The Innocent Convict
We left Buxton in the midst of a deep snow, and after a very cold and wretched journey arrived at Elton* the next day. During the time we were there, I heard the following story, which appeared to me very interesting:
Some years ago some passengers in a vessel bound for Botany Bay, were very much struck by the appearance of a female convict who was on board. She was a very beautiful woman, and appeared to be only 18 or 19; her elegant manners were as striking as the beauty of her person. To these charms, she added one still more powerful — great modesty and strict propriety of deportment. It was this quality, so extraordinary in this most abject situation, which first called forth the attention of her superiors.
The captain of the vessel was requested to examine the register which was sent with every convict, detailing their offence and their sentence, and inform the passengers what had been the crime of a creature who appeared so lovely. He found that her name was Mary Green, and that she had been convicted on the clearest evidence of stealing a card of lace from a shop in Oxford Street.
During a long passage her continued good conduct gained her so much respect that, a maid-servant belonging to one of the officers having fallen sick on board, his wife took Mary Green to supply her place; she found very soon that she had gained by the change: the more she saw of Mary the better she liked her. At last she tried to persuade herself that her favourite was innocent of the crime laid to her charge.
She questioned her as to her former situation, and as to the reasons which could have induced her to the commission of a crime which seemed so foreign to her nature. Mary replied, as she had to all her former enquiries, that no power upon earth could make her reveal any part of her story. She added that she was perfectly resigned to her fate, and determined to pass the rest of her days in New Holland, as she never could revisit her native land.
Still, in spite of the mystery which hung about her, she rose every day in the good opinion of her mistress, who, after some time, placed her about her children; then only she discovered that, in addition to all her amiable qualities, Mary possessed, in a superior degree, all the talents and accomplishments which belong to an exalted situation. She spoke several modern languages, and understood both painting and music. In short, she soon became the favourite companion of her mistress, who
could no longer treat this superior being as a servant.
Still, however, Mary resisted her urgent entreaties to discover her former situation; she owned that it had been superior to that rank in which she now found herself; confessed that her present name was assumed; added that she had been very unfortunate, but would never add to her other misfortunes that of thinking that her relations and friends were blushing for her.
About three years after this time, the chaplain of the settlement was called upon to attend the death-bed of an old female convict who was lately arrived. Though an old offender who had grown up in the paths of vice, this woman felt in her last moments great contrition, and made a full confession of all her crimes.
She said that what lay the most heavy on her conscience was the recollection of her having laid one of her offences to the charge of an innocent young woman. She said, that having gone in one day to a shop in Oxford Street at the same time with a very young girl who appeared to be fresh from the country, she had spoken to her; and after having stolen a card of lace she followed the young woman out of the shop. Soon after, hearing the cry of ' stop thief,' she made a pretence of her clog being untied to ask the assistance of the young woman, who was still close by her, and while she was stooping had contrived to slip the lace into her muff, and to escape herself before their pursuers reached them. She said she had afterwards heard that the poor girl had been convicted of an offence of which she knew her to be perfectly innocent.
This account immediately brought to the chaplain's mind the Mary Green who had excited so much curiosity. He went immediately to her, asked for her story, and received from her the usual answer, refusing all intelligence on this subject. He, however, pressed her, told her that it might be of the utmost
importance to her to confide in him, as some circumstances had lately come to light which he hoped might lead to her exculpation if she would give him all the particulars of her case. She burst into tears, told him that she was the only daughter of a respectable merchant of Birmingham, but still refused to tell the name.
She said that at eighteen years of age she had gone to London for the first time, to an uncle who lived in Newman Street; that a day or two after her arrival she had, in the dusk of the evening, gone to a haberdasher's shop, to which she had been directed as being only a few steps from her uncle's house. On coming out of the shop she had heard a cry of ‘stop thief,' and had hastened home to escape the mob, by whom she had been very much hustled. On the steps of her uncle's house she was arrested, the piece of lace was found upon her, and she was immediately carried into confinement.
She said that she thought that it was hardly possible that any testimony of her character could avail against the positive evidence brought against her, more particularly as her only defence was that she knew not how the lace came in her muff. She therefore determined to conceal her name and never apply to her family. This happened just before the time of sessions. Mary's trial and condemnation ensued so soon after, that her relations had not had time to make all the enquiries which they afterwards sent in vain all over the kingdom.
These circumstances tallied so exactly with the old woman's confession that the chaplain ventured to tell Mary that he had no doubt of her acquittal. He informed the Governor of the whole transaction, who promised to transmit this information by the first ship to the English Government, and said that her innocence appeared to him So clear that, without instructions, he would venture to say that she should no longer be considered as a convict, but as a planter.
In England the strictest enquiry was made, and every circumstance exactly tallied with Mary's deposition. The next ship brought her complete acquittal and conveyed her back to her disconsolate parents, who had not ceased to lament the unaccountable disappearance of their beloved child. Soon after her return she married extremely well to a young clergyman, who had a very good living.
I was told that this story was perfectly true in every resolved to
part; and there can hardly be a stronger instance of virtue and innocence triumphing over the most unfortunate false appearances. It was the virtue and modesty of Mary's behaviour which were the first cause of bringing her innocence to light. Had she not been so distinguished, the chaplain never would have thought of her, but an unjust accusation of theft naturally brought her to his mind. Perhaps it may be said that her beauty contributed in some degree to the celebrity which she obtained, and consequently to her acquittal.
* Elton Hall, Oundle: the seat of the Earl of Carysfor