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LAWmazing #2

Lawyer/Boor Costs Brits $6-Million

Henry Field GurnerHenry Field Gurner (pictured, 1819-1883) was an Australian lawyer who should be ashamed of himself.

Born, raised and educated in Australia, by 1865, Gurner was the Attorney General of Australia, then still a mere colony of England. On 5 PM, February 17, 1865, the American consul general to Australia, William Blanshard, and others of Melbourne, rushed to Gurner's private home to urgently ask that the small Confederate ship Shenandoah, harbored at Melbourne, be held in port; and that if it was done otherwise and the Shenandoah caused any damage to Union shipping, the British government would be held accountable. The Shenandoah had already wrecked havoc on Union boats.

But the Honourable H. F. Gurner, Esquire, was having his supper at the time and made Blanshard wait in a side room until he was done dinner before looking into the matter. By the time Gurner was done picking his teeth, the ship had sailed and in the result, did cause over $6-million of damage to Union shipping, all collected against the British government who had to sheepishly take responsibility for Gurner's boorish behavior.

Gallows Has Same Name As Condemned Men

The dead body of Edmund Berry Godfrey was found at near Greenberry Hill (in London; aka Primrose Hill) on October 17, 1768. Tried and sentenced to be hung for the murder: Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill. They were hung from gallows erected at ... Greenberry Hill.

The Oldest Court In The World

Water CourtThe Water Court (Tribunal de Las Aquas) has been sitting in the Cathedral of Valentia, Spain since 961, every Thursday at 11 AM, to resolve farm border, irrigation and other water-related disputes between local farmers.

The seven members are elected by local farmers and the hearings are held without oaths, written records or lawyers. The Court sits on  a circular velvet couch to listen and render judgment in the local Valencia dialect. The Court was created by Moorish farmers.

Now mostly a tourist attraction, the Court dutifully sits once a week and if no-one shows up with a dispute to be resolved, the Court adjourns until the following week.

31 Year Sentence For A Joke

Francis Seldon (the French called him François) was imprisoned in the Bastille, Paris (pictured), for 31 years just because he had plastered a small poster criticizing his Jesuit teachers for holding the king above God.

La BastilleHe was only 16 at the time and a student at a Jesuit College in Clermont when the king came to visit, in 1674. The poster had embarrassed the king. Even though Seldon was from a rich Irish family, sent to France to get an education, the king issued a lettre de cachet and the young boy was arrested and secreted to the Bastille in Paris. Louis XIV (1638-1715) later issued a further lettre de cachet, this time a life sentence to the brash young Irishman, while Seldon's heart-broken parents were told that the child had just disappeared. Seldon was transferred to another prison (îles Sainte-Marguerite) until 1691 when he was returned to the Bastille. In 1705, Seldon was freed after a Jesuit priest took up his cause in exchange for 98% of Seldon's assets (Seldon did not know he was rich). The king was finally convinced to free Seldon.

Seldon returned to Ireland broken physically but wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. His parents had died, heartbroken, but he was heir to the family fortune which had been wisely administered in his absence. He belatedly honoured his contract with Jesuits.

50 Year Sentence For A Whistle

Seldon was followed by the strange case of the 22-year old Marie-Augustin, Marquis de Pélier of Britanny who whistled at Marie-Antoinette as she took her seat in a Paris theatre, circa 1786. Again, a lettre de cachet and Marie-Augustin found himself on the inside of a French prison, with his property forfeited to the French Crown.

Marie-Antoinette and the signatory of the lettre de cachet, Louis XVI has both been beheaded and the French Revolution came and went and still the Marquis de Pélier languished in jail, forgotten.

In 1814, he was ordered released but as Napoleon made his break for a second tour as emperor, the Marquis was again forgotten. Finally, in 1834, at the age of 72, after 50 years in prison, he was released. As a belated act of decency, his property in Brittany was restored to him.

From Dungeon to Law-Maker in Minutes

Haiga SophiaThe beginnings of the future Byzantine Emperor Michael II were inauspicious but while he was a nobody, he had the fortune of befriending a man who became Leo V. Once Leo ascended to the throne, he and Michael had a falling-out and Michael was sentenced to death. He was chained and jailed while awaiting his execution, set for just after Christmas 820.

And thus occurred the events which thrust Micheal onto the throne of the Byzantine Empire.

On Christmas Day, 820, Michael was rescued by his allies but they were unable to completely remove the chains from his wrists and ankles. But Michael's mob found Leo at the altar of the great church Haiga Sophia (pictured, still stands in present-day Istanbul), after first killing his guards. Leo V fought valiantly but soon succumbed and Michael was quickly proclaimed emperor, styled Michael II, with his prison chains still dangling.

Rum-Lovin' Law-Maker

Sir John RobertsonSir John Robertson (1816-1891) was five times premier of New South Wales, Australia, from 1860 to 1886. He lived in Watson's Bay, a seven-mile horseback ride he took every morning and night, back and forth from the seat of the NSW legislative assembly in Sydney.

But this law-maker was, well, different. He loved his rum and visitors to the legislative assembly noted the strong smell of liquor. Of him was said that his "voice (was) the loudest, his language the most violent and his attitudes the most distorted."

Everyday, before embarking on this long ride, Premier Robertson would buy three pints of rum at the King Street Tea Rooms in Sydney. One, he would drink on the spot. The other he would give to his horse, and the third he would pour into his tall riding boots to prevent rheumatism.

Gross Travesty of Military "Justice"

rum bottleSpeaking of rum, teetotaller John Wilson enlisted in the British Army and was sent to India to quell native uprisings in 1815. He served in the 84th regiment of the British Army (Yorkshire and Lancaster).

In an extraordinary example of the harshness of military law, he was court martialed for his refusal to consume the daily ration of a glass of rum to each soldier.

In fact, in one of the most egregious legal decisions of all time, military law or otherwise, he was found guilty of failure to obey orders and shot! He is buried in Agram Cemetery, Bangalore, India.

A Tree For A Life

Oak TreeModern justice seems so well-organized and rule based that you just don't get the judgments of yesterday. Take Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), for example. She was stuck with meting out punishment to John Copleston, a rich nobleman from Warlegh.

One fine day in 1580, at Tamerton-Foliot, England, Copleston murdered his own grandson in full view of all his townsfolk then just exiting from Sunday church services. The grandson had angered Copleston and had made the mistake of showing up at church. Copleston followed him outside and threw his dagger at his back.

The knife hit the grandson square in the back and killed him.

Normally, such a crime would merit capital punishment but if nothing else, Elizabeth was, well, royal. It did not hurt that Copleton that he quickly and discreetly gifted to the Queen thirteen manors in Cornwall.

Oh well, figured the Queen, maybe he wasn't that bad after all.

She added one unusual punishment for which Copleston would be pardoned for his crime. He was to plant an oak tree on the scene of the crime.

The murder tree, which became known as Copleston Oak, adorned Tamerton-Foliot for two hundred years.

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  • Arnould, A., Histoire de la Bastille, depuis 1374 jusqu'à 1789 (Paris: Administration de Librairie, 1844), pages 37-78 (re Francis Seldon).
  • Coeuret, A., La Bastille (1370-1789) Histoire, Description, Attaque et Prise (1890; re Francis Seldon)
  • Culver, R., A Biography of Lewis Peter Wiggins, extracted from on March 26, 2008 (re the $6-million Dinner)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, LAWmazing 1
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, LAWmazing 3
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, LAWmazing 4
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, LAWmazing 5
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, LAWmazing 6
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, LAWmazing 7
  • LAWmazing - The Canadian Edition (Volume 8)
  • Executive Documents, 3rd Session, 42nd Congress, 1872-1873, House of Representatives (Washington: Gov. Printing House, 1873), pages 394-395 (re $6-million Dinner)
  • Handbook For Travellers in Devonshire (London: John Murray, 1887), page 1254, re The Murder Tree.
  • Hartston, W., 10 Things You Never Knew About ... The Theatre, Sunday Express, March 27, 2009.
  • Travers, R., Australian Mandarin: The Life and Times of Quong Tart (Rosenberg Publishing 2004), page 13 (re Rum-Lovin' Law-Maker)
  • Tribunal de Las Aguas - Sight-seeing / Attraction in Valencia, Spain - The Water Cour, Valencia City Guide, (re the Water Court)

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