Richard Coleman was clerk to a brewer, and had a wife and several children. Coleman was wrongly executed for a crime he did not commit; the murder of Sarah Green. Sarah Green was walking home from Kennington Lane late one evening and was approached by three men who appeared to be brewer’s servants. Two of these men assaulted Green. She made it home at 2 o’clock in the morning and was sent to St. Thomas’s Hospital after explaining what happened to her the night before. Green claimed it was the clerk from the brewhouse who was one of the men who treated her so poorly, and so Richard Coleman was the assumed attacker. While at an ale house two days later, a drunk Richard Coleman was with Daniel Trotman who was sober at the time, and a stranger approached Coleman on the matter of the assault. He was asked if he knew of Kennington Lane, and then if he knew that a woman had been poorly treated there. Coleman replied yes, he was aware of both. The stranger then asked if Coleman was one of the men who assaulted Sarah Green. An innocent Coleman replied “If I had, you dog, what then?” and then proceeded to throw his spoon at the stranger, resulting in a fight he eventually walked away from. Coleman returned to the ale house the next day only to be told of the previous days events and how badly he acted, but Coleman did not remember the incident. Aware of his own innocence Coleman payed little attention to the incident between himself and the stranger that happened the previous day. Coleman and Trotman went before the magistrate and Coleman was charged on suspicion of assaulting Sarah Green. The magistrate however thought that Coleman was innocent but sent him to the hospital Sarah Green was in so she could identify whether Coleman was one of her attackers or not. Green thought Coleman was one of her attackers but could not be sure, so Coleman was admitted bail. The accusers asked for Coleman to be brought before Green once more. Coleman took with him the landlord of the place that Green had been on the night of the incident. The landlord swore that Coleman was not one of the attackers, but Green swore that Coleman attacked her. The justice did not believe Green to be mentally stable at the time and believed Coleman was innocent so they let him go on the condition that he would bring bail the next day. Coleman did as promised and brought bail the next day. A coroners jury then issued a warrant for the arrest of Coleman. A reward of 70 pounds was issued for whoever could find Coleman and bring him in. Coleman in attempt to prove his innocence did not hide but rather printed in a newspaper “I, Richard Coleman, seeing myself advertised in the Gazette as absconding on account of the murder of Sarah Green, knowing myself not any way culpable, do assert that I have not absconded from justice; but will willingly and readily appear at the next assizes, knowing that my innocence will acquit me.” Coleman was apprehended, and although people swore he was elsewhere at the time of the incident, was convicted of the crime. Coleman was executed on the 12th of April, 1749 and following his execution James Welsh and Thomas Jones confessed that they committed the crime.
What does this say about 18th century society?
The execution of the innocent Richard Coleman shows the flaws of the popular form of punishment at the time. Hanging was the favored form of punishment at the time but unlike a prison sentence, if it is found that the convicted was wrongly accused and punished, the punishment of hanging cannot be reversed. According to Steiker and Steiker “The execution of some innocent people is simply the unavoidable cost of implementing capital punishment and thus is comparable to the foreseeable deaths that occur whenever the government undertakes an important social project, such as building a bridge or constructing a dam.” (Steiker, 587-588) This is a problem because the execution of innocent people is foreseen but not prevented. The other issue with this outlook on execution is that because of the number of executions in the 18th century due to its popularity as a form of punishment and the lack of scientific advancements such as DNA to prove innocence or guilt, it can be assumed that more innocent people were wrongly executed than in modern death penalty cases. A persons life should not be worth the gamble of guilt or innocence just to provide some type of justice for the victim. There are other alternatives such as life in prison.
A wrongly convicted man cannot be brought back from the dead following execution if he is found innocent after the hanging. Not only was Richard Coleman executed for something he did not do, the magistrate believed Coleman to be innocent, yet still hanged him. This is a result of the many times that Coleman was granted bail and then pursued further until he was found guilty. This is another flaw with the law system at the time. Once a man is found innocent he should not be accused and put on trial for the same act again. If the pressure from Green’s side did not continue after Coleman was granted bail, it can be assumed that Coleman would have lived the rest of his life until his natural death. The evidence to support Coleman’s innocence was strong as he had several witnesses attest to his whereabouts on the night of the attack and yet this evidence was disregarded and the final accusation by Green that Coleman was her attacker held up in court. Green’s testimony should not have been regarded since she was asked previous to this claim where she could not give a definite positive identification of Coleman as her attacker. Green was also deemed to be unstable at this time so her claims should not have been given as much weight in the decision of the jury. Other than the victim there were no other eye witnesses to the assault but it was assumed because Green thought it was the clerk from the brewery that it must have been Coleman who assaulted her. Without proper evidence against the accused, the accused should be assumed innocent until proven guilty, but that is not the case for the 18th century law system. This shows the “he said she said” structure of the law system at the time, which gives more weight to the accusations of the victim than the evidence to support the innocence of the accused.
The wrongly executed lose not only their lives but also their dignity. As quoted from Steiker and Steiker “those who are innocent and sentenced to death suffer the additional devastation of being blamed for a terrible crime; their names, families, and entire lives are forever tainted by such ignominy, quite apart from the death of their bodies.” (Steiker, 588) Therefore, it is not only the executed who lose something, namely their lives, but the families have to deal with the shame of the execution of their loved ones, who may never know that their loved ones were innocent. If they do find out that their loved ones were innocent, the families then have to live with the pain of knowing the law system failed them and their loved ones were killed for crimes they did not commit.
Another interesting point to look at is the fact that the warrant for Coleman’s arrest and the response from Coleman were written in the newspaper. Rather than just turn himself in without fixing the tainting of his name, Coleman chose to respond to the warrant by replying in the newspaper, declaring his innocence for all to see. This can be considered an attempt by Coleman to clear his own name after the many false accusations against him when he was sure he did not commit the crime. Norma Landau writes “According to both Snell and King, newspapers’ reports of crime presented a distorted image of crime – an image of crime as more violent and horrific than it actually was. Since, they argue, readers rarely had knowledge of crime other than what they read, then newspapers played a major role in constructing their readers’ understanding of crime. As a result, their arguments highlight the role of newspapers’ editors in constructing their readers’ concept of the nature and prevalence of crime.” (Landau, 402) From this we can assume that although the newspaper was a valuable resource to spread word of crime, it was not always honest to the true acts do the crime leaving an unrepresentative image to persuade readers. This can further the tainting of the image of an accused man who may truly be innocent.
Ultimately this trial tells us that eighteenth century Britain was so concerned with closure for the victims, that it turned a blind eye to the signs that the accused was innocent. Rather than letting the evidence lead them to a suspect, eighteenth century Britain used the suspect to lead them to the “evidence.” Speculation alone was grounds for conviction, whether or not the alibi of the accused can be confirmed. Unlike today’s law system where the accused are innocent until proven guilty, 18th century Britain held the accused as guilty until proven innocent.
Landau, Norma. “Gauging Crime In Late Eighteenth-Century London.” Social History 35.4 (2010): 396-417. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
“Richard Coleman.” The Newgate Calendar. Stephen Hart, 2014. Web. 1 March 2014.
Steiker, Carol S., and Jordan M. Steiker. “The Seduction Of Innocence: The Attraction And Limitations Of The Focus On Innocence In Capital Punishment Law And Advocacy.” Journal Of Criminal Law & Criminology 95.2 (2005): 587-624. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.