Saturday, January 29, 2011

February 2, 1839 --- A Deadly Wager

   A nephew of one of London's richest men gets a stern lecture - but no more - after his deadly gamble with a London vagrant.  "Nobby" Johnson, a half-witted ex-cabman and chronic toper, had been brought into the Vine Street police station, literally, dead drunk. A doctor summoned to pump the man's stomach said it would be of no use. 

Nobby had been seen that night drinking in the company of William Burdett who was taken into custody at the home of his uncle, Sir Francis Burdett.  Despite his great family banking fortune, Sir Francis was an old Tory radical MP.  In police court, the younger Burdett insists he had only bought the poor fellow a gin out of kindness, a tot to warm up on a winter's night.  But the publican at the Crown & Thistle in Haymarket said he had heard talk of a wager being involved. 

Burdett was ordered to attend Nobby Johnson's inquest.  He tells the coroner's jury that he met Nobby in Haymarket when the man begged for money for a drink.  The notorious drunkard had been apparently banned from almost all the many ginmills in the area.  Burdett's memory of the night is hazy as well but he does not deny entering the Crown & Thistle to buy a pint of gin.  He then brought it outside to Nobby and wagered the man five shillings that he couldn't drink it all.  Nobby drained the bottle in three minutes, pocketed his winnings, and was dead within an hour.  The shillings were still in his pocket. 

The jury verdict: death was caused by apoplexy "in consequence of a large quantity of gin having been administered to him by a young gentleman of high family connexions."  Burdett's conduct had been "reprehensible."  The young man accepted his role in Nobby's demise and admitted he greatly regretted his conduct, "it was an act of great indiscretion."  The coroner expressed his hope that this will serve as a lesson; the young man replied, firmly, "It will be so, I can assure you."  He left in the company of freinds who walked with him to his uncle's mansion in St. James' Place.  Nobby's remains were taken to a pauper's grave.

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