Illustration: A Joke which Went Disastrously Wrong.
The case of this prisoner affords a remarkable proof of the folly of practical jokes, and the mischievous results which may proceed from them.
Race was indicted at Bury St. Edmunds, on Monday the 30th of March 1840, for the manslaughter of Thomas Buck. It appeared that the prisoner was a vendor of hot-spice gingerbread at fairs; and the deceased was a well-known itinerant son of Thespis in that part of the country, who presented the primitive drama in all its original simplicity to the wondering rustics. Sometimes, when "deep tragedy" failed in its natural effect upon the popular mind, Buck, always fertile in the resources of his art, though, perhaps, not overflowing with other resources, would have recourse to the ready expedient of producing a "sensation" which is called by the learned "practical joking," and by the vulgar "larking." One of the rural actors, not in Buck's "legitimate drama," but in his "larks," was the hot-spice gingerbread artist, whose cakes and "nuts" were not more spicy than his jokes. On the evening laid in the indictment, the theatrical booth, with its uncovered stage in front, had been erected on the classic ground of Felsham, celebrated for its fair -- the corps dramatique appeared on the stage in front of the booth, and, in the flaming robes and sweeping drapery of the tragic muse, endeavoured to attract the attention of the motley crowd, who were just then busily intent upon the performances of a neighbouring juggler, whose comic grimaces and fantastic gambols they greatly admired. Under these circumstances, the solemn pomp and tragic splendour of Buck's stage, paraded as it was by heroes of herculean proportions and stentorian voices, and by heroines of matchless grace and disdainful beauty, lost its powers of attraction -- it did not "draw" an audience,-- and it was necessary, for many reasons, that an audience should be assembled. The gingerbread baker, who, perhaps, had cause to take an interest in the finances of the company, and who had frequently before, as was stated, enacted the part of one of the dramatis personę of a "lark," saw that this was the moment when a decisive blow ought to be struck to detach the admiring crowd from the too successful juggler, and bring them to Buck's theatre by the attractive influence of some novelty. He, therefore, with the best intentions towards Buck and his company, went up to a "property-man" who had a gun in his hand, took it gently from him, and asked him whether it was loaded; the other told him that it was loaded with powder and wadding only, upon which the manufacturer of gilt gingerbread said, "I will have a lark with Buck, and bring people on the stage." Having said this, he ran up the steps of the outside stage, presented the gun at Buck, and discharged it within two feet and a half of his body. Buck reeled, and fell into the arms of one of the orchestral performers; and the spectators, thinking the whole thing an excellent piece of acting, rapturously applauded. But alas! it was no acting at all. The wadding had penetrated his side, and inflicted a rupture of the heart, of which he almost instantly died. Buck's "poor play of life" was over, and the curtain fell that evening on a deeper tragedy than the company had performed for many a year.
An excellent character for kindness and humanity was given to the prisoner by many persons, which the learned judge took into account in sentencing him, upon being pronounced "Guilty of Manslaughter " by the jury.
After some admonitory remarks upon the danger and criminality of indulging in "larks" and practical jokes with fire-arms, his lordship ordered him to be imprisoned for one month.