Hanging by a Thread: Child Accused’s Life Saved by Skilful Unwinding of the Prosecution Case, 1840s

From the Belfast Morning News of 27 August 1880, an interesting note on Irish barrister Serjeant Richard Armstrong, ‘for many years the leader of the Common Law Bar of this country, and the ablest cross-examining counsel of the period,’ recounting how Holmesian detective skills combined with in-court assistance from a possibly guilty underage client assisted in securing Armstrong his extensive practice:

“The son of an engineer, who, in early life, resided at Roxborough, County Armagh, and latterly in Dublin, he applied himself to the study of the law, and was in 1839 called to the Bar.  He joined the Leinster Circuit.  For some time, like most juniors without an attorney connection to give him a chance, his latent talents were undiscovered. 

At length it happened at the Wexford Assizes that a little boy was convicted for the murder of a play-fellow, and, being in humble life, his friends were without means of employing counsel for his defence.  The proof of his guilt depended on circumstantial evidence, but so clear that there was no hope for the boy.  He had the brogues that belonged to the murdered boy, he had a knife that was also his, and a ball with which they played.  These articles were found with him directly after the murder. 

Chief Baron Pennefather assigned young Armstrong as counsel to defend the lad.  Having read over the informations, he saw what a slender hope there was of saving the boy’s life.  So he applied that the trial might be postponed, and the Judge assented.  During the next Assizes in Clonmel, he was one day caught in a shower of rain, and taking refuge in a bootmaker’s shop the thought struck him to ask how one pair of boots could be distinguished from another made on the same last, and the bootmaker informed him that identification was impossible, except with regard to the boots on which he was in the habit of putting a private mark.  Here was the argument against conviction. 

Then as to the knife, there were hundreds of the same kind sold by every peddler.  When the Assizes came round at Wexford he cross-examined the Crown witnesses with telling effect in reference to the identity of the brogues and the knife.  But then there was the ball, and the mother of the murdered boy Moore, she herself made it winding thread round a piece of crumpled up brown paper.  Surely this was conclusive. 

Young as he was the little fellow at the bar saw the force of her evidence, and asked to see his counsel.  Mr Armstrong went to the side of the dock, and the prisoner whispered in his ear – “I unwound the thread and put it on again on a cork to make the ball hop.”  At the close of the evidence for the Crown the case seemed proved to demonstration in so much that the prosecuting counsel left it in the hands of the Judge and Jury.  But Mr Armstrong rose, and with great power of analysis sifted the evidence, maintaining that the only real proof was that in reference to the ball – ‘My client’s life hangs upon a thread, and if it should so happen, that the thread is wound on paper, as the unfortunate mother of the youth who was murdered describes, then my cause is lost.  Let the ball be unwound, and, to you, gentlemen of the jury, I commit my client’s safety.’

The end of the thread was handed to the foreman amid breathless stillness; it was unwound.  At last down fell the cork, and a cheer in court proclaimed the safety of the prisoner, if not his innocence.  Mr Armstrong had thus ascended the first rung of the ladder of forensic fame.  He was engaged in the defence of prisoners in almost every case of importance on circuit, and he soon had a most lucrative practice at Nisi Prius in the Four Courts.  In 1854 he took silk, and in 1861 was elected a Bencher of the King’s Inns.”

More on Serjeant Armstrong here. Did his address to the jury mark the origin of the phrase ‘hanging by a thread’ as applied to someone’s life?

Image Credit

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

Leave a Reply