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- Prisoner for Blasphemy - 10/34 -


enfranchisement, we are bound to use it against the wretched superstitions which cumber the path of progress. Intellectually, it is as absurd to give quarter as it is absurd to expect it.

"My answer to the Freethinkers who would coquet with Christianity, and gain a fictitious respectability by courting compliments from Christian teachers, is that they are playing with fire. Let them ponder the lessons of history, and remember Clifford's bitter word about the evil superstition which destroyed one civilisation and nearly succeeded in destroying another. Fortunately, however, the logic of things is against them. Broad currents of thought go on their way without being deflected by backwashes, or eddies or spurts into blind passages. Freethought will sweep on with its main volume, and dash against every impediment with all its effective force."

Well, I exercised "the full liberty of my belief," and I had to take its "full consequences." Yet, looking back over my year's torture in a Christian gaol, my conscience approves that dangerous policy, and I do not experience a single regret.

In the same number of the _Freethinker_ I referred at some length to Tyler's prosecution, which was dragging along its slow course in a way that must have been very provoking to Mr. Bradlaugh's enemies. By dexterous manoeuvring and skilful pleading, that litigious man, as the Tories call him, had managed to get two counts struck out of our Indictment. The result of this to Mr. Ramsey and myself was _nil_, but it brought great relief to Mr. Bradlaugh, and made his acquittal almost a matter of certainty.

Meanwhile our Christmas Number was selling rapidly. In a few weeks it had reached a far larger circulation than had been enjoyed by any Freethought publication before. Naturally the bigots were enraged, both by its character and its success. Many religious journals, and especially the _Rock_, clamored for legal protection against such "blasphemy." Irate Christians called at our shop in Stonecutter Street, purchased copies of the obnoxious paper, and, flourishing them in the faces of Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Kemp, declared that we should "hear more of this;" to which pious salutation they usually replied by offering their minatory visitors "a dozen or perhaps a quire at trade price." Similar busybodies called at Mr. Cattell's shop in Fleet Street, and plied him with cajoleries when menaces were futile. One of them, indeed, attempted bribery. He offered Mr. Cattell half a sovereign to remove our Christmas Number from his window. What a wonderful bigot! That detestable fraternity has nearly always persecuted heresy at other people's expense, but this man was willing to tax himself for that laudable object. Surely he is phenomenal enough to deserve a memorial in Westminster Abbey, or at least an effigy at Madame Tussaud's.

Presently our shop was visited by another class of men--plain-clothes detectives. They came in couples, and it was easy to understand their business. We were, therefore, not surprised when, on January 29, 1883, we were severally served with the following summons:--

"To GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, of No. 9 South Crescent, Bedford Square, Middlesex; WILLIAM JAMES RAMSEY, of No. 28 Stonecutter Street, in the City of London, and No. 20 Brownlow Street, Dalston, Middlesex; and HENRY ARTHUR KEMP, of No. 28 Stonecutter Street, aforesaid, and No. 15 Harp Alley, Farringdon Street, London, E.C.

_Whereas_ you have this day been charged before the undersigned, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, being one of her Majesty's Justices of the Peace in and for the said City and the Liberties thereof, by JAMES MACDONALD, of No. 7 Burton Road, Brixton, in the county of Surrey, for that you did in the said City of London, on the 16th day December, in the year of Our Lord, 1882, and on divers other days, print and publish, and cause and procure to be printed and published, a certain blasphemous and impious libel in the Christmas Number for 1882 of a certain newspaper called the _Freethinker_, against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her crown and Dignity. These are therefore to command you, in her Majesty's name, to be and appear before me on Friday, the second day of February, 1883, at eleven of the clock in the forenoon, at the Mansion House Justice Room, in the said City, or before such other Justice or Justices of the Peace for the same City as may then be there, to answer to the said charge, and to be further dealt with according to law. Herein fail not. Given under my hand and seal, this 29th day of January, in the year of Our Lord, 1883, at the Mansion House Justice-Room aforesaid. "HENRY E. KNIGHT, "Lord Mayor, London."

The James Macdonald of this summons, who played the part of a common informer, turned out to be a police officer. In the ordinary way of business he went to the Lord Mayor, complained of our blasphemy and his own lacerated feelings, and applied for a summons against us as a first step towards punishing us for our sins. What a _reductio ad absurdum_ of the Blasphemy Laws! Instead of ordinary Christians protesting against our outrages, and demanding our restraint in the interest of the peace, a callous policeman has to do the work, without a scintilla of feeling about the matter, just as he might proceed against any ordinary criminal for theft or assault. The real mover in this business was Sir Thomas Nelson, the City Solicitor, representing the richest and corruptest Corporation in the world.

The Corporation of the City of London might be described in the language which Jesus applied to the Town Council of Jerusalem eighteen centuries ago--"They devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers." What could be more hypocritical than such a body posing as the champions of religion, and especially of the religion of Christ! If the Prophet of Nazareth were alive again to-day, who would expect to find him at a Lord Mayor's banquet? Would he frequent the Stock Exchange, be at home in the Guild-hall and the Mansion House, or select his disciples from the worshippers in the myriad temples of Mammon? Would he not rather hate and denounce these modern Pharisees as cordially as they would certainly hate and denounce him?

If the City Fathers meant to protect the honor of God, they were both absurd and blasphemous. There is something ineffably ludicrous in the spectacle of a host of fat aldermen rushing out from their shops and offices to steady the tottering throne of Omnipotence. And what presumption on the part of these pigmies to undertake a defence of deity! Surely Omnipotence is as _able_ to punish as Omniscience knows _when_ to punish. The theologians who, as Matthew Arnold says, talk familiarly of God, as though he were a man living in the next street, are modest in comparison with his self-elected body-guard.

Would it not be better for these presumptuous mortals to mind their own business? It will be time enough for them to supervise their neighbors when they have reformed themselves. With all their pretensions to superior piety and virtue, they are notoriously the greatest ring of public thieves in the world, and they are at present lavishly expending trust-monies in a desperate endeavor to justify their turpitude and prolong their plunder.

According to our summons, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp, and I appeared at the Mansion House on Friday, February 2, 1883. The Justice Room was thronged long before the Lord Mayor took his seat on the Bench, and all the approaches were crowded by anxious sympathisers. All the evidence was of a purely formal character. It was a foregone conclusion that we should be committed for trial. We all three pleaded not guilty and reserved our defence. Before leaving the Court, however, notwithstanding his lordship's interruption, I protested against the revival of an old law which had fallen into desuetude, which had not been enforced in the City of London for over fifty years, and which was altogether alien to the spirit of the age. My remarks were greeted with loud applause by the public in Court. Of course his lordship frowned, and the ushers shouted "Silence!" But the mischief was done. It was obvious that we had many friends, that we were not going to be tried in a hole-and-corner fashion.

Our case excited much interest in London. Most of the newspapers contained a good report of the proceedings at the Mansion House; and even the Tory _Evening News_, which affirmed that we were three vulgar blasphemers undeserving of notice, had as the leading line on its placard "Prosecution of the _Freethinker_: Result!"

The _Freethinker_ for February 11 contained an article from my pen on the "Infidel Hunt," and a very admirable article by Mr. Wheeler on "The Fight of Forty Years Ago," narrating the trials of Southwell, Holyoake, Paterson, and other brave heretics. Mr. Ramsey did not then quite approve my attitude of defiance, although he has changed his mind since. He thought it more prudent to bend a little before the storm, instead of daring its utmost violence. He was also anxious to please those with whom he had worked before his partial alliance with me, and who were not prepared to sanction his continued connexion with the _Freethinker_ if he wished to remain with them. For these reasons he retired from our partnership, and I was at once registered as the sole proprietor of the paper. This step naturally added to the danger of my situation, and it was freely used against me at the trial. But I had no alternative, unless the _Freethinker_ was to go down, and that I had resolved to prevent at any cost. At the same time I engaged to take over Mr. Ramsey's business at Stonecutter Street, and to recoup him for his heavy investment; and I am bound to admit that he behaved generously in all these arrangements. On February 11 the following editorial notice appeared in my paper:

"With this number of the _Freethinker_ I assume a new position. The full responsibility for everything in connexion with the paper henceforth rests with me. I am editor, proprietor, printer and publisher. My imprint will be put on every publication issued from 28 Stonecutter Street, and all the business done there will be transacted through me or my representatives. This exposes me to fresh perils, but it simplifies matters. Those who attack the _Freethinker_ after this week will have to attack me singly. I never meant to give in, and never will so long as my strength serves for the fight. Whoever else yields, I will submit to nothing but physical compulsion. If the _Freethinker_ should ever cease to appear, the Freethought party will know that the fault is not mine. Certain parts of the mechanical process of production are dependent on the firmness of others. One man cannot do everything. But I pledge myself to keep this Freethought flag flying at every hazard, and if I am temporarily disabled I pledge myself to unfurl it again, and if need be again, and again. _De l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace._"

Mr. Wheeler stood loyally by me in this emergency. His efforts for our common object were untiring, and never was his pen wielded more brilliantly. Perhaps, indeed he overstrained his energies, and thus led to the complete breakdown of his health soon after my imprisonment.


Prisoner for Blasphemy - 10/34

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