The extraordinary escape of this young man from an ignominious death demands a notice, of which the circumstances of his conviction would otherwise be unworthy. It appeared on his trial that he was present at a fire in Wardour Street, Soho, on the 30th of November, 1820, when a gang of pickpockets, the usual attendants at such scenes, among other depredations made an attack upon an individual in the crowd, and succeeded in robbing him of his chain and seals. White, who was near enough to witness the transaction, was seized by the person robbed, charged with the theft, and taken in custody to the watch-house. As he was entirely alone, he could do no more than declare his innocence, which was attested at the time by a stranger, who followed him to the watch-house. The complainant and the guardians of the night naturally enough suspected this voluntary witness for an accomplice, and discredited his testimony: White, however, who knew its truth, begged of him 'to come to-morrow for him.' He accordingly attended at the police-office in the morning, and obtained precisely the same credit he had gained the previous evening. White was, therefore, fully committed: the grand jury found the bill against him on Wednesday, December the 5th; and on the Friday following he was brought to his trial, and capitally convicted. The only evidence of importance against him was that of the prosecutor, who swore to his person, and that he kept pulling, and made a screw to get the watch out at the time he (the prosecutor) had hold of him. Two persons who had accompanied the prosecutor to the fire did not see the robbery, being then at some distance, but assisted in securing and conveying the prisoner to the watch-house. The stranger who had previously appeared as the prisoner's witness, made it his business to examine the list at the Old Bailey; and without any communication with, or solicitation from, White or his friends, again tendered his evidence on his behalf. His testimony was, that the prosecutor, after declaring his loss, seemed much confused, and stood two minutes or more before he laid hold of any body: that presently after there was a great rush of all the mob; the prisoner was seized, and he followed him to the watch-house to say he did not think the prosecutor could swear to the man, as he was greatly confused, and appeared much intoxicated. The prosecutor being again called, declared he was sober at the time; and this testimony being corroborated by his two companions, who both declared he was perfectly sober, the stranger of course was discredited, and the conviction of the prisoner necessarily followed.
The unhappy youth concealed his actual situation from his friends, in the delusive hope that some chance would save both him and them the exposure, till it was too late; for, strange as it may appear, his first communication to his mother of his awful situation was not made until the morning on which the grand jury found the bill against him; and so little acquainted were his friends and himself of his danger, or the common means of averting it, that a learned gentleman, a relation of the family, and who might have rendered him great assistance, was left wholly unacquainted with the facts of the case till the trial was over.
Such was the situation of the youth when his unhappy fate attracted the attention of Mr. Sheriff Waithman, who ascertained, from undoubted testimony, the previous good character and conduct of the prisoner himself, and the respectability of his parents, with whom he resided, in the neighbourhood of the fire, to which his curiosity unfortunately led him.
That he was unconnected with the gang by whom the robbery was committed is obvious, from the circumstance that, although there were ten or twelve of them together, the prisoner used no endeavours to escape; not the slightest attempt was made to rescue him; nor had he been visited during the whole of his imprisonment by any persons but those of his family, or their immediate friends. The fact, however, was put beyond doubt by the affidavit of a respectable gentleman, who was wholly ignorant of White's unfortunate situation, but who, when referred to, deposed (in corroboration of a statement previously made by the prisoner) that he was passing near the spot on the night of the fire, and within a few minutes of the time of the robbery; that he there saw and spoke to White; that he was entirely alone, and no person whatever in company or conversation with him.
The stranger, who so perseveringly appeared on the prisoner's behalf was proved, by evidence most satisfactory, to be a young man of character residing with his mother, and in no way acquainted with White or any of his family; and the veracity of his testimony was established by the voluntary declarations of eight or ten respectable individuals, all of whom agreed as to the intoxication of the prosecutor on the evening in question; which, added to the state of confusion such an attack was likely to occasion, left no doubt but that he must have been mistaken in the person of the prisoner.
In the prosecution of his inquiries Sheriff Waithman judged it important to ascertain the grounds upon which the verdict of the jury was as founded; and in answer to a letter on that subject, addressed by him to the foreman, he received a declaration, signed by all the jury, that their verdict was given upon the conviction that the prosecutor and his companions were sober at the time of the robbery, and their disbelief of the evidence of the witness to the contrary, whom they viewed in the light of an accomplice rather than a disinterested person, as he stated himself to be.
These concurrent testimonies in the youth's favour were communicated to Lord Sidmouth as they were obtained; but, to the great surprise of the sheriff, an obstacle of a serious nature presented itself at the outset of his exertions. A petition had been delivered at the office of the secretary of state for the home department, purporting to be signed by the prisoner, in which he confessed his guilt, and acknowledged the justice of his sentence. It has, however, been subsequently established, by the most indubitable testimony, that, although this petition had been drawn up under an impression generally entertained in the prison that a denial of guilt would be considered as an imputation upon the court and the jury, and render all applications for mercy unavailing, the prisoner, fully aware of this circumstance, could by no entreaty be prevailed upon to acknowledge guilt, even for the chance of saving his life. A pious fraud was therefore committed, and the prisoner's name affixed to the petition by his brother, without his knowledge or consent.
Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary, received these communications with caution, not giving the sheriff any hope of a pardon, but determined to submit the whole to the consideration of Mr. Baron Garrow, before whom the prisoner was tried; who gave it as his decided opinion that if such evidence had been brought forward at the trial, the jury would have found the prisoner not guilty. Lord Sidmouth had now no hesitation in recommending him as a fit object for the royal clemency, and he was of course discharged.
At the same time with White a youth named Harley, was liberated from Newgate on his majesty's free pardon. The circumstances of his case are singular and remarkable.
Harley was convicted at the January sessions, 1821, of a street robbery near Northumberland House, on Monday, the 11th of December, 1820. The prosecutor was surrounded and hustled by fifteen or twenty fellows, and had his watch forcibly taken from him. He seized one of the gang. but the others fell upon him directly, rescued their companion, and then beat the prosecutor unmercifully.
He subsequently described the dress and person of the man who robbed him; and, upon that description, Harley was taken into custody. He was put into a room with ten or twelve others, and the prosecutor, when sent by the officers, recognized him immediately.
The evidence of the prosecutor, on the trial, was positive and direct. He saw the prisoner pull the watch from him, and hand it to another. When asked if he was sure of his person, he replied, 'If he was tarred and feathered all over, except his face, I could swear to him.'
Harley, in his defence, attempted to prove an alibi; but as his witnesses were the inmates of a brothel, where he had actually been at the time, they received no credit, and he was found Guilty, and received sentence of death.
Fortunately for him the prosecutor swore that he knew his person previous to the time of the robbery, having had Harley pointed out to him as a notorious thief on a certain Saturday; on which day, it afterwards appeared, Harley had been in custody on another charge. This fact was brought under the cognizance of the secretary of state, and it appeared that another person, exactly resembling Harley, both in person and dress, was known as a hustler, a respite followed of course; and the prosecutor stating that he swore to him on the presumption of his being the person so pointed out, a free pardon was obtained.
Between White and Harley there was no similarity, further than their innocence of the crime for which they had been convicted. White was a youth of correct morals and virtuous habits, but Harley was known as a bad character; and, on his hair-breadth escape, he returned to his former vicious companions.