There never was a great genius without a touch of madness.Ben Johnson
Doing, A Filthy Pleasure Is
by Gaius Petronius
Translated by Ben Johnson
Time has a way of white washing the past. In Ben Johnson’s case what has lived on into the future are his words as a brilliant playwright and poet, not his murderous misdeeds. On September 22nd, 1598, Johnson, a young man of twenty-six, a former bricklayer turned playwright, his play Every Man in his Humour only recently debuted, got in an altercation with a young actor named Gabriel Spencer. Both men had a history of violence and tempers quickly escalated. Spencer had previously publicly threatened to kill a boy who threw a candle stick at him and Johnson boasted among his drinking mates of killing a man when he was younger, which his friends could never discern if the tale was true or whether Johnson used it to polish his reputation. What is not in dispute is that Spencer challenged Johnson to a duel and Johnson promptly ran him through with his sword, killing him instantly. Johnson was arrested a week hence and thrown in Newgate Prison. He was arraigned on October 6th and confessed to the crime of manslaughter for which the court had a reputation for sentencing the lower classes to death by hanging. However, Johnson, who looked like a laborer, made a calculated defense and called upon an obscure legal statute called “neck verse.” It allowed for the trial to be made in front of the clergy as jury rather than a hanging judge. During this alternative trial, the accused would be asked to sight-translate a random passage from the Latin Bible. If the criminal could pass the test it was proof of his religious stature and advanced education. In such cases, the court had the ability to grant clemency during sentencing, considering the crime a reflection of temporary insanity and not an indication of the accused true nature. It worked, Johnson was exonerated. He left Newgate Prison a free man, with only a brand upon his thumb to remind him of the blood he had spilled. The brand was a “T” for Tyburn, the gallows, where he would have met his end. Johnson no longer had to embellish his reputation, he had the mark for life to prove he was a killer.