The ground is still white, naturally leading the legal historian to ask how snow features in the Old Bailey archive of historical criminal cases.
Well – the answer is that it rates fairly frequent mentions. Of course, there are lots of people called Snow, things happening in Snow Hill and teeth and souls being cleaned whiter than snow, but the actual wintery precipitation features quite heavily too.
A friend to prosecutor and detective
There are many cases of suspects being tracked through the snow. For example, in 1685, John Clark, an ambitious but not very competent thief, was caught when he was tracked through the snow with his haul of pewter basins, razors, porringers, linen and other items, in Hammersmith, and the footsteps of a man leaving a building backwards helped James Brebrook, officer of the Marshalsea, in 1753, to find stolen goods, leading to the trials and convictions of James Robertson, for receiving a large quantity of stolen lead (t16850116-21; t17530502-10). The presence of snow on the ground, in combination with moonlight, was quite frequently given as a reason to explain why a witness’s identification of a suspect seen at night was, in fact, reliable (see, e.g. t17410116-47).
A friend to fugitives and offenders
In some cases, though, snow hindered rather than helped those tracking down suspects. The slippery, snowy, conditions were given as a reason why a thief escaped in the case of Mary North (1740), the pawnbroker making this comment perhaps somewhat embarrassed to have been outrun by a woman. The muffling effect of snow was given as a reason why a watchman did not hear thieves using a crowbar, in the theft case of John Norrington and Willim Craig (1789). (See t17400416-15; t17890114-54). Snow could serve as a temporary hiding place for stolen goods (see, e.g. t17540116-15), or as part of a claim that goods alleged to have been stolen, were, in fact found. In several cases, those accused of theft said that they had, in fact, found the goods in question in the snow (see e.g. t16950524-39).
A disruptive element
Finally, the use of snow for the creation of snowballs is sometimes mentioned, often with disapproval. For example, we see an account of boys pelting a horse with stones and snowballs in 1799 (t17990220-36), mention of the offence of breaking a window with a snowball (t18500819-1366)) and the criticism by the Ordinary of Newgate of
crowds at the hanging of twelve men in 1754 who pelted one another with snowballs (rather than taking the occasion as an opportunity for their moral instruction, as the clergyman thought they should:(OA17540204).
Snow: A Legal History is obviously a book waiting to be written.