“Not long afterwards I had a curious experience, and happily a rare one, in that in an English court of justice I saw an innocent man sentenced to death. A relative of mine, who was a Middlesex magistrate, had got an order for us to see the prison of Newgate. After going over the prison and seeing the condemned cells, the pinioning-room, the scaffold, and the “Bird-Cage Walk”, that narrow passage under whose uneven flags are buried in quicklime the bodies of the executed murderers, below their initials carved on the stone wall, we said that we had only to see a man sentenced to death to complete the dreadful tale. The warder told us he thought we could do so if we went to the adjoining Old Bailey, where the Saffron Hill murder case was being tried. We went there, sent in our cards, and were given seats on the bench. The trial was near its end: we only heard one or two witnesses for the defence, the reply of the counsel for the prosecution, and the summing up of the judge.
The story of the case was shortly this. There had been a row in a public-house between some Italians and some Englishmen. The gas had been turned off, and when it was again lighted an Englishman was found stabbed to death. The police arrested an Italian named Polioni or Pelizzoni … and it was his trial at which we were present.
The summing-up of the judge seemed to me eminently impartial, and he left the verdict entirely to the jury. The jury retired, and the prisoner, a small frail man, was taken out of court. During the absence of the jury darkness came on, and a few lights were lighted in the court. Presently, after an interval that seemed endless, the jury returned, and the prisoner was brought back into the dock. I believe there was not a soul in court who did not at that moment pray that the prisoner might be acquitted. But, in answer to the question put to the jury, the foreman’s reply was “Guilty”. The prisoner turned pale as death, tottered, and fell back into the arms of the two warders at his side. Asked by the judge if he had anything to say why sentence should not be passed, he was completely unable to speak. Then Baron Martin put on the black cap and passed sentence of death.
How often has that scene come back to my memory! The dim light, the hush of expectation, the sigh that went through the audience as the jury pronounced the fateful verdict, the aspect of that wretched man, the judge’s voice, broken by emotion as he pronounced the awful sentence, which ended with the words, “And may God have mercy on your soul!”
We could not speak. We left the court in silence, and in silence we drove home”.
Thus the poignant account of the distinguished Victorian army man – General Sir Henry Brackenbury (1837-1914) – “The Thinking Man’s Soldier” as he was dubbed in the title of a 2013 biography by Christopher Brice. Sir Henry was recollecting an event which had taken place over forty years earlier. The account appeared in his “Some Memories of My Spare Time”, published in 1909, but the trial he refers to had taken place long before, on 30th January 1865. The Saffron Hill Murder – one of the most famous cases in British legal history – a case which dominated the newspapers for weeks on end from the morning after the murder itself, which had taken place on Boxing Day, Monday 26th December 1864, through to its final and dramatic conclusion in April 1865. And it has been endlessly written about ever since.
The interval of time had no doubt clouded the general’s memory a little. Not everyone was quite so sure of the judge’s impartiality. And I can find no contemporary reference to the gas in the pub being turned off, but for all the fog of confusion which obscures exactly what happened that evening in the “Golden Anchor” on Saffron Hill, it might as well have been. There is not a single fact in the case which has not been disputed.
There is confusion even as to what the name of the man found guilty actually was. He was tried as Seraphini Polioni, but other probably more precise contemporary accounts give Serafino Pelizzioni, with any number of variants in the spelling of both elements of the name. There is confusion over his appearance – “small and frail” in Sir Henry’s recollection, “ferocious looking” in other accounts. Confusion as to whether he “tottered, and fell back into the arms of the two warders”, or whether he was actually brawling with them in rage. Over his age – not wholly certain, but almost definitely in his early thirties. Over his occupation – Sir Henry thought wrongly that he worked for the famous instrument-maker Henry Negretti (1818-1879) of Hatton Garden – a pardonable error in that it was Negretti who subsequently became the hero of the hour by saving Pelizzioni from the gallows. Other accounts describe Pelizzioni as a silverer of mirrors, but he was in fact a frame-maker. My great-great-great-grandfather knew him well.
There is less confusion over the victim: Michael Harrington (1823?-1864), known as Mike to family and friends, a costermonger in his early forties. He did not in fact die until the early hours of the following morning, in Bart’s Hospital. And he was Irish, not English: I know this because he was the brother (or possibly half-brother) of my great-great-grandmother, Ellen Harrington (1836?-1890). He was born in Ireland, she in London a number of years later.
Although there are many other accounts of the case readily available, most of them tolerably accurate (even if prone to occasional error), I shall tell the story again over the coming weeks. Mainly for entirely personal reasons: my family’s not inconsiderable part in assisting Negretti to save Pelizzioni has never really been highlighted (except by Negretti himself), but also because the case has very often been cast (certainly in more recent times) as a tribal incident – an example of intolerance and probable injustice towards immigrants. Earlier accounts tend to concentrate much more solidly on the possibility of serious malfeasance by the police and the authorities. But what appears to be a key element in the full understanding of the case – the apparently very personal relationship between Pelizzioni and Eliza Shaw, the landlady of the “Golden Anchor” has never really been examined.
To be continued.