Convicted in May, 1833, of stealing a Letter, he narrowly escaped Execution, owing to the City Recorder's Blunder
JOB COX was a postman in the service of the General Post Office, and he was charged with abstracting a letter from those entrusted to him for delivery, and appropriating its contents to his own use. On the 18th of March, 1833, a Mr Foreman, of No.101 Grafton Street, Dublin, sent a letter, containing a ten-pound bank-note, addressed to his brother, Mr H. Foreman, in Queen Street, Clerkenwell, which, however, never reached its destination. Inquiry was made at the Post Office, and Cox was found to have signed a book in the ordinary way as having received the letter, and it was subsequently ascertained that he had paid the same note to Mr Lott, a publican in Lambeth, who had given him change for it. Cox was taken into custody, and at the ensuing sessions at the Old Bailey, held in the month of May, 1833, he was tried and convicted of the offence imputed to him, and on the 20th of the month he received sentence of death, in obedience to the requisites of the Act of Parliament.
At this time it was the practice of the Recorder of London to report to his Majesty in Council the cases of the various prisoners in custody upon whom sentence of death had been passed. The case of Cox was reported, with others, as usual, and upon the return of the learned recorder to London he caused it to be made known to the prisoner that his execution was directed to take place. The unhappy wretch had looked forward with confidence to the result of the exertions of his friends in his favour, and received this intelligence with deep dismay. He was told to prepare for death, and the reverend ordinary of the jail proceeded to pay to him those attentions usually expected at his hands.
A blunder of a most extraordinary nature, however, was soon discovered to have been made. This discovery is thus described in a newspaper of Sunday, the 23rd of June:
"On Thursday morning, Sir Thomas Denman, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, on casting his eyes on a newspaper, saw the paragraph representing the fact that Job Cox was ordered for execution on Tuesday. His Lordship thought the statement had been published from false information, and he adverted to the circumstance in the presence of one of the under-sheriffs, as of a very mischievous nature. The under-sheriff, in some surprise, observed to his Lordship that the paragraph was correct -- that the recorder's warrant had been received on Wednesday evening, at half-past six o'clock, at Newgate -- that the intelligence had been communicated to the unfortunate culprit, and that notices had been sent to the sheriffs and the other officials. 'What!' said Sir Thomas Denman, 'Cox ordered for execution! Impossible!' I was myself one of the Privy Council present when the report was made, and I know that no warrant for the execution of anyone was ordered. Cox was ordered to be placed in solitary confinement, and to be kept to hard labour, previously to his being transported for life, to which penalty the judgment to die was commuted.'
"The under-sheriff repeated the extraordinary information to his Lordship, who instantly requested that he would forthwith apply at the Secretary of State's office, when he would be reassured of the fact, and receive an order in contradiction of the learned recorder's warrant. It is needless to say that the under-sheriff, who was very glad to be the bearer of such good tidings to a poor unhappy fellow-creature, very speedily executed his mission. He found that the correction of Sir Thomas Denman was accurate, according to Mr Capper's books, in which the allotted punishment was regularly entered; and Lord Melbourne, immediately upon being informed of the mistake under which they laboured at Newgate, sent thither an authority to countermand the warrant with the Black Seal, signed 'Newman Knowlys.' Cox had just twenty-two hours previously been told, in the usual solemn way, to prepare for death; and as he had calculated largely and correctly upon the merciful character of the administration, he received the awful news as if he had been struck to the earth with lightning. The mistake, upon being mentioned to him, it is unnecessary to state, gave full relief to his heart."
Mr Knowlys, who at this time filled the office of recorder, was immediately called upon to explain to the Common Hall of the City of London the circumstances which attended the very remarkable error into which he had fallen. When they had heard from him whatever excuse he had to urge, on Monday, 24th of June, they came to the following resolutions:-
"Resolved unanimously, that this Common Hall has learned, with feelings of the deepest horror and regret, that the life of Job Cox, a convict under sentence of death in Newgate, had well-nigh been sacrificed by the act of the Recorder of London in sending down a warrant for his execution, notwithstanding his Majesty in Privy Council had, in the gracious exercise of his Royal Prerogative of mercy, been pleased to commute his sentence for an inferior punishment.
"Resolved unanimously, that the mildest and most charitable construction which this Common Hall can put upon this conduct of the recorder is that it was the result of some mental infirmity incident to his advanced age; but contemplating with alarm the dreadful consequences which, though happily averted in the present instance, may possibly ensue from such an infirmity in that important public functionary, this Common Hall feels that an imperative duty to record the solemn expression of its opinion that the recorder ought forthwith to retire from an office the vitally important duties of which he is, from whatever cause, incompetent to discharge."
The recorder, who was present, was received with deep groans. The resolutions of the Common Hall were followed by a resolution of the court of aldermen announcing the receipt of a communication from the recorder that from his advanced age, ill-health and debility, consequent upon a late very severe fit of illness, he had felt himself bound, after serving the city for more than forty-seven years -- upwards of thirty as common serjeant and recorder -- to resign the office of recorder.