The Story of “The Last Bankrupt Hanged”

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London Tower and surrounding walls (Photo by Marilyn Swanson)

 

Hanging was a spectator sport in eighteenth-century England, and . . . the usual crowd turned out to watch [John Perrott] swing.  They came to see off not a murderer, rapist, or highwayman, but rather a bankrupt.”

E. Kadens, “The Last Bankrupt Hanged: Balancing Incentives in the Development of Bankruptcy Law,” 59 Duke L.J. 1229 (2010). All information and quotes herein are from this article.

–The Fateful Day

“Around eight o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, November 11, 1761, the condemned prisoner, John Perrott, was taken from his cell in London’s Newgate Prison. He spent some time praying with the prison chaplain and receiving the Sacrament; then his leg shackles were knocked off and his hands bound. At a quarter after ten, he appeared ‘pale and trembling’ in the prison yard.”

“A few minutes later the under sheriff came to transport Perrott to his execution. He was loaded onto a cart and carried the short distance to the scaffold erected at the ancient hanging place in West Smithfield. Once there, Perrott looked about anxiously, concerned to see his hearse. Reassured of its presence, he prayed fervently and at around eleven o’clock was ‘launched into eternity.’”

Professor Kadens

Professor Emily Kadens, in her article linked above, explores the historic role of punishment in compelling a bankrupt debtor’s cooperation and full disclosure of assets. In the article, Professor Kadens develops her original research into fascinating historical stories (like the one highlighted here) and creates a compelling argument about the role of punishment in bankruptcy.  Her article is a must-read!

John Perrott’s Story – As Told by Professor Kadens

John Perrott’s execution “captured the attention of the times” and became “so famous that a nineteenth-century editor of Blackstone’s Commentaries called Perrott the last bankrupt hanged.”  But he wasn’t.  “John Senior, a clothier from the village of Alverthope, outside Wakefield in Yorkshire,” in 1813 became the actual “last man hanged for fraudulent bankruptcy in England.”

Here are the facts of the John Perrot case – and how a bankrupt debtor goes about getting himself hanged for bankruptcy crimes in 1761.

–Background

John Perrott conducted business as a cloth merchant.

“Through 1758, Perrott had done business on a cash basis. In 1759, he suddenly began to buy on credit and in significantly larger quantities than before. But he had built a good reputation for honesty during the nearly thirteen years he had been trading for his own account, and his creditors let his debt mount.”

–Act of Bankruptcy

On January 17, 1760, John Perrott committed an act of bankruptcy: he “called his creditors together at the Half Moon Tavern in Cheapside, London to inform them that he could not pay his debts.”

Bankruptcy commissioners “found Perrott a bankrupt,” and he “surrendered himself as such.”  The commissioners “soon realized that a large sum of money was unaccounted for”: his books were in “total disorder,” his annual debt “suddenly and unaccountably increased from less than £300 in the years before 1758 to upwards of £27,000 in 1759,” and he had “begun to sell anonymously through a broker, Henry Thompson” — but neither Perrott nor Thompson “could produce records of these transactions.”

–Acts of Concealment

The commissioners also learned of “two potential acts of concealment”:

(i) “Perrott had his apprentice deliver a package to Thompson for safe keeping.” He told  Thompson “it contained personal papers unrelated to the bankruptcy,” but “two days before Thompson testified,” Perrott took the package back.  Perrott “later told the commissioners that the package contained ‘nothing but letters from the fair sex,’ which he had since destroyed.”

(ii) Patrick Donelly, a wigmaker, told the commission that “Perrott sent him two large boxes, claiming that the boxes contained his clothing and asking Donelly to hold onto them while he looked for lodging.”  Days later, “Perrott instructed Donelly to deliver the boxes” to “a house in the fashionable Queen Square” occupied by Mrs. Mary Anne Ferne, who acknowledged knowing Perrott “for about a year” but claimed she “had received no money, banknotes, or other effects from him.”

–Inadequate Explanation

Meanwhile, the commissioners could not account for “the whereabouts of £13,500,” which is “a very large sum” – “nearly twice the annual income of the highest paid barristers of the time.”  Here is Perrott’s explanation to the commissioners:

–he “lost about £2,000 on goods sold in the previous year”; and

–“for nine or ten years, I have, and am sorry to say it, been extremely extravagant, and spent large sums of money.”

The commissioners weren’t buying this explanation because, “Perrott had only been running up his credit for a year, and an amount like £13,500 was, they felt, too large to spend in so short a time, especially because Perrott claimed that he had never gambled and because his books showed him to be a man of frugal habits.”

–Commitment to Newgate Prison . . . and Back Again

“Exercising their statutory power, the commissioners had Perrott committed to Newgate Prison until he saw fit to provide a complete and reasonable account of the missing money.”

“After six weeks in Newgate,” Perrott “sent notice to the commissioners that he would answer their question.”  He then “presented the commissioners with an account” in “round numbers, totaling £15,030” for “such items as rent, food, clothing, travel expenses, wages, commissions paid to his agent, and sales losses,” including £920 for “Tavern expenses, coffee-house expenses, and places of diversion” and £5,500 for “Expenses attending the connection I had with the fair sex.”

He “submitted no evidence to support this accounting,” so the commissioners “sent him back” to Newgate Prison.

–A Servant as Witness

The commissioners “concluded that Perrott was engaged in some sort of fraud, but they lacked hard evidence.”  One witness, “a former maidservant of Mary Ann Ferne,” came forward “seeking the advertised reward of 20 percent of the bankrupt’s estate to anyone uncovering the missing assets.”  The only meaningful information she could provide is that, “before meeting Perrott, Ferne had been poor” but that “now she was flush with money.”

The servant “mentioned that Ferne had hidden a paper package” containing banknotes and “claimed that Perrott had instructed her that if anyone came to search the house, she should show them his rooms and not Ferne’s.”  But such testimony was “considered insufficient” for legal action.  So, a dividend was then paid to creditors “of five shillings on the pound.”

–Writs of Habeas Corpus

Perrott then “brought writs of habeas corpus in King’s Bench” arguing that he “should be released” from Newgate Prison because “he had answered the commissioners’ questions.”  The petition resulted in “an important opinion that established the right of commissioners to keep bankrupts imprisoned even after they had answered the commission’s questions”:  “Rex v. Perrott, heard on February 10, 1761.”

Perrott lost this case because “Perrott’s answer to the commissioners was ‘very insufficient and unsatisfactory’” and because “bankruptcy statutes gave the commissioners the general power to examine and imprison the bankrupt . . . until he made a full answer.”

–Another Examination . . . and Back to Newgage

Perrott then submitted to “yet another examination by the commissioners.”  This time he explained about “a certain Sarah Powel, ” on whom he spent “for the first five years of their relationship £400 or £500.”  Then during 1759 “he had lavished money upon her to the amount of £5,000.”

“The commissioners were still not convinced” because, Perrott (i) couldn’t “provide any details” about expenditures on Powel or “remember where she had lived,” (ii) said none of  the money he sent to Powel came from “(traceable) bank notes,” and (iii) “could provide no proof” of sending large sums of money to Powel.  The commissioners found, instead, that “Powel had complained to others of Perrott’s parsimony” and that Powel “was a prostitute.”

Perrott went back to Newgate, and “once again he brought a habeas corpus petition before King’s Bench.”    Perrott lost, again, and the court “remanded Perrott to Newgate without opinion.”

–A Lodger / Maid as Witness

Next, Perrott “filed suit in Common Pleas for false imprisonment against the commissioners.”  But that proceeding “was halted when the commissioners made a ‘fatal discovery.’”  A creditor “was walking in the garden of Lincoln’s Inn when he saw a dejected-looking woman leaning against the wall.  He approached this stranger and asked her what was the matter (or at least so the ‘remarkably provindential’ [sic] story goes).   She told him that she had been fired by a certain Mrs. Ferne.”  The creditor recognized the name and directed her to his attorney.  Then, “she deposed as follows”:

She lodged with Ferne when “Ferne had very little money.”  Two years later, Ferne asked her to become Ferne’s maid.  She then lived with and worked for Ferne “from March 5 to June 4, 1761.”  During that time, “she saw banknotes worth £4,000 in Ferne’s possession.”  Ferne told Harris that “when she had met Perrott she had no money at all,” that “all her fortune was owing” to Perrott, and that “if she had known that . . . Perrott was going to fail, she would have got all she could from him . . . that his creditors should not have had any thing.”

–A Search Warrant

The commissioners “issued a warrant for Ferne’s house and Perrott’s rooms at Newgate.” At Ferne’s house they found “halves of five banknotes, dated February or March 1761, amounting to £185,” and they found the “other half of four of the notes turned up tied in a rag at the bottom of Perrott’s trunk in Newgate, along with half of a note for £1,000.”  These notes were traced to “Martin Mathias, a solicitor.”

–Tracing Bank Notes

Mathias testified that “Ferne had hired him . . . to work on Perrott’s case” and “brought him thirteen banknotes,” all of which “had been cut in half and glued back together with wax.”  Mathias said he believed the money “belonged to Ferne, whom he understood to be a lady of high birth and means.”

Ferne told the commissioners that she “acquired the money for granting favors” to two elderly gentlemen: “one who wore ‘a blue coat, and a star upon his breast, and a cockade in his hat’ and the other, a man of seventy, who wore ‘a white coat, with a star on it, and a light blue garter.’” She didn’t know their names but contacted them, when she needed money, at “coffee houses they frequented, and they would give her cash or notes.”  The half-notes “ended up in Perrott’s trunk for safe keeping because, ‘her Maid-servant being apt to drink, she, [Ferne], apprehended if she and her servant should both happen to be in liquor together, there would be some danger of setting the house on fire.’”

The commissioners traced back “most of the thirteen original banknotes to merchants who had paid Perrott’s agent for cloth.”

–“The Game Was Up”

In September 1761, creditors “preferred a bill of indictment against Perrot at the London criminal court, the Old Bailey, for concealing his effects,” and “Perrott was tried on October 21, 1761.”  Trial “lasted six hours as the prosecution painstakingly explored the money trail.”  Perrott in defense “could only say that he had sent all the money he received from Thompson to his mistress, Sarah Powel,” and that “the half banknotes in his trunk were Ferne’s.” She asked Perrott to keep them. ”He agreed to do so” because:

“I thought I should be very ungrateful, if I did not; and the reason she gave me was, her house had been attempted to have been broke open twice; and for the favours she was pleased to compliment me with, she said she thought she had some little right so to do.”

Perrott lost in court . . . again.  But this time the loss is fatal: the sentence is death!

–No Gallows Confession

“The day before his execution,” two creditors visited Perrott in prison. “They found him remorseful and willing to answer questions.”  Assuring him of their forgiveness, “they asked where the money was.”  Here’s the response:

“[A]fter a deep pause, Perrott said, I have this day received the Holy Sacrament, and will answer no more questions.”

The creditors “went away empty-handed.”

–Accomplice Prosecuted

Several days after Perrott’s execution, “Ferne was taken into custody.”  She then turned over “the half of two Bank notes; the other moiety of which were sometime since found in the possession of Perrott in Newgate.”  Certain other notes “were artfully concealed behind the backboard of Perrott’s picture, which was in this Lady’s apartment.”

In April 1762, Perrott’s creditors “unanimously agreed to prosecute the Celebrated Lady who was party in concealing the Bank-notes, with the utmost rigour.”

Conclusion

Bankruptcy laws, including bankruptcy crimes and punishments, have come a long way since the bankrupt-hanging days of two and three centuries ago.  But the underlying issues, and human nature, are still about the same.

Check out Professor Kadens’s article linked above for much more.

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