Page images

When an appeal to the ordeal by touch was made in cases of mysterious death, the corpse of the murdered person was stretched upon a bier, and conducted by a procession of priests, chanting an anthem to the highaltar, before which it was placed, the whole body being covered with a fine linen cloth, excepting the face. After the performance of devotional exercises, the suspected party was led solemnly forward, and desired to touch with one hand the mouth of the deceased, while the other was placed upon the fatal wound. In this posture, lifting his eyes to heaven, he invoked the Deity to attest his innocence, and imprecated the most awful punishments on his head, if his asseverations were untrue. If the blood flowed from the curdled wounds, or from the mouth or nostrils, the suspected person was held as unquestionably guilty of the murder, and underwent the same punishment as if he had been convicted in a criminal court by the evidence of indisputable witnesses. This transaction took place in the presence of judges of the law, of the clergy, and of the accusers; and a great body of spectators, including the nobility or magnates the place where it occurred, in general attended to witness the solemn ceremonial. Such was on many occasions the awe and terror inspired by this imposing assemblage, that parties connected either directly or indirectly with the murder have shrunk from so severe an ordeal, and have confessed in the most abject manner their guilt, or have demanded in lieu of the test, to prove their innocence by combat. An example of this kind is drawn by the pen of him who had no rival in such subjects, in the novel of the Fair Maid of Perth.

We have already alluded to the belief in which this custom had its origin. «The ancient opinion was, says Mr Pitcairn in his Criminal Trials, that the soul of a murdered person lingered about the body until appeased by the discovery of the foul deed, and by the subsequent shedding of the murderer's blood. It is obvious, therefore, that on the original institution of this test or ordeal, during the earlier period and in the dark ages, the purpose of requiring the accused to prove his innocence before the corpse, originated in the idea and belief, that, by the murderer's approach, and especially by his polluted touch, the soul was excited to an instant manifestation of its indignation, by appearing in the form in which it was supposed to subsist--namely, in that of blood. This seems to be the most rational account of the origin of the ordeal by touch, or law of bier, as it was denominated. It is possible, however, that the accidental bleeding of a murdered body on the approach of the author of the deed may have struck his guilty mind with so much horror as to elicit a confession, and so have suggested the idea of employing the same means to rend the veil from other mysterious murders.

Whatever this ordeal may have been founded upon, certain it is, that for many centuries, in all cases of murder where the proof was defective, the relations of the deceased had the power of compelling suspected persons to touch the body. And even long after the custom of resorting habitually to the ordeal had been discontinu the additional evidence derived from it was fatally decisive against the accused. In the year 1628, during the reign of Charles I., a trial took place at the bar of the King's Bench, in which a child was the plaintiff, and his father, his grandmother, his aunt, and her husband, were the persons accused of the murder of Joan Norkott, mother to the child, and wife to one of the prisoners. The woman, it was undeniable, had died by violence; and the coroner's inquest, guided by the evidence of her relatives, had determined that the deceased had died by her own hands. Suspicions went abroad, however, which caused the arraignment of these relatives at Hertford assizes. The parties were acquitted, but were again brought to trial in London, in consequence of the opinions expressed by one of the Hertford judges. At this final trial, which was held before the celebrated Sir Matthew Hale, it appeared in the evidence of the minister of the parish where the death took place, that the body, thirty days after its interment, was taken out of the ground,

and the accused made to touch it. As the account of the proceedings at the trial rests upon excellent authoritynamely, that of Sir John Maynards, afterwards Commissioner of the Great Seal, the result of the ordeal may be given as it stands in his report. The parson deponed, that the appellees did touch the dead body, whereupon the brow of the dead, which before was of a livid and carrion colour, began to have a gentle dew or sweat arise on it, which increased by degrees till the sweat ran down in drops on the face. The brow turned to a lively and fresh colour, and the deceased opened one of her eyes and shut it again, and this opening the eye was done three several times. She likewise thrust out the ring or marriagefinger three times, and pulled it in again; and the finger dropped blood from off it on the grass. This witness, on being asked 'by Sir Nicholas Hyde, Lord Chief Justice, who seemed to doubt the evidence, “ Who saw this besides you ?” replied : “I cannot swear what others saw."? After a little time, however, the witness told the court that he had a brother then present at the trial, who had witnessed the ceremony of the ordeal. This brother then was called forward, and corroborated in every respect the statement of the preceding witness. Other evidence, totally unconnected with the ordeal, was then brought forward against the prisoners, one point of which is rather curious. One of the witnesses said, that on the bed where the deceased was found with her throat cut, there was a print of a thumb and four fingers of a left hand'meaning thereby that it could not be the hand of the murdered lady.

'How can you know the print,' said Lord Chief Justice Hyde, of a left hand from the print of a right hand in such a case ?

My lord,' said the witness, “it is hard to describe; but if it please that honourable judge to put his left hand upon your right hand, you cannot possibly place your right hand in the same posture.' This, according to Maynard, was tried and found to be the case.

The result of this trial was the condemnation of three of the pannels, and the acquittal of the aunt's liusband, Okeman. The convicted parties, in the court and at their execution, persisted in asserting their innocence of the crime. At the risk of being accused of a work of supererogation, we shall make a few remarks on the evidence in this trial derived from the ordeal, and this we do chiefly because the report of it comes from undeniable authority. In the first place, Sir Matthew Hale, the acutest man of his time, seems not to have believed it. Secondly, it was not believed by a jury at Hertford, near the scene of the proceedings, where such remarkable events as a dead body opening its eyes, moving its fingers, and dropping blood, were likely, if worthy of being credited, to make an impression most unfavourable to the accused. Thirdly, the clergyman who gave evidence, on being asked who besides himself witnessed the miraculous motions of the corpse, declared : ' that he could not say what other people saw ;' from which we may infer, that a thing so wonderful as this had passed without the least notice or remark among the witnesses of it—a thing most unnatural and improbable. Fourthly, the only evidence in corroboration of the clergyman's statement was his brother. Fifthly, the blood is said to have fallen on the grass, where it could not be afterwards seen; a circumstance contrary altogether to the palpable intention of divine interposition, which was to expose the murderers, beyond all doubt, to the world.

Several reasons of minor importance might be added to these, to prove that the whole of this remarkable case of the ordeal must have been the result either of delusion or of a conspiracy. We have been thus particular in our notice of it, both because it is one of the most authentic and notable of the kind on record, and because, having shewn the many grounds for discrediting so strong a case, we may be allowed to present to the reader others of lesser note, but not less curious, without any lengthened attempt at explanation.

A most extraordinary case of murder, in which the ordeal by touch accidentally exhibited its supposed virtues,

occurred in Scotland in the year 1687. Sir James Stanfield of Newmills was found dead in a pool of water, though, on examination, it appeared that he had not been drowned, but had been strangled previously to his body being thrown into the pool. The corpse was examined by chirurgions, and the fact of the strangulation placed, by their evidence, beyond a doubt. The manner in which the author of the murder was detected may be stated in the words of the dittay or indictment. Philip Stanfield, son of the deceased, was present at the examination of the body, and after the cleir and evident signs of the murder had appeared, the body was sewed up and most carefully cleaned, and his nearest relations and friends were desired to lift up his body to the coffin; and, accordingły, James Row, merchant—who was in Edinburgh at the time of the murder--having lifted the left side of Sir James, his head and shoulder, and the said Philip the right side; his father's body, though carefully cleaned, as said is, so as the least blood was not on it, did blood afresh upon him, and defiled all his hands, which struck him with such a terror, that he immediately let his father's head and body fall with violence, and fled from the body, and, in consternation and confusion, cried out, and bowed himself down over a seat in the church (where the corpse was inspected), wiping his father's innocent blood off his own murdering hands upon his clothes !' The counsel on both sides at the trial which ensued were eminent men—Sir John Dalrymple, younger of Stair, and Sir George Mackenzie, being public prosecutors, and Sir Patrick Hume, one of the pannel's counsel. Sir J. Dalrymple argued, that for the bleeding of the corpse, and Philip Stanfield's subsequent confusion and terror, “there could no natural reason be given but an ordinar and wonderful providence of God in this kind of discovery of murder, so that the fact was never more evident and sure.' Sir Patrick Hume condemned the ordeal as a superstitious observation, and without any ground either in law or reason ; attributing, at the same time, the bleeding to the incisions of the surgeons and the moving of the body,


[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »