The Legal Puzzles of Dornford Yates

Updated: 27 Oct 2005
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Dornford Yates was the pen-name of Cecil William Mercer, 1885 - 1960

Readers of Berry will probably have been intrigued by a statement made by Boy Pleydell about a murder trial whose details were considered so terrible and so demoralising that the court records were destroyed after the trial. That would have been a remarkable deviation from 'justice being seen to be done', and Boy's audience was suitably impressed. I was under the impression that I had seen this in one of those two rather unsatisfactory semi-memoirs Berry & I Look Back or Berry & I Look Back, but I have been unable to locate it; it must have been in one of the other Berry books. If anyone can point me to its exact location, I should be very grateful.

Mercer may have thought he was being deeply mysterious, but actually the case is easily identified; it occurred in September 1791. It is pretty clear why Mercer withheld the details from his public; see the case of Frantisek Kotzwara in Wikipedia. If the authorities really were trying to hush-up the case, for fear of a series of copy-cat incidents, then they failed, because a pamphlet called 'Modern Propensities' giving details of the trial and including an essay on auto-erotic asphyxiation was published in London about 1797.

In fact it appears that Mercer was wrong; in 2005 it emerged that the court records of the case may not have been published, but they certainly had not been destroyed, and had somehow made their way to the Francis Countway Library of Medicine in Boston. The formal indictment is preserved with other records from the Old Bailey at London Metropolitan Archives, and the report of the coroner's inquest also exists.

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