Garrow and Horatio Nelson – The Trial of James Carse for Murder

This is an interesting case in which Captain Nelson (he was not yet an Admiral) gave evidence for a deranged sailor and made some interesting statements about service in the royal navy. It was also a case in which the Judge, Mr Justice Heath, correctly told the jury that in a trial for murder (but not otherwise) the burden of proof lay on the prisoner to prove his innocence. That remained the position in law until the House of Lords belatedly reversed it in the case of Woolmington in 1935.

James Carse was indicted on 12 December 1787 for murdering Sarah Hayes with a clasp knife with which he cut her throat, an injury from which she died instantly.

The first witness for the prosecution was a Mary Mills who met the prisoner in a public house called the “Ship in Distress” near her home in Wapping where she lived with the dead girl. She testified that Carse had been drinking from a tumbler of rum and water, which cost him three pence, when he came and sat near her. He gave her some of his drink and asked her if he could go home with her, to which she agreed. When they reached Sarah Hayes’ house he asked for something to drink and Sarah agreed to go out and get him a pot of hot brandy. He gave her half a crown and she returned with the brandy and change of eighteen pence.

Once the prisoner had drunk the brandy he asked Sarah to get him another pot which she did. He gave her a shilling for a bed and the prisoner and Mary then retired. Mary remained to smoke a pipe in the chimney corner. It was in bed that the prisoner finished the pot of brandy, following which he jumped up naked with a knife in his hand and cut Sarah’s throat saying, “I must, I will, I must”. A frightened Mary then ran for assistance and returned with a constable. The prisoner was standing behind the door and shouted that the first who entered the door would be killed.

Cross-examined by Garrow Mary agreed Carse had accidentally picked her up as a woman of the town. She also said his drink was very alcoholic and strong. To the best of her knowledge the prisoner and Sarah had never met before. Garrow asked her if the prisoner had appeared to be disordered in his mind to which she replied, “Nothing at all”.
The next witness was George Hawkins. He said he was a constable and he had met Mary Mills coming up in her shift and shouting out “murder”. He accompanied her back to the house where the prisoner walked up against him with a knife in his hand. The witness said he knocked the knife away and collared him. After taking him to the watch house the constable asked the prisoner why he did it and he replied that he thought he heard some people round the house and he was to have been done himself. He admitted the killing. The knife was then produced; a large clasp knife, very bloody.

Questioned by the Judge the prisoner said his life had been threatened by both Sarah and Mary. Asked how they threatened his life he replied that there were people round the house at the same time.

Captain Horatio Nelson was then sworn and cross-examined by Garrow.

Garrow: I believe, Captain Nelson, you was the commander of the Boreas Frigate? I was.

Did the prisoner sail under your command? He did.

Garrow: How long was he in the service under you?

Nelson: Near four years; he was paid off the 30th of November last, at Sheerness.

Garrow: What money did he receive?

Nelson: In August we were paid off, he then received about forty guineas; when the ship was paid off in November, he received ten or eleven more.

Garrow: Had you an opportunity of knowing the character of this man, as far as humanity and good-nature were concerned?

Nelson: Perfectly; it seldom happens that any man can serve four years without being guilty of some sort of offence. That man, at times, appeared melancholy, but the quietest, soberest man that I ever saw in all my life … When I heard of this affair, I said, if it is true he must be insane, for I should as soon suspect myself, and sooner, because I know I am hasty. He is so quiet a man, and never committed a fault during the time I knew him. Seamen, I know perfectly, when they come home the landlords will furnish them with raw liquors. I saw thirty or forty people from that ship that were as mad as if they at Bedlam, and did not know what they did. I know that when seamen are furnished with British spirits it turns the brain.

Garrow: But as to this man, do you apprehend, that liquors upon him would have that effect?

Nelson: He is not a drunkard by any means.

Garrow: Can you fairly say that this man, under the pressure of a good deal of liquor, did appear to you to be insane?

Nelson: He was a cooper on board, and at the island of Antigua, I think it was, he was struck with the sun, after which time he appeared melancholy. I have been affected with it. I have been out of my senses, it hurts the brain.

Garrow: Do you think that has been the case with this unfortunate prisoner?

Nelson: I have thought so years ago when he was under my command.

Garrow: Is he a man, from your knowledge of him, likely to commit a deliberately foul murder?

Nelson: I should as soon suspect myself because I am hasty, he is not.

George Nesbit, another witness, was then called. He testified that the prisoner had told him there were about sixteen men who wanted to rob him and he had paid a good deal of money to get shot of them. He had greatly altered since he first knew him four years before and did not entirely appear to be a man in possession of his right mind.

The Court then asked Captain Nelson if the prisoner had been sent to hospital in consequence of being ill. Nelson replied that he was sent to the hospital with a fever which affects the brain. He thought to send him home as unfit to serve in that climate.

In his summing-up to the jury the Judge first explained that once a killing was proved the onus was on the prisoner to prove his innocence. The excuse here was that of madness. It would be reasonable if they were to accept that. But madness must be the consequence of some disease and if the person inflamed his blood with drink the law did not excuse him. It seemed pretty clear, said the Judge, that at the time the act was committed the prisoner was clearly mad and under no provocation from the dead woman. But if you think, he told the jury, that whether drunk or sober, he was equally unaccountable for his actions, you must acquit him.

The jury retired for some time and returned to court with a verdict of guilty. The prisoner was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until he was dead and that his body be delivered to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized, pursuant to statute.

The court then said that the sentence would be respited to ascertain if the king would grant a pardon. The foreman of the jury stated that if the court had not anticipated them they would unanimously have requested that an enquiry should be made into the man’s mind before execution. Whether or not James Carse was executed or is not shown in the report. However, royal pardons were not uncommon and it may well be that he was reprieved.


Full details of this trial available at: Old Bailey Proceedings Online ( 25 February 2010) 7 July 1784, Trial of William Horton. (Ref: t17840707-77)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: