The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 9 (December 1, 1938)
Murder and love provide material for the most sensational legal battles. The one is impelled by hate, for greed or love, or some other passion. The other is begotten of scorn, humiliation or anger, while both, now and then, are based purely on cupidity.
A murder trial moves one to compassion. The tragedy of it surmounts all other emotions. The action for damages for a broken heart, on the other hand, frequently moves one to laughter and derision.
In nearly all cases, actions for breaches of promise to marry have the woman for the plaintiff. When a man's heart is broken by the capricious whim of a maiden it is not likely to be displayed before twelve good men and true. Sometimes, however, it has happened, and the story I am about to relate is a true version of one of the strangest trials that ever concerned a judge and jury.
The parties to the action were Lieutenant Blake of His Majesty's Navy, and the defendant was a widow, by name Wilkins, the widow of Staff Surgeon Wilkins. Those of you who remember the highlights of your history will remember that when the gallant General Wolfe fell on the heights of Quebec he was assisted by this very Surgeon Wilkins. That was more than thirty years before the famous Blake v. Wilkins trial. Surgeon Wilkins returned from the war and married pretty little Mary Brown, of Galway. The defendant had indeed been a widow for thirty years when this action was tried, so it is not difficult to realise that she was, as the newspapers proclaimed, in her sixty-fifth year when she had promised to marry Lieut. Blake. Lieut. Blake was a fine-looking young navy officer of thirty years of age.
The parties had become acquainted through living next door to each other. Lieut. Blake had retired from the Navy on the ground of ill-health; while the widow had for many years lived alone, enjoying the substantial fortune her first husband had bequeathed her. Blake lived with his mother, and both were living on a very small, joint income.
The idea of these two, the elderly widow and the young naval officer, falling in love, seemed incredible. It is said, however, that Mrs. Blake conceived the idea in the first place.
The bringing together of the two was a matter of some difficulty, and to impress the old lady with the idea of falling in love with a man young enough to be her son, was no easy task. Suffice it to say that after a good deal of anxiety the promise was made. Then the widow Wilkins woke up. She learned to her astonishment that she would have to part with the greater portion of her income to her young husband and realised that G-O-L-D was Lieut. Blake's spelling of the word love. She sent him about his business and point blank refused to go on with the marriage. The ample security that the elderly Mrs. Blake had counted on was disappearing before her eyes.
She then convinced her son that his heart was broken and that a sum such as £5,000 might compensate him for his broken heart.
So it was that, before a Judge and a Galway jury of twelve, an action for breach of promise to marry was heard on March 24th, 1817. The Court was crowded to suffocation—every road leading to Galway being filled with carriages bearing the curious to the trial. And naturally the newspapers made the most of the proceedings.
Some of the most famous counsel of the day were briefed. There were Vande leur, K.C., Lynch, Jonathan Hern and Compton (all for the plaintiff) while Dan O'Connell, Charlie Phillips and Everard looked after the interests of the widow. O'Connell was renowned, and Phillips was known as the “silver-tongued orator of the bar.”
The case was opened by Mr. Vandeleur. He stated the facts to the jury, telling them of the contract that had been made, how his poor client had been humiliated and all his page 43 hopes blighted by the fickleness of his loved one. He expected that the jury would give very large damages. There was, he said, need for him to call only one witness, little more than a formal one, for the fact that there had been a promise that had been broken was not in dispute. Counsel was then able to close his case, the opportunity of finally addressing the jury, coming later.
The Judge, by way of opening, then called on Dan O'Connell to address the jury. This was a case much more suited to the qualifications of Mr. Phillips than to those of Mr. O'Connell. Mr. O'Connell, therefore, said to the Judge:— “I find myself so inconvenienced with a cold in the head that I have entrusted to my learned friend Mr. Phillips the responsibility of addressing the jury.”
Mr. Phillips was well-known in Galway. His eloquence had many a time moved a jury to bring in verdicts more in keeping with his pleading than with common sense. He could move a jury against its first inclination.
So it was that he stood up and began what must have been one of the most amusing and extraordinary speeches that ever a jury was asked to listen to. His job was to show that there was no love, only greed, in the claim; that no one would believe that a young man would fall honestly in love with an old woman. I ought perhaps to say here that although she was elderly she would have resented being told so, and she refused to believe that her bloom of youth and charm had withered a little in the passing of the years.
Mr. Phillips began with these words: “My Lord, Gentlemen of the Jury, it has been left to me to defend my unfortunate old client from the double battery of law and love, which at the age of sixty-five has been unexpectedly opened upon her. Gentlemen, how vainglorious is the boast of beauty! How misapprehended have been the charms of youth, if years and wrinkles can thus dispoil their conquests and depopulate the Navy of its progress and beguile the bar of its eloquence! How mistaken were all the amatory poets from Anacreon downwards who preferred the bloom of the roses and the thrill of the nightingale to the saffron hide and dulcet treble of sixty-five!”
At this opening there was a delighted murmur from the body of the Court, and Phillips must have felt that he had quickly got on good terms with the jury. So intent on his task was he that he did not notice that his client, with her eyes blazing with indignation, had stamped away from where she had been sitting and had gone to the outer door. Phillips then went on to ridicule his client in the eyes of the twelve men before him. He sought to show that she was no loss on the field of love. He said: “Royal wisdom has told us that we live in a new era. The reign of old women has commenced, and if Johanna Southcote converts England to her creed why should not Ireland, less pious perhaps, kneel before the shrine of the irresistible widow Wilkins? It has been my client's happy fate to capture members of the death dealing professions of medicine and war; indeed, in the love episodes of the heathen mythology, Venus and Mars were considered inseparable. I know not if any of you have seen a beautiful print representing the fatal glory of Quebec, and the last moment of its immortal conqueror, and if so, you must have noticed the figure of the Staff Surgeon in whose arms the hero is expiring; that identical personage, My Lord, was the happy swain, who, forty or fifty years ago, received as award for his valour and skill the virgin hand of my venerable client.”
You will have noticed that by the use of his adjectives and dating back her marriage to forty or fifty years Phillips cleverly gave colour to his client's old age.
Then by way of contrast he drew a picture of the life led by Blake and his mother. How they were scraping along in well-night poverty and how they would naturally turn with envious eyes to the luxury enjoyed over the garden wall. The story then developed how the mother had frequently visited the widow and had told her of her gallant and distinguished son. She breathed words of love into the old lady's ears and painted a picture of almost divine felicity which was to be enjoyed as this man's spouse. At that time Blake had never seen the lady of his mother's choice. As Phillips said: “And then, gentlemen, the next that is known of him is that he has abandoned the Navy on account of ill-health. Then he listened to the suggestion breathed into his ears by his mother. Ah, gentlemen, he could not resist his affection for a female he had never seen! Almighty love eclipsed the glories of ambition; Trafalgar and St. Vincent flitted from his memory. He gave up all for a woman as Mark Antony did before him, or like the Cupid in Hudibras: ‘Took his stand Upon a widow's jointure land, with trembling sigh and trickling tear Longed for five hundred pounds a year'.”
The young man had through his mother communicated with the widow in the early stages, and the mother pressed on the claim which owed its very existence to her conspiracy. At first when he was able to make his first call upon her the widow was too unwell to see him when he knocked at her door. Mrs. Blake must have been a bit concerned and wondered if the widow's illness was genuine, for she hastened over to see her. She impressed the widow with the sad future that lay before her and told her that if she did not take care the only alternative to the altar was the grave. Mr. Phillips told the jury of this. Mrs. Blake had invoked the aid of her daughter to impress the widow with the affection that the son had developed for her, though he had not as yet seen her. Of this phase of the strange trial Mr. Phillips said: “You will not have failed to observe that while the female conspirators are at work, the lover himself had never seen the object of his idolatory. Like the maniac in the farce, he fell in love with the picture of his grandmother. For the gratification of his avarice he was content to embrace age, disease, deformity and widowhood.”
Then Phillips turned bitingly towards the jury and said: “Born in a country ardent to a fault, he advertised his happiness to the highest bidder, and now he solicits an honourable jury to become panderers to heartless cupidity. Harassed and conspired against, my client entered into the contract you have heard—a contract conceived in meanness, extorted by fraud and sought to be enforced by the most profligate conspiracy.”
After this he told the jury that the Blakes, once they had secured the hand of the widow, had insisted that after the marriage she should be allowed £80 a year out of her own income of £5,000.
Mr. Phillips then made great play of a letter that Blake's solicitors had written wherein they stated that the widow's breach had made it necessary for him to claim compensation, and that the proposed litigation would end most honourably for his client, and end too, to his pecuniary advantage. Mr. Phillips said to the jury: “I think that the solicitor is mistaken. Ill-health and not a visionary love compelled him to resign from the Navy. His constitution was declining, his advancement was annihilated: as a forlorn hope he bombarded the widow Wilkins.
‘And now he has returned and war thoughts Have left their places vacant; in their room Come very soft and amorous desires, All prompting him how fair young Hero is.'
He first attacked her fortune, with herself, through the artillery of the Church, and having failed in that, he now attacks her fortune, without herself, through the assistance of the law.”
Counsel brought to play his outstanding ability for satire. While he agreed that this type of case might properly be brought, he told the jury that it was usual for the girl to be the plaintiff and he knew of no case where the plaintiff was a man. He also conceded that in an exceptional case where a man had been grossly deceived by a young and beautiful woman and had been brought to ill-health and poverty through her cruel perversity, an action of this kind might be understandable. He added that even in an extreme case he felt sure that a sensitive soul would rather droop uncomplaining into the grave than solicit the mockery of a worldly compensation. He then trenchantly criticised this case and declared it to be a pure money-making expedition—prostituting for a base purpose the formalities provided by the law courts. His peroration was in these words, words which I repeat on account of the effect they had on the other side.
“Gentlemen of the jury, remember that I ask for no mitigation of damages. Nothing less than your verdict will satisfy me. By that verdict you will sustain the dignity of your page 46 page 47 sex—by that verdict you will uphold the honour of the national character, by that verdict you will assure not only the immense multitude of both sexes that crowd around you, but the whole rising generation of your country, that marriage can never be attended with honour or blessed with happiness if it has not its origin in mutual happiness. I surrender with confidence my case to your decision.”
As he sank back into his chair there arose from all parts of the court the greatest applause. There was shouting and clapping which for a long time drowned the cries of “Silence” which the policeman yelled at the top of his voice.
Again there was clapping and laughter as the Judge told the jury that they would not be required to consider the case any more, and he entered judgment for the defendant, the widow Wilkins, with costs and all disbursements.
So ended a queer case, based on cupidity, and to the shame of all concerned for the plaintiff, that is, the Blake family. The court was then formally adjourned and every one was laughing over the case. It had been gloriously finished and counsel were congratulating Phillips on his wonderful address. Flushed with pride in his success Phillips tied up his brief and made for the door leading to the passage whence he would go to the robing room. The crowd made room for him—the hero of the moment, to pass by. It was only for a brief moment that he was a hero. At the door he saw his client—the widow Wilkins—blazing with fury. “It's old, is it, decrepit is it? Take that, and that!” She had gone out during the speech and had snatched up her carriage whip with which she lashed Phillips unmercifully. To the widow it did not matter that the distinguished lawyer had really done her a great service. But “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Phillips drew his gown over his shoulders, and, pursued by his client vainly endeavouring to repeat the whipping, ran through the door leading into the robing room and slammed it in the widow's face. Although a great victory, it was, indeed, a strange case and a strange fee for Mr. Phillips.page 48