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Blogs From the archive

An infuriated cat, a ‘missing’ nose that isn’t – it’s screwball comedy in the courtroom

28 March 2014

2:25 PM

28 March 2014

2:25 PM

The jury at Max Clifford’s trial have had a tough time of it trying not to get the giggles, as his alleged victims wrangle with medical experts over what constitutes a ‘freakishly small’ penis.

In the archive, there are reports of other moments that have compromised the solemnity of a British courtroom. At York in 1836, the assizes were interrupted by a large cat ‘in a very infuriated state’:

‘It rushed from the body of the court upon the counsel-table; it next jumped on the bench; and, after attempting to pay a visit to the Jury, it made a rapid descent on the head of one of the learned counsel, inflicting a scratch upon his forehead with its claws. This outrage was the signal for a general movement among the profession. The feline intruder, regardless of all dignity and decorum, dashed anew among the briefs upon the table; from thence it made its way into the crier’s box, and almost instantly quitted the court. It was some minutes before business was resumed; the learned Judge and every one in court being convulsed with laughter.’

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York seems to have more than its fair share of screwball comedy, in fact – only two years later the courtroom dissolved in mirth after a member of the jury asked the judge to be excused on account of deafness.

‘His Lordship immediately put the question in rather an under tone. “Have you been troubled with deafness for a long time?” The deaf man, unsuspectingly: “Yes, my Lord.” The Judge, dropping his voice a little more: “Do you think you could hear if you were in front of the box?” The Juryman, not perceiving the drift of his Lordship’s questions: “I do not think I could.” The Judge, speaking in a voice little better than a whisper: “Does your deafness improve as the day advances?” The Juryman: “No, my Lord, it does not.” Loud peals of laughter followed each question; and when the last answer was given, the Court was almost convulsed. It is needless to add that his Lordship considered him a proper person to sit on the Jury.’

At another riotous hearing in London in 1833, a Mr Henry Hunt brought a libel case against a newspaper that had accused him of starting a lynch mob and having his nose cut off in the process. ‘One part of the libel, the Jury would at once perceive to be false, as he stood before them with his nose on his face,’ the Spectator noted, ‘and if any person were disposed to turn this part of the affair into ridicule, he would only wish them to fancy Mr Humphrey [the defendants’ counsel, whose nose is large and prominent] addressing them without his nose, and fancy what a pretty figure he would cut.’ The rest of the case turned on a ridiculous argument about the meaning of the word ‘fudge’. After long and very silly evidence sessions, the jury deliberated for 10 minutes and awarded Mr Hunt a farthing.

I also enjoyed this scene from 1834, when a ‘singular looking man’ interrupted Lord Brougham at the Court of Chancery. He claimed to have a cure for cholera, endorsed by the King:

‘Your Lordship, will, no doubt, be aware that the word cholera is derived from the Greek, and—” Lord Chancellor (smiling)—” I am perfectly aware of that; and I also recollect another word derived from the Greek, called choleric; and if persons persist in interrupting the business before it, the Court gets choleric.” (Loud laughter.)…Dr Kelley then retired, after giving his Lordship a profusion of low bows…From his accent it was easy to perceive he was an Irishman, and from his manner it seemed that he was labouring under insanity.’

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