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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: August 2012

38 - The law


According to John Forster's Life, Charles Dickens was empanelled to serve on a coroner's jury sometime in 1840 for an inquest on the body of a young baby allegedly murdered by its mother. Dickens's ‘persevering exertion’ and ‘the humane help of the coroner, Mr Wakley … combined to ensure she was only charged with concealing the birth’ instead of the capital crime of murder:

‘The poor desolate creature dropped upon her knees before us with protestations that we were right (protestations among the most affecting that I have ever heard in my life), and was carried away insensible. I caused some extra care to be taken of her in the prison, and counsel to be retained for her defence when she was tried at the Old Bailey; and her sentence was lenient, and her history and conduct proved that it was right’. How much [Dickens] felt the little incident, at the actual time of its occurrence, may be judged from the few lines written next morning: ‘Whether it was the poor baby, or its poor mother, or the coffin, or my fellow-jurymen, I can't say, but last night I had a most violent attack of sickness and indigestion, which not only prevented me from sleeping, but even from lying down.’

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