On this Day 8th November 1893

A Penzance Lawyer on the Wrong Side of the law; part 3: the trilogy concluded

The trial has continued for two full days. The defence produced evidence that Miss Wellington was “very queer” – prone to throwing knives, making accusations of poisoning and the like. And they called a fine witness – Mrs Sergeant - who had been in the room when the will as made. This lady gave a most affecting picture: the old lady propped up in her bed, saying she was “pretty middling”, stating that her money was to go to Mr Stevens, with whose family she had lodged for so many years. Miss Wellington always said that Mr Stevens had been “like a son” to her; said that he was “the only one in whom he had confidence”. And as Mrs Sergeant said, she “could not help being Mr Stevens’ daughter”. Neither was it the fault of Mr Stevens that the intended witness to the signature arrived too late, just as Mr Lanyon was coming downstairs with the will, signed in a “wobbling, feeble, uncertain hand”. A signature which, a handwriting expert confirmed, was in some respects rather similar to the style in which Mr Lanyon had – quite properly - pencilled her name below the signature.

There was some very distasteful cross-questioning. Did not Mrs Sergeant have Miss Wellington’s rings, watch and chain in her possession –articles whose very existence had been denied? Was it true that Mrs Sergeant had held Miss Wellington’s hand after her death, fastened the stiffening fingers round a pen, and pushed the dead hand across the paper to make the semblance of a signature? However hotly denied, that kind of talk would naturally horrify any jury. Judge Hawkins himself, for all his experience of human wickedness, called it “a suggestion almost too shocking to contemplate”.

A new home for Lanyon and Stevens: a cell in Bodmin Gaol (courtesy of: https://fuguestock.deviantart.com/art/Jail-Cell-02-B-Gloomy-632968528)His worship spent over two hours summing up, and it was nearly 10.00 pm when he finished. The jury – perhaps keen not to drag the discussion out – returned within fifteen minutes. Their verdict? Both men – John Lanyon the lawyer and Richard Stevens the insurance agent – guilty of both perjury and forgery. Neither man said a word. Stevens seemed agitated; Lanyon had folded his arms as if to brace himself for the worst. The foreman put in a request for mercy, but was also heard to say that it was “gratifying to find that their verdict coincided with the opinion of the judge”. And then the judge and the lawyers, the witnesses and the jury, all went home.

Folk have been quick to speak out in Mr Lanyon’s favour. The vicar of Newlyn spoke highly of his character, and so did James Caldwell, the former Mayor of Penzance. Even the prosecution lawyer blamed his crime on misfortune; calling on natural sympathy for the plight of a respectable man who finds himself in straitened circumstances. But Mr Justice Hawkins is a man of a more severe cast. He “addressed the prisoners on the enormity of their offence”, telling Mr Lanyon that he should have known better than to take Richard Stevens’ word as to Miss Wellington’s intentions; should have taken his instructions from the lady herself, however eccentric her ways.

Bodmin Gaol today (courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/dan-s_photos/4893932845/)And so not only Mr Stevens but Mr Lanyon, this “worthy and inoffensive personage”, this man whose unfortunate financial circumstances could be considered “evidence of his professional probity”, is to spend seven years in gaol. Let us be clear: they will be incarcerated until the dawn of the twentieth century.

When the news reaches Penzance tomorrow, there is sure to be outrage. There will be high words about “miscarriage of justice”, despite British standards of proof – which, I might add, offer a “complete contrast … to continental procedure”. And then there is the “well-known tendency of Cornish juries to ‘lean to mercy’s side’”. How fortunate we are that evils such as biased juries and partial judges “have long since been eradicated in these islands”! How regrettable the present trend to lodge appeals; to retry cases in the columns of newspapers! But I digress. Let it be simply said that an appeal would be futile; that it would simply lead the convicted men, their friends and families, to “entertain hopes which would certainly never be realised, and would subject them to a renewal of the anxieties and bitter griefs which they have experienced during the last week”.


Cornish Telegraph 16th November 1893 pages 4 and 5

Cornishman 16th November 1893 page 7

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