Book: Crime's Strangest Cases

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When Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, landed from France on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 23 June 1745, he set in motion a chain of events that has become one of the most famous in British history.

His rebellious march south with intent to claim the English throne was to end in defeat for himself, but also in escape. But for many of his rebel forces fate was less kind, being decided by one of the strangest judicial practices in legal history. Anyone fancy their chances at trial by lottery?

Thomas Coppock was one of those who met their gruesome end in that bizarre fashion. He joined the band of rebel forces at Manchester as the ‘Young Pretender’ marched south towards London, but the closer to the capital they got the more their numbers dwindled. Ever more depleted and in low spirits, they got no further than the Midlands, being repelled at Derby on 6 December 1745. Some say they were merely repelled ‘by’ Derby and decided the south just wasn’t for them. That’s one for debate, but at any rate they retreated north, hotly pursued by the Duke of Cumberland, and ultimate defeat was delivered on 16 April 1746 at Culloden.

Now for the trials. But with almost four hundred rebels imprisoned at Carlisle Castle on charges of treason, each requiring a separate hearing, it was more than the courts could cope with. There was nothing for it but trial by lottery!

The procedure was simple but nerve-jangling, and the prize horrific. Prisoners willing to admit their guilt were split into groups of twenty and asked to draw numbers from a hat. The dubious bounty for the one ‘winning’ ticket was a trial, with its inevitable result. The other nineteen men were ‘rewarded’ by transportation for life, not always in itself a hugely attractive prospect, it is true, but better than sure-fire death.

With a nineteen-to-one chance of saving their skin, sub mitting themselves to the lottery was a chance many men took. The Reverend Thomas Coppock, the Oxford-educated chaplain of the rebel forces, was one such, but as he dipped his hand into the hat in September 1746 he was to find that he truly was God’s chosen one.

Charged with high treason after conducting a service for the ‘Bonnie Prince’ in Derby, and already having admitted his guilt, he bore slim hopes of coming out of the trial intact. They were even slimmer when his counsel, a Mr Clayton, failed to turn up to face the five members of the Bar leading the prosecution on behalf of the English Crown. A Scots advocate, David Graham, stepped into the breach to defend him, but neither he nor his client did much to help their cause, as a contemporary account of the trial relates:

Coppock’s counsel said very little in regard to his defence, for the prisoner’s behaviour before the court was rude and insolent and impudent beyond imagination.

The jury took less than a minute to find Coppock guilty of high treason, which ensured he would meet his end in a fashion even more dreadful than hanging. The judge pronounced sentence: ‘You are to be hanged by the neck, but not till you are dead, for you are to be cut down alive, your privy parts cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before your face, your head severed and your body divided into four parts; and those to be at the King’s disposal. And the Lord have mercy on your soul.’

Coppock was duly collected on 18 October 1746. He was dragged on a black hurdle from Carlisle Castle to the gallows on Harrowby Hill overlooking the town. Although he kept his composure and delivered a highly treasonable seven-minute sermon as his parting shot, it was there, so to speak, that he finally went to pieces.

Being hung, drawn and quartered fell into blessed disuse after 1746, as did the drawing of lots, but that was scant consolation for the unfortunate Thomas Coppock, winner of the worst lottery prize of all time.

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