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The Escape of 'Frank Townsend'

Here's a question for all the Tumblety experts. Why did the good doctor bother using a false name when he fled to America?  You might think that the answer is a very simple one, namely to avoid arrest, but my contention is that he could not legally have been stopped from boarding a ship from England to France or from France to America.


When Tumblety was bailed (from prison) on 16 November 1888, he would have been bailed to appear at the next sessions of the Central Criminal Court, due to commence on 19 November 1888. He did not appear but, on 20 November, the bail was extended (respited) for his appearance at the Central Criminal Court on 10 December (CRIM 6/17).  There were no restrictions on his movements in the meantime.  As long as he appeared at the Old Bailey at the appointed time, he was free to go wherever he wanted.  According to 'Principles of the Criminal Law' by Seymour Harris (1886):


'This admitting to bail consists in the delivery (or bailment) of a person to his sureties, on their giving security (he also entering into his own recognizances) for his appearance at the time and place of his trial, there to surrender and take his trial. In the meantime, he is allowed to be at large; being supposed to remain in their [i.e. his sureties] friendly custody.'


An interesting case occurred at the Spring Assizes on the South-Eastern Circuit in Hertford in March 1877 (as reported in the Times of 7 March 1877) when a French defendant, Paul Bayert, charged with soliciting a man to murder his parents, did not appear at the court to surrender to his recognizances, having been bailed on committal.  His Counsel claimed that, upon being admitted to bail, he had gone to France to see his family and had become confused about the time he was required to attend at the court because the Spring Assizes had started earlier than normal.


The prosecution, however, applied for his recognizances to be estreated, and a bench warrant issued for his arrest, on the basis that 'the accused had absconded and gone out of the country'.  However, upon saying this, the prosecution counsel, Montague Williams, was chided by the judge who told him 'You must not say "absconded", though he may have left the country; for it was stated yesterday that he intended to return at the time he left the country.'  Williams replied that 'he was satisfied from what he had heard that the accused would not appear, and in those circumstances he asked his Lordship to order him to be called on his recognizances, 'and on his non-appearance to order the recognizances to be estreated.'  The judge declined to do this and instead, after receiving confirmation from the defence Counsel that his sureties were willing to continue bail, he respited the recognizances to the next assizes and refused to issue a bench warrant.


Needless to say, Bayert failed to appear at the next sessions and his recognizances were estreated (HO 140/38) but the point is that there was no reason why a defendant to a criminal action could not leave the country prior to the commencement of his trial. Thus, Tumblety could easily have boarded a ship under his own name without any fear of consequences.


It was not until a bench warrant was issued for his arrest  - which it was on 10 December 1888 (Evening Post, 10 December 1888), long after he had left England - that a police officer would have been entitled to detain Tumblety.  Legally, that officer would have needed to be in physical possession of the warrant to make the arrest (see the fourth part of my Quadrilogy).


For that reason, those who make a fuss of the fact that Tumblety, a man of striking physical appearance, was so easily able to evade the police are making a false point. Tumblety could have waved goodbye to detectives Froest and Dinnie from Dover, given them a kiss on each cheek, and there was nothing they could have done to stop him.


Now, it is possible that Tumblety did not know the law and, indeed, within Home Office files there is correspondence in which it is mentioned that it is lucky that criminals were not fully familiar with legal procedure otherwise they could take advantage of many rules to their benefit.  It may also be that Tumblety was worried that, if he was spotted leaving England, the authorities could have obtained a warrant to have him arrested in France before he was able to leave Havre, hence he thought it prudent to travel under the name of Frank Townsend.


The fact of the matter, however, is that, in the absence of a warrant to arrest him, the police were powerless to prevent his leaving for the United States. Nothing in his bail conditions would have stopped him doing so and consequently he could not have been stopped.  Strange but true!


First published: 18 November 2015

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