Crimes against children always seem to feel especially barbaric. Violence against an innocent can often only be viewed as unnecessary and particularly cruel, and modern day society is especially intolerant of these types of crimes. Unfortunately, this was not always the case.
Edward Clark was only about ten years old when he was shot in the chest for behaving much the way little boys do; he climbed a tree. His murder occurred in South-Mims, outside the house of a man called John Wedon. Edward Clark, being a poor boy, was often provided for by Mr. Wedon. On this particular day, Edward had climbed a tree near the entrance to Mr. Wedon’s house. When Mr. Wedon saw the child, he asked him to come down, telling him that if he didn’t, he’d shoot him. The boy refused, replying “No you won’t, Mr. Wedon”. Mr. Wedon then entered his home, and retrieved his gun. The gun, however, was unprimed (that is, it had not been filled with gun-powder). The boy, teasing Mr. Wedon, told him to “prime it with oatmeal”. Mr. Wedon primed the gun, and went outside, by which point Clark, seeing the gun, had come down from the tree. Mr. Wedon then shot him in the breast, a wound which killed the boy instantly.
John Wedon was tried for murder on June 30, 1714. He claimed that he did not know how the gun went off, or that it had been charged. He also stated that he loved the boy, and never intended to harm him. Although he was found guilty, it was not of the murder with which he was charged. Instead, he was found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter. How is it possible that a man who shot a little boy could be found anything other than guilty of his murder? There are, unfortunately, several possibilities as to how John Wedon escaped with the punishment of branding, rather than hanging or imprisonment.
First, as is the case in so many trials from the eighteenth century, most of the evidence was witness testimony. The witness to the crime, who is un-named in the trial transcript, acknowledged that when the gun was fired, Mr. Wedon seemed surprised. This keeps in line with Mr. Wedon’s own defense that he did not know the gun was charged, and did not intend to actually shoot the boy. Further keeping within Mr. Wedon’s defense, the witness testified that he had cried out that he “deserved to be hanged” when Edward Clark fell dead. Also testifying was a man who had used the gun a few days earlier, while hunting. He stated that he had sent the gun back to Mr. Wedon’s home, charged, and that it was possible that Wedon did not know that the gun remained charged.
There is, however, a reason that cases can rarely be made based solely on witness testimony in modern court-cases. Witnesses are often unreliable, and are subject to corruption and bribery. It seems likely that John Wedon was not a man of small means. He provided for Edward Clark, in spite of no apparent relationship to him, which he would not likely be able to do if he were in a similar state of poverty. Of the three witnesses who testified, only two would need to be paid off, as the third did not witness the crime directly, only having seen Edward Clark come down from the tree, and later, hearing the gun shot. Even if witnesses were not bribed, humans are in part defined by error, and what may have seemed like a man expressing grief over having killed a child he loved could have been a man anguished upon realizing he would be punished for his crime.
Whether or not the witnesses were less than honest, there was at least one case of corruption influencing the case. A man named Hardam, Edward Clark’s uncle, was prosecuting. Hardam received a bond from another man, Bugbert, which would cover damages that may occur in the event that Mr. Wedon was not prosecuted. When this was discovered, proceedings had to be stopped. The jury found Mr. Wedon guilty of manslaughter rather than murder (and both Hardam and Bugbert were ordered to be prosecuted by the court). In a system so corrupt that a man is not only permitted to prosecute his nephew’s killer, but he is willing to accept bribes to keep him from being found guilty, it does not seem terribly far-fetched that witnesses could be paid off as well.
A second unfortunate factor in the verdict of Mr. Wedon was Edward Clark’s status. As a man, he would already have been held in a status unattainable to women and children, and Clark, at ten years old, was still very much a child. Even more importantly, Clark is clearly labelled as a poor boy in the transcript. As a child living in poverty, his status would have been more or less non-existence, and as such, finding justice for him would not have been of great concern to very many.
Even without looking at flaws in the court system, it seems almost impossible to take Mr. Wedon at his word. Perhaps saying that he was unaware that the gun was charged would suffice as an excuse if he had simply picked it up and fired it. However, when he picked up the gun, it was not primed. He would have had to fill the gun with powder, and it seems unlikely that at some point during this process he did not notice that the gun was not charged.
Like many victims, Edward Clark was failed by the eighteenth century court system, simply because of his status. Because he was a poor boy murdered by a wealthier man, his murderer received only a branding, despite taking a human life.