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Perrott Bankruptcy, Part 3: Lord Mansfield, a Dead Prostitute, and Hidden Banknotes

posted by Emily Kadens

This is the final installment of the Perrott bankruptcy story begun here and continued here.

Perrott was not pleased about being sent back to Newgate, so he turned to the courts.  In September 1760, he brought a writ of habeas corpus in King's Bench arguing that he should be released because he had answered the commissioners’ questions.  Lord Mansfield remanded Perrott to Newgate.  This case resulted in no published report, but Perrott's next two habeas attempts did.  In Rex v. Perrott, 2 Burrow's Reports 1122, heard on February 10, 1761, Perrott again argued that 1) he had already given a full answer to the commissioners’ questions; and 2) the commissioners' jurisdiction to question him, and therefore to commit him to prison, lasted only for the statutory 42 days that the bankrupt had to surrender himself and be examined.  Mansfield summarily dismissed point one, saying that Perrott’s answer to the commissioners was "very insufficient and unsatisfactory."  On question two, he pointed out that Perrott's counsel was reading the relevant statute (5 Geo 2 c. 30) selectively, for one section clearly permitted the commissioners to commit the bankrupt until he made a full answer. "The objection has been strongly argued," Mansfield said, "but there is no case to support it.  It is a new invention, and would entirely defeat the end and intention of the bankrupt-acts."

Finding himself still stuck in Newgate, Perrott agreed to submit to another examination by the commissioners.  This time he explained that about six years previously he had become acquainted with a certain Sarah Powel.  During 1759, he had lavished money upon her to the amount of 5000 £.  He provided an exact accounting of this money, each entry listing the month in which he sent Powel the money and the place to which he sent it.  Each entry was in round numbers:  100 £ at Christmas 1758, 500 £ in January 1759, 400 £ in February 1759, etc.  The commissioners were not persuaded.  First, Perrott could not provide any details about the money he spent on Powel during the first four years of their acquaintance, nor could he remember where she lived during those years, even though he claimed to have visited her often and to have written her.  Second, Perrott claimed that all of the money he sent to Powel came from his agent Henry Thompson.  None of it came from bank notes, and therefore none of it was traceable.  Unfortunately, Thompson had since died.  Conveniently, so had Powel, who had died penniless of consumption about ten months earlier (meaning that Perrott had known of her death when he gave his previous accounting on June 5, 1760).  In fact, Perrott could provide no evidence at all of giving enough money to Powel to keep her in luxury for many years.  On the contrary, the commissioners dug up evidence that Powel had complained to others of Perrott's parsimony.  To make matters worse, the commissioners discovered that Powel, aka Rachel Sims, was a prostitute and a drunk, or as a contemporary account put it, she was "in keeping, as the fashionable term is, by different persons, but was deserted at the time of Perrott’s meeting her.  She had contracted an habit of drinking, an habit not uncommon to ladies of her profession and disposition. . . ."

Back Perrott went to Newgate, and once again he brought a habeas corpus before King's Bench.  The case was heard on June 8, 1761 (2 Burrow’s Reports 1215).  Perrott again argued that he had to be released because he had made a full answer to the commissioners’ inquiry.  This time, four barristers sided with him: “Mr. Gould, Mr. Serj, Davy, Mr. Coxe, and Mr. Stowe argued, that he ought now to be discharged, as having given a full and complete answer to the questions propounded to him: and it is not material, in the present respect, whether it be true or false; or whether his conduct was prudent or imprudent.”  Two other barristers disagreed, insisting that Perrott’s story was incredible and therefore by definition not a satisfactory response.  The court agreed, and remanded Perrott to Newgate without opinion.

Perrott next filed suit in Common Pleas for false imprisonment against the commissioners, but that proceeding was halted when the commissioners made a "fatal discovery."  Some time around June 1761, William Hewitt, one of Perrott's major creditors, was walking in the garden of Lincoln's Inn when he saw a dejected-looking woman leaning against the wall.  He approached this stranger and asked her what was the matter (or at least, so the story goes).  She told him that she had been fired by a certain Mrs. Ferne and did not know where to turn (editorial note: remember, anyone giving information leading to the discovery of Perrott's assets was entitled to a reward).  Hewitt, recognizing the name and thinking it might turn up some information in the Perrott case, directed the woman, whose name was Mary Harris, to Thomas Cobb, the Perrott assignees' attorney.  On June 23, Harris was taken before Justice John Fielding, the famous London police magistrate, where she deposed as follows.

According to Harris, four years earlier Ferne had been a servant.  She and Harris had lodged together and been bedfellows and at that time Ferne had very little money.  On February 14, 1760, Ferne had called upon Harris for the first time in two years and the next day asked Harris to become her maid.  Harris lived with Ferne and worked for her from March 5 – June 4, 1760.  Harris saw banknotes worth 4000 £ in Ferne's possession.  Ferne explained the money by saying that "she had it from Fellows, whom she always made to pay for favours received." Ferne also told Harris that when she had met Perrott she had no money at all and that "all her fortune was owing" to Perrott.  Harris recounted accompanying Ferne on her visits to Perrott in Newgate.  She saw Ferne cut banknotes in half and give one half to Perrott.  Once she heard Perrott and Ferne talking about buying the fancy house of Sir John Smith in Queen’s Square.  Perrott gave her half a banknote for 1000 £ and Ferne unsuccessfully bid 999 £ for the house.  Ferne and Perrott spoke frequently about the opulence in which they would live when he got out of prison.  Most importantly, Harris revealed that Ferne expected her lodgings to be searched, so she kept the half banknotes in a copy of Rochester's Poems, and when the searchers came, she intended to take up the book and pretend to read.

Based on this testimony, on June 25, Justice Fielding issued a search warrant for Ferne's house and Perrott's rooms at Newgate.  At Ferne's, the searchers found halves of five banknotes, dated from February or March 1761, amounting to 185 £.  The other half of four of the notes turned up tied up in a rag at the bottom of Perrott’s trunk in Newgate, along with half a note for 1000 £.  Since banknotes were like modern checks with the names of the payees, endorsers, and the Bank cashier written in, they could be traced. Tracing these five notes led the bankruptcy assignees to Martin Mathias, an attorney, or what would somewhat later come to be called a solicitor.  Mathias deposed that Ferne had hired him in May 1760 to help deal with Perrott's case.  In June of that year, she brought him 13 banknotes, in denominations between 100 – 500 £, totaling 2100 £.  All of the notes had been cut in half and glued back together with wax.  When asked about this, Ferne explained that they had been sent to her from out of the country and cut in half and sent separately for safety.  She asked Mathias to exchange the notes for a single note for 2100 £.  Mathias sent the notes to the Bank of England, receiving in return three notes: two for 1000 £ and one for 100 £.  He gave these to Ferne.  He thought that in June 1761 he had seen the half of the 1000 £ note corresponding to the half found in Perrott's possession.  (Ferne admitted that she had the half note, but claimed she had sent it to Derbyshire, presumably to her family.)  Mathias testified that he believed the money to have been Ferne's, whom he understood was a lady of high birth and means.

Ferne's explanation for having the banknotes was somewhat different.  According to her, she acquired the money for granting favors to gentlemen.  In particularly she had two elderly gentlemen friends, one who wore "a blue coat, and a star upon his breast, and a cockade in his hat" and the other, a man of seventy, who wore "a white coat, with a start on it, and a light-blue garter."  She did not know the men's names, but when she needed money, she would contact them at the coffee houses they frequented, and they would give her cash or notes.  The half banknotes ended up in Perrott's trunk for safe keeping because, "her Maid-servant being apt to drink, she, [Ferne], apprehended that if she and her servant should both happen to be in liquor together, there would be some danger of setting the house on fire."

The commissioners then set out to discredit every aspect of Ferne's testimony.  She had claimed that she had loaned Perrott money before his bankruptcy, but the commissioners learned that she had had to pawn small items in order to pay her bills.  They learned that she was a common whore of a poor family who a few years before had been reduced to allowing "the gentlemen soldiers then quartered [at Northampton] to participate indiscriminately of her favors."  They discounted the story of the elderly gentlemen, in part because there was no light blue garter in any order of British chivalry.  Most importantly, the assignees succeeded in tracing back most of the thirteen original banknotes to merchants who had paid Perrott’s agent for cloth.

The game was up.  Perrott was tried at the Old Bailey, the London criminal court, on October 22, 1761.  The provenance of the banknotes was explained to the jurors at length.  Perrott, in his defense, could only say that he had sent all the money he received from Thompson to his mistress Sarah Powel, and that the half banknotes in his trunk were Ferne's.  She had asked him to keep them, and because she was supporting him while he was in Newgate, "I thought I should be very ungrateful, if I did not; and the reason she gave me was, her house had been attempted to have been broke open twice; and for the favours she was pleased to compliment me with, she said she thought she had some little right so to do." The jury found Perrott guilty, and he was sentenced to death.

The day before the execution, the two assignees came to visit Perrott.  They told him they forgave him, and asked him where the money was. "[A]fter a deep pause, Perrott said, I have this day received the Holy Sacrament, and will answer no more questions."  One account attributes Perrott's unwillingness to confess even after his conviction to a supposed plot to rescue him.  Despite that, Perrott was hanged on November 11, 1761.  Several days later, Ferne was taken into custody "when she delivered to the principal acting assignee of the said Perrott, the half of two bank notes; the other moiety of which were sometime since found in the possession of Perrott in Newgate.  These notes were artfully concealed behind the back-board of Perrott's picture, which was in this Lady's apartment."

The rest of the missing money seems never to have turned up.  The assignees continued to call creditors meetings until April 1765, but no announcement was ever made of a second dividend payment.


Perhaps this is what happened to Bob's $531 billion...

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