The First who suffered Death under the Coventry Act. Executed at Bury St Edmunds, 5th of April, 1722
PREVIOUS to the passing of what was known as the Coventry Act it was customary for revengeful men to waylay another and cut and maim him, so that though he did not die of such wounds he might remain a cripple during the remainder of life, and such case was not then a capital offence. It was also a dangerous practice resorted to by thieves, who would often cut the sinews of men's legs, called ham-stringing, in order to prevent their escape from being robbed.
Sir John Coventry in the reign of Charles II. having opposed the measures of the Court in the House of Commons, in revenge some armed villains attacked him one night in Covent Garden, slit his nose and cut off his lips. Shocked by so barbarous a deed, the Members of both Houses of Parliment passed an Act, in a few days, by which it was ordained that "Unlawfully cutting out or disabling the tongue, of malice aforethought or by lying in wait, putting out an eye, slitting the nose or lip, or cutting off or disabling any limb or member of any person, with intent to maim or disfigure, shall be felony without benefit of clergy." By this law it is likewise enacted that "accessories shall likewise be deemed principals."
Mr Cooke was born at Bury St Edmunds, in the county of Suffolk. His father was a man of fortune, and when he had given him a university education he sent him to the Temple to study the law, after which he was called to the Bar, and acted as a counsellor. After some time he married a young lady, the sister of Mr Crisp, who lived in the neighbourhood of his native place. Mr Crisp being a gentleman of large property, but in a bad state of health, made his will in favour of Cooke, subject only to a jointure for his sister's use, which was likewise to become the property of the counsellor in the case of the lady dying before her husband. It was not long after Mr Crisp had made his will before he recovered his health in some degree; but he continued an infirm man, though he lived a number of years. This partial recovery gave great uneasiness to Cooke, who, wishing to possess the estate, was anxious for the death of his brother-in-law, though, as he had art enough to conceal his sentiments, they appeared to live on tolerable terms. However he at length grew so impatient that he could not come into possession by the death of Mr Crisp that he resolved to remove him by murder, and for that purpose engaged John Woodburne, a labouring man, who had six children, to assist him in the execution of his diabolical plan; for which piece of service he promised to give him a hundred pounds. The man was unwilling to be concerned in this execrable business; but, reflecting on his poverty, the largeness of his family tempted him to comply. On this it was agreed the murder should be perpetrated on Christmas evening; and as Mr Crisp was to dine with Cooke on that day, and the churchyard lay between one house and the other, Woodburne was to wait, concealed behind one of the tombstones, till Cooke gave him the signal of attack, which was to be a loud whistle. Crisp came to his appointment, and dined and drank tea with his brother-in-law; but declining to stay to supper he left the house about nine o'clock, and was almost immediately followed into the churchyard by Cooke, who gave the agreed signal. Woodburne quitted his place of retreat, knocked down the unhappy man, and cut and maimed him in a terrible manner, in which he was abetted by the counsellor.
Imagining they had dispatched him, Mr Cooke rewarded Woodburne with a few shillings and instantly went home; but he had not arrived more than a quarter of an hour before Mr Crisp knocked at the door, and entered, covered with wounds, and almost dead through loss of blood. He was unable to speak, but by his looks seemed to accuse Cooke with the intended murder, and was then put to bed and his wounds dressed by a surgeon. At the end of about a week he was so much mended that he was removed to his own house. He had no doubt but Cooke was one of the persons who had assaulted him, but he resolved not to speak of the affair till future circumstances made it necessary for him to inform a court of justice of what had happened. The intended assassination having greatly engaged the attention of the neighbours, Woodburne was apprehended on suspicion, and making a discovery of the whole truth, Cooke was also taken into custody. They were brought to their trials at the next assizes, and both convicted.
When they were called upon to receive sentence of death Cooke desired to be heard; and on the Court complying with his request he urged that judgment could not pass on the verdict, because the Act of Parliament simply mentions an intention to maim or deface, whereas he was firmly resolved to have committed murder. He quoted several law cases in favour of the arguments he had advanced, and hoped that judgment might be respited till the opinion of the twelve judges could be taken on the cause. The Counsel for the Crown opposed the arguments of Cooke. He insisted that the crime came within the meaning of the law, and hoped that judgment would pass against the prisoners. Lord Chief Justice King, who presided on this occasion, declared he could not admit the force of Mr Cooke's plea, consistent with his own oath as a judge —- "For," said he, "it would establish a principle in the law inconsistent with the first dictates of natural reason, as the greatest villain might, when convicted of a smaller offence, plead that the judgment must be arrested because he intended to commit a greater. In the present instance judgment cannot be arrested, as the intention is naturally implied when the crime is actually committed." His Lordship said that "Crisp was assassinated in the manner laid in the indictment: it is therefore to be taken for granted that the intention was to maim and deface; wherefore the Court will proceed to give judgment"; and accordingly sentence of death was passed on Cooke and his accomplice.
A short time before the day of execution Cooke wrote to the sheriff, requesting that he might be hanged in the night, to prevent his being exposed to the country people, who were expected from all the adjacent towns and villages; and in consequence thereof he was hanged at four o'clock in the morning, and Woodburne was executed in the afternoon of the same day.