Crime & Punishment Story Of London

Crime and Punishment: Sir Thomas Picton

Crime and Punishment: Sir Thomas Picton
by Bill McCann

London’s streets have always been crime-ridden. This series presents the tales of some of the individuals convicted of crimes, small and great, at the Middlesex and London assizes, Star Chamber, Court of Aldermen, etc. and their subsequent fate. Tyburn and Newgate are words that are resonant with the extremes of punishment in the 18th and 19th centuries and, naturally, both loom large in the series. However, there will also be articles on some of the more famous crimes in London’s more recent history. 

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Crime and Punishment: Sir Thomas Picton

by Bill McCann

Late Governor of Trinidad. Convicted on the 24th of February 1806, of applying Torture in order to extort Confession from a Girl.

The indictment on which Governor Picton was brought to trial charged him with inflicting torture, in order to extort confession of Louisa Calderon, one of his Majesty’s subjects in the island of Trinidad, in the West Indies. Mr Garrow addressed the jury, and said that although he should acquit himself zealously of the obligation imposed upon him to bring to light, and condign punishment, an offence so flagrant as that charged upon the defendant, yet much more happy would he be to find that there was no ground upon which the charge could be supported, and that the British character was not stained by the adoption of so cruel a measure as that alleged in this prosecution.

He went on:The island of Trinidad surrendered to that illustrious character, Sir Ralph Abercromby, in the year 1797 ; and he entered into a stipulation, by which he conceded to the inhabitants the continuance of their laws, and appointed a new governor, until his Majesty’s pleasure should be known, or, in other words, until the King of England, in his paternal character, should extend to this new acquisition to his empire all the sacred privileges of the laws of England. I have the authority of the defendant himself for stating that the system of jurisprudence adopted under the Spanish monarch, for his colonial establishments, was benignant, and adapted to the protection of the subject, previous to the surrender of this island to the British arms.In December, 1801, when this crime was perpetrated, Louisa Calderon was of the tender age of ten or eleven years. At that early period she had been induced to live with a person of the name of Pedro Ruiz, as his mistress; and although it appears to us very singular that she should sustain such a situation at that time of life, yet it is a fact that, in this climate, women often become mothers at twelve years old, and are in a state of concubinage if, from their condition, they could not form a more honourable connection. While she lived with Ruiz she was engaged in an intrigue with Carlos Gonzalez, the pretended friend of the former, who robbed him of a quantity of dollars. Gonzalez was apprehended, and she also, as some suspicion fell upon her in consequence of the affair. She was taken before the justice, as we, in our language, should denominate him, and, in his presence, she denied having any concern in the business.The magistrate felt that his powers were at an end; and whether the object of her denial were to protect herself, or her friend, is not material to the question before you. The extent of his authority being thus limited, this officer of justice resorted to General Picton; and I have to produce, in the handwriting of the defendant, this bloody sentence : ‘ Inflict the Torture upon Louisa Calderon.’ You will believe there was no delay in proceeding to its execution. The girl was informed in the jail that if she did not confess she would be subjected to the torture; that under the process she might probably lose her limbs or her life, but the calamity would be on her own head, for if she would confess she would not be required to endure it. While her mind was in the state of agitation this notice produced, her fears were aggravated by the introduction of two or three negresses into her prison, who were to suffer under the same experiment as a means of extorting confession of witchcraft.In this situation of alarm and horror the young woman persisted in her innocence: the punishment was inflicted, improperly called picketing, which is a military punishment, perfectly distinct. This is not picketing, but the torture. It is true the soldier exposed to this does stand with his foot on a picket, or sharp piece of wood, but, in mercy to him, a means of reposing on the rottindus major, or interior of the arm, is afforded. This practice, I hope, will not in future be called ‘Picketing,’ but ‘Pictoning,’ that it may be recognised by the dreadful appellation which belongs to it. Her position may be easily described. The great toe was lodged upon a sharp piece of wood, while the opposite wrist was suspended in a pulley, and the other hand and foot were lashed together. Another time the horrid ceremony was repeated, with this difference, that her feet were changed.

[The learned counsel here produced a drawing in water- colours, in which the situation of the sufferer, and the magistrate, executioner and secretary, was described. He then proceeded:]It appears to me that the case, on the part of the prosecution, will be complete when these facts are established in evidence; but I am to be told that though the highest authority in this country could not practise this on the humblest individual, yet that by the laws of Spain it can be perpetrated in the island of Trinidad. I should venture to assert that if it were written in characters impossible to be understood, that if it were the acknowledged law of Trinidad, it could be no justification of a British governor. Nothing could vindicate such a person but the law of imperious necessity, to which we must all submit. It was his duty to impress upon the minds of the people of that colony the great advantages they would derive from the benign influence of British jurisprudence; and that, in consequence of being received within the pale of this Government, torture would be for ever banished from the island. It is therefore not sufficient for him to establish this sort of apology; it is required of him to show that he complied with the institutions under the circumstances of irresistible necessity. This governor ought to have been aware that the torture is not known in England; and that it never will be, never can be, tolerated in this country.The trial by rack is utterly unknown to the law of England, though once, when the Dukes of Exeter and Suffolk and other Ministers of Henry VI. had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom, as the ruling government, for a beginning thereof they erected a rack for torture, which was called in derision the Duke of Exeter’s daughter, and still remains in the Tower of London, where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. But when, upon the assassination of Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, by Felton, it was proposed in the Privy Council to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices, the judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.

Louisa Calderon was then called. She appeared to be about eighteen years of age, had a very interesting countenance, being a mulatto or creole, and a very genteel appearance. She was dressed in white, with a turban of white muslin, tied on in the custom of the country. Her person was slender and graceful. She spoke English but very indifferently, and was examined by Mr Adam through the medium of a Spanish interpreter.

She deposed that she resided in the island of Trinidad in the year 1798, and lived in the house of Don Pedro Ruiz, and remembered the robbery. She and her mother were taken up on suspicion, and brought before Governor Picton, who committed them to prison, under the escort of three soldiers. She was put into close confinement; but before she was taken there, the Governor said that if she did not confess who had stolen the money the hangman would have to deal with her. She knew Bagora, the magistrate, or Lord Mayor. He came to the prison and examined her on the subject of the robbery many times, and on different days. De Castro, the clerk of the magistrate, also attended, and took down her depositions.

She was then carried to the room where the torture was prepared. Here her left hand was tied up to the ceiling by a rope, with a pulley; her right hand was tied behind, so that her right foot and hand came in contact, while the extremity of her left foot rested on the wooden spike. A drawing, representing the exact situation, with the negro holding the rope by which she was suspended, was then shown to her, when she gave a shudder, expressive of horror, which nothing but the most painful recollection of her situation could have excited; on which Mr Garrow expressed his concern that his Lordship was not in a position to witness this accidental, but conclusive, evidence of the fact.

Lord Ellenborough objected to the exhibition of this drawing to the jury until Mr Dallas, on the part of his client, permitted it to be shown to them. The examination then proceeded, and the remainder of Louisa Calderon’s evidence corroborated the statement of Mr Garrow. She remained upon the spike three-quarters of an hour, and the next day twenty-two minutes. She swooned away each time before she was taken down, and was then put into irons, called the “Grillos”, which were long pieces of iron, with two rings for the feet, fastened to the wall; and in this situation she remained eight months. A drawing of this instrument was also produced, which the witness said was an exact representation.

The effect from this picketing was excruciating pain; her wrists and ankles were much swollen, and the former still bore the marks. In reply to a question by Lord Ellenborough, she said her feet were without shoes and stockings. The jailer, Bagora the magistrate, Francisco de Castro, and Raphael, an alguazil, with the executioner, were present at these picketings. Don Juan Montes said that he was acquainted with the handwriting of the defendant, and proved the document containing the order of the torture, expressed in these terms “Aplicase la question a Louisa Calderon. (Signed ) ” THOMAS PICTON.”

After some observations from Mr Dallas, which were answered by Mr Garrow, the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the application of the Alcayde Beggerrat, which led to the issue of this order should be read. Mr Lowton then read the representation of this officer, advising that slight torture should be applied, stating that his own authority was incompetent to do it without the order of the Governor, and giving the result of the proceedings in the course of the examinations Louisa Calderon had undergone. The instrument was countersigned by Francisco de Castro.

Mr Dallas, for the defendant, rested his defence upon the following statements :-

  • First. By the law of Spain, in the present instance, torture was directed; and being bound to administer that law, he was vindicated in its application.
  • Second. The order for the torture, if not unlawfully, was not maliciously, issued.
  • Third. If it were unlawful, yet if the order were errone- ously or mistakenly issued, it was a complete answer to a criminal charge.

The learned counsel entered at considerable length into these positions, during which he compared the law of Spain, as it prevailed in Trinidad, with the law of England, as it existed in some of our own islands; and he contended that the conduct of General Picton was gentleness and humanity compared with what might be practised with impunity under the authority of the British Government.

The jury found there was no such law existing in the island of Trinidad as that of torture at the time of the surrender of that island to the British. Lord Ellenborough said:Then, gentlemen, General Picton cannot derive any protection from a supposed law, after you have found that no such law remained in that island at the surrender of it, and when he became its Governor ; therefore your verdict should be that he is guilty.By the direction of Lord Ellenborough they therefore found the defendant guilty. Mr Dallas moved, on the 25th of April, for a new trial. He stated that the defendant was a person of respectability and character in his Majesty’s service, as Governor of the island of Trinidad. He solicited for a new trial upon the following grounds :-

  • First. The infamous character of the girl, who lived in open prostitution with Pedro Ruiz, and who had been privy to a robbery committed upon her paramour by Carlos Gonzalez; and when a complaint laid against her had been brought before a magistrate, she, refusing — to confess, had been ordered to be tortured.
  • Second. That Governor Picton, who condemned her to this torture, did not proceed from any motives of malice, but from a conviction that the right of torture was sanctioned by the laws of Trinidad ; and that he was rooted in this opinion by a reference to the legal written authorities in that island
  • Third. That whatever his conduct might be, it was certainly neither personal malice nor disposition to tyranny, but resulted, if it should prove to be wrong, from a misapprehension of the laws of Trinidad.
  • Fourth. That one of the principal witnesses in this trial, M. Vargass, had brought forward a book, entitled Recopilation des Leys des 1ndes, expressly compiled for the Spanish colonies, which did not authorise torture. The defendant had no opportunity of ever seeing that book, but it had been purchased by the British Institution at the sale of the Marquis of Lansdowne’s library subsequent to his trial; and, having consulted it, it appeared that where that code was silent upon some criminal cases, recourse was always to be had to the laws of Old Spain, and these laws, of course, sanctioned the infliction of torture.

The Court, after some consideration, granted the rule to show cause for a new trial. At that trial he was acquitted. He saw action again on the Walcheren expedition in 1809 and was knighted and made Governor of flushing in that year. In 1810 he went to Spain and took command of the “Fighting Division” in which post he rendered brilliant service in a series of imporetant battles. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Quatre Bas and fell, leading his men to the charge, at Waterloo in 1815.