Monday, February 13, 2006


January, 1828.—Mrs. Kemble told me that at the period of the first appearance of 'De Montfort,'* when everybody was decrying the possibility of the existence of hatred so diabolical, and were calling it quite beyond the bounds of nature, the subject was one day discussed at dinner at Lord Rosslyn's.**

He replied that in real life he had known an instance of hatred still more inveterate, and related the following story:— At a large school in the country a rebellion took place among the boys ; the master, very anxious to know the name of the ringleader, at length, either by threats or bribes, or both, induced one of the boys to disclose the name of a boy named Davison. He was, of course, severely punished and expelled, carrying away with him sentiments of deadly hate instead of the affection he had formerly felt for his schoolfellow. Many years intervened, during which they never had the least intercourse.

The young man who had peached went to the East Indies. He returned, and landed on the coast of Devonshire. Stopping to dine at a small inn, he enquired of the waiter what gentlemen lived in the neighbourhood, and hearing that the squire of the parish was a Mr. Davison, the name struck him; he thought he recollected that his former schoolfellow used to talk of his home in Devonshire, and while his dinner was getting ready he determined to go to the squire's house, A maidservant opened the door, and he sent in his name, saying that if Mr. Davison had been educated at such a school, he would recollect it.

He was introduced, and most cordially received by his schoolfellow, whom he found laid up with a fit of the gout, and was pressed to dine, with many apologies for bad fare, &c. &c.; Mr. Davison having unfortunately given permission to all his servants to go to a neighbouring place, and having kept only the woman who was his nurse.

Mr. Davison appeared so rejoiced in talking over old stories with his friend, and pressed him so strongly to be charitable enough to pass another day with him, that at last he consented. Next morning the unfortunate guest was found with his throat cut from ear to ear. Of course, the maidservant was taken up on suspicion; indeed, as it seemed impossible from its nature that the wound should have been self-inflicted, and as she was the only creature in the house excepting her master, who was unable to move, there did not seem a doubt.

The trial came on: Mr. Davison appeared as prosecutor; Lord Rosslyn was his counsel. In spite of the poor girl's protestations of innocence, the case seemed nearly decided, when Mr. Davison sent a note to his counsel, desiring him to ask the girl whether she had heard any noise in the night. Lord Rosslyn objected; but his
client insisted. This seems to have been one of those strange perversions of intellect by which guilt is ordained to betray itself when all the artifice which had accompanied it is lulled asleep.

What could have been the object of this enquiry does not appear; its effect was fatal. The girl replied that she recollected hearing a noise along the passage, which had awakened her; but that, having been much fatigued during the day, she was too sleepy to get up to enquire the cause. More questions were asked, the noises and various other circumstances described; suspicions arose against Mr. Davison, and the business ended in his avowing himself the murderer.

He said that, from the moment in which he first beheld the face of his old schoolfellow, he had determined upon revenging his ancient quarrel by the death of the offender. He had crawled on hands and knees from his own room to that of his unfortunate guest, and unable to support himself without the use of his hands, had found great difficulty in opening the door; but helping himself by his teeth, had at last achieved it, reached the bed and perpetrated the horrid deed; he had then crawled back, and had contrived to free himself from all blood-stains before he got into his bed. It was the extraordinary noise made by his crawling which had disturbed the maidservant, and at last led to his detection.
Editor’s note
The authenticity of this story has been vehemently impeached, principally by lawyers on technical grounds ; and I have been censured for not altering the details so as to make them agree with the English rules of criminal procedure; in other words, for not falsifying the internal evidence of the narrative. These objectors are especially shocked at the notion of Wedderburne, a Chancery barrister, appearing as counsel for the prosecution, and at his being permitted to cross-examine the prisoner. Till long after Wedderburne's day it was not unusual for barristers intended for the equity bar to go circuit; and it appears to me not at all improbable that the prosecuting counsel whose suspicions were awakened by the language or manner of his client, should endeavour to elicit an explanation from the prisoner, with a view to her acquittal, and be aided, from a humane motive, by the judge. A hint or question with this view is incorrectly described as cross-examination.
But I am disposed to take broader ground. The story is told from memory by one lady, and written down by another; and each in turn was certainly impressed more by the broad circumstances than by the minute details. No reasonable person can well doubt that the trial was related by Lord Rosslyn in Mrs. Kemble's hearing; that he spoke from personal knowledge, whether he was professionally engaged or not; and that the acquittal, of the maidservant was brought about by some self-betraying word or conduct of the murderer.
A letter in Notes and Queries, in which the technical objections are pressed, has hitherto elicited no additional information. As the case involved no law point, it would not be reported or noticed in the law books: Lord Rosslyn's professional experience ranged over a long period, and the most diligent enquirer after truth may be excused for shrinking from the task of examining the scanty journals of the middle of the eighteenth century.
* Miss Joanna Baillie's tragedy to illustrate the passion of
** The ex-Chancellor Lord Loughborough.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home