Corrosive sublimate, 1813

Are you selling your muffins too quietly?

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The accident of being the successful defender of a man accused of murder brought me forward…

I’m having a brief summer break from my desk, so I’m afraid Histories is shorter than usual. This week, the ‘trials’ of a lawyer, in a couple of short extracts. Henry Crabb Robinson (1775–1867) was a well-connected character. He was the son of a Suffolk tanner (he also had an uncle with the wonderful name of Habakkuk Crabb), and became apprenticed to a lawyer in Colchester, Essex in 1790. In 1800 he took five years out from his developing career to travel and study in Germany, where he met luminaries such as Goethe and Schiller. After that he was a war correspondent for The Times in Germany and then Spain, before returning to London to become a barrister. If that wasn’t enough, he was also one of the founders of University College London, and his diary (which survives from 1811 to his death and was first published in 1869) is one the major literary sources for the lives and personalities of the Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake.

In the short diary entry here, Robinson reports on a trial at Norwich, where he defended the accused. It’s a pithy summary of the dilemmas faced by a lawyer, who on the one hand must earn his fee (and grumble about it), while on the other wrestle with the near-certainty of his client’s guilt…

20th August 1813

I defended a man for the murder of his wife and her sister by poison. It was a case of circumstantial evidence. There was a moral certainty that the man had put corrosive sublimate into a tea-kettle, though no evidence so satisfactory as his Tyburn countenance [referring of course to the gallows in London known as Tyburn Tree]. I believe the acquittal in this case was owing to this circumstance. The wife, expecting to die, said, “No one but my husband could have done it.” As this produced an effect, I cross-examined minutely as to the proximity of other – there being children about – the door being on the latch, &c.; and then concluded with an earnest question “On your solemn oath, were there not twelve persons at least who could have done it?”. “Yes, there were.” And then an assenting nod from a juryman. I went home, not triumphant. But the accident of being the successful defender of a man accused of murder brought me forward, and though my fees at two assize towns did not amount to £50, yet my spirits were raised.

Lest we imagine Robinson was too confident a person, in 1838 he reveals the fears of every author. He had written a book in defence of his friend the slavery abolitionist and pacifist Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), and on 10th August he wrote this to William Wordsworth:

I have heard of a lady by birth being reduced to cry “muffins to sell” for a subsistence. She used to go out a-nights with her face hid up in her cloak, and then she would in the faintest voice utter her cry. Somebody passing by heard her cry, — “Muffins to sell, muffins to sell! O, I hope nobody hears me.” This is just my feeling whenever I write anything. I think it a piece of capital luck when those whose opinion I most value never chance to hear of my writing. On this occasion I must put my name; but I have refused everybody the putting it in the title-page. And I feel quite delighted that I shall be out of the way when the book comes out. It is remarkable how very differently I feel as to talk and writing.

No one talks with more ease and confidence than I do; no one writes with more difficulty and distrust. I am aware, that, whatever nonsense is spoken, it never can be brought against me; but writing, however concealed, like other sins, may any day rise up against one.

And six days later, he told his diary: “The book came out to-day. And now I have the mortification before me, probably, of abuse, or more annoying indifference.”