The first-mentioned of these malefactors, Birch, was the son of very respectable parents, and born at Hereford; and, after having received a very liberal education, he served as a lieutenant in the militia during the war. Being concerned in a matter respecting a family estate, the right of which was litigating in the Court of Chancery, he came to London in the year 1766; and as his business obliged him to stay in town for a considerable time, and being of a scheming turn of mind, and possessed of ready money, he determined to employ it in some manner that he thought would prove advantageous. While he was deliberating on the best method of disposing of his cash, he became acquainted with a person named Cobb, a mechanic of singular ingenuity, who had contrived a machine for the catching of fish in much greater numbers than by the usual methods. Mr. Cobb was not in circumstances to carry his plan into execution, yet was exceedingly anxious to reap the fruits of his ingenuity. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that he readily embraced an offer of partnership with Birch, who was able to lay down the sum that might be wanted for the completion of the scheme. This being the situation of both parties, the partnership of course ensued, the terms of which were very advantageous to Birch. Mr. Cobb having procured a patent to secure to him the sole emoluments to arise from his scheme, Birch advanced the money to pay for it, and a farther sum to fit out a vessel, which was sent to sea under the immediate direction of Cobb. This step was intended merely to ascertain the success that was likely to attend the scheme; but, as the first trial exceeded the most sanguine expectations of either party, Birch formed the ungenerous design of becoming sole proprietor of the patent. With this view he found a pretence to quarrel with Cobb. The scheme did not take complete effect; but the partnership was dissolved on the following terms, viz. 'That Birch should be allowed the use of Cobb's machine to fish with till such time as the money owing to him was paid; while Cobb was to carry on the fishery in what manner he thought proper.'
This agreement took place in the year 1768; and Cobb, being now reduced to very low circumstances, embarked for Denmark, where he continued many months. Birch, in the meantime, flattered himself with the hope of obtaining a very considerable fortune by the new project; and at this period he married a girl, with whom he received a fortune of five hundred pounds. During Mr. Cobb's absence from England Birch went to South Wales, where he engaged in the business of the fishery, which, for some months, was attended with as great success as could have been expected. In order to dispose to advantage of the fish thus taken, an agent was employed to sell them in London; and they were regularly sent up in machines constructed for bringing them with expedition, and without injury. It happened that a quarrel arose between Birch and the person who was his agent, respecting the punctuality of payments; on which the latter was arrested by Birch; but he instantly gave bail to the action, and then prevailed on a rope-maker to arrest Mr. Birch. These matters were litigated with the utmost warmth and imprudence on both sides; till at length Birch found himself so embarrassed by the expenses of law that he was obliged to take refuge in a prison. [Note: Surely no man in his senses would deliberately embark in law. How many in stances do we see of the lawyers swallowing up the whole property! It is better for a man to submit to an injury than to be stripped of all he has in the world, as is but too frequently the case.]
The business of his fishery was now wholly neglected, and at length he determined to take the benefit of an insolvent act; and it is said that he was perjured in this matter, swearing that he was in Ireland at the time prescribed by law, though he had not been out of this kingdom; but this we do not aver as a fact, unwilling to load the unfortunate, and the deceased, with the imputation of crimes which possibly they may never have committed: and we are the more diffident of admitting the alleged crime in this particular case, because it is probable that, if Birch had been perjured, he would have been prosecuted with the utmost severity of the law. Be this as it may, he was now in circumstances of great distress,—having no other support for himself and his wife than what arose from the casual bounty of his friends. We are told that, for a year after he was cleared by the act for the relief of insolvent debtors, he was perpetually devising schemes to raise money, some of which were not the most laudable: and that at length he engaged in a forgery, not less extraordinary in the design than fatal in its consequences.
It happened that Sir Andrew Chadwick, who was one of the band of gentlemen pensioners, was in possession of estates to a very considerable amount. Sir Andrew, having attained a very great age, had repeatedly drawn his will, at distant periods, but had not signed his name to any will that he had made, though there were many copies of what he intended to have done for his relations and immediate heirs at law. Birch becoming acquainted with a woman who had found one of the wills in an old trunk that had been the property of Sir Andrew, the former seemed to think, on the perusal of it, that some emolument might arise from the possession of this paper.
In a short time afterwards Sir Andrew died; and, no will regularly executed being found, a gentleman of Lancashire, who had married a niece of the deceased, took possession of his fortune, in defect of claim being made by any nearer relation. In the meantime Birch made diligent inquiry after the relations of Sir Andrew, and at length found that one of them, who lived in Ireland, had a better title to the estate than the person who was then in possession of it. With a view to make a private advantage, Birch made known his discovery to Matthew Martin, the other subject of this melancholy narrative. Martin was a watch maker by profession, and in easy circumstances. He advanced a sum of money to enable Birch to go to Ireland, and find out the right heir to the estate. Birch set out on this expedition; and, having found more than one claimant, he returned to London, and made a new will in the name of the deceased, conveying the fortune to the Irish relations. This being done, Birch and Martin submitted the forged will to the inspection of an attorney; and it was agreed to commence an action for recovery against the gentleman who was in possession of the estate.
It appeared that the presumptive will had been dated in the year 1764; but some drafts of wills made since that time by Sir Andrew Chadwick being found among the papers of the deceased, a suspicion arose that a forgery had been committed in the business; on which Birch and Martin were taken into custody, and carried to Sir John Fielding's office, where Birch's behaviour was plausible in a very high degree; and he gave such an account of his becoming possessed of the will as would have satisfied persons not aware of the knavery of mankind. Several persons attended at the office, ready to bail Birch and Martin; but the magistrate refused to accept of any bail, and committed the prisoners to Newgate. In the interim between the commitment and the trial, one of the most extraordinary circumstances happened that was ever recorded in a work of this nature. A paper-maker, who lived at Maidstone, being in town on his private business, fell into company with the attorney who was employed to carry on the prosecution; and, the conversation happening to turn on the circumstances of the presumed forgery, he begged to have a sight of the will, which at this time being in the hands of Sir John Fielding, the attorney took him to the office of that magistrate, where the will was presented to him; and no sooner had he taken a view of it than he declared that, in the year 1768, he had made the paper on which that very will was written.
The trial of the prisoners was brought on at the ensuing session of gaol delivery at the Old Bailey. The paper-maker above mentioned was an evidence, and the most material one, on the trial; for he proved that the paper had a mark upon it, which he himself invented in the year 1768, and he positively swore that the paper was of his own manufacture. Though there were several collateral proofs of the fact, yet they would not have been of sufficient weight to convict the prisoners but for this positive evidence of the paper-maker. Birch cross-examined the witnesses in such a manner as proved that he was a man of subtlety and address; but, notwithstanding all his artifices, both the prisoners were found guilty, after a trial which continued thirteen hours. The counsel for the convicts moved an arrest of judgment on the last day of the sessions, founded on a point of law presumed to have arisen in their favour. No objection being made to this motion, the sentence was postponed till the final opinion of the learned judges had been taken on the case. This case was learnedly argued before the judges (nine of whom were present) at Sergeants' Inn Hall, in Michaelmas term, 1771; when the reverend bench were unanimous in opinion that the convicts were guilty of the crime alleged against them; in consequence of which they were condemned to die.
After sentence of death was passed on them they behaved with a decent and devout resignation to their fate; for, not entertaining the least hope of that pardon which could not reasonably be expected, they made every preparation for the awful change that was to await them. On the day of execution they were fervent in their devotions at the fatal tree; and, after the customary ceremonies on such solemn occasions, they were turned off. After hanging the usual time, their bodies were delivered to their friends in order to be buried. These unhappy men suffered at Tyburn on the 2d of January, 1772.
The intervention of Providence in the detection of guilt is most strongly exhibited in the case of these malefactors. Who could have conceived that the discovery of forgery should have arisen from a circumstance so apparently trifling as the writing a presumptive will on one sheet of paper rather than on another? Yet so it happened. Little did the forger think, when he purchased the sheet of paper, that it was to be the immediate instrument of his own destruction! We have had many opportunities, in the course of this work, of remarking on the horrid nature and dangerous consequences of forgery; but nothing has equalled the particularity of the cases of Birch and Martin, and perhaps such an instance may not occur again for an age: yet surely this ought to afford a lesson of the highest caution, never to be guilty of a crime which leads to such certain and absolute destruction. In the affair of the malefactors in question their counsel started an objection, which left their case to the consideration of the judges. Very few cases have we known where the opinions of the judges differed from those of the juries of this country. In fact, the juries, according to the construction of our laws, and in the eye of reason, are the true judges of the fact, the essential declarers of the guilt or innocence of the party accused. Notwithstanding this, we ought to think ourselves happy in the tender exertion of our legislative power. When one jury has found a man guilty, the slightest error, real or accidental, will entitle his case to the retrospection of a second—that of the venerable bench of judges, who cannot be supposed to be biassed by any interest, to be influenced by any consideration, to give their opinions in favour of either party, contrary to the established rules of right, and the known laws of the land. Upon the whole, we have a claim to triumph in the protection afforded us by the laws; and those who wilfully transgress them ought to be punished in the most exemplary manner.