Friday, 17 June 2016

The Public Pillory in Jersey

From “Jersey Topic” of 1967 comes this piece. I was uncertain whether to publish it, but I decided to as it was an interesting criminal case, and one of the last times prisoners were sentenced to the public pillory.

It is clear that in 1835, from the reports in the Jersey Argos, that some anti-Semitism was present, although how ubiquitous is another matter . It is perhaps not so clear whether Peter Cook, in the manner in which he reports it, might be taken as colluding with this anti-Semitism, albeit unintentionally. His opening paragraph, in particular, while describing the people of that time, would if written today seemed rather anti-Semitic. I find it very unpleasant to read.

It is notable that when Abraham Jones Le Cras is writing in 1839, he doesn’t make any mention at all of the three men being Jewish.

“Forgery is punished only as a fraud, by imprisonment, whipping or banishment. In 1798 a woman was sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment for circulating base coin. In 1799 an individual was imprisoned for six months. In 1828 Alexander was exposed in the pillory and imprisoned, and in 1835, Bershon, Myers and Cohen, were exposed in the pillory, imprisoned the two first for 12 mouths and the latter for 6, and afterwards banished for life, and their property confiscated, for having participated in the forgery, and circulation of Guernsey banknotes. Banishment means transportation to England!”


They certainly weren’t a a handsome trio as they stood at the bar of the Royal Court. But then no one expected Jews to be handsome. The charge they faced was a serious one.

They were accused of “forging promissory notes, of the value of one pound, on the States of Guernsey, and with having circulated the said notes knowing them to be forged.”

Arraigned before the Court on Monday. May 4th 1835 were Joseph Jacob Alexander Bershon. David Myers and David Cohen. Myers was a tall. sour man; Cohen was the servant of the other two, a meek. stupid man, unable to read or write and quite incapable of understanding the gravity of the charge; and Bershon, a small, evil-looking man, was the villain of the piece, the 'brains' behind an attempt to swamp St. Helier traders with illegal Guernsey money.

They had actually been captured and held in prison since January of the same year. The arrest had taken place after several merchants had compared the counterfeit notes that Cohen and Myers had traded for food and drink. On January 5th, the Constable of St. Helier had called at Mrs. Sullivan's lodging house in New Street, when the Jews were out. With the help of passers-by he had broken down the door to their bedrooms and discovered forged notes, some partly burnt in the fireplace, some hidden in the lavatory.

Bershon, Myers and Cohen had been arrested just before they took the boat for France. On January 14th, the Royal Court had heard evidence from scores of indignant shopkeepers who'd been cheated by the trio. Then the Jews were taken hack to prison and there they stayed until brought to trial before the petty jury of St. Helier on May 4th.

Meanwhile, another action had been brought against Bershon. A Paris hatch and clock maker. Monsieur Berlin Villain, reckoned that he and not the King of England should be able to seize Bershon's goods. Whilst in France, the Jews had set up in business as 'Jacobi and Harris' and bought goods from Paris without actually paying for them. Judgement on this point was deferred. There were enough Creditors in Jersey without satisfying file ones abroad.

Other facts about Bershon's disreputable last came to light later. There was an inquiry about his fate from Fontainebleau and the local police were told that he was something of a ladies' man. So far he'd totalled two wives in France, one in Poland and a fourth in England. The inquiry came from wife No. 2. the girl he'd married when she was "a beautiful young lady only 17 years of age" deserted in

Rouen and sent back to her family as soon as he'd finished spending her fortune.

Together with his two confederates he sat, stony-faced and unrepentant, before the Royal Court. And together they sat there from ten o'clock in the morning until 1 30 at night, listening to the pleas of their counsel fall on deaf cars. Their advocate maintained that the forged notes had no legal value in Jersey and in the True traditions of Perry Mason the exhibits hadn't been numbered so they couldn't he properly identified. But it was in vain.

Just after 11 the jury returned a verdict of 'guilty. As soon as was announced, the prisoners claimed their right of being tried again, the second time by a grand jury

Then they were driven back to prison "a carriage being sent for, the Jews were re-conducted to gaol about half-past eleven," reported the Jersey Argus man-on-the-spot.

A week later the grand jury of 24 members-eight from St. Saviour and St. Lawrence, as well as eight from St. Helier-came to a similar verdict. The second trial lasted a little longer. The Jews arrived flanked by pikemen or 'halberdiers' at ten o'clock in the morning and learnt their sentence only minutes before midnight. During the course of the proceedings, the Attorney General took no less than six-and-a-half hours to go through what the local news-paper described as "the formal and tedious process of reading numerous documents." After a mere half-an-hour the grand jury came back with the same decision.

The Bailiff then sentenced Bershon in French and the other two in English. "In consequence of your crime the Court condemns you to be given into the hands of the public executioner to be publicly exposed for one hour. Your property, goods and chattels are confiscated for the benefit of the King and the Lord of the Manor. You are to undergo an imprisonment and hard labour; you Bershon and Myers for one year, and you Cohen for six months; at the expiration of which you are to be expelled the Island forever, being forbidden to return save with the King's leave."

The prisoners showed no emotion at the time. But it was different the following Saturday. They were led through jeering crowds to the public pillory in the Royal Square.

Shortly after two o'clock their necks and hands were encased, and they stared down on the hostile crowd. Myers was too tall for the machine and he suffered more than the others. When he was led away, he showed the Deputy Viscount his hands, swollen and inflamed from propping up the weight of his massive frame. The much-married Bershon was exactly the opposite. He was so tiny that it required a real effort to keep his head high and prevent his chin from being grazed. A hardened criminal, he was utterly indifferent to the public disgrace and joked with someone in the crowd when the hangman brought him down.

For Cohen it was different. He looked penitent and wept. His descent from the pillory exhibited a man in great mental agony," said a local trader. The most innocent, he was also the most contrite.

Throughout the hour the immense crowd which packed the Square and all the neighbouring streets remained orderly. The only scuffle came when a woman angrily thrust a counterfeit note in Bershon's face. She was led away by a police officer.

The disgrace of the three Jews was to be one of the last times that the public pillory was used. In some ways it marked a transition in the history of public punishment. Just a decade earlier, men in the pillory had been mutilated by the public, showered with rubbish, cut by volleys of sea-shells. Just a decade later, the Jersey public were to witness the last humiliation of a criminal in the Royal Square.

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