An 1835 trial of three forgers

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An 1835 trial of three forgers


The forgers in the pillory

This article, by Peter Cook, was first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966

They were certainly not a handsome trio as they stood at the bar of the Royal Court. The charge they faced was a serious one. They were accused of ‘forging promissory notes, of the value of one pound, on the States of Guernsey, and with having circulated the notes knowing them to be forged.'

Arraigned before the Court on Monday 4 May 1835 were Joseph Jacob Alexander Bershon, David Myers and David Cohen. Myers was a tall, sour man. Cohen was the servant of the other two, a meek, stupid man, unable to read or write and quite incapable of understanding the gravity of the charge; and Bershon, a small, evil-looking man, was the villain of the piece, the 'brains' behind an attempt to swamp St Helier traders with illegal Guernsey money.

Merchants' complaints

They had been captured and held in prison since January of the same year. The arrest had taken place after several merchants compared the counterfeit notes that Cohen and Myers had traded for food and drink. On 5 January the Constable of St Helier called at Mrs Sullivan's lodging house in New Street, when the accused were out.

With the help of passers-by he broke down the door to their bedrooms and discovered forged notes, some partly burnt in the fireplace, some hidden in the lavatory. Bershon, Myers and Cohen were arrested just before they took the boat for France.

On 14 January the Royal Court heard evidence from scores of indignant shopkeepers who had been cheated by the trio. Then they were taken back to prison and there they stayed until brought to trial before the petty jury of St Helier on 4 May.

Meanwhile another action had been brought against Bershon. A Paris watch and clock maker, Bertin Villain, reckoned that he — not the King of England - should be able to seize Bershon's goods. While in France Bershon had set up in business as 'Jacobi and Harris' and bought goods from Paris without actually paying for them. Judgement on this point was deferred. There were enough creditors in Jersey without satisfying those abroad.

Other facts about Bershon's disreputable past came to light later. There was an inquiry about his fate from Fontainebleau and the local police were told that he was something of a ladies' man. So far he'd totalled two wives in France, one in Poland and a fourth in England. The inquiry came from wife No 2, a girl he'd married when she was ‘a beautiful young lady, only 17 years of age,’ deserted in Rouen and sent back to her family as soon as he'd finished spending her fortune.

Together with his two confederates he sat, stony-faced and unrepentant, before the Royal Court. And together they sat there from ten o'clock in the morning until 11.30 at night, listening to the pleas of their counsel fall on deaf cars. Their advocate maintained that the forged notes had no legal value in Jersey and the exhibits had not been numbered so they could not be properly identified. But it was in vain.

Just after 11 the jury returned a verdict of 'guilty'. As soon as this was announced, the prisoners claimed their right of being tried again, the second time by a grand jury. Then they were driven back to prison.

A week later the grand jury of 24 members — eight each from St Saviour, St Lawrence and St Helier — came to a similar verdict. The second trial lasted a little longer. The accused arrived flanked by pikemen or halberdiers at 10 am and learnt their sentence only minutes before midnight.

During the course of the proceedings, the Attorney-General took no less than six-and-a-half hours to go through what the local newspaper described as "the formal and tedious process of reading numerous documents."

Verdict confirmed

After a mere half-an-hour the grand jury came back with the same decision.

The Bailiff then sentenced Bershon in French and the other two in English.

”In consequence of your crime the Court condemns you to be given into the hands of the public executioner to be publicly exposed for one hour. Your property, goods and chattels are confiscated for the benefit of the King and the Lord of the Manor. You are to undergo an imprisonment and hard labour; you Bershon and Myers for one year, and you Cohen for six months; at the expiration of which you are to be expelled the Island for ever, being forbidden to return save with the King's leave."

The prisoners showed no emotion at the time. But it was different the following Saturday. They were led through jeering crowds to the public pillory in the Royal Square.

Shortly after two o'clock their necks and hands ware encased, and they stared down on the hostile crowd. Myers was too tall for the machine and he suffered more than the others. When he was led away, he showed the Deputy Viscount his hands, swollen and inflamed from propping up the weight of his massive frame.

The much-married Bershon was exactly the opposite. He was so tiny that it required a real effort to keep his head high and prevent his chin from being grazed. A hardened criminal, he was utterly indifferent to the public disgrace and joked with someone in the crowd when the hangman brought him down.

For Cohen it was different. He looked penitent and wept. "His descent from the pillory exhibited a man in great mental agony," said a local trader. The most innocent, he was also the most contrite.

Orderly crowd

Throughout the hour the immense crowd which packed the Square and all the neighbouring streets remained orderly.

The only scuffle came when a woman angrily thrust a counterfeit note in Bershon's face. She was led away by a police officer.

The disgrace of the three was to be one of the last times that the public pillory was used. In some ways it marked a transition in the history of public punishment. Just a decade earlier, men in the pillory had been mutilated by the public, showered with rubbish, cut by volleys of seashells. Just a decade later, the Jersey public were to witness the last humiliation of a criminal in the Royal Square.

Editor’s note: The three accused in this case were Jews, and were constantly referred to as such, sometimes in highly derogatory terms, by the author of the 1966 article. These unnecessary references, which would certainly be deemed offensive 50 years later, have been edited from the article.

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