The Saffron Hill Murder (9) — Mogni on Trial

Gregorio Mogni came to trial at the Old Bailey before Sir John Barnard Byles (1801-1884), a judge probably better known for his expertise on commercial law.  Leading for the prosecution was a new figure, Serjeant William Ballantine (1812-1887), who later recalled in Some Experiences of a Barrister’s Life (1882) that “This learned judge possessed great acuteness, but showed very clearly that he was influenced by the strong view previously taken by Mr Baron Martin”.  Ballantine also held the robust view that the police evidence was already “entirely discredited”.

Assisting Ballantine were Frederic Hyman Lewis once more, as well as Morris Oppenheim (1824-1883), a leading figure in the Jewish community who later committed suicide.  Although Montagu Williams had appeared for Mogni in the magistrate’s court, no-one had been retained to defend him on this occasion.  Mr Justice Byles spotted Williams in court and asked him to step in, which although having had no chance to prepare, he did very creditably.

William Ballantine, Vanity Fair, 5th March 1870

Asked to plead, Mogni confessed his guilt but claimed to have acted in self-defence — so technically a plea of “not guilty”.  He opted to be tried by a mixed jury — “I should like half foreigners and half English”.  In his opening remarks, Ballantine said the jury would obviously have already read or heard about the case, but it was now imperative to reach the correct verdict: “it would be a disgrace to the country if an innocent person were to suffer”.  It was a case “unparalleled in the history of our criminal law”, where a man was on trial for a murder of which someone else had already been found guilty. 

The evidence had for the most part all been heard before — there is an extensive transcript on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online website. Eliza Shaw testified again, confirming that the hats of the Mogni brothers had been handed out to her from the bagatelle-room.  Mogni’s brother Giovanni had now been found and was called as the next witness: “I was in the bagatelle-room … after the dispute with the landlord — my brother and a person named Marazzi were in the bagatelle-room besides myself … I could not count how many English there were there, but I believe from about sixteen to eighteen … the door opened, and they began to hit me with sticks … directly I got into the room I received a blow on my head — I received more blows than one; blows and kicks — my face was all covered with blood; I have got a scar on my head now — I saw my brother pull out a knife, and rush up to me and begin to stab right and left — I said to him, ‘Brother, they kill me!’  They were beating me and I saw my brother use the knife”.  He then identified the knife and confirmed that Pelizzioni had not been there.  Previously employed by Angelinetta, he was now working for “Mr. Gatti, the gentleman who is interpreting” (although given as Gatti in the trial transcript, this was almost certainly Carlo Galli).  In response to a question from Williams, he said that the sticks were about as thick as his thumb and about half a yard in length.        

Montagu Williams – A portrait by “Spy” (Sir Leslie Matthew Ward) for Vanity Fair, 1879.

Pietro Maralizzi (Marazzi) added nothing new, beyond suggesting that the sticks were rather larger — and that at least a dozen of the company in the bagatelle-room had been armed with them.  Giovanni Marizzoni (Manzzoni) and Rocco Angelinetta also repeated their earlier testimony, the latter adding that he had known Gregorio Mogni for a number of years and had never previously heard anything said against him.  Cetta (Cetti), Cowland and Caprani (Capriani) all reiterated their evidence about the knife found at the “Bordessa”, as did Pearless the surgeon.

A fresh witness was Giovanni Schiena, a friend whom Mogni had encountered in Birmingham. Schiena helped him find lodgings and Mogni had confessed to him why he had left London — “I stabbed several and one is dead”.  Schiena had written to another friend in London (Pietro Cettoni) to get some of Mogni’s belongings sent on to him, which is what led to his discovery. 

The witness everyone was waiting for was Pelizzioni himself — still under sentence of death.  “He appeared very ill, and Gregorio wept bitterly when he appeared in the witness-box”. Through an interpreter, Pelizzioni stated that he had lived in England for ten or eleven years and spoke some English.  He had been at the “Bordessa” when he received a message that his cousins were involved in a row at the “Golden Anchor”: “I thought to myself to go and make it quiet, and see my two cousins and take them away; directly I went in the taproom I heard a woman scream; she was the landlady … when she saw me she called my name ‘Seraphini’ — she said, ‘My God, don’t let them make no row’ — I said, ‘No Eliza, tell your husband to keep the English people on one side, I shall try to take the Italians the other way’ — she said to me in Italian, ‘Yes’ — I left her, there in the taproom, in a small corner, going through the bar, and I went in the bagatelle-room where I thought the row was; directly I opened the door of the bagatelle-room, just enough to come in, I had a knock on my head and it knocked me down right on the floor”.

Prompted by Ballantine, he continued: “When half of my body was inside and half outside the door, they caught hold of my arm and dragged hold of my coat underneath, and dragged me inside”.  He did not know who had dragged him in, but once inside, the door was shut — “Then I was kept down there till the policeman came — I was knocked by the sticks on my head — when the policeman came, somebody said, ‘I give you in charge of this man’ — I said, ‘Who gives me in charge?’ — there was a woman there and she said, ‘I will give you in charge because you gave me a knock in my mouth and knocked me down by your fist’ … a small knife was taken from me with a white handle; that was taken from me at the police-court, from my right trousers pocket — this is not it (looking at the broken knife)”.

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey – from The Graphic, 17th November 1877

Once in custody, he had been asked where the blood on his hands had come from: “I put my hands on my head because my head was cut and bleeding”.  Pietro Gugiana then confirmed that he had fetched Pelizzioni from the “Bordessa”.

Henry Negretti related the Birmingham story again, this time describing his rush to the station to catch an express on the basis of Gatti (trial transcript) or Galli (London Evening Standard) having shown him Schiena’s letter to Cettoni.  Negretti, who acknowledged he was personally paying all the prosecution costs, had asked Mogni what had induced him to go to Birmingham.  Mogni apparently replied, “The fact is, I asked so-and-so, naming a party, to lend me some money; he lent me £6, and the £3.17s. that my brother got from Angelinetta I had in my pocket, likewise; I obtained a passport from one of my countrymen and I might have run away”.  Negretti regretted not having mentioned this earlier — “it is a trait in the man’s character — he said, ‘Well, to tell you the truth, the passport I tore up, for fear of being tempted to run away’”.  Negretti thought it had been Bordessa who obtained the passport.

Alf Rebbeck repeated his story, still adamant that it was Pelizzioni who had stabbed him.  The only new detail that emerged was that he had climbed out of the back-window of the pub to collect the improvised weapons, which strongly suggests that they had been filched from Saul Worms’ yard, which backed on to the pub and was piled high with timber of all kinds.  Maria King was similarly still not to be shaken from her story.

Sun (London) – Friday 3rd March 1865. © British Library Board

Williams asked for some time to summon witnesses — but the lunch adjournment proved sufficient.  He agreed with Ballantine on the importance and difficulty of the case, pointing out  that no-one had testified to seeing Mogni strike the fatal blow, and that although Mogni had confessed to using his knife, he had not actually confessed to murder — “these sticks were used indiscriminately, and there is no doubt that both the prisoner and his brother were most cruelly beaten, and therefore it will be for you to say whether he was justified in using the knife … I think it is clear beyond a doubt that for some reason the Englishmen in the bagatelle-room had armed themselves for the purpose of beating these Italians, and if you believe that they were shut in the room without means of egress — if you believe that they were surrounded … then I ask you if you don’t believe that the prisoner at the bar, only out of sheer necessity, took the knife out and used it.  Gentlemen, I think if you came to that conclusion it would amount to justifiable homicide”.

No more defence witnesses were called and Ballantine addressed the jury.  He dismissed the notion that the stabbings might have been justifiable: the offence must at least be that of manslaughter.  Pelizzioni’s pocket-knife had been ruled out as a murder weapon — “the only knife that was pertinent to the inquiry had been clearly shown as belonging to the prisoner at the bar.  That knife was not produced upon the last trial, but it was a most important element.  It must have been ln the hands of the police, and ought to have been produced”.  In the chaos and confusion of that evening, Maria King and Rebbeck might easily be mistaken — especially as Rebbeck had earlier denied that it was Pelizzioni who had struck Mrs King.

Byles also summed up at some length.  He praised Negretti for his “sheer act of humanity”, but firmly pointed out that confessions and reports of confessions were no real proof.  There were two witnesses who had seen Pelizzioni stab Harrington.  “Now, gentlemen, if you think the killing and slaying of Harrington is brought home to the prisoner, find him guilty.  If you, gentlemen, think the prisoner did not, and that Polioni did it, acquit him.  If you do not know which of the two did it, act upon that also”.

The jurymen took nearly an hour to find Mogni guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder.  They recommended mercy on the grounds of provocation and the injuries suffered by his brother.  The judge also gave Mogni credit for coming forward, but the indiscriminate use of a knife had to mean a prison sentence — penal servitude for five years. (Quotations from the trial transcript and the London Evening Standard of 2nd and 3rd March). 

“Here, then, was a state of things absolutely without precedent.  Pelizzioni was in the condemned cell at Newgate, under sentence of death for the murder of Michael Harrington; Gregorio Mogni was in Millbank, about to undergo five years’ penal servitude for the manslaughter of the same man.  The Home Secretary, for the present, positively declined to release Pelizzioni.  What, then, was to be done?  A solution of the enigma was at length found.  There was still, on the files of the court, the indictment against Pelizzioni for attempting to kill and murder Rebbeck … it was resolved to try Pelizzioni afresh for the offence referred to.  The matter was considered of such importance that two judges came down to the Old Bailey to preside over the trial” (Montagu Williams, Leaves of a Life, 1890).

To be continued …   

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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