Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Libel Case.--Summary Punishment.
(S248a: 1875)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Wallace's 1870 wager to prove the earth a sphere drew a lot of press attention, especially when the loser, a flat-earther named Hampden, continued to libel and otherwise harass him and his family for several years afterward. A transcript ofthe court proceedings following one of these episodes, including Wallace's testimony, is given below. Printed on page 7 of the 12 March 1875 issue of The Chelmsford Chronicle. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S248A.htm


    SATURDAY.
(Before Lord Chief Justice Cockburn.)
The Libel Case.--Summary Punishment.

    On the adjournment of the Purfleet murder case, at five o'clock in the evening, a fresh jury was sworn to try the case of libel which had been deferred, at the request of the accused, John Hampden, on Thursday last, so that he might have time to prepare a written plea of justification.

    Mr. Woollett was counsel for the prosecutor, Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace, a gentleman well- known in the scientific world, who lives at the Dell, Grays Thurrock, in this county, and the prisoner Mr. Hampden, who had no counsel, surrendered immediately his name was called and handed in to the Clerk of Arraigns a written document.

    This document the clerk commenced to read. It opened by a plea of not guilty to each of the six distinct libels upon which the indictment was founded, and continued in the following strain:--"The defendant, John Hampden, instead of knowing the said charges to be false and malicious, declares them in a general sense to be substantially bona fide and true, and inasmuch as the said Alfred Russell Wallace is the professed champion and exponent of a popular system which the said John Hampden knows to be deceiving and defrauding large numbers of the educated classes, the said John Hampden feels justified in denouncing and exposing all attempts to prove such theories, by an appeal to actual facts." The clerk, seeing that the document was informal, ceased reading with the remark that it went on to charge Mr. Wallace with obtaining money by false pretences.

    His Lordship: If you wish to justify the libel, your plea must be that it is true and that it is for the public benefit that it is published.

    Mr. Woollett: We will raise no technical difficulties. We will simply join issue on everything he says. [Laughter.] Mr. Wallace is ready to meet any charge whatever.

    His Lordship said it had better be considered, then, that Mr. Hampden pleaded that the libels were true and published for the public benefit.

    Mr. Hampden: That is what I wish to plead, my lord.

    The Clerk of Arraigns reminded Mr. Hampden that he had written that Mr. Wallace was a swindler, a liar, a thief, and a cheat.

    Mr. Hampden said he maintained that this was true in a general sense of a man who had taken £500 under false pretences.

    His Lordship: Do you mean to assert that it is true that this gentleman is a swindler, a liar, and a thief, and that it was for the public benefit you declared him so to be?

    Mr. Hampden: Well, my lord, I will say no if I cannot qualify it in any way.

    Mr. Woollett: I apprehend that the last part of the document Mr. Hampden has put in will be struck out, because it is a mere impertinence.

    His Lordship intimated that it would be struck out, and that a simple and ordinary plea of justification would be taken.

    Mr. Woollett then opened the case, which, he said, had become almost notorious throughout the country. In 1870 the prosecutor was foolish enough to accept a challenge from the prisoner to prove the rotundity of the earth, the prisoner holding the belief that it was flat. [Laughter.] Each of them put £500 in the hands of a stakeholder, Mr. Walsh, editor of the Field. It was considered that the prosecutor proved his case, and the £1,000 was handed to him by Mr. Walsh. From that time to this his life had been hardly bearable in consequence of the repeated libels and persecutions of the prisoner, and these proceedings were taken in the hope of putting a stop to it.

    Mr. Wallace simply deposed to the receipt of the following post cards and letters, to their being in the handwriting of the prisoner, and to their statements being entirely unfounded:

1--Post card, dated Feb. 27, 1874.

    "Sir,--If you are not conscious that your conduct has been that of a swindler throughout, why don't you have the view along the six miles of the Bedford level photographed?--J. H."

2--Post card, 24th July, 1874.

    "Sir,--I have felt it my duty to suggest to the publishers of the "Encyclopædia" that the admission of articles from convicted thieves and swindlers cannot possibly do them or their work any credit, and offered to furnish them with proofs.--J. H."

3--Letter, 25th July 1874.

    "Sir,--I have received your letter, and in reply I beg to state that so far from knowing any charges to be false, I do now swear, and will swear as long as I have breath, that your conduct towards me has been that of a cheat, a swindler, an impostor, and a thief, and you shall put me into every court in the United Kingdom before you compel me to be so wronged and swindled as I have been by you, and I dare and defy you to show these libels to be false.--J. H."

4--Post card, 27th August, 1874.

    "Sir,--In a conversation in a railway carriage, Aug. 27, a gentleman, speaking of A. R. W., said 'Yes, indeed, that man must be a self-convicted thief who is content to wait eight months for a legal trial of his villainy when eight hours would suffice if he knew he was innocent.'--J. H."

5--Letter addressed to the editor of the English Mechanic, September 10, 1874, and enclosed by the editor to the prosecutor.

    "Sir,--What a disgraceful fact it is that one of your principal professors--one of the high priests of English science--should have been for four years and a half posted to every town in the kingdom as a convicted cheat, swindler, impostor, and thief, for such your friend, Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace has been, and the poor wretch does not seem to have had one friend besides his hired attorney to take his part.--John Hampden."

    Mr. Woollett said there were many other libels of the same sort, but perhaps no more need be specified.

    Mr. Hampden (to the prosecutor): When your counsel just now related that the discussion between ourselves was as to the shape of the earth, was that true or not?--Mr. Wallace: I believe it was. [Laughter.]

    Had the agreement anything at all to do with the shape of the earth?--I believe it had a great deal to do with the shape of the earth. [Laughter.]

    It had nothing whatever to do with it; I never wagered a shilling on the shape of the earth; you got, I presume, £500 from the hands of Mr. J. H. Walsh?--I did.

    Who drew up our agreement?--I believe I drew the first draught of it.

    I had nothing to do with it, had I?--You corrected that draught.

    Did you propose the editor of a sporting newspaper called the Field first as assignee or stakeholder, secondly as your referee, and thirdly as umpire?

    His Lordship: But all that was in writing, wasn't it?

    Mr. Hampden: Yes, sir.

    His Lordship: You cannot ask him on a written document without producing it.

    Mr. Hampden: I am under the disadvantage of a civil action now going on--[laughter]--and all my papers are in the hands of my solicitor. [Laughter.]

    To Mr. Wallace: What were Mr. Walsh's qualifications that entitled him to such important trusts?--He was the editor of a sporting paper.

    Was he a scientific man?--Certainly not, I should say.

    Did you not know from his total ignorance of science and engineering that he would be a mere tool and cat's-paw in your hands?--Certainly not.

    His Lordship: But you accepted him yourself, you see, Mr. Hampden. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Wallace said he submitted three names to Mr. Hampden--viz. the editors of the Field, of Land and Water, and of the English Mechanic. Two were non-scientific and one semi-scientific. Mr. Hampden said either would do. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden: Without wishing to occupy the time of the court with all the technicalities of the case--

    His Lordship: There are no technicalities about it. It is only the fact whether this gentleman is a swindler and a thief. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden (to Mr. Wallace): Will you venture to swear as a gentleman, upon your oath, that the curvature which you undertook to show of 24 feet in ten miles does really and truly and actually exist on the Old Bedford canal at the present moment?--I did not undertake to show that; it is not in the agreement. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden wished to put in a printed copy of the agreement of a rough draught, and Mr. Wallace was willing that he should do so, but his Lordship declined to receive any but the original document.

    Mr. Hampden: Then I am entirely in Mr. Wallace's power. [Laughter.] Is it not as much for Mr. Wallace to produce that agreement as for me.

    His Lordship: Certainly not. He does enough to prove the libels. The onus of proving that they are true lies upon you. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden: Well I am sure, my lord, my hands are tied.

    His Lordship: I cannot help it. I wish they had been tied when you wrote these letters. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden: I might almost as well sit down.

    His Lordship: That you must take your own course upon. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden: I am afraid, my lord, it is a foregone conclusion.

    His Lordship: It is not at all a foregone conclusion. You must prove your case according to law. I cannot wrench the law for you.

    Replying to further questions from Mr. Hampden, the prosecutor admitted that he met the editor of the Field at that gentleman's request at the Field office, on the 1st of April, but nothing passed between them beyond ordinary conversation. When the editor parted with the money he [Mr. Wallace] gave him an indemnity against any legal proceedings Mr. Hampden might take.

    His Lordship: But the editor decided first in your favour?--He decided first in my favour, and published his decision. Then there was some objection on the part of Mr. Hampden, and I gave him the indemnity.

    Cross-examination by Mr. Hampden continued: I know Mr. Walsh had received unconditional authority from you to pay the money because I signed it too. [Laughter.]

     Mr. Hampden: I never gave it to Mr. Walsh. Did you not know that he had received two or three written protests from me not to part with the money?--I did.

    Does that not justify my statement now that I never appointed Mr. Walsh?

    His Lordship: That is a totally different thing. You may have appointed him and when he decided against you protested against his decision and sought to revoke his authority, which you couldn't do. [Laughter.] Did the defendant sign the document in question?

    Mr. Wallace: He did, my lord.

    Mr. Hampden: Mr. Wallace knew nothing about civil engineering.

    His Lordship: That might be the very reason you chose him. [Laughter.] Subsequently his lordship remarked that he had this case before him previously, in another form, and the question between these two gentlemen was whether the earth was round or flat.

    Mr. Hampden: Your lordship is under a total misapprehension. [Laughter.]--Mr. Wallace undertook to show that there was no such thing as a flat surface in nature, and I offered £500 to anyone who would show a curve. He undertook to show a curve on five miles of water. He failed to do it, but got the money and has stuck to it from that day to this. [Laughter.]

    His Lordship: That does not prevent you from bringing an action against the stakeholder if you consider he gave up the money wrongfully.

    Mr. Hampden: Your lordship knows you tried the question yourself. Don't you remember that in the court at Westminster you gave me a verdict subject to a special agreement?

    His Lordship (Laughing): Subject to a special case, which special case, as I understand, you have never gone on with.

    Mr. Hampden: Oh, it is going on.

    His Lordship: I should have thought it had gone off by this time. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden: Your lordship must perfectly remember it, you know it isn't an every day case.

    His Lordship: No. Heaven forfend that cases of this sort should be every day cases. [Laughter.]

    Some further discussion occurring as to the original dispute between the two parties, his Lordship repeated that he had all along understood it was about the shape of the earth, and he had no doubt Mr. Wallace understood that too.

    Mr. Hampden (to Mr. Wallace): Why have none of your scientific friends ventured publicly to justify your conduct or your possession of the money?--They have all done so personally; they did not take the trouble to do so publicly.

    Don't you think it would have been worth while to defend your character?--I don't think my character needed that against your libels.

    Mr. Hampden: I should have thought it would have given your friends very little trouble and you a great deal of satisfaction and put a check instantly to my complaints; but when I saw you had no friends--

    His Lordship: Then you hit him the hardest, oh? [Laughter.]

    Mr. Wallace: Proctor, the astronomer, wrote letters on the subject, and you abused him almost as much as you abused me. [Laughter.]

    Mr. Hampden: Mr. Proctor is an astronomer, and astronomy has nothing to do with the question. Mr. Hampden proceeded to say that Mr. Wallace ought to taken other steps than he had to show his claim to the money, and that when he (Mr. Hampden) was altogether dissatisfied and discontented with what had been done he might have gone over the question again on his (Mr. Hampden's) paying the expenses. If his lordship, he added, insists upon having original documents now I must go to prison. I hope my words have not spoken louder to Mr. Wallace than his own conscience. I should have thought the possession of a thousand pounds a very strong solution for a great many hard words. [Laughter.]

    His Lordship: How do you propose to make out your justification?

    The prisoner, producing a pile of manuscript, then said: It is fortunate for me that my case does not require any of that special pleading which often serves to make the worse appear the better cause. Council for the prosecution has hardly said anything to show that Mr. Wallace has not deserved some little of the language I have addressed to him. Of course I don't wish to justify those expressions: I was thoroughly ashamed of them when I read them the other day. He added that he could only account for using them by saying Mr. Wallace had provoked him, and, having depended upon the charity of his friends and relations for the last two or three years, he had been driven into such extremities that he had taken up his pen and dashed off reckless assertions of which he was now ashamed.

    The Judge: Then why, if you are ashamed of it, do you attempt to justify it.

    The Prisoner: I do not justify the words, my lord.

    The Judge: What do you mean to justify then? You cannot call a man a swindler and a thief and then say you did not mean anything by it. His lordship added: No man has any right to call another person a swindler and a thief unless it is true--and even then he had better not do it. [A laugh.]

    The Prisoner: It is not only the act of taking possession of the money that I complain of. What has offended me much more has been Mr. Wallace's dogged determination not to write or speak to me.

    The Judge: If you call a man a swindler and a thief it is not very likely he will consent to become your correspondent.

    The Prisoner said Mr. Wallace might easily, by the expenditure of a five pound note, have prevented all further dispute by simply having the thing gone over again.

    The Judge: He has got the decision in his favour.

    The Prisoner: But the decision is disputed.

    His Lordship, after further latitude had been allowed the prisoner, said: I must really ask you whether you are prepared to justify the statement made in your several libels that Mr. Wallace is a swindler and a thief?

    The Prisoner: I am, my lord, perfectly prepared to prove that Mr. Wallace has taken possession of £500 by false pretences, only my papers are in London.

    The Judge: But you must put in that which the law allows to be put in.

    The Prisoner: But I am not prepared in that way.

    The Judge: Then that is your fault. A man who libels another, when he says he can justify that libel, must be prepared to do it. It is not enough to say your papers are in London; they should have been here.

    The Prisoner: If it will clear Mr. Wallace's character by sending me to gaol, by all means send me. I don't withdraw my charges. I only say I am tongue-tied and hand-tied.

    The Judge: You are not at all either tongue-tied or hand-tied, for you have the legitimate and regular means of defence; but it is not because you choose to libel another that you are to have opportunities that the law does not allow.

    The Prisoner: But my ignorance of the law ought to be a little plea in extenuation.

    The Judge: Any man may say he is ignorant of the law.

    The Prisoner: Well, certainly a great many may say so.

    The Judge: So they may, with perfect truth. [A laugh.]

    The prisoner then said he placed himself in his lordship's hands, seeing that all he could say was useless. He hoped, considering that there was a civil action pending, the judge would liberate him to come up for judgment when called upon.

    His Lordship, in summing up to the jury, said the prisoner had pleaded justification, which the statute decided was an aggravation of the first act if the plea was not sustained. This was not an ordinary case of libel, in which expressions had been used in a moment of anger, but it was a systematic, cross, libellous persecution, by the sending of open post cards which it was intended the people at the post-office should read.

    The Prisoner: Oh, no, my lord, the people at the post-office would not have time to read all these post cards.

    His Lordship: But if they saw your signature on one they would read it directly. They would be sure there was something spicey in it. [Laughter.] His lordship then reviewed the facts, as brought out, and said the prisoner would be quite right in taking legal action to recover the possession of his £500, if he considered Mr. Walsh had misused the authority which had been reposed in him--and they only had the prisoner's word for it that he had so misused that confidence. The case, the prisoner said, had been decided in his favour, subject to a special case to be stated for a higher court. The prisoner said that case was still coming on, but he (the learned judge) should have thought it had long since gone off, so long a time had elapsed since it was heard of. There was no questioning the propriety of Mr. Hampden to take proceedings to recover his stakes, but it was unreasonable for him to expect Mr. Wallace to hand back the money--since it had been given to him by the referee appointed by them in common--and have the thing tried over again.

    The Prisoner: I never suggested that.

    The Judge: Will you allow me, sir. You have had your opportunity, and now you must be silent. His lordship added that there had been nothing adduced to show that Mr. Wallace was in any sense of the term either a swindler or a thief, and there was nothing whatever against his character; and there was no alternative but for the jury to find a verdict of guilty.

    The jury, after a moment's consultation, returned a verdict of guilty.

    Mr. Woollett said Mr. Wallace had been subject to great persecution at the hands of the prisoner, who had twice pleaded guilty to uttering libels against him, and had also been once committed to prison for two months for a like offence.

    The Judge: Mr. Hampden, this must be put a stop to. The sentence upon you is, that you be imprisoned for 12 months, and that at the end of that period you find sureties--enter into your own recognisances in £1,000, and find two sureties in £200 each--for your good behaviour for two years. I will put a stop to this libelling.

    Mr. Hampden was then conducted to the cells below.

    The court rose shortly after six o'clock until eleven a.m. on Monday.


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