9 Law-related Facts

A bewigged and pompous judge props up two dosing colleagues in a satirical engraving by the English artist William Hogarth (1697 – 1764)

Laws have been used since ancient times to maintain order over otherwise unruly and chaotic realms. Here are 9 facts about laws, lawyers, wills and crime:

1. Wigs and Fun

Judges and lawyers in Britain have been wearing wigs for at least 300 years. Originally the wigs were made of human hair: today, however, they are made of horsehair. Barristers also wear gowns in courts. Junior barristers wear gowns of alpaca wool; senior barristers, known formally as the Queen’s Counsel, are more commonly called ‘silks’ because their gowns are made of silk. The gown of every barrister has a small pouch sewn into the left shoulder – a reminder of the time when barristers were not allowed to solicit fees, and instead solicitors would simply slip golden guineas into the pouch.

2. ‘Let The Body Be Brought….’

Habeas Corpus, the law which in Britain, the USA and many other English-speaking countries guarantees that nobody can be held in prison without trial, was passed because of a wild party. The party was held in 1621 at the London home of a notoriously rowdy lady called Alice Robinson. When a constable called to complain about the noise, Alice allegedly swore at him so violently that he arrested her, and a local Justice of the Peace committed her to the Clerkenwell House of Correction.
When Alice was finally brought to the trial at the Old Bailey, her story of her treatment in prison caused an outcry. She had been put on a punishment diet of black bread and water, forced to sleep on the bare earth, stripped and given 50 lashes: treatment that was barbaric even by the harsh standards of the time. What made it worse was that she was pregnant.
Public anger was so great that she was acquitted, the constable who had arrested her without a warrant was sent to Newgate Prison, and the JP was severely reprimanded. In addition, her case, along with other similar cases, led directly to the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679. The Act is still on the statute books today and a version of it is still used in the USA. Indeed, the founders of the USA regarded the law as such an important guarantee of liberty that Article 1 of the US Constitution declares that it shall not be suspended except in cases of ‘rebellion or invasion’.
Habeas Corpus is part of a Latin phrase – “Habeas Corpus ad subjiciendum” – which means “Let the body be brought before the judge”. In effect, a writ of Habeas Corpus is an order in the name of the Sovereign to produce an imprisoned person in court at once.

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3. Trial By Combat

The ancient medieval right of a man to challenge his accuser to personal combat remained vaild under British law exactly 200 years ago. It had been almost forgotten, until, in 1817, a man called Thornton was accused of murdering a woman named Mary Ashford. Thornton claimed the right to decide his guilt or innocence in battle with his accuser, the dead girl’s brother – and the law courts were forced to uphold his claim. Because Mary Ashford’s brother refused the challenge, Thornton got off scot-free. Parliament changed the law a year later.

4. Killer Tortoise

In July 1981, a tortoise was sentenced to death for murder. Tribal elders in the Eastern Kenyan village of Kyuasini formally condemned the tortoise because they suspected it of causing the deaths of six people, apparently through magic. However, because none of the frightened villagers was prepared to risk the tortoise’s wrath by carrying out the execution, it was chained to a tree instead. The tortoise was later freed after the government promised an official enquiry into the deaths.

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5. Silent Witness

A slander case in Thailand was once settled by a witness who said nothing at all. The case, recounted in the memoirs of Justice Gerald Sparrow, a 20th century British barrister who served as a judge in Bangkok, involved two rival Chinese merchants: Swee Ho and Pu Lin.
Pu Lin had stated sneeringly at a party that Swee Ho’s new wife, Li Bua, was merely a decoration to show how rich her husband was. Swee Ho, he said, could no longer “please the ladies”.
Swee Ho sued Pu Lin for slander in the British consular court, claiming that Li Bua was his wife in every sense – and he won his case, along with substantial damages, without a word of evidence being taken. Swee Ho’s lawyer simply put the blushing Li Bua in the witness box. She had long, gold-painted fingernails and she was quite obviously pregnant.

6. Wayward Will

Charles Vance Millar, a Canadian lawyer and financie who died a bachelor in 1926, bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to whichever Toronto woman gave birth to the largest number of children in the ten years after his death. Four women eventually tied in the ‘Stork Derby’ that followed the publication of his will. Each had nine children, and they shared between them $750,000. A fifth woman who who had ten children was ruled out because five were illegitimate.

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7. Short and Sweet

One of the world’s shortest wills was left by an Englishman named Mr. Dickens. It was contested in 1906, but upheld by the courts and read simply: “All for mother.”

8. Revenge

A hen-pecked London publican who died at the end of the 19th century left his property to his wife – on condition that every year, on the anniversary of his death, she walked barefoot to the local market, held up a lighted candle and read out a full confession of her nagging ways. The theme of the confession was that if her tongue had been shorter, her husband’s days would probably have been longer. If she failed to keep the appointment, she was to receive no more than £20 a year – just enough to live on.

9. Swan Song

A long suffering parson in Ontario, Canada, left $3000 to his daughter on condition that she gave up singing.