“By Temple Bar I lean again,
Haunted by many a famous face,
With oddest pictures in my brain,
Jumbling together time and place.
The night drops down, the moonlight fades
Along the filmy City sky:
With draggled hose and broken blades
The Mohawks come with shriek and cry;
And in the light the dim street clothing
I see with loathing
Two hideous rebels’ heads that rot on high.”
The trial discussed in this blog can be found on the Old Bailey Online.
At 6:30 on a Saturday morning laundress Frances Williams was chased through a passage while being stabbed repeatedly with a sword. The man chasing her, Coustantine Mac-yennis, was convinced that she was a witch who had killed someone and hid the evidence by bewitching him.
Mac-yennis was Frances’ employer. Two days prior to her frightening last minutes she had told her husband, Richard, that Mac-yennis had threatened her, and that she feared for her life. Williams asked her husband not to return to Mac-yennis’ house, but Frances ultimately decided that Mac-yennis’ behavior could only be explained by drunkenness or perhaps having “been at a Masquerade.”
Benjamin Robinson, who testified on behalf of Williams, was walking in the Temple, when he heard the commotion. What he saw next horrified him. Mac-yennis is standing over a woman (Frances), who is crouched on her hands and knees in front of him, and waving a sword, yelling, “I’ll stick her again.” Robinson bravely replies, “Are you not a base man to abuse a woman so?” To which Mac-yennis replies, “Damn you, you dog, I’ll stick you too.”
At this point Frances is still alive and starts crawling towards Mac-yennis, who then delivers the deathblow through her heart and begins running after Robinson. This is when some “Tub Folks” show up, people who Mac-yennis fears physical repercussions from, and so he surrenders himself.
Receiving nineteen stab wounds in total, Williams died a miserable and terrifying death.
Much can be said about 18thc life from this heinous crime. The first of which has to do with living in a crowded city. This crime took place in St. Clement Danes London, an urban area with a relatively high rate of crime, something that the London Lives website chalks up to “high social tensions” in the region. London Lives also notes that these were typically violent thefts.
A second thing we can glean about life in the 18thc London, is the social positioning of its wealthier class members. Taking into account population size, it is quickly apparent that Frances’ employer was also obviously a person of means. Not only could he afford a laundress, he was well known about town. This is best illustrated by Mr. Jenkins’ testimony.
Prior to the week of the murder Mr. Jenkins (whose first name we are never given) call on Mac-yennis for tea. Things quickly fall apart when Mac-yennis finds no milk in his cupboard, for the tea and goes on a tirade saying that Frances was a “witch and a cat and had drunk up his milk, and put straw upon the fire, and had made a rash come out upon him.”
All this, over some milk? Even by 18th c. standards, this behavior was quite out of the ordinary. Witch hunts were falling out of fashion in London by this time, with the last person executed some ten years later, this seems to have solidified, for Mr. Jenkins at least, that Mac-yennis was not in his “right mind.”
Mr. Jenkins saw Mac-yennis again the day before the murder was committed. He testifies that Mac-yennis treated him so strangely that he “shunned his company.”
It is interesting to note that it was not until Mac-yennis behaved oddly in public that Mr. Jenkins decided it was time to part company, and not his vicious ramblings about Frances’ practicing witchcraft.
Perhaps the damning testimony against Mac-yennis’ sanity is that of Francis Garvan and Doctor Fitzgerald.
Garvan testifies that on the Sunday before the murder, Mac-yennis came to him to tell him that there was a “scheme laid to draw him into a plot, and that there was a Juncto of them, and that Mr. Gordon was the chief of them, that one wanted to see him write, and another to see his seal, and he found his papers rifled, and said there was a letter in Mist’s journal, that was leveled at him.” I’ve left the quote in its original grammatical format because I think it conveys a sense of lunacy, nicely.
Mac-yennis then complains to Garvan that the people of Westminster Hall were conspiring against him, and that he feared being “taken up.” Mac-yennis then tells him that he is planning on leaving the kingdom.
Garvan is worried enough about Mac-yennis at this point to tell Doctor Fitzgerald.
The doctor corroborates Garvan’s story and adds that someone named Mr. Sexton has also sent for him to see Mac-yennis. When Doctor Fitzgerald arrives Mac-yennis he finds him “under a disorder,” and raving about a supposed barbarous murder of a friend.
Doctor Fitzgerald asks Mac-yennis if he’s been sleeping, to which he admits to have not slept in five nights. The doctor sends for a surgeon (for medication?), but Mac-yennis protests violently, refusing to be “blooded” by brandishing his sword.
This exchange also speaks towards the wealth and status of Mac-yennis. Not only could he afford to see a doctor, he also had friends who could afford to send him a doctor.
Mac-yennis was ultimately given a “not guilty” verdict due to “non compos mentis.” This was a relatively rare verdict in 18th c London. A search of the Old Bailey records between the years 1674 to 1789 reveals only forty-nine cases with this ruling.
In Frances’ case, her murderer would be set relatively free. This disposition is also an interesting example of how the mentally ill were treated after committing terrible crimes. In the decades following this crime, punishments, as well as social expectations regarding the treatment of the mentally ill, would shift dramatically.
In 1724, when this crime was committed, the mentally insane were generally relegated to the care of their relatives.
It wouldn’t be until some eighty-odd years later that the “”Act for the Safe Custody of Insane Persons Charged with Offences” would provide proper guidance to the courts in matters of insanity.
It is unlikely Mac-yennis was committed to an institution like the one pictured above, however. It was at about this time in history that the Medical Model of disability emerged. This disposition does seem to reflect some level of compassion towards Mac-yennis,
Alternatively, given the extreme polarization of wealth in the 18th c., it is just as likely that Mac-yennis was a wealthy, and therefore powerful, enough gentleman to sway public opinion in his favor.
When looking over the disposition in its entirety, it does certainly seem to reflect an imbalance.
It is interesting to note the order in which things appeared. The first couple of testimonies give the gory details of the crime. The second batch reflects on Mac-yennis’ character and status in the community. The third all seem to corroborate Mac-yennis’ plea of insanity. In each instance, the testimony is recounted, seemingly, in its entirety.
By the time we reach the bottom of the disposition, however, the person documenting the trial moves towards a summarization of unnamed witness testimonies, called “evidences” who all apparently testified to Mac-yennis acting strangely, “like a crazed person” for the week and a half leading up to the murder. It is also stated that Mr. Sexton, along with some other friends of Mac-yennis’, “were about to have him taken care of,” and the amount of these friends were to many to list in the disposition.
The last aspect of 18th c life I would like to touch on is that the evolution of an organized police force. In the 18thc there was an expectation that private individuals would help to maintain the peace by helping to catch criminals and identify them. This type of social responsibility is nicely reflected in Benjamin Robinson’s testimony above.
In a crime-ridden city like St. Clement Danes, however, there was an organized system of police. In this case it was Constable John Bouch. For a more complete history of the evolution of police in London please click here.
Finally, I would like to examine the single piece of damning testimony, that seems to go entirely unnoticed by the courts and other eyewitness accounts.
When Constable Bouch got word of the “disturbance,” he went to secure Mac-yennis who tells him that Frances was a witch who had committed a murder, however, Mac-yennis could not find proof of the crime because, he says, Frances had bewitched him.
Bouch then testifies that Mac-yennis smelled strongly of liquor and was very drunk. When Bouch tells him what he’d done, Mac-yennis, presumably recognizing the seriousness of what he’s done, says that surely he must be put to death.
This begs the question, how then, was insanity or lunacy defined in the 18th c? Up until this point in the disposition it has been established that Mac-yennis was acting completely out-of-character, and doing things he wouldn’t ordinarily.
This single piece of testimony seems to support the argument that Mac-yennis was, perhaps, just plain wealthy enough to get away with . . . murder.