On September 12th 1787, James Weston stood in front of the Old Bailey court room waiting to hear his verdict. Weston was put on trial for murder, a murder that if it occurred today would have been medically preventable; the ruling of the trial also shows the difference between 18th and 20th century law. The murder happened at Weston’s house, a place where one could stop in and have a pint or two. Usually Weston was able to keep the peace with his customers, but on June 2nd everything changed.
William Cuit died on June 18th 1787, 16 days after the alleged incident with Weston on June 2nd. Mr. Cuit died due to “a compound dislocation of the ancle” stated Robert Pennington who was the surgeon that dealt with Mr. Cuit. What Pennington assumed to be “a compound dislocation of the ancle” is what now would be consider a compound fracture of the lower leg. Mr. Pennington refers to two bones called the “tibia & timpana” which in modern times are referred to as the tibia and the fibula –see diagram for details. These two bones connect to the ankle which is why Mr. Pennington referred to it as an ankle injury. When the larger of the two bones, the tibia, breaks with enough force, it will sometimes cause the smaller bone, the fibula, to also break and be pushed out through the skin; when this occurs it is called a compound fracture which is what happened to Mr. Cuit. Today compound dislocations are easily treatable by a doctor and have a recovery time of 2 months to a year and a half depending on the severity.
So, if the death of Mr. Cuit did not occur immediately and compound fractures are curable, how did Mr. Cuit die? Well, back in the 18th century, medicine was not as advanced as it is now, and any wound that comes into contact with open air is likely to develop diseases that were not curable. Mr. Cuit suffered from a compound fracture, meaning that his fibula protruded out of his leg and therefore came into contact with the open air. Mr. Pennington said that due to this factor, Mr. Cuit would die of “mortification” (meaning disease in today’s medical terms). Mortification in the 18th century was a slow way to die, as stated earlier Mr. Cuit died 16 days after receiving his injury. When the jury asked Mr. Pennington if immediate amputation would have saved Mr. Cuits life, Mr. Pennington answered,
“Some, my Lord; but in compound dislocation, I never saw it; I have seen a good many, but I never saw it in compound dislocation.”
It is also important to note that when asked if there was any sign of an old wound on Mr. Cuit’s leg, Mr. Pennington answered “No.” Mr. Pennington also said that the fall caused Mr. Cuit’s death. The fact that Mr.Pennington said the fall is what cause Mr. Cuit’s death leads me to believe that Mr. Weston should be convicted guilty, but if you continue reading on you will find that 18th century law has its flaws just like today’s juridical system.
By now you are probably wondering how James Weston fits into the story and why he is being charged for murder. According to Mr. Cuit’s wife, on the day of the alleged murder, Mr. Cuit went into Weston’s house to exchange the money he received as pay from William Parker (witness number three). Mrs. Cuit went to Mr. Weston’s to retrieve her husband and take him home for supper. Upon her arrival Mr. Weston came into the room and began pulling her husband around, Mr. Weston then pushed him into the tap-room. Mrs. Cuit was held back and told “damme, if you stir, I will knock you down”, the person who held Mrs. Cuit is not named in the trial transcript. Mrs. Cuit then swears that her husband did nothing to provoke Mr. Weston and that she did not pull Mr. Weston’s hair during any part of the fight.
The next witness to the stand claims that he was walking by Mr. Weston’s house when screaming drew his attention and he ran in to see what the matter was. The witness then claims that by the time he arrived, both Mr. Cuit and Mr. Weston were arguing and proceeded to get into a “scruffle” causing them both to fall. Mr. Weston was the first to recover and he then took hold of Mr. Cuit and threw him “close by the fire side in the tap-room.” Mr. Cuit then cried out that his leg was broke. Mr. Weston continued to strike him and “landed severl blows to his head and upper part of the body.” The witness then left to fetch a surgeon. It is important to note that the witness claimed that Mr. Cuit did not throw the first blow and that Mrs. Cuit did not pull Mr. Weston’s hair.
The next witness called was William Parker. Mr. Parker claimed that Mr. Cuit asked him to join him in drinking a pint, when the witness declined the offer Mr. Cuit began pushing him around trying to start a fight. Mr. Weston came into the room to “clam peace.” The witness goes on to claim that Mrs. Cuit came in and started “black-guarding” him and at that moment Mr. Cuit threw the first blow to Mr. Weston. When Mr. Weston got up, Mrs. Cuit grabbed hold of his hair and Mr. Cuit began beating him. The three got entangled and somehow made their way into the tap-room. Once inside the tap-room Mr. Weston fell on top of Mr. Cuit and that was when Mr. Cuit cried out his leg was broken. When asked what sort of man Mr. Cuit was, Mr. Parker replied,
“He was a very quarrelsome man when in liquor; a very quiet man when sober.”
Mr. Parker was then asked what sort of man Mr. Weston was and his reply was,
“I never saw any thing of him, than that of being a quiet man; I would not use his house, if he did not use me civilly; I always pay my men there.”
It is important to note that the witness claimed Mr. Cuit threw the first blow and that Mrs. Cuit pulled Mr. Weston’s hair. The witness also stated that he believed Mr. Cuit’s broken leg was a result of an old injury, which we know is false due to the surgeon’s testimony.
The next witness stated Mr. Weston was the first to strike and that he threw Mr. Cuit onto the floor twice before Mr. Cuit cried out that his leg was broken. The witness also stated that after Mr. Cuit said his leg was broken, Mr. Weston grabbed him by the hair and continued to strike him until the witness pulled Mr. Weston off. Mr. Weston then turned to the witness and asked him “what he had to do with it” and then threw the witness out of his house. It is important to note that this witness claims Mr. Weston threw the first blow.
The next witness gives a very similar story to that of William Parker (witness number three). This witness stated that Mr. Cuit threw the first blow and that Mrs. Cuit did grab Mr. Weston’s hair.
There were four other witnesses that gave a testimony but unfortunately the Old Bailey does not include their stories. It is noted however, that the four “gave the prisoner the character of an industrious, humane, good-natured, tender-hearted man.” Personally, I do not think that this claim to characterization is enough evidence to be included into the trial seeing as we do not know who these four were. Were these four friends of Mr. Weston? if so, does that give them the right to testify in court for him? The fact that we know so little about these last four witnesses surprises me, there is a chance that these four may not have even witnessed the actual incident, and if this is the case they should not have been allowed to influence the jury’s opinions, which is exactly what they did. When you exclude the testimony of these last four witnesses, the tally of the remaining witnesses is four to six stating that Mr. Weston is guilty. This is not how the jury ruled however, instead they stated that Mr. Weston was not guilty.
The fact that Mr. Weston was not guilty shows how the jury system of the 18th century had flaws just like our jury system does today. This begs the question how far have we come? In terms of the law, the 20th century has not made much progress. A new study in Columbus, Ohio states that 10,000 people are wrongfully committed in the United States each year. This static shows that our legal systems are just as fault as they were back in the 18th century and that we still have a long way to go.
The death of William Cuit also illustrates how little was known about the prevention of diseases, human anatomy and medicine in the 18th century. Unlike our legal system, the 20th century has seen major improvements in these same fields. Since the 20th century, 27 vaccines haven been developed compared to the six developed in the 18th and 19th centenaries. Yes, the 18th century had its discoveries when it comes to human anatomy; Leeuwenhoek is the father of microscopic anatomy after all, but the 20th century brought the discovery of DNA and the ability to heal people with what would have been life threatening diseases back in the 18th century. Take Mr. Cuit for example, if he would have received his compound fracture today, Mr.Cuit would have had his bone set and pushed back in place, and there would be no fear of mortification and therefore no fear of death.