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floated or sank was not proved either one way or the other. It was found entangled among some stakes in the mill - dam, in a manner which rendered it impossible to say whether it was supported or kept down.* There was therefore no basis on which to found the scientific evidence, and the case against Cowper rested upon a very few facts, and may be summed up in very few words. He was the last person in Sarah Stout's company. His conduct on leaving the house was mysterious and unexplained. When he left, instead of going direct to his lodgings, he went to the Glove and Dolphin Inn to pay a small bill for horse-keep. This had somewhat the appearance of a desire to secure evidence of an alibi. He was, on his own showing, embarrassed by Sarah Stout's pertinacious attachment, and had a stronger motive to get rid of her than has sometimes been found sufficient to prompt men to the most revolting crimes. On the other hand, it must be remembered that Cowper was not, like Tawell, a man who prided himself on his reputation for the respectabilities of life, but, as well as his more celebrated brother-a man of known libertinism, not likely to commit a crime of the deepest dye for the purpose of concealing a disreputable intrigue. To have convicted Cowper
of murder upon this evidence would have been, of course, impossible. But the case must ever remain shrouded in the darkest mystery. If not guilty of what the law defines as murder, there can be no doubt that Cowper's conduct was the immediate cause of the death of the unhappy girl. When the servant left the room they were on the most amicable terms. This is fixed by the evidence, as nearly as possible, at half-past ten by the town-clock. As the clock struck eleven, Cowper entered the Glove and Dolphin Inn. In that short half-hour he had either incurred the guilt of murder, or by his unkindness had driven a woman, who loved him with the most devoted affection, to rush uncalled into the presence of her Maker. Cowper, if not a murderer, which we think he was not, must, at any rate, have been a man of a singularly cold and unfeeling disposition. According to his own version of the story, the girl, whom he had left only a few moments before, immediately upon his quitting her, sought a refuge from her love, her sorrows, and her shame, under the cold waters of the Priory river. On the next morning he heard of her fate, and the first thing he did was to send the hostler from the inn to her mother's house for his horse, fearing lest, if the coroner's jury should bring in
* See the evidence of Berry, Venables, Dell, Ulfe, Dew, Edmunds, Page, How, and Meager, 13 State Trials, 1116 to 1122. All these witnesses, who were present when the body was found in the mill-dam, agree in asserting that the body "floated," and they no doubt believed what they said, their evidence affording an example of how far a preconceived idea will affect belief; they describe the body as lying on the right side, the head and right arm being driven between the stakes, which were something less than a foot apart, by the stream. Robert Dew and Young, who were called on behalf of the prisoner, and who were also present when the body was taken out of the water, assert equally positively that the body sank. See p. 1151. These two witnesses describe the mode in which the body was entangled in the stakes with more particularity than the witnesses for the prosecution. The judge, in his charge to the jury, treated this evidence like a man of sense. "I shall not undertake," he said, "to give you the particulars of their evidence; but they tell you she lay on her right side, the one arm up even with the surface of the water, and her body under the water; but some of her clothes were above the water; particularly, one says, the ruffles of her left arm were above the water. You have heard, also, what the doctors and surgeons said, on the one side and the other, concerning the swimming and sinking of dead bodies in the water; but I can find no certainty in it; and I leave it to your consideration."-13 State Trials, 1188.
+ Evidence of Elizabeth Spurr, 13 State Trials, 1177.
a verdict of felo de se, the animal might, being found in her stable, be claimed as forfeited to the lord of the manor. From first to last there is not one word of tenderness or regret. He never went near the bereaved mother, but he attended the coroner's inquest, gave his evidence with the most admirable coolness, and the next day proceeded on circuit as if nothing unusual had taken place. Three other persons were indicted along with Cowper as the accomplices of his crime, but against them there was not even the shadow of a case. The jury, after deliberating for about half an hour, acquitted all the prisoners.
The relatives of Sarah Stout attempted to bring Cowper to a second trial by means of a proceeding now abolished, entitled "The Appeal of Murder." The attempt failed through the influence of the Cowpers, who tampered with the sheriff, and procured the destruction of the writs. The sheriff was fined and imprisoned for his misconduct, Holt, the Chief Justice, severely animadverting on the foul play which had been employed to impede the course of justice.* Cowper continued to practise at the bar, and was at last raised to the bench of the Court of Common Pleas, a remarkable instance of a man who had held up his hand on an arraignment for murder trying others for the same offence. He is said to have learned a lesson of caution and mercy from his own experience, and to have been remarkable for both those qualities.
One might have supposed that poor Sarah Stout would have been allowed to sleep in peace without having her name revived, and her sad story made famous more than a century and a half after her death. But such was not to be her fate. The opportunity of a double fling at Quakers and Tories has been too great a temptation for Lord Macaulay. It was a rightand-left shot at the game he loved
best. Accordingly, in the fifth and concluding volume of his History, in that part which we are told by the editor he had left "fairly transcribed and revised," we find four pages devoted to the case of that unhappy girl. The whole passage is so eloquent, so picturesque, so ingenious in insinuation, so daring in the misrepresentation of facts and the distortion of evidence, and affords so good an epitome of the best and the worst qualities of the author, that we give it entire.
"One mournful tale, which called
forth the strongest feelings of the contending factions, is still remembered as prudence, and especially of the history a curious part of the history of our jurisof our medical jurisprudence. No whig member of the Lower House, with the single exception of Montague, filled a larger space in the public eye than William Cowper. In the art of conciliating an audience, Cowper was pre-eminent. His graceful and engaging eloquence cast a spell on juries; and the Commons, even in those stormy moments when no other defender of the administration could obtain a hearing, would always listen to him.
He represented Hertford, a borough in which his family had con
siderable influence; but there was a strong tory minority among the electors; and he had not won his seat without a hard fight, which had left behind it many bitter recollections. His younger brother, Spencer, a man of parts and learning, was fast rising into practice as a barrister on the Home Circuit.
"At Hertford resided an opulent Quaker family named Stout. A pretty young woman of this family had lately sunk into a melancholy, of a kind not very unusual in girls of strong sensibility and lively imagination, who are subject to the restraints of austere religious societies. Her dress, her looks, her her mind. gestures, indicated the disturbance of She sometimes hinted her dislike of the sect to which she belonged. She complained that a canting waterman, who was one of the brotherhood, had held forth against her at a meeting. She threatened to go beyond sea, to throw herself out of the window, to drown herself. To two or three of her associates she owned that she was in love; and on one occasion she plainly said that the man whom she loved was one whom
* LORD RAYMOND, vol. i. 575, R. v. Toler.-13 State Trials, 1199.
she never could marry. In fact, the object of her fondness was Spencer Cowper, who was already married. She at length wrote to him in language which she never would have used if her intellect had not been disordered. He, like an honest man, took no advantage of her unhappy state of mind, and did his best to avoid her. His prudence mortified her to such a degree that on one occasion she went into fits. It was necessary, however, that he should see her when he came to Hertford at the spring assizes of 1699, for he had been intrusted with some money which was due to her on mortgage. He called on her for this purpose late one evening, and delivered a bag of gold to her. She pressed him to be the guest of her family, but he excused himself and retired. The next morning she was found dead among the stakes of a mill-dam on the stream called the Priory River. That she had destroyed herself there could be no reasonable doubt. The coroner's inquest found that she had drowned herself while in a state of mental derangement. But the family was unwilling to admit that she had shortened her own life, and looked about for somebody who might be accused of murdering her. The last person who could be proved to have been in her company was Spencer Cowper. It chanced that two attorneys and a scrivener, who had come down from town to the Hertford assizes, had been overheard, on that unhappy night, talking over their wine about the charms and flirtations of the handsome Quaker girl, in the light way in which such subjects are sometimes discussed even at the circuit tables and mess tables of our more refined generation. Some wild words, susceptible of a double meaning, were used about the way in which she had jilted one lover, and the way in which another lover would punish her for her coquetry. On no better grounds than these, her relations imagined that Spencer Cowper had, with the assistance of these three retainers of the law, strangled her, and thrown her corpse into the water. There was absolutely no evidence of the crime. There was no evidence that any one of the accused had any motive to commit such a crime; there was no evidence that Spencer Cowper had any connection with the persons who were said to be his accomplices. One of those persons, indeed, he had never seen. But no story is too absurd to be imposed on minds blinded by religious and political fana
"The Quakers and the Tories joined to raise a formidable clamour. The
Quakers had, in those days, no scruples about capital punishments. They would, indeed, as Spencer Cowper said bitterly, but too truly, rather send four innocent men to the gallows than let it be believed that one who had their light within her had committed suicide. The Tories exulted in the prospect of winning two seats from the Whigs. The whole kingdom was divided between Stouts and Cowpers. At the summer assizes Hertford was crowded with anxious faces from London, and from parts of England more distant than London. The prosecution was conducted with a malignity and unfairness which to us seem almost incredible; and, unfortunately, the dullest and most ignorant judge of the twelve was on the bench. Cowper defended himself and those who were said to be his accomplices with admirable ability and self-possession. His brother, much more distressed than himself, sate near him through the long agony of that day. The case against the prisoners rested chiefly on the vulgar error that a human body found, as this girl's body had been found, floating in water, must have been thrown into the water while still alive. To prove this doctrine, the counsel for the Crown called medical practitioners, of whom nothing is now known except that some of them had been active against the Whigs at Hertford elections. To confirm the evidence of these gentlemen, two or three sailors were put into the witness-box. On the other side appeared an array of men of science whose names are still remembered. Among them was William Cowper,-not a kinsman of the defendant, but the most celebrated anatomist that England had then produced. He was, indeed, the founder of a dynasty illustrious in the history of science; for he was the teacher of William Cheselden, and William Cheselden was the teacher of John Hunter. On the same side appeared Samuel Garth, who, among the physicians of the capital, had no rival except Radcliffe, and Hans Sloane, the founder of the magnificent museum which is one of the glories of our country. The attempt of the prosecutors to make the superstitions of the forecastle evidence for the purpose of taking away the lives of men, was treated by these philosophers with just disdain. The stupid judge asked Garth what he could say in answer to the testimony of the seamen. 'My Lord,' replied Garth, I say that they are mistaken. I will find seamen in abundance to swear that they have known whistling raise the wind.' The jury found the prisoners Not Guilty,
and the report carried back to London by persons who had been present at the trial was, that everybody applauded the verdict, and that even the Stouts seemed to be convinced of their error. It is certain, however, that the malevolence of the defeated party soon revived in all its energy. The lives of the four men who had just been absolved were again attacked by means of the most absurd and odious proceeding known to our old law, the appeal of murder. This attack too failed. Every artifice of chicane was at length exhausted; and nothing was left to the disappointed sect and the disappointed faction except to calumniate those whom it had been found impossible to murder. In a succession of libels, Spencer Cowper was held up to the execration of the public. But the public did him justice. He rose to high eminence in his profession: he at length took his seat, with general applause, on the judicial bench, and there distinguished himself by the humanity which he never failed to show to unhappy men who stood, as he had stood, at the bar. Many who seldom trouble themselves about pedigrees may be interested by learning that he was the grandfather of that excellent man and excellent poet, William Cowper, whose writings have long been peculiarly loved and prized by the members of the religious community which, under a strong delusion, sought to slay his in
"Though Spencer Cowper had escaped with life and honour, the Tories had carried their point. They had secured against the next election the support of the Quakers of Hertford; and the consequence was, that the borough was lost to the family and to the party which had lately pre
Notwithstanding the fact that Lord Macaulay has given so large a space to this case, he has read it with more than ordinary carelessness. He says: "The case against the prisoner rested chiefly on the vulgar error that a human body found, as this poor girl's body had been found, floating in the water, must have been thrown into the water while still alive." + The argu
ment was exactly the reverse.
was urged that the fact of her body floating proved that she was thrown into the water after she was dead; and it was sought to be inferred that she had been strangled-that if, as was argued on behalf of the prisoner, she had drowned herself, her body would have been filled with water, and would have sunk. The evidence as to whether the body did in fact float or sink was, as we have seen, contradictory. The post-mortem examination was delayed so long that the medical testimony had really no foundation of facts to rest upon.
At the trial an attempt
was made, on the part of the prisoner, to establish the insanity of the girl; but nothing more was proved than might be easily shown to have occurred in the case of any lovesick girl who was, or fancied herself, the victim of an unrequited passion. Lord Macaulay's treatment of this evidence is amusing. Three of the circumstances on which he relies to prove her insanity are,
1st, That" she sometimes hinted a dislike of the sect to which she
belonged" (rather an odd proof of insanity, in the mouth of Lord Macaulay); 2d, That "she complained that a canting waterman, who was one of the brethren, had held forth against her at a meeting" (which happened to be true, and seems to be a tolerably reasonable ground of annoyance); and, 3d, That " to two or three of her associates she owned she was in love." (Alas for all young ladies from sixteen upwards, in white satin, and their confidantes in white linen, if this is to be taken as a proof of insanity!) But when Lord Macaulay comes to the facts connected with Cowper's writing to announce his intention of staying at the house, his dining there, his return in the evening, and his mys
"It is curious that all Cowper's biographers with whom I am acquaintedHayley, Southey, Grimshawe, Chalmers-mention the judge, the common ancestor of the poet, of his first love, Theodora Cowper, and of Lady Hesketh, but that none of these biographers makes the faintest allusion to the Hertford trial, the most remarkable event in the history of the family; nor do I believe that any allusion to that trial can be found in any of the poet's numerous letters."
+ Vol. v. p. 238.
terious disappearance at night simultaneously with the girl, he condenses them into the following words: -"He, like an honest man, took no advantage of her unhappy state of mind, and did his best to avoid her" (it was, to say the least, an odd mode of avoiding her that he adopted). "It was necessary, how ever, that he should see her when he came to Hertford at the spring assizes of 1699, for he had been intrusted with some money which was due to her on mortgage. He called on her, for this purpose, late one evening, and delivered a bag of gold to her." (The "bag" exists only in Lord Macaulay's imagination-the "gold" was the petty sum of six pounds and a few odd shillings, which Cowper had received for her as interest on a sum of £200 which he had placed out on mortgage on her behalf, and the payment of which certainly did not make it necessary that he should be with her from two till four, and again from nine till half-past ten at night.) "She pressed him," adds Lord Macaulay, "to be the guest of the family, but he excused himself and retired."
It is worth while, as a matter of philological curiosity, to enumerate over again the facts which one of the greatest masters of the English language can compress into the phrase "he excused himself and retired." Cowper went to the house on his arrival in the town, dined there with the family, left at four, returned at nine, supped, wrote his letters, was present whilst his bed and his bedroom fire were ordered and the maid was sent up to warm his bed; sat alone until half-past ten o'clock at night with a girl who he knew was violently in love with him, and who had been in the habit of addressing the most passionate letters to him under a feigned name, and then-" abiit—excessit-evasit -erupit." His departure only announced by the slamming-to of the street-door. This is Lord Macaulay's notion of "excusing himself
and retiring." He and the girl disappeared together. In the morning he is at other lodgings in the town, and she a corpse in the mill-dam.
For the charge that Lord Macaulay makes that "the prosecution was conducted with a malignity and unfairness which to us seem almost incredible," we cannot discover the slightest ground. Certainly none is to be found in the very ample and detailed report in the State Trials. Indeed, a far greater latitude was allowed to the prisoner in his defence than would be permitted at the present day. What authority Lord Macaulay may have had for describing Hatsell, who presided at the trial, as the dullest and most ignorant judge of the twelve," we know not. He seems to have tried the case with strict impartiality and very fair ability, and his charge to the jury was decidedly in favour of the prisoners.
name of Clement deponed that he had frequently observed that when a corpse was thrown into the sea it floated, whereas, if a man fell into the water and was drowned, his body sank as soon as life was extinct. In confirmation of this, he cited his own experience at the fight off Beachy Head, where the bodies of the men who were killed floated about, and at a shipwreck, where between five and six hundred men were drowned, whose bodies sank. This evidence was curious, and if it had been proved whether Sarah Stout's body floated or sank, would have been valuable. The judge felt, no doubt, that it was so; and when Garth swore that "it was impossible the body should have floated," and boldly stated his belief that "all dead bodies fall to the bottom unless they be prevented by some extraordinary tumour,"
*13 State Trials, 1157.