Do Not Covet a Barrister’s Wife, 1862

The Marshalsea, Dublin, 1860

From the Usk Observer, 19 July 1862:

“The Dublin papers announce the death of a person named Sterne, who had been imprisoned for debt in the Four Courts Marshalsea for 36 years. Mr Sterne was a gentleman of large fortune… a gentleman of fashion as well as a ‘fast’ man about town. The most remarkable event of his life was his elopement with a married lady of great respectability, the wife of an eminent barrister. This lady, who was young, pretty and well connected, formed a fatal attachment to Mr Sterne, and yielded in an unhappy moment to his solicitations to elope with him.

The matter was arranged at a ball given by the husband, at which Mr Sterne was present as a guest. About two o’clock in the morning, while the festivities were at their height, the lady put on her bonnet and shawl and proceeded downstairs unobserved. Mr Sterne was waiting her in a carriage. The injured husband instituted proceedings for damages… it subsequently transpired that after inducing the unhappy lady to leave her husband and her home, Mr Sterne, within a short time, ruthlessly abandoned her and turned her out of doors…

About the year 1824 Mr Sterne was arrested on account of a debt of about £300 and was committed to the Four Courts Marshalsea. Bereft of resources and discarded by all his connections, it was impossible for him to procure the means to satisfy all his creditors… Mr Sterne [might] have obtained his release either by filing his petition in the Insolvent Court or by signing a pauper declaration, under either of which, as his creditors were all dead, he would have obtained his discharge as a matter of course. Mr Sterne, however, having neither friends nor acquaintances, did not choose to avail himself of this opportunity, and he accordingly remained in prison for 36 years.”

The case, Guthrie v Sterne, brought by the injured barrister Mr Guthrie, effectively ruined Sterne. The closing speech of Mr Guthrie’s barrister, Mr Phillips, was reprinted in a pamphlet which you can read here.

The ill-fated Sterne appears to have been plagued by disaster even in prison. His son subsequently died in mysterious circumstances while visiting him in the Marshalsea, and he was lucky not to be tried for his murder.

Mrs Guthrie was last heard of in Merrion Square in 1815, when she accosted her husband’s counsel Mr Phillips, slapped him across the face, accused him of having ruined an innocent man (presumably Sterne), tore the pamphlet containing his speech up into tiny pieces and scattered it all over him. She was elegantly dressed and subsequently drove off in a handsome vehicle, with footman. An impressive exit!

Mr Guthrie went on to an irreproachable legal career culminating in the publication in the 1840s of a well-reviewed book ‘The Laws of England.’ It would be interesting to know if it included a chapter on criminal conversation!

Picture credit

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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