Bodmin Assizes Cornwall
before Mr Justice Williams
For Robbing The Dead of the Barque John

Thursday August 2nd,1855

Matilda Gay , 35, and Constantine Tripconey, 62, a shoemaker, were charged with stealing on the 31st May, last, about ten sovereigns from a dead body at St.Keverne. Mr.Cole and Mr.Kingdon were counsel for the prosecution; Mr.Coleridge defended Tripconey, and Mr.Stork for the female prisoner. The circumstance of this case were of a very painful nature, and arose out of the loss of the John, emigrant-ship, which left Plymouth on the afternoon of the 3rd of May last. A few hours after her departure she was wrecked on the Manacles Rocks, situated on the Southern Coast of Cornwall, with the loss of more than two-thirds of her passengers. After the wreck, dredging machines were employed to take up the dead bodies by the Coast-guard men of the neighbourhood.

On the 31st May, three men named John Penticost, James Richards, and Thomas Kingdon, proceeded to St.Keverne, the scene of the wreck, and found floating near the beach the dead body of a female, unknown. They carried the body a short distance from the sea, when one of the men thought he saw the body of another unfortunate passenger floating in the water. They then left the body in question, but previous to doing so, they observed that attached to the stays was a pocket so sewn that it's contents could not be abstracted without it's being cut open. One of the witnesses felt the pocket and it was his opinion that it contained a considerable sum of money. The men left the body and proceeded again to the water's edge for the purpose of looking for the second body, but when they came down they found that they had been mistaken. Whilst absent the two prisoners and another woman were seen near the body, the female prisoner being observed to look over the clothes. The men, apprehending that the prisoners were searching the body, returned to the spot where they had deposited it, and they discovered that the stays had been cut open. The pocket was also cut, inside of which was some paper, which had evidently contained money. The men saw the prisoners go into a meadow and they proceeded after them. One of the witnesses asked the female prisoner what was the matter with her, as she appeared to be hurried, and her reply was that the state of the woman had frightened her. The witness told her that she had no business to go near the body, much less to touch it, and they subsequently accused both the prisoners with the robbery. The matter having come to the knowledge of the Rev. Mr.Griffiths, vicar at St.Keverne, a warrant was issued for their apprehension, but before it was put into execution, the male prisoner came to the rev. gentleman and handed him over five sovereigns, at the same stating that that was all the money he and the other prisoner had found on the body. A woman named Philippa Martin, stated in her evidence that she accompanied the prisoners on the morning in question to St.Keverne. the female prisoner went over to the body, and after remaining there a short time Tripconey said "they are coming" (meaning the men) and Gay then seemed to be very much hurried. Tripconey then said, "put the money in my hand" and witness saw upwards of £10 in gold transferred to him. Afterwards he remarked that he had had a good day's work, and he offered the witness a part of the money which she refused. When the prisoners were committed, the female observed that she should not have gone near the body had not Tripconey pointed it out to her, and the latter replied, "for God's sake don't make a bad matter worse."

Mr. STORK, for the female prisoner, did not deny that she had robbed the body, but submitted there was no felonious intent. He put it to the Jury, whether, supposing she had thought she was doing wrong, she would have robbed the unfortunate passenger in the presence of anyone; but when she heard that robbing a body constituted a felony, she directed Tripconey to take the money to the vicar, and for aught the jury knew, the £5 handed over to that gentleman by the male prisoner was all the money found on the body. His client evidently thought that she had a much right to the money as any other person; and her conduct subsequent to the occurrence he confidently submitted was a clear proof that there was no felonious intent; and therefore she was entitled to an acquittal.

Mr.COLERIDGE, on behalf of Tripconey, rested his defence on similar grounds to Mr.Stork, but endeavoured to cast the onus of the robbery on the prisoner Gay.

His lordship observed that the two prisoners were charged with stealing ten sovereigns, the property of the Bishop of Exeter, the indictment being so laid, owing to the ancient right which he had to take possession of any property found on the body of a person unknown until administration was taken out, and the only question for the jury to consider was whether it appeared to them that the prisoners at the bar took the money with the intention of appropriating it to themselves. If they thought it was so taken, it was nothing less than a felony; but if, on the other hand, they were satisfied that there was no such intent, they were bound to acquit them. The prisoner Tripconey was committed on two counts - the first with having participated in the actual stealing of the property, and the second with having received the money knowing it to be stolen. If the jury thought that they had a common design in stealing the money, and that the male prisoner was present with the common purpose of aiding her, he was as guilty as she was, although he might not be the actual person who took it, or might not have been within twenty yards of the spot; but if there was reasonable doubt in the matter they were bound to acquit them both.

The jury then retired, and after a few minutes deliberation, they found both the prisoners guilty, but at the same time, they thought they had not taken the money with the intention of committing a felony.

The JUDGE, with evident astonishment, said the question was whether they took the money with a felonious intent; if they did not think so they were bound to acquit them.

A Juryman: We do not think they had a dishonest intention.

The JUDGE; You must find them guilty or not guilty. If you think they did not take the money with the intention of depriving the true owner, you are bound to acquit them.

The jurymen were as stupid a body of men as could well be got together, and it was some time before they could understand the judge. They ultimately retired to another room, and after an absence of about half an hour, they found both the prisoners guilty.

The prisoners were sentenced on the following morning to three months' imprisonment, the female prisoner to hard labour.