Tag Archives: William Garrow

Murder or Manslaughter – The Trial of Daniel Macginnis

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.


A very Regency Scandal

Richard Lee about 1795


Anyone who has been watching Lucy Worsley’s lovely series on BBC Four  Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency will be aware that scandal was never far from the surface among the families making up the top level of society. The affair of Robert Home Gordon and Susanna Hope, the wife of Joseph Biscoe, was a very Regency scandal involving illicit sex, servants peeping through windows, the rights of a man over his wife and child, great wealth and all ending in a much publicized court case.

Typical of many who had acquired their position via the sugar plantations of Jamaica, Robert Home Gordon passed most of his life in Great Britain spending the wealth generated by his estates – Cromwell estate in St Mary and the Home Castle estate in the parish of St Ann.

He had come to England from Jamaica as a small boy, under the guardianship of Robert Cooper Lee, and went to Harrow School together with Richard Lee. There they also met Joseph Biscoe, about four years their senior, whose mother was Lady Mary Seymour daughter of the Duke of Somerset, and whose father Vincent was a partner in the firm of Hilton and Biscoe, Merchants trading with Jamaica.

On 22nd May 1786 Joseph Biscoe married seventeen year old Susanna Harriot Hope at All Saints Church, Derby. [Location corrected as per comments below] Her father was the well respected Rector of All Saints, now Derby Cathedral. The family were friends of the painter Joseph Wright of Derby and a portrait of Susanna painted a few years before her marriage came up for sale at Christie’s in 2009. It’s a pleasant and very conventional picture of a well to do young girl. Wright doesn’t seem to have seen anything in her to suggest she would later cause the kind of scandal that nudged its way into the national press at a time when it was mostly preoccupied with a raft of treason trials.

For the first seven years the Biscoe’s life together seems to have been a happy one,  living in Derbyshire and Mansfield, and a daughter Mary was born the year after their wedding. There were no further children and in October 1793 the couple moved with their daughter to Kent, taking the lease of Shoreham House the following year from Robert Gordon, to whom Joseph had been reintroduced by Richard Lee.

Biscoe, Gordon and Richard Lee all enjoyed country sports, and Robert Gordon and Richard Lee regularly came down from London to go riding or shooting with Joseph Biscoe. Richard Lee never stayed more than a couple of days before going back to his business in London, but Robert Gordon often stayed several weeks at a time and the Biscoes stayed with him in turn at his hunting box in Kent.

It was at this point that Robert Gordon fell head over heels in love with Susanna and she was undoubtedly attracted to him. Had Joseph Biscoe shown any concern, the affair might have ended before it began.  Instead he continued to go out all day shooting, often with Richard Lee but frequently on his own, leaving Robert Gordon alone with his wife. Although Biscoe claimed to be completely unaware of what was going on the servants were not. It had become common for Robert Gordon to sit for hours alone with Susanna, sending her seven year-old daughter out of the room, and only picking up his gun to go out shortly before Biscoe was due back. Several times when the men came in from shooting Robert and Susanna sat up into the small hours, with Biscoe and Richard Lee having gone to bed hours earlier.

On the 21st October 1794 matters came to a head. Joseph Biscoe had gone up to London on business and Susanna rode out accompanied by the Coachman Francis Swindel. When she met up with Robert, Swindel was told to drop back to where he could not hear their conversation. Her maid Margaret Sparks was already suspicious because that morning Susanna had asked her to leave her drawers unlocked, which the maid had not done wanting to know what Susanna took out of them. It was clear to the servants that an elopement was in the offing. When Gordon and Susanna got back in the middle of the afternoon her two brothers were already there, well aware of her impending flight and having been drinking quantities of Biscoe’s wine while they waited. They spent only a short time talking to Robert before leaving again.

The servants then became aware of a scene being played out between Susanna and Robert Gordon. He was pleading with her to elope with him, stamping noisily up and down in the parlour. She was crying that she could not leave her child. He called for some laudanum to calm her, but the servants, with a somewhat melodramatic turn of mind, suspected that he meant to drug and kidnap her. In any case they had no laudanum and could only provide hartshorn or wine and water.

As it grew dark the lovers left the house unobserved and walked several miles, pursued by Biscoe’s Coachman, before obtaining a chaise at a local inn to take them to Robert Gordon’s London house in Albemarle Street. There they occupied separate but adjoining bedrooms. It was not enough to save her reputation, and Susanna now knew that she had burnt her boats.

The scene was set for a scandalous court case in which the young William Garrow (who featured in the recent BBC series Garrow’s Law) would play a part. Joseph Biscoe, rather than simply demand a divorce, sued Robert Gordon for damages claiming £10,000 for Gordon’s ‘criminal conversation’, i.e. adultery, with his wife. Even for a wealthy man £10,000 was a large sum, equivalent to nearly a million pounds in relation to retail prices, or over ten million pounds relative to average earnings, today.

On the 8th December 1794 a special jury hearing was held before Lord Chief Justice Kenyon. Technically it was the ‘Trial of Mrs Biscoe for Adultery with Robert Gordon Esq.’ although Susanna did not attend. Robert Home Gordon was able to afford some big legal guns and his defence team included Thomas Erskine (later to be Lord Chancellor), William Garrow and a Mr Burrow, while Joseph Biscoe had Messrs Bearcroft, Gibbs and Perceval on his side.

The Biscoe servants were called to give evidence, with Biscoe’s team clearly having decided to paint Susanna as a wronged woman, seduced and possibly made drunk and abducted by Robert Home Gordon. They represented the marriage as blissful and Gordon as a cad who had betrayed his friend’s hospitality.

Robert had ensured that Susanna would not be called to testify by admitting the adultery from the outset – it would have been hard to deny since the couple had been living together at Albemarle Street since October – and so his legal team worked hard to reduce the amount of any damages to be awarded.

Biscoe’s team called several witnesses to testify to his years of happy marriage and that he had been an indulgent husband. However the first hint of where the trouble lay came when an old college friend, George Biggin, described Biscoe as being a man of very reserved character. This gave Erskine the opening he needed and he portrayed Biscoe as a man who would rather spend all day out hunting or shooting than at home with his wife – a man who ‘in consequence of his own gross negligence, permits his wife to have an improper intercourse [unchaperoned meetings] with other men, which may ultimately terminate in the ruin of both’.

Without attempting to destroy Biscoe’s honour Erskine made clear that it should have been obvious to anyone, and particularly Biscoe, that allowing his wife to sit up until three in the morning with Robert Gordon was asking for trouble. Why, Erskine asked, if Biscoe had first become aware of the danger in August, had he not put a stop to it? Why had he done nothing to attempt to reclaim his wife’s affections? Why had he remained in the same room as the lovers while they sat side by side on a ‘sopha’ and did nothing about it? Indeed why when they had gone out riding with Richard Lee, who proposed that all four should stay together, had Biscoe said ‘no, let them go on by themselves, they are made for one another’?

‘After this gentleman sees that his wife’s affections are alienated from him, instead of putting any check or reins upon them, he encourages the defendant, and then comes into a court of justice to complain of them’, said Erskine.

It was a devastating opening statement, representing Biscoe as having thrown his wife into the arms of Robert Gordon, and it was backed up by Richard Lee, who Erskine admitted was appearing as a very reluctant witness. Not only was he a friend of both men, but he was the business associate of Robert Gordon who had grown up with him almost like a brother. Moreover it was Richard who had re-introduced Gordon to Biscoe and who had then watched Gordon fall head over heels for Susanna while her husband did nothing to prevent it. William Garrow asked Richard if he had thought Biscoe was ‘a prudent discreet, cautious husband’ and Richard answered ‘I do not think he was’.

Richard was then asked by Biscoe’s lawyers whether he had thought that Gordon had gone to Kent with the intention of seducing Susanna.

‘I took it for granted, and I thought him criminal’, replied Richard. But when challenged as to why he had done nothing to prevent it he told the jury that ‘I should have thought it extremely improper to interfere in any degree.’ Poor Richard was clearly caught in an impossible situation, deeply disapproving of Robert Gordon’s conduct but not feeling it right to intervene or interfere, and believing it was clear that Biscoe did not care enough to put a stop to the affair.

Kenyon was scathing in his summing up:

On the part of the Defendant they tell you, that Mr Biscoe has stood by and seen his wife debauched; and, if that is so, he is one of the most atrocious men living. And if you see Mr Biscoe to be the pander of the lusts of the Defendant, give him not a farthing, but give the Defendant your verdict. But on the contrary, if you shall be of the opinion that the Plaintiff was put off his guard, by pretended friendship, and that he has been robbed of his domestic comforts by the foulest conspiracy, I think no damages but Ten Thousand Pounds will satisfy the fair calls which Mr Biscoe makes on your honours and your consciences for justice.

In spite of the evident adultery, and Lord Kenyon’s censuring of Richard Lee for failing to intervene, the Jury obviously felt that Biscoe was partly to blame. They withdrew for only a short time and found in favour of Biscoe, but the claim for damages was halved to £5000.

Susanna probably never saw her daughter again, for she was put in the care of Joseph’s sister Mary and brought up in her father’s household. In 1807 she married Sir Robert Harry Inglis, and in 1815 they adopted the nine orphaned children of Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Joseph finally obtained a divorce in 1796 and remarried in 1799, having seven children with his new wife Stephana Law.

Susanna and Robert Gordon continued to live together but did not marry until some years later, a codicil to Robert’s Will implying that by 1812 they were married under both English and Scots Law. This was important as he had substantial estates in Scotland.

Robert died in Brighton in 1826 and, as they had no children, when Susanna died in 1839 most of the property went to Robert’s cousin Sir Orford Gordon of Embo.

It seems a sad ending to a whirlwind romance and elopement and I can only hope they were happy together.