Witchcraft, Murder, Slavery: 18th-Century Trial Accounts at Bonhams

Books giving accounts of some of the sensational trials of the 18th century are to be sold at Bonhams on 5 March as part of the sale of rare and historic European law books from the collection of the Los Angeles County Law Library.

All kinds of offences and issues are covered—from murder, fraud, and adultery to an argument over the patent granted to Richard Arkwright’s Spinning Jenny and an attempt by a slave to have himself declared a free man.

They include: 

  • The Tryal of Richard Hathaway, Upon An Information For being a Cheat and Imposter, For endeavouring to take away The Life of Sarah Morduck, for being a Witch at Surry Assizes... In Which is Discovered the Malicious Designs of the Said Impostor, with an Account of his Pretended Inchantments and Witchcraft. 

A witch trial with a difference since in this case the defendant Richard Hathaway had falsely accused a woman, Sarah Morduck, of witchcraft, an accusation which would have led to her death had it been proved. He was found guilty but the verdict is not recorded.  Estimate: £300-400.

  • The Authentick Tryals of John Swan, and Elizabeth Jeffryes, for the Murder of Mr. Joseph Jeffryes, of Walthamstow in Essex.

Swan was a servant to the unfortunate Mr Jeffryes and in league with the latter’s wife. Estimate: £800-1,000 (with accounts of other trials).

  • The Tryals of Haagen Swendsen, Sarah Baynton... for Feloniously Stealing Mrs. Pleasant Rawlins, a Virgin and Heiress of a Considerable Fortune

They were both found guilty.  Swendsen was hanged but Sarah Bayton was spared because she was pregnant though whether she became so deliberately to escape the death penalty is not clear. Estimate: £700-900 (with accounts of other trials). 

  • An Argument in the Case of James Sommersett, a Negro Lately Determined by the Court of King's Bench. Wherein it is Attempted to Demonstrate the Present Unlawfulness of Domestic Slavery in England.

This is a scarce first edition of an account of an important moment in the anti-slavery movement. The case centred on James Sommersett, an

African sold into slavery in Virginia, who on his arrival in England with his "owner" successfully moved to have himself declared "free" under English law.  Estimate: £400-600.

  • The Trial of a Cause Instituted by Richard Pepper Arden... to Repeal a Patent Granted on the Sixteenth of December 1775, to Mr. Richard Arkwright, for an Invention of Certain Instruments, and Machines for Preparing Silk, Cotton, Flax, and Wood for Spinning

An important trial which ended Arkwright’s monopoly over the use of the spinning and carding processes in the manufacture of cotton which he had been awarded in 1775. Arkwright, who is often referred to as the ‘father of the industrial revolution’, lost the case though in practice he had always found the patent difficult to enforce. Estimate: £200-300.                                                                                                         

Head of Bonhams Book Department in the UK, Matthew Haley, said,” These fascinating accounts cover legal proceedings for all sorts of offences. They show that, although the penalties may have changed over the centuries—most of the people featured in these trials were executed—the crimes themselves are depressingly familiar.”

The Los Angeles County Law Library, which is the largest public law library in the United States after the Law Library of Congress, assembled much of its collection of historic European law books in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.  The sale, the first major auction of antiquarian law books in the 21st Century, will enable it to concentrate resources on its core purposes of providing public access to practical legal knowledge for the people of Southern California and beyond and to free up space to conserve rare books and documents on American law.

Auction Guide