Sunday, January 31, 2010

And the Oscar for Best Actress of 1824 goes to... Sarah Drew

On October 3rd, 1824, two men were crossing the London Field, near Hackney, when they heard a woman calling for help. Investigating, they found maidservant Sarah Drew standing beside a shallow pond, muddy and wet up to her chest. She exclaimed that she had been accosted, robbed, and thrown into the water. The men escorted her to a nearby pub, where she told a fantastic tale. 

Over a week ago, she had seen a strange man hovering around the silk manufactory where her master worked, but thought little of it until some valuable silks disappeared. The police took Sarah with them to some known thieves' resorts, but she denied seeing the mysterious stranger in any of them. The officers advised her to follow the man if she saw him again, and find out where he lived or worked so that he could easily be located and arrested.

Sarah attended evening church service on October 3rd, and claimed that she was on her way home when she saw the wanted man walking across London Field. She followed him as directed, but did not get far before she was grabbed by two men (presumably the thief's confederates) and dragged to the pond where she was later found. She said that they stole her purse before heaving her into the water and leaving her to drown.

A local rowdy named Edward 'Kiddy' Harris was eventually identified by Sarah as one of her attackers. Harris had an alibi- his wife and children swore that he had been home all evening on October 3rd. But Sarah told her story so convincingly that a jury convicted him, and he was executed at Newgate in February 1825.

Later that year, Harris' attorney James Harmer published a pamphlet called The Case of Edward Harris, who was executed at Newgate for robbing and ill-treating Sarah Drew. This document, which is available in the Google Books online library, makes a powerful argument for Harris' innocence. Apparently the police officers who took Sarah on a grand tour of the thieves' dens actually pointed him out to her and suggested that he was a bad enough character to be the robber. She looked at him closely but denied that he was the man. Then she somehow ended up in a pond, and accused Harris of being one of the abductors.

Harmer suggests that Sarah Drew might have become a little too adventurous with some young men, and tried to save her reputation afterward by claiming that she had been attacked. When found at the pond, her head  and shoulders were not wet, which they should have been had she been thrown violently in. Her shoes, which she said she had kicked off during the struggle, were neatly positioned when found. To complete the ruse she needed a dyed-on-the-wool villain, and Edward Harris, who had a criminal record, was made to order.

As he was ascending the scaffold steps, Harris bemoaned his fate to reporters. "Oh Gentlemen, tell them (meaning the public) that I die innocent; I am murdered; I am, so help me God! as I am a dying man. I know I have been a wicked man, and a fighting man, and all that, but of this I am innocent."

If he was, then Sarah Drew was not. And in 1820s England, that would have been reason enough for her to concoct a lie so terrible that it sent a man to an early grave.

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