Feeling for Forgers

By Joanne Low, Macquarie University

The crime of forgery was a cause for serious concern in England in the eighteenth century. It undermined the daily business dealings of financiers, businessmen, professionals, shopkeepers and tradesmen alike, and posed a threat to national prosperity and Britain’s international reputation. In a burgeoning monetary economy, public fear and anger about the security of paper money manifested itself in the harsh punishments meted out for the crime of forgery. And yet, the severity with which forgery was dealt with by the law was juxtaposed with the sympathy that forgers often received within the judiciary, the courtroom and the press. This was particularly so during the 1770s and 1780s, which witnessed a period of relative leniency towards forgers, evidenced by a dramatic decrease in the number of convicted forgers executed for their crime.

Counterfeit banknote (19 July 1797), Bank of England Museum

Analysing this phenomenon through the framework of a history of emotions suggests that the importance of the appraisal of emotions and emotional performances, both in financial practices and in trials for forgery, might explain such feelings of sympathy. The discussion of forgery in the eighteenth century involves a category of people that we might refer to as an ‘emotional community’, that is, a group with a particular system of feeling or set of conventions regarding acceptable modes of emotional expression.[1] The emotional community identified with the issue of forgery gravitated around the ‘middling sort’[2] – commercial or trading families, professionals, and those who rubbed shoulders with or provided service to these middling people. It was not merely accountants, bankers or businessmen who were involved in such crime, but shopkeepers, grocers, and tradesmen too. As those who provided service to the upper and middling classes, this latter group had a stake in acquiring the polite manners, tastes and behaviours of their clientele in order to project a level of respectability.

In forgery trials, defendants and witnesses often demonstrated their investment in the emotional standards associated with ‘middling’ sociability, civility and business practices through the use of such emotional language as trust, honour, character and credit to explain their reasoning and motivations, and to demonstrate their standing in the community. This reflected an assumption that emotional integrity had powerful social currency in an eighteenth-century credit economy. ‘Credit’ was not purely an economic notion but instead involved a complex assessment of character, virtue, honour and trustworthiness – values that underpinned personal reputations and business relationships.[3] Establishing a defendant’s character, honour and credit therefore, by emphasising the integrity and transparency of his life and relationships, and reiterating his investment in a respectable way of life, was a major defence strategy.

The trial of Robert Perreau demonstrates how sympathy for accused forgers stemmed from their membership in a community that was connected by ‘middling’ values and emotions. Character witnesses that included gentlemen, military men, doctors and nobility, testified to their personal and professional interactions with Perreau, who was a well-respected apothecary. By emphasising the respectable connections between witnesses and the defendant, the defence counsel was encouraging the judges, jury and courtroom audience to identify the latter as one of their own. The defendant’s standing within the community, reflected in the character judgments made by his peers, was offered as proof of his innocence or, at least, as grounds for leniency. The emotions underpinning forgery, like the crime itself and those who committed it, were thus viewed as suitably respectable.

Image of etching showing Robert and Daniel Perreau, on trial for forgery in 1775
Robert and Daniel Perreau, on trial for forgery in 1775. Etching by unknown artist (1776), National Portrait Gallery

Just as importantly, those emotions were also uniquely understandable. Courtroom stories of ambition, risk, speculation, financial misfortune and the dangers of luxury and social advancement spoke directly to the concerns and anxieties of a wide range of people, particularly those engaged in commerce. These people understood the imperative to cover one’s losses and discharge debts honourably in order to maintain credit and reputation. Recognising that the bankruptcy of one individual could cause a domino effect among commercial contacts, they might also construe forgery as an effort to stave off collective ruin. The spectacle of the condemned forger, therefore, was often a reminder of the painful vicissitudes of fortune, sparking sympathy among contemporaries.

Just as crucial to the establishment of guilt or innocence was the emotional performances of defendants in the courtroom, which often demonstrated conformity with the emotional standards of the middling class, reinforcing the notion of polite honour. Attempting to prove that Robert Perreau had been set up, defence counsel emphasised Perreau’s calm in the face of accusation. Likewise, in the case of Joseph Slack, a witness described how, on being confronted with the forgery, ‘the prisoner expressed his surprise, very much indeed, and in a very natural manner’.[4] An open countenance and natural, unfeigned emotional responses combined with good character reports to paint a picture of the accused as trustworthy and honest.

Defendants also appealed to the jury through emotional exchanges that demonstrated the purity of their consciences. Henry Griffin appealed to the feelings of a gentleman:

Could I truly be charged with any dishonourable, mean or unmanly undertaking, my feelings would indeed be very different from those I now experience; my mind in that case would sting me, more than the bitterest reproof of sincerest friends.[5]

Such speeches demonstrate that middling people expected their word and emotions to be credited in the courtroom as it would in commerce. In his speech, Robert Perreau, presenting himself as an honest victim to artful manipulation, demanded that the jury ‘credit’ his story and accord appropriate sympathy to his well-meaning credulity. ‘Men who are unpracticed in deceit’, he claimed, ‘will be apt to credit others for a sincerity which they themselves possess.’[6] In Perreau’s world, credit was part of an ‘affective economy’, producing emotion as it was exchanged and accumulated.[7]

John Russell, portrait of William Dodd
John Russell, William Dodd (1769), National Portrait Gallery. Dodd, an English Anglican clergyman and a man of letters, was convicted and hanged for forgery in 1777.

Like their male counterparts, female forgers also commanded considerable sympathy, though they were held to different moral and emotional standards, wherein credibility was measured, not in professional honour, but in sexual honour. A woman’s appearance and emotional behaviour had to convey respectability. A well-bred woman would appear modest and reserved in a courtroom full of men; she would dress well, speak sensibly and exhibit some emotional, albeit quiet, distress. In the case of French forger, Mary Thomas, her genteel appearance and modest emotions appeared to be deciding factors in recommending her for mercy. Moreover, the notion that women often acted in subject to the commands of their male counterparts meant that committing a crime with a husband or lover might be enough to acquit a female defendant, or at least, to provoke sympathy. When Sophia Pringle was convicted of forgery and sentenced to death, it was widely believed that she had ‘been the dupe of her own affections to some young man’ who guided her in committing the crime.[8] Of her sentence, The World opined that ‘she is not an individual so dangerous to the interests of society, as to be no longer suffered to exist in it’, suggesting changing public opinion regarding the execution of forgers.[9]

Illustration of the Old Bailey from 1808
The Old Bailey, known also as the Central Criminal Court (1808), Wikimedia Commons

During the late eighteenth century therefore, the criminal courtroom witnessed displays of sympathy for forgers on the part of witnesses, the jury, the audience and even occasionally, the judiciary. The values and emotions associated with financial crime, and the emotional performances of defendants may help to account for this. But this was weighed against the imperative to prosecute and punish a crime that was dangerous to businesses and private individuals alike, as well as to the nation’s security and prosperity. This emotional conflict is summed up in William Garrow’s opening speech for the prosecution in the trial of Francis Fonton, who warned the gentlemen of the jury that the ‘emotions of compassion, and every tender feeling’ that they might feel toward the accused should not take precedence over the ‘faithful discharge’ of their duty as citizens of the country.[10] That juries needed to be reminded of their duty at all suggests the extent of sympathy for forgers and a general hesitancy to sentence such criminals to death.

Joanne Low reports here on ARC Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions Associate Investigator Amy Milka’s new publication ‘Feeling for Forgers: Character, Sympathy and Financial Crime in London during the Late Eighteenth Century’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 42.1 (2019): 7–25. Low is an intern of the Adelaide node of the CHE and student at Macquarie University.

[1] Amy Milka, ‘Feeling for Forgers: Character, Sympathy and Financial Crime in London during the Late Eighteenth Century’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 42.1 (2019): 9.

[2] Margaret Hunt, The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680–1780

(Los Angeles, CA, and London: University of California Press, 1996), quoted in Milka, 11.

[3] Milka, 13–14.

[4] OBP, May 1788, Joseph Slack (t17880507-57), quoted in Milka, 16.

[5] OBP, December 1792, Henry Griffin (t17921215–121), quoted in Milka, 17.

[6] Andrew and McGowen, The Perreaus and Mrs Rudd, pp. 138–43, quoted in Milka, 18.

[7] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 44–49, quoted in Milka, 18.

[8] The World (15 January 1787) quoted in Milka, 19

[9] Ibid.

[10] OBP, September 1790, Francis Fonton (t17900915-37) quoted in Milka, 21.

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