General Gansel, having greatly impaired his fortune by a life of gaiety, had been several years under great pecuniary embarrassments, from which he was using his utmost endeavours to extricate himself at the time when the transaction happened which gave rise to the trial, of which it is our present business to relate the particulars.
In the forenoon of the 26th of August, 1773, Mr. Lee, an eminent surgeon, applied to John Hyde to arrest General Gansel for a debt of a hundred and thirty-four pounds. They went to the proper office, and obtained a special capias; after which the officer applied to his brother, Thomas Hyde, Henry Feltus, William Sleigh, and Richard Reeves, to assist in the intended capture. Between two and three in the afternoon Mr. Lee met the bailiff and his assistants, and, accompanied by John Hyde, went to the house of Mr. Mayo, in Craven Street, Strand; the other men being appointed to wait at some distance. The street door being open, they went into the parlour, and Mr. Lee asked Mrs. Mayo whether General Gansel lodged in her house. Being answered in the affirmative, Hyde went into the street, and, having beckoned for his companions to come up, attempted to go towards the general's apartments; but on the stairs he was opposed by two boys, who were brothers, and servants to the general. At this time the other bailiffs entered the passage, and John Hyde having struck a knife from the hand of one of the boys with a walking-stick, and thrown it out of the window, he and his brother were soon overpowered, and bolted in the yard. John Hyde deposed that, when the boys were in the yard, he proceeded towards the second floor, and observing the general, with whose person he was well acquainted, upon the landing-place, hastened towards him, and placed his knee between the chamber door and the wainscot, and endeavoured to force into the room, when the general discharged a pistol, the ball from which passed through the upper panel of the door, towards the hinge, and struck the wainscot on the staircase; that he then got into the room, and, clapping the general on the shoulder, said 'Sir, you are my prisoner;' when the general, with his left arm over his right shoulder, pointed another pistol at his face; but that, by suddenly stooping his head, he fortunately escaped the ball, which passed through the hat of Henry Feltus; that the general was then with much difficulty forced downstairs, and put into a hackney-coach, which conveyed him to a lock-up house kept by a sheriff's officer, named Armstrong, whence he was soon afterwards removed to Newgate. Feltus produced the hat through which the ball of the second pistol had passed; but neither his evidence, nor that of Thomas Hyde, Sleigh, or Reeves, materially differed from that of the first witness.
The general said that, though he was not wholly unused to speak in public, his ill state of health, and other circumstances, had given rise to an apprehension that he might be incapable on the present occasion to do justice to his cause in an ex tempore address, and he had therefore reduced his defence to writing. He then read the defence, which, among other matters, set forth, that being informed by his servants, Henry and James, that the house was surrounded by armed ruffians, and, presently after, hearing a violent, uproar at the head of the stairs, he locked himself into his chamber, against the door of which he placed an elbow chair; and, the uproar increasing, he fired off a pistol, pointed to the upper part of the door, with a view of deterring the assailants, who soon broke into the room, the forcing the door throwing him down, and the second pistol going off without design, while he was falling. He said that, from a perusal of 'Blackstone's Commentaries,' he was taught to believe that an Englishman's house is his castle, and that a room hired for a certain time was to be considered as his castle; that he paid for his apartments by the year; and that he had occupied them eight-and-thirty years, sixteen of which Mr. Mayo had been his landlord; and that he conceived he had an undoubted right of defending himself in his own habitation. In the course of his address the prisoner mentioned several persons whom he desired might be examined on his behalf. Several witnesses swore that the bolt of the lock belonging to the general's chamber door had been strained, and the screws of the receiver of the bolt forced out of the wood; and they likewise deposed that, from a very particular examination, they were confident the ball must have took a different direction, had the pistol been fired when the door was open; adding that, when the door was open only three inches, they perceived that the impression made by the ball on the wainscot of the staircase was not nearly in a right line with the hole in the panel in the door, but that, when the door was perfectly closed, there was an exact correspondence between the hole through which the ball passed and the mark where it afterwards struck the wainscot. Mrs. Mayo swore that from the time the transaction happened the premises had not been seen by any person but in her presence, and that no alterations whatever had been made.
The above is a faithful abstract of the evidence adduced for and against the prisoner, on an indictment for feloniously shooting at John Hyde: the first count charging him with firing off a pistol held in his right, and the second with firing at the same man another pistol held in his left hand. After the jury had remained out of Court some time, they brought in their verdict, 'Not guilty.' The general was arraigned on two other indictments: one for feloniously shooting at Thomas Hyde; and the other for feloniously shooting at Henry Feltus: but the counsel for the prosecution informed the Court that, 'as the general was acquitted on the merits, he should waive proceeding on the two last indictments.' General Gansel was tried at the Sessions House in the Old Bailey on Wednesday, the 8th of September, 1773.
It was imagined that the principal matter for the decision of the Court would have been 'Whether the law would justify a man in opposing a forcible entry into his place of habitation, and how far the character, office, and authority of the assailants were to be considered in mitigation of a violent attack?' but the question took a turn very different from what was expected.
The evidence of John Hyde and his associates set forth that the door was partly open when the general fired; but the contrary appeared from the depositions of other witnesses. It does not seem that the first pistol was pointed immediately at any person; for the hole in the door was considerably higher than the head of the tallest man; and it is very probable that the second pistol went off while the general was falling. Thus the matter seems to have been understood by jury. Nothing but the last extremity of danger can justify the use of fire-arms, or other desperate weapons. There is something extremely shocking in the idea of taking away the life of a fellow-creature when he is unprepared for eternity, Let our readers remember that, if it should prove their misfortune to labour under injury and oppression, the most eligible means of obtaining redress will be by an application to the legislative power.