1945: Mile Budak, Ustasha ideologue 1741: Cook, Robin, Caesar and Cuffee

1743: John Breads, Rye killer

June 8th, 2016 Golde Singer

On this day in 1743, John Breads met his fate on the gallows in the small Sussex town of Rye, on the south coast of England. The spectacle of his hanging was compounded by the subsequent use of the gibbet, a cage in which Breads’s body was left exposed to the elements in Gibbets Marsh for more than 20 years.

On the face of it, this was just another hanging in the dustbin of history, but author Paul Kleber Monod uses it as the focal point of a book, The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town (review | another), in which he wraps Rye, the murder and the execution into the social structures of England (especially small-town England) of the 18th century.

Although the murder itself is a small part of Monod’s book, he nonetheless outlines two aspects of the Breads story which make it worth a look by readers of Executed Today:

  1. the issue of fairness in the handling of the trial and execution; and
  2. the killer’s attempt to assert “mental distraction”

The facts of the murder itself seem fairly straightforward, although a little quirky, since the whole affair was apparently a case of mistaken identity: James Lamb, the then-mayor of Rye, was invited to dinner on March 16, 1743, to celebrate the appointment of his son John to the customs service. Lamb was feeling ill that day and asked his brother-in- law, Allen Grebell, to attend the dinner in his place. As Grebell was returning home after the event, he was attacked and stabbed in the churchyard by John Breads; although Grebell was able to make it back to his home, he died that night from his wounds.

When Breads was arrested for the murder, he claimed he had intended to kill Lamb, not Grebell. Monod points out that, since Lamb was related (albeit by marriage) to the victim, normal procedure would have been to move any hearing or trial to another jurisdiction, or at least allow an independent jurist to preside over the case. Breads’s assertion that Lamb was the intended victim should have given the Mayor even more reason not to be involved.

Instead, he insisted on keeping the trial in Rye and compounded the irregularity by acting as both prosecutor for the grand jury and as judge for the trial, thus ignoring judicial standards relating to conflict of interest. Additionally, one description of the trial claims that Lamb testified during the trial itself; if this is true, Monod says, such testimony was a breach of common law, which dictated that judges could not testify in cases over which they were presiding.

Monod introduces a commentary by Rye resident and lawyer Henry Dodson, who questioned whether Breads had received a fair trial in light of Lamb’s actions:

How fair a Tryal, the Prisoner had, I leave the Reader, to determine after he is informed, the above Mr. Lamb, was Mayor, Coroner, Party Prosecuting, Judge, Witness and Sheriff, in Presenting, Trying and Executing the said John Breads.

I suppose, he was Mayor, Coroner, and Sheriff, as essentiall, to the office of Mayoralty; Party and prosecutor, as Brother in Law to the Unfortunate good Gentleman, that was Killed; and Judge, and Witness out of Zeal, in getting the Prisoner proved Sane …

Dodson seemed to feel that Lambs involvement in the case was just a little too personal, and the fact that Breads was gibbeted after his execution might lend some credence to that idea. Gibbeting, Monod points out, was not usually a punishment imposed by a judge, but rather by royal order, and it was generally reserved for the most serious of killers.

But Monod puts the trial into a larger social context, suggesting that

the trial of John Breads bears a message about how the law operated in the 18th century [and] stands as an example of how authority might assert itself aggressively and unrestrainedly. The last word belonged to the judge … a kind of paternalism based on the social (and hence moral) inequality between defendant and judge. It was the opinion of the magistrate that counted.

[This] system reflected a social and political structure in which authority had been concentrated in a few hands, usually by inheritance … Breads had little chance of escaping the most extreme form of retribution.

The second point of interest in the Breads trial was that it stood at the cusp of a new understanding of insanity in the commission of crimes.

This is a mere replica of the Breads gibbet on display at the Rye Museum, but the town council still has possession of the original, skull and all. It’s reported to be a highly sought gawk, but it can only be seen by special arrangement.

Although Breads originally claimed his plan was to kill the mayor, he changed his tune at the trial, where he was reported as having said that “if he had committed the Fact, he knew nothing of it, for it was done when he was in Distraction … In short, he affected Madness …” (Kentish Post, June 1-4, 1743)

Or, in today’s parlance that would fitfully develop, “Not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Insanity had been a legitimate defense for years, but the definition of insanity was very much in flux at this time. Doctors suggested that madness was due to a mental defect rather than possession by an evil spirit and lawyers were pushing the idea that homicide required “malice aforethought,” while many average citizens still believed that those who were mad were in the grip of the devil.

Monod proposes yet another possibility by putting the question into a sociological context: “Insanity does not operate randomly,” he writes. “It cannot separate a sufferer from the social context in which he or she exists.”

For Breads, whose upbringing had been closely tied to his church, that context included unsuccessful attempts in the late 1600s by religious purists to wrest control of Rye’s government and economy from the wealthy secular class, and the antagonistic feelings that remained from the abject failure of that effort and the perceived religious persecution that followed it. Breads was no doubt influenced by that antagonism, Monod suggests, and those feelings “may have alienated him from the way the town was governed … [He] wanted to vent his rage on the oligarchs.” As a result, “Even in his madness, Breads was trapped by his own history and that of his native town.”

Whatever the source of Breads’ “distraction,” it did him no good. But it did become one piece of a serious conversation about the issue — a conversation which has continued for centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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