A Trial at the Old Bailey by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We would probably never have heard of Daniel Macginnis (sometimes written Macgenise) if he had not had the misfortune to be tried for murder at the Old Bailey in January 1793. What makes his case interesting for me is the number of highly distinguished men with connections to Jamaica who were prepared to testify in his defence.
Daniel was a doctor, aged nearly sixty, and lodging in London at the house of one John Hardy, a Hatter and Hosier of Newgate Street .
On the 28th of December 1782 Hardy and his wife and their maidservant were having tea in a downstairs extension at the back of the house, built out into the yard and with a skylight. When ‘water’ fell upon the glass Hardy rushed upstairs to confront Daniel Macginnis who had emptied his chamberpot out of his window as the maid had failed to collect it earlier. Hardy ranted at Macginnis telling him he wanted him out of the house and had started off back downstairs when Macginnis answered him back. According to Macginnis, Hardy then rushed back upstairs, forced his way into the room, pushed Macginnis to the floor and began to drag him out by his hair.
In the struggle, and fearing for his life, Macginnis drew a bayonet out of his pocket and stabbed his landlord through the heart. Hardy fell backwards down the stairs coming to rest on the landing. Macginnis, who had probably called out of his window for help during the attack, locked himself in his room until he could be certain that he would be taken up by an officer of the law and not murdered by the mob. He then gave himself up and handed over the murder weapon.
There was never any doubt that Daniel had killed John Hardy, although the maid, and another one who arrived back just as the commotion was in progress, disagreed on some of the details. What is remarkable is the legal team that represented Daniel and the number of extremely influential character witnesses who were called.
Those who have watched the BBC series Garrow’s Law will recall a barrister called Silvester. The TV series was only loosely based on fact and on a number of real life legal cases, but John Silvester really existed and was a friend of William Garrow and witness at his marriage in 1793.
John Silvester and Thomas Erskine appeared for the defence in Daniel Macginnis’s trial. Thomas Erskine was also a very distinguished barrister who famously had defended Lord George Gordon after the Gordon riots in 1780, and later Thomas Paine. He eventually became Lord Chancellor. Neither lawyer would have been cheap. As Daniel was effectively penniless someone wealthy must have paid for his defence. The first Jamaican connection mentioned comes in Daniel’s own statement in which he mentions General Sir John Dalling who had just completed a tour as Governor of Jamaica, and was shortly to be posted to Madras.
My circumstances never were affluent, but of late I have had assurances from those in power to be preferred to the rank of physician to the army, in an expedition that was then in contemplation, to be sent out under General Dalling , who was always my friend.
Daniel Sheen (or Shiel, the newspapers have a different spelling from the court transcript) a West India Merchant, testified to having known Daniel in Jamaica and told how Daniel had tried more than once to persuade him to buy goods from John Harvey in order to further his business.
He was followed by Lord Viscount Barrington who was a former Treasurer of the Navy and former Post Master General. He said that he knew Daniel as a very mild mannered man and that, had he been in the country, he was sure Lord Hillsborough who knew him even better would have testified for him.
Next up was Thomas Howard, Earl Effingham, whose mother Elizabeth Beckford was a daughter of Peter Beckford and sister to William Beckford, hugely wealthy Jamaican landowner and sometime Lord Mayor of London. Effingham would later be a Governor of Jamaica.
Major General Murray, an uncle of the Duke of Athol, appeared next and testified that Daniel
had at different times, while he had the care of sick men, divested himself of fresh provisions and given to those sick men, that he had likewise at times laid on the boards to give his bed to the sick men.
Murray was followed by Edmund Burke who said that
He was recommended to me originally as a man very knowing in his profession, very innocent, and rather helpless and unable to forward his own interest: as far as I have had an opportunity of knowing him, and I have known persons that knew much more of him than I could, I have heard that his knowledge is very extensive, I have always heard from every body that knew him, that he was a man of remarkable good nature, and it interested me so much in his favour, that I endeavoured to serve him in several little pursuits that he had, in which I thought he had very ill fortune to say no worse of it: from that opinion of him, I confess I feel much in seeing him in this situation.
Next came a Major Fleming who previously, wanting to give Macginnis work,
called him in, and in the course of a few days I found he had not only given strict attendance, but that much the greater part of his fee was given back to these poor people, to the very wretches whom he attended, given to buy wine and rice and sago, and other things that they wanted; this I mention as one instance of his humanity.
Further testimony was given by Alderman John Sawbridge, MP for London and former Lord Mayor; and finally John Nugent, the Lt.-Governor of Tortola.
Erskine then offered to call further character witnesses but was told it would not be necessary.
Even the prosecuting counsel seemed sympathetic towards Daniel, but despite strong evidence that Daniel had acted in self defence, and a very sympathetic summing up by the judge Mr Justice Willes, the jury found him guilty of wilful murder and he was sentenced to hang. However the carrying out of the sentence was held over for two weeks during which time much work obviously went on behind the scenes on his behalf and a Royal Pardon was obtained on the 14th of February, while nevertheless requiring that he should serve two years in Newgate Prison.
What happened to Daniel thereafter is unclear. Did he survive his imprisonment? It is to be hoped that his influential friends were able to ensure that his time in jail was not too uncomfortable. It was then possible to pay for a ‘better class’ of cell, and to have fuel, food, candles, clothes and blankets delivered to make life more bearable.
What had been Daniel’s past history that so many wealthy and influential men with West Indian connections wanted to help him? Apart from a reference in the correspondence of Robert Cooper Lee that led me to the trial, and the trial transcript itself, I have seen no other contemporary references, and yet Daniel was clearly very well known among the West India lobby in London.
Daniel’s kindness, humanity and innocent goodness shine through the testimony of those who spoke for him at his trial. I do hope he lived out a comfortable old age.