THE advocates for the abolition of capital punishment might adduce this case as a further illustration of the principle, that hanging one man does not prevent another from failing into the same crime; otherwise we should not see, at each successive sessions, men arraigned for forgery whose situations in life warrant us in supposing that they were not ignorant of the consequence of detection when they committed the crime.
How many have suffered for forgery, who had not even a remote intention of fraud! A merchant's credit, like a woman's honour, (once suspected, it is lost,) is frequently at the mercy of an hour; and, to prevent the tottering reputation ,from falling, forgery, particularly of bills, is too often resorted to as the means of obviating a temporary embarrassment. It is, no doubt, a dangerous resource; but it is one which some, whose credit is yet high, have ventured to adopt, escaping detection by timely meeting their engagements; whilst others, incautious and unfortunate, have been disappointed in their expectation. The bill has been dishonoured, the forgery has been discovered, and the miscalculating culprit has been suspended on the gallows, because he had not a few pounds to take up a fictitious endorsement.*[see note].
We do not think that the man on whose case we are now entering comes under the description of those whose crime admits of palliation. He pocketed the money, and could not possibly refund it; and therefore we must condemn him as the very worst of forgers, for he imposed upon those who confided in him, and defrauded those whom he could not afterwards remunerate, if his villainy passed undetected.
In October, 1813, Mr. John Drew May, a respectable bill-broker, was brought before the lord-mayor on a charge of altering end interlining a certain bill, which was originally drawn for twenty-eight pounds, eight shillings, and sixpence, but which Mr. May paid away to a Mr. Berry, for one thousand and twenty-eight pounds, eight shillings, and sixpence, an addition being made to it, while in his possession, of one thousand pounds.
The discovery was made by Mr. Berry carrying the bill, for discount, to the house of Down, Thornton, and Co. where it was found to have been altered. May, on being questioned on the subject, said he received it from a person at the west end, whose name and residence he was entirely ignorant of.
May was remanded, to admit of further inquiry; and on the 12th of June he was brought up for final examination, when the prosecutor, Mr. Thornton, wished to decline proceeding, in consequence of two similar charges being about to be preferred against the prisoner by the admiralty; but the lord-mayor thought it was no longer optional with Mr. Thornton, and, therefore, bound him over to prosecute.
The next charge preferred against Mr. May was for altering a navy bill. The case was this:-- The victualling board had various contracts, and these were uniformly paid by bills, at different dates, on the treasurer of the navy, and which bills passed, in the money market, with the facility of bank-notes. In the present instance a bill for seven hundred and thirty-two pounds, thirteen shillings, and eight pence, was paid to a Mr. Ringsford, payable in ninety days. This bill, after passing through several hands, came, at length, in its original state, to Mr. May, and he was charged with inserting the figure of one before the seven, making the bill appear to have been drawn for one thousand, seven hundred, and thirty-two pounds, thirteen shillings, and eight pence. Whether he actually did so himself, or not, it is impossible to say; but it was proved that he personally received that sum for it, from Bruce, Warren, and Co. bill-brokers. The bill continued in circulation until due, each succeeding hand taking it for the value of one thousand, seven hundred, and thirty-two pounds, thirteen shillings, and eight pence, without inspecting the body of the bill; and. what appears still stranger, it was actually paid at the navy board for that amount. At length the fraud was discovered, and Mr. May was charged with the forgery.
For this last offence he was indicted at the Old Bailey, December 2, 1813, when the bill was traced, in its original state, to his hands, and was proved to have been passed by him in its interpolated condition. His counsel exerted themselves much to throw the blame upon Mr. May's clerk, named Lacey, his brother-in-law, who was thoroughly in his confidence, but who had absconded. It was proved that Lacey carried Mr. May's check-book, which he occasionally filled up, Mr. May's signature being affixed to the blank check. But, on the other hand, it did not appear that Lacey had any benefit in interpolating the bills, supposing he had done so; nor did May show that Lacey had either defrauded him or others.
Mr. May, being called on for his defence; addressed the jury with much feeling, observing that not only his life, but, what was infinitely dearer to him than life, his character and honest fame, were now in their hands. He was one of eight children, and had received a liberal and virtuous education; and, till the moment of this accusation, had lived with credit and reputation. He was content that his life should be forfeited, if any man could say that he had been wronged by him. He had been bred to business, had a wife and three children, and, after the labour of the day, was wont to seek domestic enjoyment in the bosom of his family, where he was sure to find it. Was it probable that a man so circumstanced would resign his claim to these endearments by committing a crime which could not fail to bring ruin on himself, and disgrace on those who were nearest and dearest to his heart? There was no proof that he had forged the bill, none that he had uttered it, knowing it to be forged; the cue rested upon mere suspicion; and upon that suspicion any man might be placed at that bar.
He had reposed unlimited confidence in his clerk, and had left blank checks with him to fill up. His clerk was now beyond his reach; nor, if he was present, could he be compelled to answer any question which might criminate himself. Should the jury entertain any doubts, (and he was convinced they must have insurmountable ones,) the judge would tell them that he, the prisoner, was entitled to the benefit of them. He made no complaint on the subject of the prosecution, nor of the manner in which it was conducted; and he was certain the public prosecutor, having discharged what he conceived to have been his duty, would be the first to rejoice at his acquittal.
Several witnesses were then called, who gave the prisoner an excellent character for integrity and honour in his commercial transactions; and, the judge having summed up the evidence, the jury retired, and continued in consultation for two hours -- a dreadful interval of suspense to the unfortunate prisoner, who, on their returning with a verdict of Guilty, became so agitated that he was scarcely able to stand.
When brought up to receive sentence, Mr. May briefly addressed the Court. He stated that, though, on his own account, he had no wish to live, stripped of the unblemished reputation he had formerly enjoyed; yet, for the sake of his parents, and of near and dear connexions, he wished his life to be spared. He acknowledged he had been found guilty after a long and patient trial; and hoped that the long confinement he had undergone, and the anxiety of mind with which it had been accompanied, would be looked upon as some expiation, even upon the supposition that he had been guilty of the imputed crime. It had not been proved that the bill, in its original state, had ever been in his hands, or that he had either forged it himself, or had uttered it, knowing it to be forged. The forgery must have been by another, who entirely possessed his confidence, and who had left the country. Did he seek to elude justice? He had been seized in the bosom of his family, in all that security that was the attendant on innocence. The bill had passed undetected through the hands of others; in the same manner, also, it might have passed through his. From the pressure of extensive business, he had been unable to examine all the bills that had passed through his hands, and the examination of them had in consequence been frequently intrusted to his clerk, as also the filling up of checks. He hoped it would be stated to the prince regent, that the jury had taken three hours to consider their verdict, which showed that no common doubts hung over his case. At all events, he was confident that he was before a tribunal where any doubts on the side of justice would leave room for the voice of mercy to be heard, and to prevail.-- The most profound silence obtained while Mr. May was addressing the Court.
Sentence of death was then passed on the unfortunate man in the usual form.
From the time of Mr. May's condemnation his friends spared no exertion in endeavouring to procure an extension of the royal mercy; and their hopes were alive until Friday evening, April the 3d, 1814, when they were given to understand that the law should take its course. The unfortunate man took leave of his three brothers that afternoon, as his execution was appointed for the next morning. His unhappy wife, being confined by indisposition, was saved the misery of a last interview.
He suffered with four other unfortunate men for forgery, Sturman for setting fire to his house, and another man, for burglary. May, being asked how he felt, answered 'Happy,' and requested that his friends might be assured of that fact his last words were, parting at the scaffold, 'This is the worst part of the ceremony; to go forth thus, and to die in a manner which will cast reflections on my posterity -- it is this only part which gives me pain.'
*Note: On Tuesday, June the 8th, 1813, Joseph Nash, a grocer, in Newgate Street, was found guilty of forging an endorsement on a bill for four hundred and eighty-nine pounds, and three shillings. It appeared that bills with the same name endorsed on them had been frequently passed and honoured; but, in consequence of temporary embarrassment, he was unable to meet this one when due; though his property was fully adequate to discharge all his debts, and, a few days after the bill became due, he offered the money it the Bank, which was refused. Here was absence of guilty intention, and Mr. Nash was afterwards pardoned.