On this date in 1722, Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne were hanged at Bury St. Edmunds, curiously becoming the first victims [edit: or maybe not] of a law of unintended consequences.
This duo’s path to the gallows begins years before their births, when Stuart Restoration parliamentarian John Coventry trod on the royal toes and was in consequence beaten up by some of Monmouth‘s goons.
Incensed, parliament passed the Coventry Act.
By this statute it is enacted that if any person shall of malice aforethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cut or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off the nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any other person, with intent to maim or disfigure him, such person, his counsellors, aiders and abettors, shall be guilty of felony, without benefit of clergy.
“Previous to the passing,” claims The Newgate Calendar, “it was customary for revengeful men to waylay another and cut and maim him, so that though he did not die of such wounds he might remain a cripple during the remainder of life, and such case was not then a capital offence. It was also a dangerous practice resorted to by thieves, who would often cut the sinews of men’s legs, called ham-stringing, in order to prevent their escape from being robbed.”
Sounds like an interesting time. One may well wonder how very customary this practice was, with the half-century lapse before the law found its first prey.
Cooke and Woodburne, for that matter, did not commit the sort of crime that long-ago parliament had had in mind.
Cooke, a well-off barrister, desired to secure for himself the sizable estate to which he was married, and hired working stiff John Woodburne to bump off his brother-in-law, on Christmas evening no less. The would-be assassin jumped him in a churchyard and
knocked down the unhappy man, and cut and maimed him in a terrible manner, in which he was abetted by the counsellor [Cooke].
Imagining they had dispatched him, Mr Cooke rewarded Woodburne with a few shillings and instantly went home; but he had not arrived more than a quarter of an hour before [the victim] knocked at the door, and entered, covered with wounds, and almost dead through loss of blood. He was unable to speak, but by his looks seemed to accuse Cooke with the intended murder, and was then put to bed and his wounds dressed by a surgeon. At the end of about a week he was so much mended that he was removed to his own house.
The perps were easily discovered, and having maimed the intended victim, appeared to fall within the compass of the Coventry Act.
But had they really committed a hanging offense? The defendant put his professional legal training to use.
[Cooke] urged that judgment could not pass on the verdict, because the Act of Parliament simply mentions an intention to maim or deface, whereas he was firmly resolved to have committed murder.
That’s a defense you don’t hear every day. Evidently, the court wanted to keep it that way.
Lord Chief Justice King, who presided on this occasion, declared he could not admit the force of Mr Cooke’s plea, consistent with his own oath as a judge — “For,” said he, “it would establish a principle in the law inconsistent with the first dictates of natural reason, as the greatest villain might, when convicted of a smaller offence, plead that the judgment must be arrested because he intended to commit a greater. In the present instance judgment cannot be arrested, as the intention is naturally implied when the crime is actually committed.”
Cooke’s university education and oleaginous lawyering did, however, enable him to make a successful request to be hanged before dawn on his scheduled day of execution, so as not to be exposed to the rude opprobrium of the commoners. John Woodburne (whether due to class position or the value he put on his last hours of life, the text does not inform us) was not extended the same courtesy, and swung later that day in full public view.
Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.