Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



IN the month of November (1882) I announced my intention to bring out a new monthly magazine entitled Progress. Several friends thought it impolitic to launch my new venture in such troubled waters, and advised me to wait for the issue of the prosecution. But I resolved to act exactly as though the prosecution had never been initiated. It seemed to me the wisest course to go on with my work until I was stopped, and risk the consequences whatever they might be. The result has proved that I was right; but I do not wish to boast of my judgment, for when I was imprisoned all my interests were fearfully imperilled, and everything depended on the loyal exertions of a few staunch Freethinkers (of whom more anon) who stepped into the breach and defended them with great courage and ability until I was able to resume my post. Progress made its due appearance in January, 1883, and, notwithstanding the extraordinary vicissitudes of its career, it has flourished ever since without any solution of continuity.

While I was advertising Progress I was also preparing the second Christmas Number of the Freethinker. The announcement of its contents caused a great deal of excitement, and I am prepared to admit that it was, to use a common phrase, the "warmest" publication ever issued. It was full from cover to cover of what the orthodox call blasphemy, and it was speedily described by the Christian press as more "outrageous" than any of the ordinary numbers for which we were already prosecuted. The description was perfectly correct. I had concluded that my wisest policy, as it was certainly the most courageous, was to disregard the Blasphemy Laws and defy the bigots; to show that Freethought was not to be cowed or intimidated by threats of imprisonment. Facing the enemy boldly appeared to me better than running away; a course in which I could see neither glory, honor, nor profit. Even if I had consulted my safety above all things, I should have seen little wisdom in flight; and being shot in the back, while no less dangerous, is far more ignominious than being shot in the front. I have paid the full penalty of my policy; I have suffered twelve months' torture in a Christian gaol; yet I do not repent the course I took; and ever since my release from prison I have felt it my duty to continue doing the very thing for which I was punished.

Being tastefully got-up, well printed, profusely illustrated, and extensively denounced by the organs of Toryism and piety, this Christmas Number had a very large sale. Yet, strange as it may sound to some bigoted ears, Mr. Ramsey and I were after all several pounds out of pocket by it, the expenses being altogether out of proportion to the price, and our object being less material gain than the wide dissemination of our views. With the knowledge of this pecuniary loss in our minds, it may be imagined how grimly we smiled when the counsel sternly alluded to our "nefarious profits."

I shall have occasion to deal with the contents of this Christmas Number when I explain our second Indictment; which, I repeat, as there is general misunderstanding on the subject, was tried before the first, and resulted in Judge North's atrocious and almost unparalleled sentence.

During the interval between the publication of this "budget of blasphemy" and the date of our summons to answer a criminal charge founded on it, I had several interviews with Mr. E. Truelove, a gentleman well known to all advanced people in London as a veteran champion of the freedom as the press. At the age of seventy, after a long life sans peur et sans reproche, this fine old reformer was dragged by the paid Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice (or the Vice Society as Cobbett always called it) into a criminal court to answer a charge of obscenity. The objectionable matter was contained in an extremely mild, not to say mawkish, essay on the population question by Robert Dale Owen, a man of literary eminence in the United States, and once an ambassador of the great Republic. Like ourselves, Mr. Truelove was tried twice before a verdict of guilty could be obtained. His sentence was four months' imprisonment like a common felon. Mr. Truelove was indisposed to reveal the secrets of his prison-house out of a tender regard for my feelings, but seeing that I preferred to know the worst, he told me all about the felon's cell, the plank bed, the oakum picking, the wretched diet, and the horribly monotonous life. My chief feeling on hearing this sad tale was one of indignation at the thought that a man of honest convictions and blameless life should be subjected to such privations and indignities. It did not weaken my resolution; it only deepened my hatred of the system which sanctioned such iniquities.

From America, however, came a piece of bitter-sweet news. Mr. D. M. Bennett, editor of the New York Truthseeker, had just died. His end was hastened by the heart-disease he contracted while undergoing imprisonment for an "offence" similar to that of Mr. Truelove. Yet almost at the moment of Mr. Bennett's death, another jury had found another publisher of the very same work Not Guilty. I learned from the New York papers that the acquittal was partly due to the impartiality of the judge, partly to the progress the public mind had made on the population question, and partly to the fact that the accused publisher conducted his own defence. Here was a gleam of hope. I also might meet with an impartial judge, I also might find a jury reflecting an enlightened public opinion, and I also was resolved to defend myself. Alas! I did not know that I was to meet with the most bigoted judge on the bench, and to plead to a jury exactly calculated to effect his vindictive purpose.

On Thursday, December 7, 1882, we published our second Christmas Number of the Freethinker. I will deal with its contents presently, when I have narrated how it led to our second prosecution. Let it here suffice to say that it was undoubtedly a very "warm" publication, and well calculated to arouse the slumbering Blasphemy Laws. Some Freethinkers even were astonished at its audacity. A few belonging to an old-fashioned school, and a few more who were assiduously courting "respectability," resented our action; although, as the vast majority of our party were of an opposite opinion, they refrained from expressing their reprobation too loudly. In reply to their murmurs I wrote an article in my paper on "Superstitious Freethinkers." It appeared in the number for December 31, and thus appropriately closed a year of combat. A few passages are, perhaps, worth insertion here.

"It has been said of Robert Burns that, although his head and heart rejected Calvinism, he never quite got it out of his blood. There is much truth in this metaphor. Burns was, in religious matters, one of a very large class. Many men rid their intellects of a superstition, without being able to resist its power over their feelings. Even so profound a sceptic as Renan has admitted that his life is guided by a faith he no longer possesses. And we are all familiar with instances of the same thing..."

"Reverting to avowed Freethinkers, it is evident that some of them who have lost belief in God are afraid to speak too loud lest he should overhear them. 'How old are you, Monsieur Fontenelle?' asked a pretty young French lady. 'Hush, not so loud, dear Madame!' replied the witty nonagenarian, pointing upwards. What Fontenelle did as a piece of graceful wit, some Freethinkers do without any wit at all. They object to laughing at the gods, whether Christian, Brahmanic or Mohammedan; and perhaps they would extend the same friendly consideration to Mumbo Jumbo. Strange that people should be so tender about ghosts! Especially when they don't even believe them to be real ghosts. To the Atheist all gods are fancies, mere delusions (not illusions), like the philosopher's stone, witchcraft, astrology, holy water and miracles. I am as much entitled to ridicule the gods of Christianity as any other Freethinker is entitled to ridicule the miracles at Lourdes; and when 'taste' is dragged into the question, I simply reply that there is as much ill taste in the one case as in the other. All that this 'taste' can mean is that no devout delusion should be ridiculed, which is itself one of the greatest pieces of absurdity ever perpetrated. It would shield every form of 'spiritual' lunacy in the world.

"These squeamish Freethinkers don't object to ridicule in politics, literature or social life. They rather approve Punch and the other comic journals, even when these satirise living persons who feel the sting. Why, then, do they object to ridicule in religion? Simply because they still feel that there is something sacred about it. Now I insist that on the Atheist's principles there can be no such sacredness, and I decline to recognise it. I take the full consequences and claim the full liberty of my belief.

"Christians may, of course, urge that their feelings on such a subject as religion are sacred, and a few superstitious Freethinkers may concede this monstrous position. I do not. The feelings of a Christian about Father, Son and Holy Ghost, are no more sacred than my feelings on any other subject. I have no quarrel with persons, and I recognise how many are hurt by satire. But the world is not to be regulated by their feelings, and much as I respect them, I have a greater respect for truth. Every mental weapon is valid against mental error. And as ridicule has been found the most potent weapon of religious enfranchisement, we are bound to use it against the wretched superstitions which cumber the path of progress. Intellectually, it is as absurd to give quarter as it is absurd to expect it.

"My answer to the Freethinkers who would coquet with Christianity, and gain a fictitious respectability by courting compliments from Christian teachers, is that they are playing with fire. Let them ponder the lessons of history, and remember Clifford's bitter word about the evil superstition which destroyed one civilisation and nearly succeeded in destroying another. Fortunately, however, the logic of things is against them. Broad currents of thought go on their way without being deflected by backwashes, or eddies or spurts into blind passages. Freethought will sweep on with its main volume, and dash against every impediment with all its effective force."

Well, I exercised "the full liberty of my belief," and I had to take its "full consequences." Yet, looking back over my year's torture in a Christian gaol, my conscience approves that dangerous policy, and I do not experience a single regret.

In the same number of the Freethinker I referred at some length to Tyler's prosecution, which was dragging along its slow course in a way that must have been very provoking to Mr. Bradlaugh's enemies. By dexterous manoeuvring and skilful pleading, that litigious man, as the Tories call him, had managed to get two counts struck out of our Indictment. The result of this to Mr. Ramsey and myself was nil, but it brought great relief to Mr. Bradlaugh, and made his acquittal almost a matter of certainty.

Meanwhile our Christmas Number was selling rapidly. In a few weeks it had reached a far larger circulation than had been enjoyed by any Freethought publication before. Naturally the bigots were enraged, both by its character and its success. Many religious journals, and especially the Rock, clamored for legal protection against such "blasphemy." Irate Christians called at our shop in Stonecutter Street, purchased copies of the obnoxious paper, and, flourishing them in the faces of Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Kemp, declared that we should "hear more of this;" to which pious salutation they usually replied by offering their minatory visitors "a dozen or perhaps a quire at trade price." Similar busybodies called at Mr. Cattell's shop in Fleet Street, and plied him with cajoleries when menaces were futile. One of them, indeed, attempted bribery. He offered Mr. Cattell half a sovereign to remove our Christmas Number from his window. What a wonderful bigot! That detestable fraternity has nearly always persecuted heresy at other people's expense, but this man was willing to tax himself for that laudable object. Surely he is phenomenal enough to deserve a memorial in Westminster Abbey, or at least an effigy at Madame Tussaud's.

Presently our shop was visited by another class of men -- plain-clothes detectives. They came in couples, and it was easy to understand their business. We were, therefore, not surprised when, on January 29, 1883, we were severally served with the following summons: --

"To GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, of No. 9 South Crescent, Bedford Square, Middlesex; WILLIAM JAMES RAMSEY, of No. 28 Stonecutter Street, in the City of London, and No. 20 Brownlow Street, Dalston, Middlesex; and HENRY ARTHUR KEMP, of No. 28 Stonecutter Street, aforesaid, and No. 15 Harp Alley, Farringdon Street, London, E.C.
Whereas you have this day been charged before the undersigned, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, being one of her Majesty's Justices of the Peace in and for the said City and the Liberties thereof, by JAMES MACDONALD, of No. 7 Burton Road, Brixton, in the county of Surrey, for that you did in the said City of London, on the 16th day December, in the year of Our Lord, 1882, and on divers other days, print and publish, and cause and procure to be printed and published, a certain blasphemous and impious libel in the Christmas Number for 1882 of a certain newspaper called the Freethinker, against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her crown and Dignity. These are therefore to command you, in her Majesty's name, to be and appear before me on Friday, the second day of February, 1883, at eleven of the clock in the forenoon, at the Mansion House Justice Room, in the said City, or before such other Justice or Justices of the Peace for the same City as may then be there, to answer to the said charge, and to be further dealt with according to law. Herein fail not. Given under my hand and seal, this 29th day of January, in the year of Our Lord, 1883, at the Mansion House Justice-Room aforesaid.
"Lord Mayor, London."

The James Macdonald of this summons, who played the part of a common informer, turned out to be a police officer. In the ordinary way of business he went to the Lord Mayor, complained of our blasphemy and his own lacerated feelings, and applied for a summons against us as a first step towards punishing us for our sins. What a reductio ad absurdum of the Blasphemy Laws! Instead of ordinary Christians protesting against our outrages, and demanding our restraint in the interest of the peace, a callous policeman has to do the work, without a scintilla of feeling about the matter, just as he might proceed against any ordinary criminal for theft or assault. The real mover in this business was Sir Thomas Nelson, the City Solicitor, representing the richest and corruptest Corporation in the world.

The Corporation of the City of London might be described in the language which Jesus applied to the Town Council of Jerusalem eighteen centuries ago -- "They devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers." What could be more hypocritical than such a body posing as the champions of religion, and especially of the religion of Christ! If the Prophet of Nazareth were alive again to-day, who would expect to find him at a Lord Mayor's banquet? Would he frequent the Stock Exchange, be at home in the Guild-hall and the Mansion House, or select his disciples from the worshippers in the myriad temples of Mammon? Would he not rather hate and denounce these modern Pharisees as cordially as they would certainly hate and denounce him?

If the City Fathers meant to protect the honor of God, they were both absurd and blasphemous. There is something ineffably ludicrous in the spectacle of a host of fat aldermen rushing out from their shops and offices to steady the tottering throne of Omnipotence. And what presumption on the part of these pigmies to undertake a defence of deity! Surely Omnipotence is as able to punish as Omniscience knows when to punish. The theologians who, as Matthew Arnold says, talk familiarly of God, as though he were a man living in the next street, are modest in comparison with his self-elected body-guard.

Would it not be better for these presumptuous mortals to mind their own business? It will be time enough for them to supervise their neighbors when they have reformed themselves. With all their pretensions to superior piety and virtue, they are notoriously the greatest ring of public thieves in the world, and they are at present lavishly expending trust-monies in a desperate endeavor to justify their turpitude and prolong their plunder.

According to our summons, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp, and I appeared at the Mansion House on Friday, February 2, 1883. The Justice Room was thronged long before the Lord Mayor took his seat on the Bench, and all the approaches were crowded by anxious sympathisers. All the evidence was of a purely formal character. It was a foregone conclusion that we should be committed for trial. We all three pleaded not guilty and reserved our defence. Before leaving the Court, however, notwithstanding his lordship's interruption, I protested against the revival of an old law which had fallen into desuetude, which had not been enforced in the City of London for over fifty years, and which was altogether alien to the spirit of the age. My remarks were greeted with loud applause by the public in Court. Of course his lordship frowned, and the ushers shouted "Silence!" But the mischief was done. It was obvious that we had many friends, that we were not going to be tried in a hole-and-corner fashion.

Our case excited much interest in London. Most of the newspapers contained a good report of the proceedings at the Mansion House; and even the Tory Evening News, which affirmed that we were three vulgar blasphemers undeserving of notice, had as the leading line on its placard "Prosecution of the Freethinker: Result!"

The Freethinker for February 11 contained an article from my pen on the "Infidel Hunt," and a very admirable article by Mr. Wheeler on "The Fight of Forty Years Ago," narrating the trials of Southwell, Holyoake, Paterson, and other brave heretics. Mr. Ramsey did not then quite approve my attitude of defiance, although he has changed his mind since. He thought it more prudent to bend a little before the storm, instead of daring its utmost violence. He was also anxious to please those with whom he had worked before his partial alliance with me, and who were not prepared to sanction his continued connexion with the Freethinker if he wished to remain with them. For these reasons he retired from our partnership, and I was at once registered as the sole proprietor of the paper. This step naturally added to the danger of my situation, and it was freely used against me at the trial. But I had no alternative, unless the Freethinker was to go down, and that I had resolved to prevent at any cost. At the same time I engaged to take over Mr. Ramsey's business at Stonecutter Street, and to recoup him for his heavy investment; and I am bound to admit that he behaved generously in all these arrangements. On February 11 the following editorial notice appeared in my paper:

"With this number of the Freethinker I assume a new position. The full responsibility for everything in connexion with the paper henceforth rests with me. I am editor, proprietor, printer and publisher. My imprint will be put on every publication issued from 28 Stonecutter Street, and all the business done there will be transacted through me or my representatives. This exposes me to fresh perils, but it simplifies matters. Those who attack the Freethinker after this week will have to attack me singly. I never meant to give in, and never will so long as my strength serves for the fight. Whoever else yields, I will submit to nothing but physical compulsion. If the Freethinker should ever cease to appear, the Freethought party will know that the fault is not mine. Certain parts of the mechanical process of production are dependent on the firmness of others. One man cannot do everything. But I pledge myself to keep this Freethought flag flying at every hazard, and if I am temporarily disabled I pledge myself to unfurl it again, and if need be again, and again. De l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace."

Mr. Wheeler stood loyally by me in this emergency. His efforts for our common object were untiring, and never was his pen wielded more brilliantly. Perhaps, indeed he overstrained his energies, and thus led to the complete breakdown of his health soon after my imprisonment.

A few days later Sir Thomas Nelson, the City Solicitor, served a summons on Mr. H. C. Cattell of 84 Fleet Street, who had so annoyed the bigots by exposing the Christmas Number of the Freethinker in his window. Detectives also visited other newsagents and threatened them with prosecution if they persisted in selling my paper. It was evident that the City authorities were bent on utterly suppressing it. They tried their utmost and they failed.

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