The Trial of John Wheeler for Theft with Violence: Highway Robbery

This is a strange case in which it appears that evidence was given against the prisoner by a thief-taker who perjured himself for the blood money given by the government to bounty hunters who prosecuted a person to conviction. Part of its significance lies in the fact that were the prisoner found guilty of theft to the value of 4s 6d he might well be executed as the Judge, Mr Baron Hotham, indicated.

John Wheeler was indicted for feloniously assaulting on the king’s highway Albert Rotteris, a Frenchman, and putting him in fear and danger of his life as well as feloniously taking from him a metal mock watch, a metal chain and a seal valued together at 4s.6d.

An interpreter was sworn and the prosecutor gave his evidence. He lived, he said, in Bedford Street and in the evening in Bow Street at nearly 8pm on 31 March he was stopped by two persons. They drew the watch from his pocket and the one with the watch ran away whilst the other laughed in his face. He took the man with the watch by the collar but he got away.  Mr Rotteris said he cried out “stop thief” in English but the man was not stopped. In England at the time the cry of “stop thief” was a common call to bystanders to help apprehend a thief in the absence of a police force. Asked whether the prisoner was one of the two persons he replied, “I do not know that person”.

A James Whittaker was then sworn as a witness. He said he was going home about 8pm on 31 March when he heard a cry of “stop thief” and two men ran by him. One was the prisoner. He then found the watch on the ground and took it to Bow Street where he left it with a Mr Bond. Asked by the Judge if there were any other people running in the same manner, in the same place, he replied “None that I saw”.

Questioned by Garrow for the prisoner, he said, “I do not know that the watch was dropped by the prisoner. I am sure the prisoner is the same man that passed me and he confessed it.  He carried his hand under his coat … and he said the reason was because he was lame; as he passed me his hand was concealed either in his pocket or under his coat”.

Garrow:  You have a little mended your recollection since you was before the justice of the peace?

Whittaker:  It is not a matter of consequence to me.

Court:  But it is a matter of very great consequence to the prisoner because his life is at stake.

Garrow:  At first you suspected this might be some fun in two idle fellows?

Whittaker:  Yes.

Garrow:  In point of fact, was not the prisoner’s hand covered with one entire flannel bag?

Whittaker:  I believe it was.

Garrow:  Have you any doubt of it?

Whittaker:  Now I recollect, I believe it was.

Garrow:  Do you mean now to swear that he was one of the men that ran past you?

Whittaker:  Yes.

Garrow:  The foreigner, before the Justice, I believe, gave this account, that he was robbed by one man who delivered the watch to another?

Whittaker:  Yes.

Another witness, Alexander Bryson, gave evidence that he belonged to the government patrols and at eight at night he heard a cry of “stop thief” towards Bow Street.  He saw the prisoner run past him and he was stopped by two passers-by. The prosecutor came up calling “watch, watch” and pointing to the prisoner. He said he understood by the man’s motions that the prisoner was one of the men. Questioned by Garrow he said he was a government patrol and directions for the indictment had been given by one Townsend.

Garrow:  He is a better lawyer than you; and you tell us that at eight at night the street was quiet.

Bryson:  I tell you the street was quiet, more so than I ever saw it …

Garrow:  Do not be angry; keep your temper.  How did he describe the incident?

Bryson:  He said he was asking his way to his lodgings and he met two men and one snatched the watch out of his pocket.

Garrow:  What state was the hand of the prisoner in when you saw him?

Bryson:  I did not take notice, there was a mob about him.

Garrow:  Was not his hand enclosed in a flannel bag, and three fingers smashed?

Bryson:  That has always been the case; I saw his hand tied up as usual.

Court:  Did you ever see this prisoner before?

Bryson:  I have often seen him about the play house, and he is one of those that by name and looks I was told to take care of.

Garrow:  Now, upon your oath, has this man been in custody for any offence of any sort; that is a dangerous question to put to a thief-taker?

Bryson:  Not to my knowledge; I go by my orders.

A man called Groves then gave evidence that he was present when the Frenchman was questioned. He had said the watch was taken from him with great politeness and dexterously. Groves said that the victim told him over and over again that he could not say that the prisoner was the man. It appeared to be a common pickpocket transaction, with no violence at least.

After than Garrow merely had to remark that the foreigner had absolved the prisoner from guilt and that the matter should be set right. The jury found his client not guilty.

Full details of this trial: Old Bailey Proceedings Online ( 27 February 2010) 18  April 1787, Trial of John Wheeler. (Ref: t17870418-96

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