'Frederick Henry Seddon, you stand convicted of wilful murder. Have you anything to say for yourself why the Court should not give judgement of death according to law?' 'I have, sir.'
Reading from notes, the poisoner calmly spoke of his innocence of the murder of his middle-aged spinster lodger Eliza Barrow. Then, turning to the judge, Seddon made a masonic sign. 'I declare before the Great Architect of the Universe I am not guilty, my lord.'
The Hon Mr Justice Bucknill, PC, who was approaching his sixty-seventh birthday, was a senior Freemason. In all his thirty-seven years as barrister, Recorder, and finally Judge of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, he had never encountered anything like this. He was appalled. He had no alternative but to sentence this avaricious killer to death. And now, at the very last moment, that killer had revealed himself as a fellow Mason - one of those whom Bucknill had sworn on bended knee and on pain of being 'severed in two, my bowels burned to ashes', to assist in adversity and to 'cheerfully and liberally stretch forth the hand of kindness to save him from sinking...'
This incident at the Old Bailey on 12 March 1912 passed quickly into legend. Like most legends, it has grown, changed, and become confused in the telling. There are now almost as many versions of it as there are people who quote it. I have heard versions set as early as the 1850s and as late as the 1940s. I have heard it applied to murderers as diverse as William Palmer, Crippen, Haigh, Christie, Armstrong and Buck Ruxton. In 1972 a man being interviewed about Freemasonry on television applied the story to Rouse, the blazing car murderer who was hanged in 1931. In this version it was embellished to the point where the prisoner in the dock produced his full masonic regalia and appealed to the judge to free him! The judge in the case has been variously named as Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Lord Justice Avory and others. Most people who repeat the yarn do not identify the characters involved. To them it is the story of the masonic murderer who made secret signs to the masonic judge and as a result.. .
The denouement is another variable. Countless people have told me that the murderer was saved from execution as a direct result of the judge learning he was a Freemason. Many more, mainly Masons, denounce this as a lie.
It is important that the truth of this most famous of all stories about Freemasonry perverting the cause of justice within a court of law should be understood at the outset.
When Bucknill realized that Seddon was a Mason he was speechless. He seemed completely dazed as the black cap was placed on his head and oblivious to the usher crying out the traditional, 'Oyez! Oyez! My lords, the King's justices do strictly charge and command all persons to keep silence while sentence of death is passing upon the prisoner at the bar, upon pain of imprisonment. God save the King!'
Even now Bucknill sat as if struck dumb for a full minute. When he had composed himself enough to speak, he said, 'Frederick Henry Seddon, you have been found guilty of the wilful murder of Eliza Mary Barrow. With that verdict I am bound to say I agree. I should be more than terribly pained if you thought that I, in my charge to the jury, had stated anything against you that was not supported by the evidence. But even if what you say is strictly correct, that there is no evidence that you ever were left at a material time alone in the room with the deceased person, there is still in my opinion ample evidence to show that you had the opportunity of putting poison into her food or in her medicine. You have a motive for this crime. That motive was greed of gold. Whether it was that you wanted to put an end to the annuities or not, I know not. You only can know. Whether it was to get the gold that was or was not - but which you thought was - in the cash box, I do not know. But I think I do know this: that you wanted to make a great pecuniary profit by felonious means. This murder has been described by yourself in the box as one which, if made out against you, was a barbarous one; a murder of design, a cruel murder. It is not for me to harrow your feelings.'
All through the admonition, the judge was visibly shaken. The prisoner meanwhile listened calmly to Bucknill's quiet, gentlemanly tones. 'I do believe he was the most peaceful man in the court,' wrote Filson Young, a journalist who was there.
'It does not affect me, I have a clear conscience,' said Seddon.
'I have very little more to say,' went on Bucknill, struggling with the powerful emotional conflict Seddon had brought about by that one reference to the Great Architect of the Universe, 'except to remind you that you have had a very fair and patient trial. Your learned counsel, who has given his undivided time to this case, has done everything that a counsel at the English Bar could do. The Attorney General [prosecuting] has conducted his case with remarkable fairness. The jury has shown patience and intelligence I have never seen exceeded by any jury with which I had to do.'
Every now and again, the judge's voice dropped to a whisper. It did so now. 'I, as minister of the Law, have now to pass upon you that sentence which the Law demands has to be passed, which is that you have forfeited your life in consequence of your great crime. Try and make peace with your Maker.'
'I am at peace.'
'From what you have said,' and the judge was now all but sobbing, 'you and I know we both belong to one Brotherhood, and it is all the more painful to me to have to say what I am saying. But our Brotherhoood does not encourage crime. On the contrary, it condemns it. I pray you again to make your peace with the Great Architect of the Universe. Mercy - pray for it, ask for it.. .'
He continued speaking for about half a minute before pausing and bracing himself. 'And now I have to pass sentence,' he said, looking across the hushed courtroom at his Brother with tears filling his eyes. Another long pause. 'The sentence of the court is that you be taken from hence to a lawful prison, and from thence to a place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been confined after your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.'
This, then, is the real story about the Freemason murderer and the Freemason judge. But getting the facts straight is only half the battle. Only by perceiving what was behind the facts can we decide if this so-called 'classic' case is even relevant. Freemasons will say that Bucknill's reaction to Seddon's appeal for help is proof positive that there is no masonic influence on the execution of justice. Anti-Masons will argue that Seddon made his appeal too late, that by the time he made clear the esoteric bond between himself and the judge he was beyond help because the jury had already declared its verdict. Thus, although Bucknill might have wanted desperately to 'save him from sinking', his hands were tied.
Both these arguments are specious: the Bucknill-Seddon case proves nothing. The reason for this is simple. Seddon was not trying to exploit the masonic bond between them to influence the judge's actions.
This must be clear to anyone who returns to the original transcript of the trial. First, if he had intended to influence the judge in his favour, he would have made his membership of the Brotherhood clear at an earlier stage - certainly before the verdict had been returned, and before the judge's summing-up, by which a jury might conceivably be swayed. And if he had expected his Masonry to help him, he would surely have communicated the fact that he was a Brother to the judge in a way which would not have been noticed by others. There are methods, as I found out for myself, for Masons to identify themselves to one another without incongruous signals and invoking aloud the Great Architect. No, it is clear that Seddon was not saying to Bucknill, ‘I am a Freemason like you. Help me,' but that he was using the masonic term for God to reinforce the usual oath he had taken on entering the witness box to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It came as a natural culmination of his carefully thought-out speech in his own defence:
. . . The prosecution has not traced anything to me in the shape of money, which is the great motive suggested by the prosecution in this case for my committing the diabolical crime of which I declare by the Great Architect of the Universe I am not guilty, my lord. Anything more I might have to say I do not suppose will be of any account, but still if it is the last words that I speak, I am not guilty of the crime of which I stand committed.
As he said, 'I declare .. .', he lifted up his hand to accompany the oath and to show it was his solemn word. Yes, it was a masonic sign. Yes, they were masonic words. But they were the natural words of a Freemason wishing to convey with all possible gravity that he was speaking the truth. That Seddon's action was perfectly natural and quite lacking in the sinister undertones ascribed to it by anti-Masons and others is shown by the openness with which it was performed. Because there was nothing hidden in the interaction between Seddon and Bucknill, it remains interesting to the student of Freemasonry only in the depth of brotherly feeling which was either inborn in Judge Bucknill or which Freemasonry had instilled in him. It tells us nothing of any alleged influence by Masonry in the courts.