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Chapter 24

CRIMINAL COURTS

We shall never forget the mingled feelings of awe and respect with
which we used to gaze on the exterior of Newgate in our schoolboy
days. How dreadful its rough heavy walls, and low massive doors,
appeared to us--the latter looking as if they were made for the
express purpose of letting people in, and never letting them out
again. Then the fetters over the debtors' door, which we used to
think were a bona fide set of irons, just hung up there, for
convenience' sake, ready to be taken down at a moment's notice, and
riveted on the limbs of some refractory felon! We were never tired
of wondering how the hackney-coachmen on the opposite stand could
cut jokes in the presence of such horrors, and drink pots of half-
and-half so near the last drop.

Often have we strayed here, in sessions time, to catch a glimpse of
the whipping-place, and that dark building on one side of the yard,
in which is kept the gibbet with all its dreadful apparatus, and on
the door of which we half expected to see a brass plate, with the
inscription 'Mr. Ketch;' for we never imagined that the
distinguished functionary could by possibility live anywhere else!
The days of these childish dreams have passed away, and with them
many other boyish ideas of a gayer nature. But we still retain so
much of our original feeling, that to this hour we never pass the
building without something like a shudder.

What London pedestrian is there who has not, at some time or other,
cast a hurried glance through the wicket at which prisoners are
admitted into this gloomy mansion, and surveyed the few objects he
could discern, with an indescribable feeling of curiosity? The
thick door, plated with iron and mounted with spikes, just low
enough to enable you to see, leaning over them, an ill-looking
fellow, in a broad-brimmed hat, Belcher handkerchief and top-boots:
with a brown coat, something between a great-coat and a 'sporting'
jacket, on his back, and an immense key in his left hand. Perhaps
you are lucky enough to pass, just as the gate is being opened;
then, you see on the other side of the lodge, another gate, the
image of its predecessor, and two or three more turnkeys, who look
like multiplications of the first one, seated round a fire which
just lights up the whitewashed apartment sufficiently to enable you
to catch a hasty glimpse of these different objects. We have a
great respect for Mrs. Fry, but she certainly ought to have written
more romances than Mrs. Radcliffe.

We were walking leisurely down the Old Bailey, some time ago, when,
as we passed this identical gate, it was opened by the officiating
turnkey. We turned quickly round, as a matter of course, and saw
two persons descending the steps. We could not help stopping and
observing them.

They were an elderly woman, of decent appearance, though evidently
poor, and a boy of about fourteen or fifteen. The woman was crying
bitterly; she carried a small bundle in her hand, and the boy
followed at a short distance behind her. Their little history was
obvious. The boy was her son, to whose early comfort she had
perhaps sacrificed her own--for whose sake she had borne misery
without repining, and poverty without a murmur--looking steadily
forward to the time, when he who had so long witnessed her
struggles for himself, might be enabled to make some exertions for
their joint support. He had formed dissolute connexions; idleness
had led to crime; and he had been committed to take his trial for
some petty theft. He had been long in prison, and, after receiving
some trifling additional punishment, had been ordered to be
discharged that morning. It was his first offence, and his poor
old mother, still hoping to reclaim him, had been waiting at the
gate to implore him to return home.

We cannot forget the boy; he descended the steps with a dogged
look, shaking his head with an air of bravado and obstinate
determination. They walked a few paces, and paused. The woman put
her hand upon his shoulder in an agony of entreaty, and the boy
sullenly raised his head as if in refusal. It was a brilliant
morning, and every object looked fresh and happy in the broad, gay
sunlight; he gazed round him for a few moments, bewildered with the
brightness of the scene, for it was long since he had beheld
anything save the gloomy walls of a prison. Perhaps the
wretchedness of his mother made some impression on the boy's heart;
perhaps some undefined recollection of the time when he was a happy
child, and she his only friend, and best companion, crowded on him-
-he burst into tears; and covering his face with one hand, and
hurriedly placing the other in his mother's, walked away with her.

Curiosity has occasionally led us into both Courts at the Old
Bailey. Nothing is so likely to strike the person who enters them
for the first time, as the calm indifference with which the
proceedings are conducted; every trial seems a mere matter of
business. There is a great deal of form, but no compassion;
considerable interest, but no sympathy. Take the Old Court for
example. There sit the judges, with whose great dignity everybody
is acquainted, and of whom therefore we need say no more. Then,
there is the Lord Mayor in the centre, looking as cool as a Lord
Mayor CAN look, with an immense bouquet before him, and habited in
all the splendour of his office. Then, there are the Sheriffs, who
are almost as dignified as the Lord Mayor himself; and the
Barristers, who are quite dignified enough in their own opinion;
and the spectators, who having paid for their admission, look upon
the whole scene as if it were got up especially for their
amusement. Look upon the whole group in the body of the Court--
some wholly engrossed in the morning papers, others carelessly
conversing in low whispers, and others, again, quietly dozing away
an hour--and you can scarcely believe that the result of the trial
is a matter of life or death to one wretched being present. But
turn your eyes to the dock; watch the prisoner attentively for a
few moments; and the fact is before you, in all its painful
reality. Mark how restlessly he has been engaged for the last ten
minutes, in forming all sorts of fantastic figures with the herbs
which are strewed upon the ledge before him; observe the ashy
paleness of his face when a particular witness appears, and how he
changes his position and wipes his clammy forehead, and feverish
hands, when the case for the prosecution is closed, as if it were a
relief to him to feel that the jury knew the worst.

The defence is concluded; the judge proceeds to sum up the
evidence; and the prisoner watches the countenances of the jury, as
a dying man, clinging to life to the very last, vainly looks in the
face of his physician for a slight ray of hope. They turn round to
consult; you can almost hear the man's heart beat, as he bites the
stalk of rosemary, with a desperate effort to appear composed.
They resume their places--a dead silence prevails as the foreman
delivers in the verdict--'Guilty!' A shriek bursts from a female
in the gallery; the prisoner casts one look at the quarter from
whence the noise proceeded; and is immediately hurried from the
dock by the gaoler. The clerk directs one of the officers of the
Court to 'take the woman out,' and fresh business is proceeded
with, as if nothing had occurred.

No imaginary contrast to a case like this, could be as complete as
that which is constantly presented in the New Court, the gravity of
which is frequently disturbed in no small degree, by the cunning
and pertinacity of juvenile offenders. A boy of thirteen is tried,
say for picking the pocket of some subject of her Majesty, and the
offence is about as clearly proved as an offence can be. He is
called upon for his defence, and contents himself with a little
declamation about the jurymen and his country--asserts that all the
witnesses have committed perjury, and hints that the police force
generally have entered into a conspiracy 'again' him. However
probable this statement may be, it fails to convince the Court, and
some such scene as the following then takes place:

Court: Have you any witnesses to speak to your character, boy?

Boy: Yes, my Lord; fifteen gen'lm'n is a vaten outside, and vos a
vaten all day yesterday, vich they told me the night afore my trial
vos a comin' on.

Court. Inquire for these witnesses.

Here, a stout beadle runs out, and vociferates for the witnesses at
the very top of his voice; for you hear his cry grow fainter and
fainter as he descends the steps into the court-yard below. After
an absence of five minutes, he returns, very warm and hoarse, and
informs the Court of what it knew perfectly well before--namely,
that there are no such witnesses in attendance. Hereupon, the boy
sets up a most awful howling; screws the lower part of the palms of
his hands into the corners of his eyes; and endeavours to look the
picture of injured innocence. The jury at once find him 'guilty,'
and his endeavours to squeeze out a tear or two are redoubled. The
governor of the gaol then states, in reply to an inquiry from the
bench, that the prisoner has been under his care twice before.
This the urchin resolutely denies in some such terms as--'S'elp me,
gen'lm'n, I never vos in trouble afore--indeed, my Lord, I never
vos. It's all a howen to my having a twin brother, vich has
wrongfully got into trouble, and vich is so exactly like me, that
no vun ever knows the difference atween us.'

This representation, like the defence, fails in producing the
desired effect, and the boy is sentenced, perhaps, to seven years'
transportation. Finding it impossible to excite compassion, he
gives vent to his feelings in an imprecation bearing reference to
the eyes of 'old big vig!' and as he declines to take the trouble
of walking from the dock, is forthwith carried out, congratulating
himself on having succeeded in giving everybody as much trouble as
possible.

Charles Dickens