If This Isn’t Where The Term Criminal Court Came From, It Maybe Should Have Been

I’d have to go back and check to be absolutely sure, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that this, by far, is the oldest Master Criminals story we’ve ever featured here. It dates all the way back to 1725 and involves two robbers taking each other to court for fraud after their partnership went south.

How the case even ended up in court at all is unclear, although one account claims that it was, in fact, Williams who made the first move: After a quarrel over the value of a gold watch they had acquired in a recent robbery, Williams sued Everet for £200. When Everet failed to show up to court (perhaps understandably, given the true nature of their business, although Everet would claim he was in prison), the action against him went undefended, and Williams won not only the case but Everet’s share of the spoils as well. In response, Everet—presumably aggrieved that Williams had won the case—then raised his own case against Williams. He took the unusual step of hiring a pair of solicitors, William Wreathock and William White, to represent him. Wreathock and White, in turn, hired legal counsel, a barrister by the name of Jonathan Collins, who drew up an official complaint and took the highwaymen’s case to the Court of Exchequer.

The bill Collins compiled—which requested that Williams account for the value of the goods in question, and repay any money owed to the plaintiff—is a masterclass in legalese. At no point are the criminal aspects of Everet and Williams’s business alluded to, and instead Collins merely wrote that:
“… pursuant to the said agreement, [Everet] and the said Joseph Williams went on and proceeded jointly in the said dealing with great success on Hounslow Heath, where they dealt with a gentleman for a gold watch … [Williams informed Everet that] Finchley was a good and convenient place to deal in, and so they dealt there with several gentlemen or divers watches, rings, swords, canes, hats, cloaks, horses, bridles and other things to the value of £200 and upwards.”

Yes, lawyers were already shifty in the early 18th century. Thankfully that tendency had not yet spread to judges, and the one presiding over this case was not having any of it. He not only dismissed it, but he also ordered that lawyers Wreathock and White be arrested and charged with contempt, and that barrister Collins pay every cent of the costs associated with the case from his own pocket.

As for Everet and Williams, they both wound up arrested and hanged a few years later, an outcome aided in no small part by police knowing what they did and where they did it thanks to the lawsuit.

And because some folks never learn or because leopards don’t change their spots or because whatever expression you want to use, William Wreathock wasn’t done getting himself into trouble. Five years after this case finished up, he himself was convicted of robbery and run out of town, or “sentenced to transportation” as I was surprised to learn that they called it back then.

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