Given that the term “fake news” has recently been bandied around by some very prominent public figures on social media (hurled as a term of abuse at various media outlets, and usually in capital letters), I thought I might bring to people’s attention an interesting little court case from June 1778.
On 23 April 1778, Mr. Alexander Scott, a bill poster was dutifully going about his job of sticking public proclamations to walls in one of the public marketplaces in London when he was stopped by a man who alleged that he came from the King’s Stationers and desired him to stick up some Bills. Scott was assured that he would be paid handsomely for it, and so he assented. The Bill read thus:
In Pursuance of his Majesty’s order in Council to me directed, these are to give public notice that war with France will be proclaimed on Friday next, the 24 instant, at the Palace Royal, St. James’s, at one of the clock [… Signed] D. M. Effingham.[i]
This was false news. The government was not intending to declare war on France.
At this news, the whole of London apparently became very alarmed, and the price of stocks and shares fell drastically. Scott, of course, simply carried on doing his job. After all, one did not refuse a commission from the Royal Printing House. So the next day more copies of this proclamation went up, causing further panic. Scott was observed sticking the proclamations up by two men from the Royal Exchange (the eighteenth-century equivalent of the stock market) named Richard Willis and Thomas Thorn. They instantly summoned a Constable and Scott was arrested and, rather dramatically, charged with High Treason (a crime which at that point still warranted the death penalty). The charge read that Alexander Scott did:
Unlawfully, wickedly, and maliciously, publish false news, whereby discord, or occasion of discord, might grow between our Lord the King and his people, or the great men of the realm, by publishing a certain printed paper, containing such false news.[ii]
The Bill had been supposedly signed by the Deputy Marshall of England, the Earl of Effingham, who was also summoned to the trial. Effingham declared that he certainly had known nothing about these bills, and that whoever put his name to them is guilty of forgery.
Luckily for Scott, nobody believed that he was the orchestrator of this falsehood. After having received the proclamations, he went to see his friend, Josiah Roe, who owned a public house. Roe’s witness statement records that:
Pulling out one of the bills, [Scott] said, “what do you think of the war now? I have bills to stick up; it is to be proclaimed on Friday.”[iii]
To which Mr Roe replied:
“Sure nobody has deceived you?”[iv]
But of course, Scott had received the papers from the King’s printer, had he not? Nobody would print such falsehoods. Luckily for Scott, the jury agreed, like most of the witnesses and even the arresting Constable, that Scott was just the innocent victim of a malicious prank.
Scott’s trial occurred in the first week of June. But the irony is that, had the trial have taken place in the last week of the month Scott would have been guilty of nothing, for Britain did indeed declare war on France a few weeks later as America’s ally in their war of independence.
[i] The New Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors’ Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 284
[ii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, p.284.
[iii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, p.288