitts was Surgeon Dove.  The surgeon had examined Pitts the day before, and explained that her parts were “very much distended, much enlarged and soul.”  Following the surgeon’s short testimony, those there to speak on John Hunter’s behalf stepped up.  (Important Note: Hunter himself did not speak at the trial).  Hunter had four witnesses, all of whom spoke highly of him.  He was described as modest, sober, honest, and a man of good character.  Very few questions were asked to Hunter’s witnesses, therefore we are not provided with further information from them.

The ending to the trial is what really grasped my attention, and provoked me to do further research on the subject of the trial.  We learn that because Pitts had turned ten four months before the act had been committed, she had to be tried as a mature woman in this case.

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The court considers any child under the age of ten to have been drawn in (whether by force, delusion, or deceit), which means the act was done without consent, making it illegal.  However, in Pitts’ case, because she is over ten years of age, the rules change.  The rape of a mature woman means a carnal knowledge of the body of the person, happening by force, without the consent of the individual.  In short, the difference is that delusion and deceit are no longer considered factors in the act when the victim is over ten.  Going back to Pitts’ story, Hunter had lured her into the back room with bribery, which would normally be categorized as deceit.  Instead, the court says that Pitts, being of mature age, gave some consent of her will because she chose to follow him.  Therefore, Hunter did not commit the act using any force (as far as we know).  Because of this, John Hunter cannot be found guilty of raping Grace Pitts.

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If this makes you wonder how many other people may have been released on similar terms, you are not alone.  London Lives tells us that between 1690 and 1800, 38% of all defendants were acquitted, with an additional 20% convicted on a reduced charge.  This means that only 42% of all defendants were ruled guilty on the full charge originally put against them.  The good news is that this number rose to 72% in the 19th century.  However, for victims like Grace Pitts in the 18th century, it meant living in the midst of your abuser.

To begin my analysis of the case, I feel it is necessary to remind you how far women have come since the 18th century.  Women’s rights were not even up for debate until the late 19th century (early 20th century in many places), so our expectations of justice for Grace Pitts are about 150 years off.  At this time, men and women were thought to have been made up of different characteristics both physically and mentally, and were not viewed as equals because of this.  Gender roles were very specific.  Men were the stronger, more powerful, and more intelligent sex, while women were chaste, weak, and modest.  These stereotypes were pretty much universal, meaning all men and all women fell into their respective categories.  Can you imagine how difficult it would be to plead your case, accusing a man of an unlawful act, as a woman with all these strikes already against you?

It is crucial to discuss the process by which trials took place in the 18th century.  The initial action taken upon the case being presented to the law was a meeting between the members of the grand jury.  A grand jury was made up of men from the middle to upper classes.  Given that this case was Man vs. Woman, we can begin to see how the odds stacked up in Hunter’s case before the trial even began.  Even a group of the most astute men would have found it difficult to side with a petty little girl, rather than a fellow businessman.  It was simply unjust.

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The grand jury would meet to decide whether or not there was sufficient evidence against the accused to bring the trial in front of a jury.  If the grand jury approved the case, it was then referred to as a “true bill”.  If they rejected the case, it was pronounced “ignoramus” and forgotten from then on.  If the grand jury found they were able to directly place charges on individuals, the case was a “presentment” and immediate action was taken.  Grace Pitts’ case was approved; therefore, it was a true bill and was taken to court.  The actual trial in court was a direct confrontation between the prosecutor (who was typically the victim), and the defendant.  Following the trial, the jury would reveal their verdict.  The entire process typically took less than thirty minutes.

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One of the most obvious differences today is that we have lawyers.  A lawyer’s duty is to professionally defend either side of the case, depending on whom they are hired by.  This makes the courtroom a more controlled environment for trials.  The other major difference is the formation of the jury.  In Grace Pitts’ case, because she was both young and a female, she had to have felt intimidated pleading her case to a jury of upper class males.  Today’s juries are much less biased, as they are selected randomly.  A jury will never be made up solely of women or solely of men, and they often have multi-racial members (when in a multi-racial community).  This ascertains that the verdict of the trial will not be decided for any reason beyond pure justice.  The jury is given as much time as they require to deliberate until they reach a unanimous verdict and announce it to the court.  Juries today would be much more sure of their decision than in the past, simply based on the time they take to come up with their verdict.  This is obviously a positive thing when people’s lives are on the line.

In order to showcase the differences in the justice system over the past 300 years, I had to find out how someone would be charged in a similar case today.  I chose to base my research on Canadian law so I am better able to relate to what I find.  In Canada today, John Hunter would be brought up on four offences, leading to an overall verdict.  The offences would be as follows:  Sexual assault, sexual assault causing bodily harm, sexual interference, and luring a child.  During my research, I found a story involving a P.E.I. man who was charged with several accounts of sexual interference and invitation to sexual touching.  Shane Douglas Doucette was convicted earlier this month when his pre-teen victim came forward after years of abuse.  Doucette was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.  Although this case was more extreme than the one between Hunter and Pitts, it provides a comparable over the course of three centuries.  The general amount of jail time for a man like Hunter would be between two and five years in modern Canada, depending on his location and sentences given in similar cases before him.

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The most interesting thing about this process was narrowing down a case that demonstrated how differently justice was served in the 18th century to how it is now.  It was astounding how many cases there were that ended with the prisoner being wrongfully acquitted.  In many cases, this was simply because the alternative was sentencing them to death, and many felt that the punishment did not fit the crime.  That is important to note because it proves how far we have come since then in assuring that there is a fair punishment for every crime committed.  Evidently we can see that there are less people like Grace Pitts in the world today, dealing with resentment and fear, and we live in a better world because of that.

Please follow the links I have included throughout to find more information on the John Hunter Trial, the court process in the 18th century, sexual assault laws in our country, as well as a few similar cases happening around us today!

Also, leave a comment below to let me know what you think … I would love to hear your arguments and assertions!

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2 comments on “Changing Paradigms: The John Hunter Trial

  1. liza2014 says:

    Great Blog post, I really enjoyed reading your findings. I like the quote you used at the beginning, it was very appropriate and very true. The trial was very interesting to read about, but very disturbing to find that Hunter wasn’t charged on any accounts because Grace had just turned ten. I find it crazy how they perceived a ten year old girl to be an “adult”. I found your paragraphs very well structured, clear and easy to follow. I didn’t find myself getting lost at all, which was great. I like how you included your further research, and compared 18th century laws to present day laws. This helped to show how much people got away with during the 18th century, and how far we have come since then. The only thing I can think of that would add to this blog would be to maybe add a few more pictures if you can find any! Other than that it’s great! 🙂 Well done.

  2. kalenemccarthy says:

    This is an extremely shocking trial, and I think its great! However, I would like to have seen a bit more of a connection between woman’s rights in the 18th century and this trial if possible because of the inequality seen during this time. Also, some sentences seem to be a bit awkward therefore some editing may be in order. Otherwise, this is a great blog! I enjoyed the fact that you had some real statistics in it, it gives the reader a better sense of the severity of the injustice. I also enjoyed how you brought it back and related it to a rape case on PEI, it was a nice touch. Overall, you wrote a great and informative blog. Well done Tressa!

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