In most assault cases heard before the Metropolitan Police courts the magistrates had the option to fine or to imprison defendants. There was clear class bias in operation and not simply because wealthier defendants could afford fines while poorer ones could not. There seems to have been an unwritten understanding that ‘respectable’ persons would be fined for their indiscretions while the ‘rougher’ element needed to be taught a harsher lesson.
Fines were levied on a sliding scale that also appears largely to have been at the discretion of the magistrate. For disorderly behaviour and drunkenness you might receive a penalty of a few shillings, for assault this could rise into towards a few pounds. If a justice wanted to punish someone severely he could impose a fine that he didn’t expect the prisoner to be able to pay, meaning that the culprit would end up serving a prison sentence by default.
Mr Schmidt (of the firm of Schmidt and Co. music publishers) was not your usual drunk or street brawler but in August 1869 he found himself facing a charge of assault at Marlborough Street Police court. What will quickly become clear is that Schmidt, while a respectable businessman, was clearly not in full command of his senses. This was to have dire consequences, especially so given his social rank.
The publisher was attending a performance (of what is not stated) at the Judge and Jury club in Leicester Square. This club (or these, as I think there might have been more than one in the capital) were gatherings where you might enjoy a fairly disreputable evening’s entertainment as this clipping describes:
‘The one I speak of met in an hotel not far from Covent-garden, and was presided over by a man famous in his day for his power of double entendre. About nine o’clock in the evening, if you went up-stairs you would find a large room with benches capable of accommodating, I should think, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty persons. This room was generally well filled, and by their appearance the audience was one you would call respectable. The entrance fee entitled you to refreshment, and that refreshment, in the shape of intoxicating liquor, was by that time before each visitant.
After waiting a few minutes, a rustle at the entrance would cause you to turn your eyes in that direction, when, heralded by a crier with a gown and a staff of office, exclaiming, “Make way for my Lord Chief Baron,” that illustrious individual would be seen wending his way to his appointed seat. […] the Lord Chief Baron called for a cigar and glass of brandy and water, and, having observed that the waiter was in the room and that he hoped gentlemen would give their orders, the proceedings of the evening commenced. A jury was selected; the prosecutor opened his case, which, to suit the depraved taste of his patrons, was invariably one of seduction or crim. con. Witnesses were examined and cross-examined, the females being men dressed up in women’s clothes, and everything was done that could be to pander to the lowest propensities of depraved humanity.
These Judge and Jury Clubs after all are but an excuse for drinking. They are held at public-houses – there is drinking going on all the time the trial lasts, – nor could sober men listen unless they had the drink.’
The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858
The emphasis on the heavy consumption of alcohol might explain Schmidt’s behaviour that night. According to the chief witness against him – Mr Brooks, the ‘Chief Baron’ himself – the publisher was acting in a very disorderly way, so much so that the Baron had to have a word with him. However, if he hoped that this would calm him down he was sadly mistaken. Schmidt leaped up from his seat, grabbed Brooks by the throat and screamed ‘I’m the vulture, I’m the vulture!’ at him.
It was a bizarre display and as Brooks tried to wrestle himself away he was knocked to the floor and his watch was trampled on. Eventually half a dozen other people rushed in to help pull the music publisher off him and Schmidt was subdued and handed over to the police.
The magistrate had heard enough to declare that this was a case that demanded a prison sentence not a fine and was about to hand that down when a man came into court waving his hands to get the justice’s attention. Edward Lewis said he was a friend of the accused and said that Schmidt was ‘labouring under a temporary aberration of intellect’.
In other words he was not himself and Lewis promised that he and others would take him under their care and look after him while he recovered. He was, he added, a ‘most respectable man’. Mr Knox turned to the wronged party to ask his opinion on the matter. The ‘Chief Baron’ was gracious: he said he would ‘very sorry to press severely on a respectable person under such circumstances’. He would leave to the magistrate to decided what to do with Mr Schmidt.
Mr Knox relented and ordered that a fine of £5 be paid. Schmidt was removed to the cells while a messenger was sent to fetch his business partner and his cheque book. When he returned Schmidt was brought up and asked to make his payment to the court. This is where it could have all ended reasonably happily but Mr Schmidt was still possessed with whatever rage had caused him to overact in the Judge and Jury club.
He ‘seized the cheque book, flung it to the end of the room, shouting, “Take me back to prison; take me to my dungeon and my chains”.’
His wish was granted and the gaoler led him away to start a month’s incarceration in the local house of correction. It was a dreadful fall from grace and one, I fear, he will have struggled to recover from, despite the best efforts of his friends.
[from The Standard, Monday, August 16, 1869]