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Popular Superstitions - Curious Enumeration Of Vulgar Errors

( Originally Published 1884 )

Having accidentally been this day a spectator of the funeral pro-cession of Sir Barnard Turner, I was referred, by a learned friend, in consequence of a conversation on the subject of the delay in moving the body, to Mr. Barrington's " Observations on the more antient Statutes," p. 474; where it clearly appears that, whatever was the real cause of the delay, it could not possibly have been from any legal arrest.* " It is difficult," says the honourable and very learned Judge, "to account for many of the prevailing vulgar errors with regard to what is supposed to be law. Such are, that the body of a debtor may be taken in execution after his death ; which, however, was practised in Prussia, before this present king abolished it by the 'Code Frederique.' Other vulgar errors are, that the old statutes have prohibited the planting of vineyards, or the use of sawing-mills ; which last notion I should conceive to have been occasioned by 5 and 6 Edw. VI., cap. xxii., forbidding what are called gig mills, as they were supposed to be prejudicial to the woollen manufacture. It is supposed likewise to be penal to open a coal-mine, or to kill a crow, within five miles of London ; as also to shoot with a wind gun, or to carry a dark lanthorn. The first of these I take to arise from a statute of Henry the Seventh, prohibiting the use of a cross-bow; and the other from Guy Fawkes's dark lanthorn in the powder plot. To these vulgar errors may be added the supposing that the king signs the death-warrant (as it is called) for the execution of a criminal ; as also, that there is a statute which obliges the owners of asses to crop their ears, lest the length of them should frighten the horses which they meet on the road. To these vulgar errors may be perhaps added the notion, that a woman's marrying a man under the gallows will save him from the execution. This probably arose from a wife having brought an appeal against the murderer of her husband, who afterwards repenting the prosecution of her lover, not only forgave the offence, but was willing to marry the appellee. It is also a very prevailing error, that those who are born at sea belong to Stepney parish. I may likewise add to these, that anyone may be tut into the Crown-office for no cause whatsoever, or the most trifling injury. An ingenious correspondent, to whom I have not only this obligation, suggests two additional vulgar errors : when a man designs to marry a woman who is in debt, if he takes her from the hands of a priest cloathed only in her shift, it is supposed that he will not be liable to her engagements. The second is, that there was no land-tax before the reign of William the Third."

These curious particulars, Mr. Urban, are from the " Observations on Stat. 3, Henry VIII.," whence, I am persuaded, your readers will not be displeased to see a further extract :

" Not only physicians are intended by this law to be put upon the liberal footing which that most learned and useful profession merits from the publick, but surgeons also, who receive a further encouragement from a statute of the fifth of Henry the Eighth, which exempts them from an attendance upon juries. It may, perhaps, be thought singular to suppose that this exemption from serving on juries is the foundation of the vulgar error that a surgeon or butcher (from the barbarity of their business) may be challenged as jurors."



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