A Curious Case of a Schoolboy who killed another Boy during a Quarrel about a Cake, and was convicted of Manslaughter, October, 1743
THIS unfortunate young gentleman was placed at the academy in Soho Square, and at the same school was a youth named Thomas Rickets, then in the nineteenth year of his age.
At the sessions held in the Old Bailey in October, 1743, the above-named William Chetwynd, who was fifteen years of age, was indicted for the murder of Thomas Rickets, and was likewise indicted on the statute of stabbing.
Mr Chetwynd being in possession of a piece of cake, Rickets asked him for some of it, on which he gave him a small piece; but refusing to give him a second, which he desired, he cut off a piece for himself, and laid it on a bureau, while he went to lock up the chief part of the cake for his own use. In the interim Rickets took the cake which had been left on the bureau, and when Chetwynd returned and demanded it he refused to deliver it; on which a dispute arose, and Chetwynd, having still in his hand the knife with which he had cut the cake, wounded the other in the left side of the belly.
Hannah Humphreys, a servant in the house, coming at that time into the room, Rickets said that he was stabbed, and complained much of the pain that he felt from the wound. On which Humphreys said to Chetwynd: "You have done very well"; to which the latter replied: "If I have hurt him, I am very sorry for it."
The wounded youth, being carried to bed, languished three days under the hands of the surgeons, and then expired. In the interim Chetwynd, terrified at what had happened, quitted the school; but as soon as he heard of the death of Rickets he went to a magistrate, to abide the equitable decision of a verdict of his countrymen; and he was brought to his trial at the time and place above mentioned.
The counsel on behalf of the prisoner acknowledged the great candour of the gentlemen who were concerned for the prosecution, in their not endeavouring to aggravate the circumstances attending the offence. They also confessed the truth of all that had been sworn by the witnesses; but they insisted, on behalf of the accused party, that though his hand might have made an unhappy blow, his heart was innocent.
The following is the substance of their arguments on the case: They said that the fact could not amount to murder at common law, which Lord Coke defines to be "an unlawful killing another man aforethought," either expressed by the party, or implied by the law. They said, that in this case, there was not the least malice, as the young gentlemen were friends, not only at the time, but to the close of Ricket's life, when he declared that he forgave the other.
They said, that it being proved that there was a friendship subsisting, it would be talking against the sense of mankind to say the law could imply any thing contrary to what was plainly proved. That deliberation and cruelty of disposition, make the essential difference between manslaughter and murder; and they quoted several legal authorities in support of this doctrine.
One of their arguments was urged in the following words:
"Shall the young boy at the bar, who was doing a lawful act, be said to be guilty of murder? He was rescuing what was his own: the witnesses have told you, that after he had given Rickets a piece of cake, Rickets went to him for more; he denied to give it him, he had a right to keep his cake, and the other had no right to take it: and he had a right to retake it." There are cases in the books which make a difference between murder and manslaughter. If a man takes up a bar of iron, and throws it at another, it is murder: and the difference in the crime lies between the person's taking it up, and having it in his hand. Chetwynd had the knife in his hand, and upon that a provocation ensues, for he did not take the knife up; if he had, that would have shown an intention to do mischief. It may be doubted, whether or no when he had this knife in his hand for a lawful purpose, and in an instant struck the other, he considered he had the knife in his hand; for if in his passion he intended to strike with his hand, it is not a striking with the knife.
"At the beginning of the fray, Rickets had a knife in his hand; and it was one continued act. And another question is, whether there was not a struggle; here was the cake taken, and in endeavouring to get it again, this accident happens; at the first taking of the cake, it is in evidence, that Chetwynd was not forced to extend his arms, unless the other was coming to take it from him, and then a struggle is a blow.
"The counsel for the crown, submitted it to the court, whether (since the only points insisted on by way of defence for the prisoner, were questions at law, in which the jury were to be guided by their opinion,) the facts proved and admitted did not clearly, in the first place, amount to murder at common law; and in the second place, whether there could be the least doubt in point of law, but that the case was within the statute of 1 James I.
"Upon the first it was admitted, that to constitute murder there must be malice.
"But it was argued, that malice was of two kinds, either expressed and in fact, or implied by law.
"But when one person kills another without provocation, it is murder, because the law presumes and implies malice from the act done. And therefore, whenever any person kills another it is murder, unless some sufficient provocation appear. But it is not every provocation that extenuates the killing of a man from murder into manslaughter. A slight or trivial provocation is the same as none, and is not allowed in law to be any justification or excuse for the death of another. And therefore no words of reproach or infamy, whatever provoking circumstances they may be attended with; no affronting gestures, or deriding postures, however insolent or malicious, are allowed to be put in balance with the life of a man, and to extenuate the offence from murder to manslaughter.
"Applying the rules of law to the present case, it was plain, that the violent act done, bore no proportion to the provocation. All the provocation given was taking up a piece of cake, which is not such an offence, as can justify the prisoner's attacking the person who took it up, with an instrument, that apparently endangered his life, or rather carried certain death along with it.
"Mr Rickets was stabbed, having then no weapon drawn in his hand, and not having before struck the person who stabbed him. It is plainly within the intention; which is declared in the preamble to have been in order to punish stabbing or killing upon the sudden, committed in rage, or any other passion of the mind, &c. and therefore it was submitted to the court, whether upon the facts proved and not denied, the consequence of the law was not clear that the prisoner was guilty within both indictments."
Mr Baron Reynolds and Mr Recorder, before whom the prisoner was tried, taking notice of the points of law that had arisen, the learned arguments of the counsel, and the many cases cited upon this occasion, were of opinion that it would be proper to have the facts found specially.
A special verdict was accordingly agreed on by all parties, and drawn up in the usual manner -- viz. by giving a true state of the facts as they appeared in evidence, and concluding thus: "We find that the deceased was about the age of nineteen, and Mr Chetwynd about the age of fifteen; and that of this wound the deceased died on the 29th of the said September; but whether, upon the whole, the prisoner is guilty of all or any of the said indictment, the jurors submit to the judgment of the Court."
In consequence of this special verdict the case was argued before the twelve judges, who deemed Chetwynd to have been guilty of manslaughter only; whereupon he was set at liberty, after being burned in the hand.