A Death by Unicorn Horn in 1730

On the 28th of August 1730, Joseph Hastings died after receiving “several mortal Bruises with an Unicorn’s Horn”, wielded by John Williams of St. Andrew’s Holborn eleven days earlier. The assault occurred on a Holborn skittle-ground, witnessed by several local men.

Robert Linsey deposed that Joseph Hastings arrived at the skittle-ground “with the Horn in his Hand, and some old Clothes”. According to the defendent, he had been on his way for a pint of beer when he met a friend who encouraged him to drink a pint of gin instead (to help with his ague). While passing through the skittle ground, Williams picked up the horn and “ask’d the Deceas’d, what he would have for it?” When Hastings replied “it was worth more Money than he had in his Pocket”, Williams contemptuously offered three pence.

    Narwhal tusk. These tusks could grow to several metres in length and were often traded as unicorn horns. Powdered unicorn horns had medicinal uses. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Narwhal tusk. These tusks could grow to several metres in length and were often traded as unicorn horns. Powdered unicorn horns had medicinal uses. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Hastings unsurprisingly refused, demanding that Williams return the horn. Witnesses testified that Hastings bragged that he had “been bid more Money for that Horn, than any Man at the Ground had in his Pocket”—by no-one other than Sir Hans Sloane himself. Williams called Hastings “a fancy Son of a B – h, and if he spoke two Words more he would knock him down with it”.

At this point, things are a little unclear. According to the defendant, Hastings swore at him “and lifted up his Hand with the Bowl in order to throw it at him”. Williams claimed that he merely pushed Hastings off in self defence and that it was an accident that Hastings fell back onto the stump.

But some witnesses saw Williams as the aggressor. John Drew saw Williams strike Hastings in the stomach with the horn, then push “him on on the Jaw with the end of it”. After Hastings fell onto a stump, Williams again hit him with the horn until someone took it away. Williams then kicked Hastings “upon his Breast, Belly, and Members”. Hastings was unconscious for at least two minutes.

Charles Wentworth, added “That he had never seen so vile and barbarous a Thing done in his Life”. The other men at the skittle ground held Williams back to keep him from following Hastings, who “went away in a very bloody Condition”. Wentworth visited Hastings several times after the attack: his “Head had been broke, and his Head and Face bruis’d in five places” and his genitals “look’d like a piece of Neck-Beef”.

Much of testimony considered whether or not Williams could be responsible for Hastings’ later death. Apothecary Richard Buckley attended the patient on 27 August, noting that the scrotum was discoloured. He thought the cause of death was probably an apoplexy. The autopsy after Hastings died was inconclusive. Although surgeon Mr Smith believed that the injuries were the cause of death, both Noah Sherwood and Henry Hildip did not think that the injuries were severe enough. The deceased had a rupture in his scrotum, but minor bruises and no skull fracture. The real clincher, perhaps, was that several people saw Hastings walking around after his injuries.

For those close to Hastings, Williams’ guilt was obvious. Mrs Hastings provided the sad testimony that her husband had left home in perfect health and returned with a broken head, “the Mark of a Foot on his Face, and a Bruise the side of his Neck and Throat”. Her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Waller, and brother-in-law spoke about Hastings’ continual pain and insistence that, if he died, it was because of Williams’ attack.

The jury acquitted Williams.

In many ways, this is an ordinary tale of a brutal assault with terrible consequences. The case itself, though, gives us a tantalizing glimpse into daily life in Holborn: neighbours who witnessed the attack or helped to nurse the patient, the importance of the skittle-ground in local social life, the use of any weapon that came to hand, the prickliness of each man’s sense of honour, the use of gin as a remedy for ague…

But it is the unicorn horn and reference to Sloane that captures my attention. The fact that Hastings possessed a unicorn horn is intriguing: from where did he get it and for what price? It was clearly valuable to him—and of interest to others, such as Williams. Had he taken the horn out that day with the intention of showing it off to friends, or (perhaps for a small price) to people down at the local tavern? Sloane’s fame, moreover, even extended to skittle-ground skuffles. His name, it appears, was readily identifiable in popular culture with the trade in curiosities, possibly enhancing the value of an asociated object.

A fascination with curiosities was not only for the educated, but was widespread in eighteenth-century society. The unicorn horn tale is just the tip: people eagerly paid to see wild men or bearded ladies and other wonders. But the story also reveals that the wealthy were not the only ones who might have a prized collection of curiosities; those lower down the social scale could, too—even if it was just a single, and singular, unicorn horn.

You can read the records from the trial at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online.

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