Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



PRISON life is monotonous. Day follows day in weary succession. Except for the card on your door you might lose count of the weeks and forget the date. I went on eating my miserable food with such appetite as I had; I crawled between heaven and earth for one hour in every twenty-four; I picked my fibre to kill the time; and I waded through my only book, the Bible, with the patience of a mule. Weeks rolled by with only one remarkable feature, and that was Good Friday. The "sacred day" was observed as a Sabbath. There was no work and no play. Christians outside were celebrating the Passion of their Redeemer with plenteous eating and copious drinking, and dance and song; while I and my two fellow-prisoners, who had no special cause for sadness on that day, were compelled to spend it like hermits. Chapel hours brought the only relief. Parson Plaford thought it an auspicious occasion for preaching one of his silliest sermons, and when I returned to my cell I was greatly refreshed. Opening my Bible, I read the four accounts of the Crucifixion, and marvelled how so many millions of people could regard them as consistent histories, until I reflected that they never took the trouble to read them one after another at a single sitting.

Once or twice I caught a glimpse of Mr. Ramsey in chapel, and I occasionally saw Mr. Kemp in the exercise-ground. But I knew nothing of what was going on outside. One day, however, the outer silence was broken. The Governor entered my cell in the morning, and told me he had received a letter from Mr. Bradlaugh, stating that our original Indictment (in which he was included) would be tried in a few days, and that he had an order from the Home Office to see Mr. Ramsey and me separately. It was some day early in April; I forget exactly when. But I recollect that Mr. Bradlaugh came up the same afternoon. He saw me in the Governor's office. We shook hands heartily, and plunged into conversation, while the Governor sat turning over papers at his desk.

Mr. Bradlaugh told me how our Indictment stood. It would be tried very soon. He was going to insist on being tried separately, and had no doubt he should be. In that event, his case would precede ours. What did I intend to do? His advice was that I should plead inability to defend myself while in prison, and ask for a postponement until after my release. If that were done he believed I should never hear of the Indictment again.

My view was different. I doubted whether another conviction would add to my sentence, and I was anxious to secure the moral advantage of a careful and spirited defence in the Court of Queen's Bench before the Lord Chief Justice of England. The Governor had already supplied me with writing materials, and I had begun to draw up a list of books I might require, which I intended to send to Mr. Wheeler.

"Oh," said Mr. Bradlaugh, brusquely, "you need not send anything to Mr. Wheeler; he's gone insane."

"What!" I gasped. The room darkened to my vision as though the sun had been blotted out. The blow went to my heart like a dagger.

"Come," said Mr. Bradlaugh in a kinder tone, "if you take the news in that way I shall tell you no more."

"It is over," I answered. "Pray go on."

I crushed down my feelings, but it was not over. Mr. Bradlaugh did not know the nature of my friendship with Mr. Wheeler; how old and deep it was, how inwrought with the roots of my being. When I returned to my cell I went through my agony and bloody sweat. I know not how long it lasted. For awhile I stood like a stone image; anon I paced up and down like a caged tiger. One word burned like a lurid sun through a bloody mist. Mad! The school-master called on business. "Don't speak," I said. He cast a frightened look at my face and retired. At length relief came. The thunder-cloud of grief poured itself in a torrent of tears, the only ones my persecutors ever wrung from me. Over the flood of sorrow rose the rainbow of hope. He is only broken down, I thought; his delicate organisation has succumbed to a trial too great for its strength; rest and generous attention will restore him. Courage! All will be well.

And all is well. My friend is by my side again. He had relapses after his first recovery, for it was an awful blow; but I was in time to shield him from the worst of these. Scientific treatment, and a long stay at the seaside, renovated his frame. He has worked with me daily since at our old task, and I trust we shall labor together till there comes "The poppied sleep, the end of all."

I spent the next few days in preparing a new defence for my third trial for Blasphemy. During that time I was allowed an interview with two friends every afternoon. Mrs. Besant was one of my earliest visitors. I learned that the Freethinker was still appearing under the editorship of Dr. E. B. Aveling, who conducted it until my release; and that the business affairs of Mr. Ramsey and myself were being ably and vigilantly superintended by a committee consisting of Mrs. Besant, and Messrs. R. O. Smith, A. Hilditch, J. Grout, G. Standring and C. Herbert. There was, in addition, a Prisoners' Aid Fund opened and liberally subscribed to, out of which our wives and families were provided for.

On the morning of April 10, soon after breakfast, and while the prisoners were marshalling for chapel, I was conducted to a cell in front of the gaol, and permitted to array myself once more in a civilized costume. My clothes, like myself, were none the better for their imprisonment; but I felt a new man as I donned them, and trolled operatic airs, while warder Smith cried, "Hush!"

Mr. Ramsey went through a similar process. We met in the great hall, and in defiance of all rules and regulations, I shook him heartily by the hand. He looked thin, pale, and careworn; and the new growth of hair on his chin did not add to his good looks. After our third trial he got stout again, and it was I who scaled less and less. Perhaps his shoemaking gave him a better appetite; and perhaps I studied too much for the quantity and quality of prison blood.

Each of was accommodated with a four-wheeler, and a warder armed with a cutlass to guard us from all danger. It was a beautiful spring morning, and the sunlight looked glorious as we rattled down the Caledonian Road. I felt new-born. The early flowers in the street barrows were miracles of loveliness, and the very vegetables had a supernal charm. Tradesmen's names over their shops were wonderfully vivid. Every letter seemed fresh-painted, and after the dinginess of prison, the crude decorations struck me as worthy of the old masters.

Arriving at the rear of the Law Courts, we found many friends awaiting us. Colonel Milman was obliged to protect us from their demonstrations of welcome. Everyone of them seemed desirous to wring off an arm as a souvenir of the occasion. Inside I met Mr. Bradlaugh, Mrs. Besant, Dr. Aveling, and a host of other friends. My wife looked pale and haggard. She had evidently suffered much. But seeing me again was a great relief, and she bore the remainder of her long trial with more cheerfulness.

Mr. Bradlaugh's trial lasted three days, and we were brought up on each occasion. It was what the Americans call a fine time. A grateful country found us in cabs and attendants, and our friends found us in dinner. When the first day's adjournment came at one o'clock, my counsel, Mr. Cluer, asked what he should order for us. "What a question!" we cried. "Something soon, and plenty of it." It was boiled mutton, turnips, and potatoes. We proved ourselves excellent trenchermen, for it was our first square meal for weeks; and a group, including some of the jury, watched us feed.

Lord Coleridge's summing up in Mr. Bradlaugh's case was a wonderful piece of art. The even beauty of his voice, the dignity of his manner, the pathetic gravity with which he appealed to the jury to cast aside all prejudice against the defendant, combined to render his charge one of the great memories of my life.

The jury retired for half an hour, and returned with a verdict of Not Guilty! Mr. Bradlaugh was deeply affected. I shook his hand without a word, for I was speechless. I was inexpressibly glad that the enemy had not crippled him in his parliamentary struggle, and that his recent victory in the House of Lords, after years of litigation, was crowned by a happy escape from their worst design.

Our trial took place the next week, and lasted only two days, as we had no technical points to argue. Mr. Wheeler came up from Worcestershire to see me. He was still very weak, and obviously suffering from intense excitement. Still it was a pleasure to see his face and clasp his hand.

Sir Hardinge Giffard gloomed on us with his wintry face, but he left the conduct of the case almost entirely to Mr. Maloney. The evidence against us was overpowering, and we did not seriously contest it. Mr. Ramsey read a brief speech after lunch, and precisely at two o'clock I rose to make my defence, which lasted two hours and forty minutes.

The table before me was crowded with books and papers, and I held a sheet of references that looked like a brief. My first step was to pay Judge North an instalment of the debt I owed him.

"My lord, and gentlemen of the jury, -- I am very happy, not to stand in this position, but to learn what I had not learned before -- how a criminal trial should be conducted, notwithstanding that two months ago I was tried in another court, and before another judge. Fortunately, the learned counsel, who are conducting this prosecution have not now a judge who will allow them to walk out of court while he argues their brief for them in their absence."

Lord Coleridge interrupted me. "You must learn one more lesson, Mr. Foote, and that is, that one judge cannot hear another judge censured, or even commended."

I was checkmated, but taking it with a good grace, I said:

"My lord, thank you for the correction. And I will simply confine the observations I might have made on that subject to the emphatic statement that I have learnt to-day, for the first time -- although this is the second time I have had to answer a criminal charge -- how a criminal trial should be conducted."

His lordship did not interrupt me again. During the whole of my long defence he leaned his head upon his hand, and looked steadily at me, without once shifting his gaze.

To put the jury in a good frame of mind I told them that two months before I fell among thieves, and congratulated myself on being able to talk to twelve honest men. In order, also, that they might be disabused of the idea that we were being treated as first-class misdemeanants, I informed them of the discipline we were really subjected to; and I saw that this aroused their sympathy.

Those who wish to read my defence in extenso will find it in the "Three Trials for Blasphemy." I shall content myself here with a few points. I quoted heretical, and, as I contended, blasphemous passages from the writings of Professor Huxley, Dr. Maudsley, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Lord Amberly, the Duke of Somerset, Shelley, Byron, James Thomson, Algernon Swinburne, and others; and I urged that the only difference between these passages and the incriminated parts of my paper consisted in the price t which they were published. Why, I asked, should the high-class blasphemer be petted by society, and the low-class blasphemer be made to bear their sins, and driven forth into the wilderness of Holloway Gaol?

Lord Coleridge, in his summing up, supported my view, and his admission is so important that I venture to give it in full.

"With regard to some of the others from whom Mr. Foote quoted passages, I heard many of them for the first time. I do not at all question that Mr. Foote read them correctly. They are passages which, hearing them only from him for the first time, I confess I have a difficulty in distinguishing from the incriminated publication. They do appear to me to be open to exactly the same charge and the same grounds of observation that Mr. Foote's publications are. He says -- and I don't call upon him to prove it, I am quite willing to take his word -- he says many of these things are written in expensive books, published by publishers of known eminence, and that they circulate in the drawing-rooms, studies, and libraries of persons of position. It may be so. All I can say here is -- and so far I can answer for myself -- I would make no distinction between Mr. Foote and anybody else; and if there are persons, however eminent they may be, who used language, not fairly distinguishable from that used by Mr. Foote, and if they are ever brought before me -- which I hope they never may be, for a more troublesome or disagreeable business can never be inflicted upon me -- if they come before me, so far as my poor powers go they shall have neither more nor less than the justice I am trying to do to Mr. Foote; and if they offend the Blasphemy Laws they shall find that so long as these laws exist -- whatever I may think about their wisdom -- they will have but one rule of law laid down in this court."

Another point I raised, which I neglected in my previous defences, was this. What is it that men have a right to at law?

"Every man has a right to three things -- protection for person, property and character, and all that can be legitimately derived from these. The ordinary law of libel gives a man protection for his character, but it is surely monstrous that he should claim protection for his opinions and tastes. All that he can claim is that his taste shall not be violently outraged against his will. I hope, gentlemen, you will take that rational view of the question. We have libelled no man's character, we have invaded no man's person or property. This crime is a constructed crime, originally manufactured by priests in the interest of their own order to put down dissent and heresy. It now lingers amongst us as a legacy utterly alien to the spirit of our age, which unfortunately we have not resolution enough to cast among those absurdities which Time holds in his wallet of oblivion."

My peroration is the only other part of the defence which I shall extract.

"Gentlemen, I have more than a personal interest in the result of this trial. I am anxious for the rights and liberties of thousands of my countrymen. Young as I am, I have for many years fought for my principles, taken soldier's wages when there were any, and gone cheerfully without when there were none, and fought on all the same, as I mean to do to the end; and I am doomed to the torture of twelve months' imprisonment by the verdict and judgment of thirteen men, whose sacrifices for conviction may not equal mine. The bitterness of my fate can scarcely be enhanced by your verdict. Yet this does not diminish my solicitude as to its character. If, after the recent scandalous proceedings in another court, you, as a special jury in this High Court of Justice, bring in a verdict of Guilty against me and my co-defendant, you will decisively inaugurate a new era of persecution, in which no advantage can accrue to truth or morality, but in which fierce passions will be kindled, oppression and resistance matched against each other, and the land perhaps disgraced with violence and stained with blood. But if, as I hope, you return a verdict of Not Guilty, you will check that spirit of bigotry and fanaticism which is fully aroused and eagerly awaiting the signal to begin its evil work; you will close a melancholy and discreditable chapter of history; you will proclaim that henceforth the press shall be absolutely free, unless it libel men's characters or contain incitements to crime, and that all offences against belief and taste shall be left to the great jury of public opinion; you will earn the gratitude of all who value liberty as the jewel of their souls, and independence as the crown of their manhood; you will save your country from becoming ridiculous in the eyes of nations that we are accustomed to consider as less enlightened and free; and you will earn for yourselves a proud place in the annals of its freedom, its progress, and its glory."

I delivered this appeal to the jury as impressively as I could. There was a solemn silence in court. A storm cloud gathered while I spoke, and heavy drops of rain fell on the roof as I concluded.

Lord Coleridge lifted his elbow from his desk, and addressed the jury:

"Gentlemen, I should have been glad to have summed up this evening, but the truth is, I am not very strong, and I propose to address you in the morning, and that will give you a full opportunity of reflecting calmly on the very striking and able speech you have just heard."

My defence was a great effort, and it exhausted me. Until I had to exert myself I did not know how the confinement and the prison fare had weakened me. The reader will understand the position better if I remind him that the only material preparation I had in the morning for the task of defending myself against Sir Hardinge Giffard and Mr. Maloney was six ounces of dry bread and a little thin cocoa, which the doctor had ordered instead of the "skilly" to stop my diarrhoea. The Governor kindly allowed one of my friends to fetch me a little brandy. Then we drove back to prison, where I had some more dry bread and thin cocoa. The next morning, after an exactly similar meal, we drove down again to the court.

Lord Coleridge's summing-up lasted nearly two hours, and, like my defence, it was listened to by a crowded court, which included a large number of gentlemen of the wig and gown. His lordship's address is reported at length in the "Three Trials for Blasphemy," and a revised copy was published by himself. His view of the law has been dealt with already in my Preface. What I wish to say here is, that Lord Coleridge's demeanor was in marked contrast with Judge North's. I cannot do better than quote a few passages from an open letter I addressed to his lordship soon after my release:

"How were my feelings modified by your lordship's lofty bearing! I found myself in the presence of a judge who was a gentleman. You treated me with impartiality, and a generous consideration for my misfortunes. No one could doubt your sincerity when, in the midst of a legal illustration which might be construed as a reflection on my character, you suddenly checked yourself, and said, 'I mean no offence to Mr. Foote. I should be unworthy of my position if I insulted anyone in his.' You were scrupulously, almost painfully, careful to say nothing that could assist the prosecution or wound my susceptibilities. You appeared to tremble lest your own convictions should prejudice you, and the jury through you, against me and my fellow prisoner. You listened with the deepest attention to my long address to the jury. You discussed all my arguments that you considered essential in your summing-up; and you strengthened some of them, while deprecating others, with a logical force and beauty of expression which were at once my admiration and my despair. You paid me such handsome compliments on my defence in the most trying circumstances as dispelled at once the orthodox theory that I was a mere vulgar criminal. In brief, my lord, you displayed such a lofty spirit of justice, such a tenderness of humanity, and such a dignity of bearing, that you commanded my admiration, my reverence and my love; and if the jury had convicted me, and your lordship had felt obliged by the 'unpleasant law' to inflict upon me some measure of punishment, I could still have kissed the hand that dealt the blow.

"I know how repulsive flattery must be to a nature like yours, but your lordship will pardon one who is no sycophant, who seeks neither to avert your frown nor to gain your favor, who has no sinister object in view, but simply speaks from the fulness of a grateful heart. And you will pardon me if I say that my sentiments are shared by thousands, who hate your creed but respect your character. They watched you throughout my trial with the keenest interest, and they rejoiced when they saw in you those noble human qualities which transcend all dogmas and creeds, and dwarf all differences of opinion into absolute insignificance."

Lord Coleridge also deserves my thanks for the handsome manner in which he seconded my efforts to repudiate the odious charge of "indecency," which had been manufactured by the bigots after my imprisonment. These are his lordship's words:

"Mr. Foote is anxious to have it impressed on your minds that he is not a licentious writer, and that this word does not fairly apply to his publications. You will have the documents before you, and you must judge for yourselves. I should say that he is right. He may be blasphemous, but he certainly is not licentious, in the ordinary sense of the word; and you do not find him pandering to the bad passions of mankind."

I ask my readers to notice these clear and emphatic sentences, for we shall recur to them in the next chapter.

The jury retired at twenty minutes past twelve. At three minutes past five they were discharged, being unable to agree. It was a glorious victory. Acquittal was hopeless, but no verdict amounted practically to the same thing. Two juries out of three had already disagreed, and as the verdict of Guilty by the third had been won through the scandalous partiality and mean artifices of a bigoted judge, the results of our prosecution afforded little encouragement to fresh attacks on the liberty of the press.

I have since had the pleasure of conversing with one of the jury. Himself and two others held out against a verdict of Guilty, and he told me that the discussion was extremely animated. My informant acted on principle. He confessed he did not like my caricatures, and he considered my attacks on the Bible too severe; but he held that I had a perfect right to ridicule Christianity if I thought fit, and he refused to treat any method of attacking opinions as a crime. Of the other two jurors, one was convinced by my address, and the other declared that he was not going to assist in imprisoning like a thief "a man who could make a speech like that."

The next day I asked Lord Coleridge not to try the case again for a few days, as I was physically unable to conduct my defence. His lordship said:

"I have just been informed, and I hardly knew it before, what such imprisonment as yours means, and what, in the form it has been inflicted on you, it must mean; but now that I do know of it, I will take care that the proper authorities know of it also, and I will see that you have proper support."

His lordship added that he would see I had proper food, and he would take the defence whenever I pleased. We fixed the following Tuesday. During the interim our meals were provided from the public-house opposite the prison gates. My diarrhoea ceased at once, and I so far recovered my old form that I felt ready to fight twenty Giffards. But we did not encounter each other again. Feeling assured that if Lord Coleridge continued to try the case, as he obviously meant to until it was disposed of, they would never obtain a verdict, the prosecution secured a nolle prosequi from the Attorney-General. It was procured by means of an affidavit, containing what his lordship branded as an absolute falsehood. So the prosecution, which began in bigotry and malice, ended appropriately in a lie.

< Previous Chapter


Next Chapter >