As it is one professed design of this publication to give trials, in extraordinary cases, on which the parties accused have been acquitted; in compliance with this rule we insert the following, though it will be seen that the supposed offenders, so far from being thieves, were an ornament to human nature.
In the month of August, 1724, Francis Brightwell and Benjamin Brightwell were indicted for assaulting John Pargiter on the highway, and robbing him of three shillings.
It was sworn by Mr. Pargiter that he had been robbed, on the road to Hampstead, by two fellows dresssed in soldiers' clothes; and that, being on the same road a few days afterwards, he was showing some farmers the spot where he had been robbed, at the very time when the Brightwells came in sight; on which he declared that they were the persons who had robbed him; whereupon they were immediately taken into custody; which was a work of no great difficulty, as the surprise, on being charged with a crime of which they were wholly innocent, deprived them of all idea of resistance.
These brothers were soldiers in the grenadier guards; and, when they were carried before a magistrate, though Mr. Pargiter swore positively to their persons, Francis alleged that he was on guard at the time of the robbery, and Benjamin said that he was at home.
On the trial, the sergeant produced the regimental book, from which it was evident that, when the robbery was committed, Francis was on guard at Kensington; and several persons of reputation proved that Benjamin was at his lodgings in Clare Market, and likewise gave him an excellent character.
With regard to Francis, Mr. Hughs, a clergyman, delivered his testimony in the following words: 'I have known Francis Brightwell near twenty years. He was always reputed to be a person of the fairest character for sobriety, piety, and justice. He was, to an extraordinary degree, accomplished with Latin and Greek literature, and had good skill in Roman antiquities; and, in a word, he carried so great a share of exquisite learning under his grenadier's cap, that I believe there is not such another grenadier in the universe.'
This testimony of Mr. Hughs was confirmed by a number of military officers; and the Court and jury considering that Mr. Pargiter must have been mistaken in the parties who robbed him, the brothers were honourably acquitted.
On the 22d of the month in which he was tried, Francis Brightwell died at his lodgings at Paddington, as supposed, of the gaol distemper. He was attended, during his short illness, by the late eminent Sir Hans Sloan; but the malignity of his disorder defied the power of medicine.
The following curious letter, respecting Francis Brightwell, is extracted from The British Journal of the 5th of September, 1724:
"SIR,—Finding that all our public papers, from the 4th of August to this day, have omitted to make honorable mention of some very remarkable circumstances relating to a very private person, I desire his memory may be deposited in your journal. The person I mean is Francis Brightwell, the grenadier, who was tried and acquitted at the Old Bailey, for a robbery sworn against him; and who, since his coming out of prison, died, as 'tis said, of the gaol distemper.
"When evidence was given against him in Court, Brightwell, by several witnesses, proved that he was upon the king's guard, at Kensington, at the time that the robbery (if a robbery) was committed. Hereupon the Court went into an inquiry concerning the reputation and character of the prisoner. Some officers who had known him long in the service gave testimony to his sobriety and diligence in the duty of a soldier. As to his honesty, a lady (present in Court) declared she had intrusted him with a thousand pounds at a time; and a gentleman, that he had committed his house and goods, to the value of 60001. to his keeping: in both which trusts Brightwell had acquitted himself to the satisfaction of the parties concerned.
"These ample testimonies, concurring to the honour of a man in so low a condition of life, gave, you may imagine, no small surprise to all that were present; when a clergyman added to their astonishment by declaring that he had long known the prisoner to be not only a person of sobriety, but likewise of very excellent learning, and particularly in Latin and Greek; for that Brightwell had often consulted him upon difficult passages in Virgil and Horace.
"Thus much for what appeared at the trial of this grenadier. I shall only remark upon his learning, that I am amazed that scholarship is not very common among military men, considering their profession admits of more leisure hours than any other. Perhaps these gentlemen are afraid of knowledge, from a celebrated maxim delivered by John Dryden:—'The learned all are cowards by profession:' yet Alexander and Caesar were scholars, they did not seem to want courage.
"But, to pursue what further particulars I have learned of this deceased grenadier. He was contented in his station, studious of leisure, and ambitious only of knowledge. He had offers of being promoted to the rank of corporal or sergeant, which he declined, that he might have as few avocations as possible from his studies. Neither did he ever covet money; and, I am apt to believe, had he been at the sacking of a town, he would not have thought of carrying off any other plunder but a valuable book or two. Take the following instance of his disregard of gain:—He had an excellent manner of cleaning and furbishing arms, for which he had his settled prices. An officer, whose arms he had brightened, was so well pleased with his work, that he sent Brightwell (over and above the usual price) a guinea, for a present. The philosopher took his price, and returned the guinea by his servant. Some time after, when the gentleman saw him, 'Why,' said he, 'would you not accept the guinea I sent you?' 'I am paid for my work,' replied the sentinel, 'and desire no more.' 'Accept of a crown, then, if your modesty makes you think a guinea too much,' said the officer. 'Excuse me, sir,' answered the veteran, 'and do not think it vanity or affectation, when I refuse your kindness; but, indeed, Sir, I don't want it; but I am thirsty, and have no money about me; so that if your honour will be pleased to give me threepence to drink your health, I will thankfully accept of it.'"
This last particular of our grenadier runs so very parallel with a story in Sir William Temple's Observations of the United Provinces, that I think it proper to transcribe it on this occasion. Vol. i. p. 50.
"Among the many and various hospitals that are in every man's curiosity and talk that travels in Holland, I was affected with none more than that of the aged seamen at Enchusyden, which is contrived, finished, and ordered, as if it were done with a kind intention of some well-natured man that those, who had passed their whole lives in the hardships and incommodities of the sea, should find a retreat, stored with all ease and conveniency that old age is capable of feeling and enjoyment. And here I met with the only rich man that I ever saw in my life: for one of these old seamen, entertaning me with the plain stories of his fifty years' voyages and adventures while I was viewing this hospital and the church adjoining, I gave him, at parting, a piece of their coin, about the value of a crown: he took it, smiling, and offered it me again; but, when I refused it, he asked me what he should do with the money. I left him to overcome his modesty as he could; but a servant coming after me saw him give it to a little girl that opened the church-door as she passed by him: which made me reflect on the fantastic calculation of riches and poverty that is current in the world, by which a man that wants a million is a prince, he that wants but a groat is a beggar, and this was a poor man that wanted nothing at all."
The case of these brothers offers an admirable lesson to prosecutors to be cautious how they swear to the identity of persons. It is better that the guilty should escape than that the innocent should be punished.
It likewise affords us an instance of the mysterious providence of God. Two innocent men are charged with a crime; and the consequence of imprisonment, and possibly of grief, ends in the death of one of them. We may presume that be was too good for this wicked world; and that the Almighty chose this method of calling him to a better!