Front Page Titles (by Subject) 303.: THE ACQUITTAL OF CAPTAIN JOHNSTONE MORNING CHRONICLE, 10 FEB., 1846, P. 5 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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303.: THE ACQUITTAL OF CAPTAIN JOHNSTONE MORNING CHRONICLE, 10 FEB., 1846, P. 5 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE ACQUITTAL OF CAPTAIN JOHNSTONE
Captain George Johnstone (b. 1812), of the ship Tory, was brought to trial at the Central Criminal Court on 5 Feb., 1846, charged with the brutal murders of three seamen under his command during a return voyage from China. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Captain Johnstone not guilty because of temporary insanity. The case was reported at length in the Morning Chronicle, 6 Feb., pp. 7-8, and 7 Feb., p. 7, and in The Times, 6 Feb., p. 7, and 7 Feb., p. 8. This unheaded leader is the first of a series (see Nos. 305, 307, 318, 329, 350, 383, 389-90, 392-6, and 400) of leading articles and letters to the editor on cases of injustice and cruelty that Harriet Taylor coauthored with Mill; it is also the first of any of his writings to be described as “a joint production” with her (though she is not named) in his bibliography, where the entry reads: “A leading article on the acquittal of Capt. Johnstone of the ‘[Tory]’ in the Morning Chronicle of 10th February 1846 a joint production—very little of which was mine”
(MacMinn, p. 59).
if the jury who have just acquitted the most atrocious criminal who has been brought to answer for his misdeeds at the bar of a court of justice for many years, had studied how they could bring the administration of justice most effectually into contempt—if they had meant to show what a wretched exhibition of human imbecility jury trial might be made, when carried on by men with neither heart nor intellect, and in whom maudlin weakness and moral poltroonery stand in the place of conscience—they could not have succeeded more completely. A man who has realized almost fabulous atrocities—who has made the metaphorical expression of “killing by inches” a physical fact—who, being placed in authority over a number of men, at a distance from all legal protection, after exhausting ordinary tyrannies, crowned a series of horrors by literally hewing in pieces two human beings, bound and unresisting—this man has been declared “not guilty,” for no other cause whatever but the excess of his guilt, for it is not even pretended that he had shown any marks of insanity, or exhibited any of the characteristics of it, except the crimes which have been proved.
With regard to the wretched culprit himself, we have only now to look to the advisers of the Crown, and trust that he will be treated for the remainder of his life as the most dangerous kind of lunatic, and will not, at the easy price of a temporary confinement, be again let loose upon the world. But there is a lesson to be learnt from this verdict. The state of mind of the jurors is a specimen of the tendency of the humanity-mongering which has succeeded to the reckless brutality of our old laws, and which has brought us to such a pass, that every man is now to be presumed insane as soon as it is fully proved that he is a ruffian.
Burke, long ago, spoke of the “credulous morality” of a certain kind of people, who, when a man acts like a villain, never have the courage to think him one.1 If jurors think every man insane whom they acquit as such, this credulous morality has made wonderful progress. The maxim so well expressed by our contemporary the Times, in an admirable article on Saturday, that “a crime without a motive is no crime at all,”2 might now be inscribed over the door of every court of justice, as the creed of fools and the motto of juries. And a motive must be something which would be a motive to the juryman himself, or to people like himself—people who never framed a thought, had a feeling, or did an act different from everybody else. Time was when it was not thought incredible and miraculous not to be commonplace. But the modern type of civilization has so destroyed even the remembrance, even the idea, of individuality, that to the vulgar everything which shows character is a proof of madness. The conduct of the man Johnstone did show character. It showed a man not exactly like all other people. It showed a ruffian, but it showed a man to whom custom was not the law of his life. This is as much as it is generally necessary to prove before a Commission of Lunacy. If the man had been as much better than other people as he was worse, and had shaped his life by his own inclinations, instead of by the doings and sayings of his neighbours, let the reader ask himself, if any one had an interest in proving him mad, how much chance he would have had of escaping a madhouse in the hands of such a jury?
The only murders which men need now expect to be punished for, are those which are committed for money, or from fear of exposure. These are motives, the reasonableness of which appears to be recognized. These inducements are considered by juries as capable of acting upon a sane man. They are, no doubt, the motives to most of the crimes of the age. The motives of great criminals—the vehement resentment, the bitter revenge, the determined self-will, the superstitious horror, the intense antipathy—are things which jurors have nothing corresponding with in themselves, and cannot recognize when before their eyes.
We have given the jurors the benefit of the supposition most favourable to them—that they are as great fools as they proclaim themselves. We have supposed that they really thought the man insane. If they did not think so, but were influenced by a mawkish dislike to having on their consciences the death of a man who had inflicted so many deaths, what are we to think of them? A morbid feebleness of conscience is in our time so common an accompaniment of other mental feebleness, that the supposition is by no means improbable. In the words of the Times “the contest lies between their judgment and their honour.” We do not add, with our contemporary, “we will not suppose it to be the latter.”3 We leave them to the alternative.
[1 ]Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Works, Vol. I, p 429.
[2 ]Leading article, The Times, 7 Feb., 1846, p. 4.