Like most Americans, I'm interested in where my people came from: who are my ancestors, and when and how did they get to this continent?
In my case I'm particularly attached to the strand of family traced by my surname: Letter. One reason for this is that this is the family I grew up around. But also, there simply aren't many of us. If I run into someone named Letter in America, I know we're related, and closely, too. (This actually just came up when a colleague, one JG, mentioned that he had a friend at Tulane with my last name. I immediately said, "he's got to be related to me!" and JG disconcertedly said, "that's exactly what he said" -- turns out he's my dad's first cousin.) The Letter family as we know it has a not-so-long and somewhat illustrious lore -- we were coal barons, rich but dirty, and to the best of anyone's knowledge, the first Letter in America is one Mr. Owen Letter, who came to the US in the late 1800s, and whose grandson is my grandfather.
At least I thought so before today.
I have probably mentioned before that The Proceedings of the Old Bailey are available online, and are searchable. You can search for particular crimes (homosexuality is an interesting one), particular names (your own family name, for example... and don't fret if your name isn't English; plenty of foreigners appeared in court as victims, witnesses, judges, prosecutors (plaintiffs), officers, jury members, and, of course, criminals), and of course you can search by punishment.
The most interesting punishment to me is Transportation.
As the website explains:
Or, more interestingly put (in this case from my birthday, July 17, 1674):
The first major innovation in eighteenth-century penal practice was the extensive use of transportation. Although there was some idea that transportation might lead to the reformation of the offender, the primary motivations behind this punishment were deterrence and the exile of hardened criminals from society.
Although many convicts were transported in the seventeenth century, it had to be done at their own expense or at the expense of merchants or shipowners. In the early eighteenth century there was a desire to extend transportation as a way of creating a more effective alternative to the death penalty (in terms of deterring crime) than benefit of clergy and whipping. In 1718 the first Transportation Act allowed the courts to sentence felons guilty of offences subject to benefit of clergy to seven years transportation to America. In 1720 a further statute authorized payments by the state to the merchants who contracted to take the convicts to America.
The first Transportation Act also allowed those guilty of capital offences and pardoned by the king to be sentenced to transportation, and it established returning from transportation as a capital offence.
Under the terms of the Transportation Act, those sentenced to death could be granted a royal pardon on condition of being transported for fourteen years or life. From 1739, a number of such cases appear in the Proceedings.
In 1776 transportation was halted by the outbreak of war with America. Although convicts continued to be sentenced to transportation, male convicts were confined to hard labour in hulks on the Thames, while women were imprisoned. Transportation resumed in 1787 with a new destination: Australia. This was seen as a more serious punishment than imprisonment, since it involved exile to a distant land.
In the early nineteenth century, as part of the revisions of the criminal law, transportation for life was substituted as the maximum punishment for several offences which had previously been punishable by death.
Besides these persons Condemned to die, there were 5. Convicted of severall Felonies which desired the mercy of the Court for transportation, and had it granted, being sentence'd accordingly, of whom one Mall. Floyd was particularly remarkable for her Crime, she having it seems found out a new Trade not simply to Kidnapp or steal little Children quite away, But to Inveigle them to some strange by places and there rifle them, and so turn them abroad to shift for themselves, Thus the Third of July meeting a pretty little Child of about 8 yeares of Age neatly drest in Shoe Lane, She pretending She came from her Mother, carryed it with her as farr as St Giles's, and had it into an Alehouse there, where seeing it rain, She pretended all the Childs Cloathes would be Spoiled, and under that pretence took away from it Severall Laces and peices of Linnen Knots and the like, and then carrying her into St Giles's Churchyard where there then happened to be a Burial, She Lost her in the Crowd of People , who then not Knowing where She was, nor the way home, fell a crying, and was brought home that Night by some honest Inhabitant there abouts, where she told all the sad Story, but could not in the least declare who it was had served her so, or where she might be heard of, nor was there any probability of her being discovered, had it not strangely been disclosed by Accident, for the very next day the Childs Mother passing up Holbourn, saw some of her Childs things hang up in a Shop to be sold, which She knew again and acquainted the people of the Shop there with, who after some time and much trouble found out this Woman that sold the things to them who upon her Examination Confessed the whole matter before the Justice , and was Committed to Newgate, (having been often a distressed Lady before in that Inchanted Castle) from whence She is now by Sentence to be Transported to some of the Plantations beyond the Seas .
Yes, Transported to some of the Plantations beyond the Seas -- Oh, Mall Floyd, you oft distressed lady of the Inchanted Castle, How romantic.
My ancestor, Elizabeth Letter, whose trial is recorded happening on October 26th 1757, appears to have been nothing worse than a drunk and a pickpocket -- at least she was accused as such. She does have her side of the story to tell:
I was coming down Holbourn, when this gentleman was near
raving in the street with two or three people round him. I never saw him in my life; people were advising him to go home, and there was a soldier advised him so too; he said no, shew me the beer-house; then he said you had better come and have some beer. I will not go in said I, but at last I did; we had a tankard at one house (he was very drunk) and the people turned him out and would not draw him any more; then he went into another house and said he would have some beer (this was near Holbourn-Bars ) they said he should have none. A woman was coming out of the cellar with some beer, which he took out of her hand; she said if she had known it she would not have drawn it. He said I was his wife, but I never saw him before; he said to the soldier, you I go along with us; the soldier said to me do not you go. I being in liquor went out of the house, the prosecutor gave me the things and said he'd go with me; so I went home with them, but did not know what was in the box till I came almost home, when I open'd it at a lamp and put one of the things on my finger; my landlady went and fetched Mr. Cooley, I told him the things were given me, and he should have them all. Hatton Garden
What do you mean you don't believe her? Well, the judge didn't either. She was sentenced to transportation when that still meant America, not Australia. So it's very possible that my family has been wrong all these years: the first Letter in America was not a man named Owen, but a woman named Elizabeth. Sure, I'm directly descended from Owen. But this is interesting anyway.
What ever happened to Elizabeth? Did she really get sent? Did she survive the journey? Did she survive 1750's North America? Did she toil in slavery? Did she witness the revolution? Participate? Give a rat's behind? Did she marry? Did she have children? Did she get kidnapped by Indians? Did she pickpocket the Indians? Did she cry herself to sleep every night, and dream of London?
Did she feel quite Transported to the Plantations beyond the Seas?