WILLIAM SAWYER was a young man in the commissariat department of the British army, and the circumstances of his case are of a most extraordinary and singular nature. In the month of February, 1814, he went out to Portugal, where he lived in the same house in the Campo Major, at Lisbon, with a friend, Mr. Riccord, who had a female, named Harriet Gaskett, under his protection. An attachment grew up between this unfortunate woman and Sawyer, though he had a wife at the time in England; and his attentions were so apparent that they excited jealousy in his brother officer, who appears to have remonstrated with his friend and mistress, which occasioned much infelicity.
On the 27th of April they met at dinner, with two or three other officers; but such was the agitation of their feelings, that Riccord, Harriet, and Sawyer, ate no dinner. The latter appeared greatly dejected; and, as well as Harriet, withdrew as soon as possible.
In the evening the party heard the report of three pistol-shots; and, on going into the garden, Harriet and Sawyer were found both lying on the ground. Harriet was quite dead, but Sawyer had not been mortally wounded. On being removed into the house, he was left in the care of a brother officer, while the others went in search of a physician; and during their absence he contrived to get a razor, with which he cut his throat in a dreadful manner, but not mortally.
Next day the officers met, and reduced the facts to writing, which Sawyer signed. When he was sufficiently recovered he was removed to England, where, shortly after his arrival, he was indicted at the Old Bailey, April the 7th, 1815, for the above murder. His case excited great interest, and the court was filled long before the arrival of the judges.
The above facts being deposed to --
Mr. Tobin was called.-- Was at Lisbon at the time of this unfortunate transaction. Knew the parties before the 27th of April, and saw them together the evening before. Mr. Riccord seemed indisposed. Witness called to see him the next morning; saw the prisoner on that occasion: he requested him, the witness, to accompany him to view a house which he wished to take. Witness did so, and advised him not to take the house; he, however, said he would take it. In the evening, about eight o'clock, Mr. Riccord and Mr. Green called at his house: they were much agitated. They stated that the prisoner and the deceased had murdered each other, or something to that effect. and requested witness to go and render what assistance he could. Witness went to Mr. Riccord's house, and found the prisoner lying on the floor, with his throat cut, and a wound in his temple. Remained some time with him, and assisted in washing his wounds. There was a paper on the table, on which the prisoner appeared to have been writing. Witness inquired where Harriet was; and, handing that paper, the prisoner wrote that she lay in the garden in the first lane from the house. Witness went in consequence of this information, and found the deceased. She was quite dead. There was a wound in her temple. The prisoner was finally removed from the floor on which he lay to a sofa in an adjoining room. About eleven o'clock the doctor came. Saw nothing more that night: went to the prisoner the next morning at eleven, and found him in bed. Several gentlemen were assembled to inquire into the facts of the case, who judged it advisable that the prisoner should be called upon to give some account of the fatal transaction. In consequence of this opinion witness wrote down on a paper such facts as had come to his knowledge respecting the calamitous circumstance. This paper was read over to the prisoner distinctly; he afterwards read it himself, and subscribed to the corrections of its contents: he also signed his name to it. Upon this paper having been read over, they saw that it was not sufficiently clear for the want of the word 'my.' Witness, therefore, went once more to the prisoner the next day, and requested permission to amend it. He pointed out that the paper, as it existed, left room to doubt whether Harriet had not murdered herself: he therefore requested the prisoner to say who had fired the pistol-shot by which she had been killed. The prisoner said he fired it, and desired the necessary correction to be made to the paper, which was accordingly done. There was also another memorandum written, to which he likewise signed his name. To these papers there were four subscribing witnesses.
The papers in question were now put in and read. The first was dated 28th April, 1814, and was, in substance, as follows:-
'Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum, and "my" discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house, and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.
'(Signed) WILLIAM SAWYER,'
And three witnesses.
The word 'my,' in the above paper, was interlined, as stated in Mr. Tobin's evidence.
The second paper was dated seven o'clock, Saturday evening, the 30th of April. It was nearly as follows:-- 'The word "my," interlined in the above paper, was inserted with my full concurrence. I have heard the contents of that paper deliberately read, and entirely agree to them. We mutually agreed to destroy each other; and then she requested me to destroy her previous to my destroying myself.'
Captain Thomas Tyrrell witnessed the signing of the second paper by the prisoner, and, at Mr. Riccord's request, produced to him another paper for him (the prisoner) to sign. This was for the purpose of removing any imputation against Mr. Riccord's character. Witness then read over a paper of considerable length, which was signed by the prisoner: it was, in substance, as follows:--
'On my arrival in Lisbon I called upon Mr. Riccord, who, in consequence of some attention which I had shown him, when ill, on a former occasion, received me with great kindness, and invited me to his house. I lived there with Harriet and him for some time, with great happiness, till about three months back, when Mr. Riccord manifested some displeasure, in consequence of some civilities, of more than a common description, which I paid to Harriet. This, however, was soon forgotten, as I assured him there was no ground for his suspicion. On or about --- Harriet gave way to my solicitations, and agreed to live with me, provided Mr. Riccord went to England, and was restored to his family:
Here the witness stated, that, in addition to the declarations, he had put several questions to the prisoner, which he had answered. They were as follow:--
Q. Harriet having declared, in the most solemn manner, to Mr. Riccord, that she never had any connexion of an intimate nature with you, it is but just that you should state whether you had such connexion, and when and where that connexion took place?-- A. I had connexion with Harriet, and slept with her three times, during the time that Mr. Riccord was obliged to sleep at the Convent.
Q. When Harriet ran towards the well, did not Mr. Riccord tell you might live together, and that he would go to an hotel, and only waited for Harriet to hand him some things?-- A. He did.
Q. Then, if you had this permission, why did Harriet require you to shoot her, when you had a full opportunity of living together?-- A. Harriet assigned as a reason for asking me to shoot her, that, if she lived with me, she was sure Riccord would shoot himself; and, although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.
Q. Was it not Harriet's request that you should destroy her, because you said you would destroy yourself if she did not live with you?-- A. No, so help me, God! I declare that she entreated me to shoot her, without any such declaration on my part.
The prisoner was then called upon for his defence, and put in a written paper, in which he stated that, in consequence of his being unable to articulate, from the wound in his throat, he had committed to paper all he had to say in his defence. The paper then went on to state that the prisoner had felt the sincerest affection for the unfortunate individual in question; towards whom he had never meditated the slightest injury. He perfectly recollected her having entreated him, to shoot her, but had no idea of what passed subsequently, till some time afterwards, when he was told he had signed papers, of the contents of which he had no recollection. He then expressed acknowledgments for the efforts made by his prosecutors to bring forward Mr. Riccord, who would have been a material witness in his behalf; and had only to lament that these efforts had not been attended with success.
Several persons were then called to speak to the general humane character of the prisoner, among whom were General Sir Edward Howard, Colonel Sir William Robe, W. Stacey, Esq., E. Weaver, Esq., Mr. Wells, and Mr. Guy.
A Mrs. Nicholls proved that the deceased had lodged with her from June, 1813, to February, 1814. She was of a most violent and tyrannical disposition, and had a pistol, which she kept constantly in her room.
Lord Ellenborough summed up the evidence, when the jury retired, and, after an absence of two hours, returned with the verdict of Guilty; but recommended the prisoner strongly to mercy, on the ground that there was no malice on his part towards the deceased, further than the act itself imported.
Lord Ellenborough now desired to hear whether any thing was to be submitted as a ground for respiting the sentence of the prisoner.
Mr. Alley repeated his former arguments, and contended that the prisoner could not legally receive sentence for a crime committed in another kingdom, where there were laws to which he was distinctly amenable.
Lord Ellenborough considered this point as decided, and therefore did not think it proper to reserve it. He was induced to believe, however, that there were other grounds upon which a motion for a respite of sentence might have been claim ed. He desired the counsel for the prisoner to look to the indictment, and see whether that did not present some points which it would be proper to reserve for discussion.
Mr. Alley and Mr. Curwood having looked in compliance, with his lordship's intimation, to the indictment, but not immediately discovering any points of the nature alluded to his lordship, to save the time of the Court, stated there were two points which had presented themselves to him, on the face of that indictment, as sufficient under the set to warrant him respiting the judgment of the prisoner:-- The first was, that the prisoner was said to have committed the murder in question 'against the form of the statute,' bit the particular statute infringed was not specified, as it ought to have been; and, next, it was not stated that the prisoner was a 'British subject;' and therefore the Court adjudged that the sentence should be respited accordingly.
On the 12th of May Mr. Sawyer was brought up to receive the decision of the judges, which Sir Simon .Le Blanc delivered as follows:--
'William Sawyer wee tried and convicted, under the authority of a special commission, appointed for that purpose, for the wilful murder of Harriet Gaskell, in the kingdom of Portugal, a subject of our lord the king, and in the peace of the king.
'Upon this conviction, three objections were taken upon the indictment, in arrest of judgment. The first of these was, that the jurisdiction of this country had no power whatever to try the offence of an individual committed in a country beyond the seas, and under the dominion of a foreign power; second, that the indictment did net, upon the face of it, show that the parties were British subjects; and; third, that the indictment did not conclude, as being agreeable to the form of the statute, &c. With respect to the first point of objection, namely,. that which related to the 33d of Henry VIII., the words and construction of that statute must be taken as implying that the offender must be tried by a jury where the offence is committed; but it also appeared, from that statute, that, if a murder is committed upon a British subject, it may be lawful, upon information of such murder being given, for any of his majesty's counsel to bring the offender to justice, whether the offence he committed within or without the kingdom, or any of his majesty's shires. That such offender shall be tried under a special commission of the great seal, either within or without the kingdom, or any of his majesty's shires, for such offence, the words were sufficiently clear, and admitted of the construction which had, since the passing of the act, been put upon them.' [He then cited three cases where convictions had taken place pursuant to this statute. The first was the case of one Chambers, who had committed a murder in Barcelona, in the kingdom of Spain, in 1709, when the law took its course: the next was the case of one Ealing, who was convicted of a murder committed in Sweden in 1720: and the third was that in which Captain Roche was convicted of the murder of one Ferguson, at the Cape of Good Hope, in 1775.]
'In all these cases the construction of the act quoted applied, and the law had taken its regular course. They were all cases, too, where the offence had been committed beyond the seas, and out of the dominions of his majesty. With regard to the second objection, the words of the statute are, "that if any person shall commit such offence of murder against any subject, in the peace of the king," &c. and sufficient appeared upon the face of the indictment to show that the subject so murdered was a British subject, and in the peace of the king. As to the last objection, stating that the indictment did not conclude "under the form of the statute," &c. it did not appear of so much importance, being interwoven with the other arguments, and sufficient appearing on the face of the indictment to make the case dear, agreeably to the statute.'
The learned judge concluded by saying, that, after the fullest consideration that could be given to the case, the judges were unanimously of opinion that there was no ground whatever for arrest of judgment.
The recorder then proceeded to pronounce the awful sentence of the law.
The prisoner appeared deeply affected throughout, and, upon hearing the awful decision and sentence, remained motionless for some time. when at length he faintly requested one of the officers to entreat the Court to recommend him to the royal clemency. He was then taken from the dock.
Monday, May the 22d, 1815, being the day appointed for the execution of this infatuated man, at an early hour an immense number of spectators assembled in the Old Bailey, to witness the awful scene. Since the sentence of death was passed on him he assumed a degree of sullenness; and the only declaration he was heard to make was 'that he would not be executed:' this was considered to import the he was resolved on self-destruction. His intentions, however, if such they were, were defeated by the constant attendance of two officers night and day. On Sunday he received the sacrament, after which he appeared more composed. About three o'clock on Sunday his wife went to the prison, for the purpose of taking a farewell: she was announced by an officer; but the unhappy man gave a peremptory order that she should not be admitted, and all that could be urged could not induce him to see her. When he went to his cell he was much depressed, and refused any kind of sustenance: about two o'clock he laid down, and soon after became very sick, and vomited copiously. He continued restless until half past six o'clock, at which time he was visited by the Rev. Mr. Cotton who prayed to him fervently. A little before eight o'clock. Mr. Sheriff Reay, attended by the usual officers, proceeded from Justice Hall towards the cell. The unfortunate gentleman was introduced into the Press-yard by the Ordinary: he was very dejected, and did not utter a word during his being conveyed to the platform. At eight o'clock precisely, every necessary arrangement being complete, the fatal signal was given, and the unhappy man was launched into eternity. During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o'clock the body was taken to Bartholomew's Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and was not ironed.