Tuesday, August 12, 2008


And now, a brief historical interlude from the golden age of law and order.

While working my way through the criminal registers from the first decade of the 19th century, I ran across the following trial, involving the seemingly rather hapless Mr. William Pouce, who was tried on 4 July 1804.

Pouce was suspected of a crime involving the Queen Charlotte, a ship anchored in the Thames. Most of the evidence in the brief trial was offered by William Chapman, a 'merchant's agent' who was handling the unloading of the ship's cargo.

Asked whether he had suspected Pouce of something when he saw him leaving the Queen Charlotte, Chapman replied:

I did, by seeing him put his head up the hold two or three times, to look; he had staid behind the rest of the men; he then came up the ladder; I laid hold of him, and asked him what he had about him, and he said he had got some victuals in his coat pocket, which was for his dinner.

Q. What time of the day was it? - A. About one o'clock, the time they go to their dinner; upon that I told him I should see into his pocket and put my hand into his pocket and pulled out a piece of opium; I put my hand into his pocket again and found another piece; I then called Corry, who searched him in my presence; he found between his shirt and his flesh another piece of opium; he then said, pray let me go, it is my first offence, and I will do so no more; the captain was then called from on board.

Ah, he was in possession of opium. Clearly, Pouce was in trouble.

Though not for what you might think.

Q. Your vessel was partly laden with opium? - A. Yes; I employed the prisoner as a labourer, and I employed him a quarter of a day on Monday, all day on Tuesday, and half a day on Wednesday, when this happened; in consequence of information, that I received from Mr. Nichols, I went down and discovered that one of the cases, out of five near the hatchway, had been broke open by some iron instrument, a chisel, or a small iron crow.

(- Harding, a constable, produced the opium.)

Chapman. These two pieces were taken out of the prisoner's pocket, and the other from between his shirt and his flesh.

Pouce was found guilty of grand larceny for the theft of four pounds of opium and sentenced to one month's imprisonment and a public whipping.

Which, by the standards of the time, was fairly mild. (No mention was made about whether the opium produced by constable Harding in court was lighter by an ounce or two than when it was confiscated.)

It's interesting to see a court system in action as it protects the property rights of drug dealers. There was a lot wrong with the criminal justice institutions at this time, but this seems at least like the right set of priorities.

(Some decades later, of course, Britain would take further measures to promote the opium trade.)

I'm not an expert on this, but Marek Kohn, author of the excellent book Dope Girls, points out that until the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, drugs were not seen as a policing matter.

Someone should inform the Daily Mail, which otherwise never misses an opportunity to prescribe a spot of old fashioned justice.

They might, in fact, not be aware of what they're asking for.

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