The Body under the Bed, 1864

A fascinating Belfast defamation action arising out of a most unusual misunderstanding, as reported in the Cork Constitution, Friday 29 July 1864:

“At the Belfast Quarter Sessions, before Mr. Otway QC, the case of Louisa Fraser v Patrick McCabe came on for hearing on Wednesday. This was an action brought to recover the sum of £10 for false arrest and oral slander.

Mr. Seeds stated the case. It was to recover damages laid at £10, ‘for that the defendant, on or about the 11th of May 1864, at Belfast, then being a lodger of the plaintiff, did wrongfully and maliciously, and without any lawful excuse, publish and declare that the said plaintiff had concealed under the bed in the room in her house, occupied by defendant, a skeleton or corpse, and did thereupon cause and procure a large number of police and other constables – to wit, the number of eight – to surround and invade her house and premises, under pretense of searching for said corpse and skeleton, and did cause the said constables the said plaintiff to keep in close custody as a prisoner while such search was being made, without lawful authority, aforesaid, whereby the said plaintiff has suffered much inconvenience and damage, in the loss of her reputation, and whereby her business of a lodging-house keeper has been much injured. ‘ 

His client was a widow and kept a boarding house in Nelson Street. Her husband was dead, and during his lifetime was an artist, who made it his business to study all the intricacies of the human frame, and for that purpose made wax figures and models of the living body. He, in fact, carried on the business of an artist as his profession. The poor woman, in remembrance of her husband, kept one of these models in the house. The defendant, who had not been long married, took one of the rooms in the house as a lodger; and, on the first night of his residence in the house, he brought a whole posse of constabulary to the house, and gave the poor woman into custody as a murderess – telling the police that she had a dead body in a coffin concealed, beneath the bed, he having searched under the bed, and there found the wax figure concealed where it was not annoying him. 

When the box was there, he was afraid to open it himself, but, like a gallant figure, he put his wife to in the front, and pushed her under the bed to find out what was there; and she got hold of one foot and popped over (Laughter). The defendant then put in his hands, and he caught hold of both feet, and then ran off and informed two constables of the dreadful crime he had found out, and comes back for his wife, and places her, after her swoon, in the charge of the constables, while he himself goes off for a number of the police, telling Mrs. McCabe he was going to see a friend, and that he would be back shortly. 

He goes away and brings Sergeant Fury and two or three constables, who entered the plaintiff’s house in search of this diabolical murder, and they find that the whole subject of their case was a wax figure. The plaintiff brought the action for the annoyance she had been put to, and the loss she had sustained; for, in consequence of the stories circulated by the defendant, she had since no lodgers in her house.

Louisa Fraser examined by Mr. Seeds – I am a boarding house keeper. My husband was an artist, and he modelled figures of the human body. On the 11th of May last the defendant was a lodger in my house. I remember him leaving my house on that evening, and saying he was going to a friend’s house, and when he returned, he had a number of police with him. The constable ordered me upstairs, and made me pull out the box, and took hold of the leg (Laughter). I told the constable what it was. McCabe said he would not stay in the house for a million of money. The sergeant of the police was in front, and they had their firearms with them. My rooms have not been less since as a consequence of this affair.

Mr. Seeds – How much have you lost by your rooms not being let?

The plaintiff – I don’t think less than £10.

Mr. McLean – Do you produce the ghost?

Mr. Seeds directed it to be brought it.

[Mr. Rule, the court-keeper, brought in the coffin and the corpse of the victim. The box was coffin-shaped, and the figure was encased in a blue shroud. Every joint is on springs, and it was with some trouble the hands or feet could be kept at peace. The court was in roars of laughter when it was proposed to place the corpse in the witness-box.]

Mr. McLean – It’s no wonder, your Worship, he was afraid of it.  Just look at its arms. It would kick him out of bed if he was lying above it (Laughter).

The plaintiff (to Mr. McLean)- It never lived any. (Laughter) it is no friend of mine. It is not an Egyptian mummy. It is made on springs.  The feet and arms won’t jump up and down unless you touch them.  I did not tell the defendant this was under his bed when he became a lodger.

His Worship (to the defendant) – Did you not know it was not a corpse?

The defendant – I did not.

Mr. McLean – You did not sleep in the bed with the corpse that night?

The defendant – Well, I think not.

Cross-examined by Mr. Seeds – I was a little, but not altogether frightened. I sent my wife to get a chop for my supper, in order that I might examine it, for I had a suspicion, and I pulled it out, and then my wife came in again.

His Worship – Why did you not tell Mrs. Fraser, and have it examined in her presence, without bringing the police?

The defendant – She never told me there was a coffin under the bed. I had seen the box in the morning, and my curiosity being awakened in the evening, I lifted the lid and put in my hand to see what was in it, and I caught hold of a cold foot (Laugher). My wife put in her hand afterwards and she says, ‘My God, it’s a corpse’ and fell at my feet. She was insensible for a few minutes, and I took her out and gave her in charge to a constable – (laughter) – while I went for the police.  She would not remain in the house.

The defendant – I had my suspicion. It was dressed like a corpse, as any who looks at it can see.

Mr. McLean – It is dressed in its grave clothes.

His Worship said that the defendant should have spoken to Mrs. Fraser, when the whole mystery would have been cleared up at once. It was ludicrous bringing in the constables. There was no doubt there was a case of slander and false imprisonment. Decree for the plaintiff, with costs.”

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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