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- Prisoner for Blasphemy - 20/34 -
in history as the last jury that decided for ever that great and grand principle of liberty which is broader than all the skies; a principle so high that no temple could be lofty enough for its worship; that grand principle which should rule over all--the principle of the equal right and the equal liberty of all men. That is the principle I ask you to assert by your verdict of Not Guilty. Gentlemen, I ask you to close this discreditable chapter of persecution once and for ever, and associate your names on the page of history with liberty, progress, and everything that is dignified, noble and dear to the consciences and hearts of men."
When I sat down there was a burst of applause, which the court officials were unable to suppress. Mr. Ramsey followed with another written speech, well composed and very much to the point. I noticed some of his auditors outside the jury-box choking down their emotion as he touchingly referred to his sleepless nights in Newgate through thinking of wife and child. His Lordship, I observed only smiled bitterly.
Judge North's summing up was a fraudulent performance. He told the jury that the consent of the Attorney-General had to be obtained for our prosecution, as well as that of the Public Prosecutor, which was a downright falsehood, unless it was a piece of sheer ignorance. He pretended to read the whole chapter on Offences against Religion in Sir James Stephen's "Digest of the Criminal Law," while in reality he deliberately omitted the very paragraph which damned his contention and supported mine. He also produced a new statement of the Law of Blasphemy to suit the occasion. On the previous Thursday he told the jury that any denial of the existence of Deity or of Providence was blasphemy. But in the meantime the public press had condemned this interpretation of the law as dangerous to high-class heretics. His lordship, therefore, expounded the law afresh, so as to exempt them while including us. The only question he now submitted to the jury was, "Are any of those passages put before you calculated to expose to ridicule, contempt or derision the Holy Scriptures or the Christian religion?" This amended statement of the Law of Blasphemy went directly in the teeth of our Indictment, which charged us with bringing Holy Scripture and the Christian Religion into _disbelief_ as well as contempt. The fact is, blasphemy is a judge-made crime, and the "blasphemer's" fate depends very largely on who tries him. Lord Coleridge holds one view of the law, Sir James Stephen another, and Justice North another still. Nay, the last judge differs even from himself. He can give two various definitions of the law in five days, no doubt on the principle that circumstances alter cases, and that what is true for one purpose may be false for another.
I have said that the jury, with indecent haste, returned a verdict of Guilty. The crowd of people in court were evidently surprised at the result, although I was not, and they gave vent to groans and hisses. The tumult was indescribable. Suddenly there rang out from the gallery overhead the agonising cry of my young wife, whom I had implored not to come, and whose presence there I never suspected. She had crept in and listened all day to my trial, never leaving her seat for fear of losing it; and now, overwearied and faint for want of food, she reeled under the heavy blow. My heart leaped at the sound; my brain reeled; the scene around me swam in confusion-- judge, jury, lawyers and spectators all shifting like the pieces in a kaleidoscope; my very frame seemed expanding and dissolving in space. The feeling lasted only a moment. Yet to me how long! With a tremendous effort I crushed down my emotions, and the next moment I was mentally as calm as an Alp, although physically I quivered like a race-horse sharply reined up in mid-gallop by an iron hand. My wife I could not help, but I could still maintain the honor and dignity of Freethought.
Order was at length restored after his lordship had threatened to clear the court. Mr. Avory then asked him to deal leniently with Mr. Kemp, who was merely a paid servant of ours, and in no other way actually responsible for the incriminated publication. Justice North listened with ill-concealed impatience. He was obviously anxious to flesh the sword of justice in his helpless victims. Directly Mr. Avory finished he began to pronounce the following sentence on me, and while he spoke there was deadly silence in that crowded court:--
"George William Foote, you have been found Guilty by the jury of publishing these blasphemous libels. This trial has been to me a very painful one. I regret extremely to find a person of your undoubted intelligence, a man gifted by God with such great ability, should have chosen to prostitute his talents to the service of the Devil. I consider this paper totally different from any of the works you have brought before me in every way, and the sentence I now pass upon you is one of imprisonment for twelve calendar months."
Twelve months! It was longer than I expected, but what matter? My indifference, however, was not shared by the crowd. They rose, and as the reporter said, "burst forth into a storm of hissing, groaning, and derisive cries." "Damn Christianity!" I heard one shout, and "Scroggs" and "Jeffries" were flung at the judge, who seemed at first to enjoy the scene, although he grew alarmed as the tumult increased. "Clear the gallery," he cried, and the police burst in among the people. But before they did their work something happened. From the first I resolved, if I were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, that I would say something before leaving the dock. My first impulse was to hurl at the judge a few words of passionate indignation. But I reflected "No! I have been tried and condemned for ridiculing superstition. Sarcasm is Blasphemy. Well then, let me sustain my character to the end. I will leave with a stinging _Freethinker_ sentence on my lips." Raising my hand, I obtained a moment's silence. Then I folded my arms and surveyed the judge. Our eyes flashed mutual enmity for a few seconds, until with a scornful smile and a mock bow I said, "_Thank you, my lord; the sentence is worthy of your creed._"
That retort has frequently been cited. It was a happy inspiration, and the more I ponder it the more profoundly I feel that it was exactly the right thing to say.
The officers behind gave me a pressing invitation to descend the dock stairs, and I complied. For a long time I waited in one of the little dens I have already described, pacing up and down, revolving many thoughts, and wondering what detained my companions. The fact is, the police had a great deal of trouble in executing the judge's orders, and some time elapsed before he could strike Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Kemp. Meanwhile I could hear through the earth and the brick walls the roar of that indignant crowd which filled the street and suspended traffic, and I knew it was the first sound of public opinion reversing my unjust sentence.
Consider it for a moment. There is no allusion to outraged feelings, much less any suggestion of "indecency." It is a plain declaration of theological hatred; it breathes the spirit which animated the Grand Inquisitors when they sentenced heretics to be burnt to ashes at the stake. "Listen," says the judge. "I am on God's side. You are on the Devil's. God doesn't see you, but I do; God doesn't punish you, but I will. We have hells on earth for you Freethinkers, in the shape of Christian gaols, and to hell you go!"
Presently Mr. Ramsey came down with nine months on his back, and then Mr. Kemp with three. They had my sentence between them. Mr. Cattell afterwards joined us without any sentence. He was ordered to enter into his own recognisances in L200, and to find one surety in L100, to come up for judgment when called upon.
People have wondered on what principle Judge North determined our sentences. One theory is that he punished us according to the amount of his time we occupied. I made a long speech and got twelve months; Mr. Ramsey made a short speech and got nine; Mr. Kemp made no speech and got only three; while Mr. Cattell cried _Peccavi_ and got off with a caution.
"Ready," cried the old janitor, in response to a distant voice. Our den was unlocked and we were marched back to Newgate for the last time.
When we entered Newgate as "condemned criminals," we were theoretically under severe discipline, but the officers considerately allowed us a few minutes' conversation in the great hall before we marched to our cells. We shook hands with Mr. Cattell, whom I rather contemptuously congratulated on his good fortune. He went into the office to receive back his effects, and that was the last we saw of him. Vanishing from sight, he vanished from mind. During my imprisonment I scarcely ever thought of him in connexion with our case, and in writing this history I have had to tax my memory to record his insignificant _role_.
According to the "rules and regulations," all our privileges ended on our sentence. We were therefore entitled to nothing but prison fare after leaving the Old Bailey. But the hour was late, the cook was probably off duty, and our tea and toast had been waiting for us since five o'clock; so the head warder decided that we might postpone our trial of the prison _menu_ until the morning. When it was brought to me, my toast (to use an Hibernicism) proved to be bread-and-butter. There were three slices. I ate two, but could not consume the third, my appetite being spoiled by excitement and the tepid tea.
The officer who acted as waiter informed me that the Old Bailey Street had been thronged all the afternoon, and was still crowded. "We all thought," he said, "that you would get off after that speech--and you would have with another judge. But you won't be in long. They're sure to get you out soon." I shook my head. "Take my word for it," he answered. Thanking him for his kindness, I told him I had no hope, and was reconciled to my fate. Twelve months was a long time, but I was young and strong, and should pull through it. "Yes," he said, with an appreciative look from head to feet, "there isn't much the matter with you now. But you'll be out soon, sir, mark my word."
I have learnt since that the crowd waited to give Judge North a warm reception. But they were disappointed. His lordship went home, I understand, _via_ Newgate Street, and thus baffled their enthusiasm. Mr. Cattell was, I believe, less fortunate. He was hooted and jeered by the multitude, and obliged to take ignominious shelter in a cab.
Strange as it may seem, my last night in Newgate was one of profound repose. I was wearied, exhausted; and spent nature claimed an interval of rest. For a few minutes I lay in my hammock, listening to the faint sound of distant voices and footsteps. Memory and fancy were inert; only the senses were faintly alive. Consciousness gradually contracted to a dim vision of the narrow cell, then to a haze, in which the gaslight shone like a star, and finally died out.
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