From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is Librarian Ed Morman's review of a book in our collection:
Reviewed by Ed Morman
In his 1973 banquet speech, “Blindness: Is History Against Us?,” Kenneth Jernigan credited two books, both published in the nineteenth century, for much of what he had discovered about blind people in history. Those books—James Wilson’s Biography of the Blind and William Artman’s Beauties and Achievements of the Blind—provide information on dozens of important blind men and women. Jernigan had so many notables to choose from (not to mention all of those who flourished after these two books were published) that he can be forgiven for leaving some of them out. Later, as editor of this magazine, he made up for omitting Sir John Fielding (1721 to 1780) by publishing a short article, “The Blind Beak of Bow Street,” in the June 1984 issue.
Those familiar with the article (which was reprinted in the Kernel Book, Toothpaste and Railroad Tracks, and again in the June 1995 Monitor) may remember that Fielding was blinded by an accident at age 19 while in the Royal Navy. He later worked as an assistant to his half-brother, the novelist Henry Fielding, before succeeding Henry as chief magistrate in London.
The magistrates’ responsibility was to investigate crime and determine whether to hold suspects for trial, and the Fieldings are credited with introducing innovative criminal detection methods to the work of the magistrate’s office. They established London’s first quasi-professionalized police force, the “Bow Street Runners” (so named because they operated out of the Fielding house on Bow Street) more than fifty years before the founding of Scotland Yard; they established a department of criminal records; and, using those records, they published the periodical, Police Gazette, which described habitual criminals and helped identify suspects. Why they were called “beaks” is uncertain but may be related to the odd headgear physicians used to wear during plague outbreaks. In any case, in eighteenth-century London the slang term “beak” was applied to judges, magistrates, and others in positions of authority.
The historical John Fielding seems to have taken little notice of his blindness. Living decades before Louis Braille (and centuries before trained dog guides or the long white cane), he was dependent on sighted assistants for both mobility and reading—but he knew how to incorporate his assistants’ visual perceptions into his own understanding of crime scenes, and he used a highly developed talent for voice recognition to great advantage in his investigations. He was an astute questioner and was strict but empathic in his dealings with those brought before him. He understood that deprivation and lack of opportunity could lead the denizens of London’s slums to antisocial behavior, and he sought to ameliorate the bad conditions and assist those who could be rehabilitated.
John Fielding, then, was very much a real person, a blind man of talent and great accomplishment. In fact, so interesting was the historical Sir John that fictional accounts of his adventures abound. A character based on him appears in several TV shows, plays, and crime novels.
Here we take note of the first in a series of eleven fictional books devoted to him: the Sir John Fielding Mystery novels written by the late Bruce Alexander Cook (writing as Bruce Alexander). Blind Justice introduces us to the blind beak through the eyes of the narrator, an orphaned adolescent named Jeremy Proctor. Tricked by a confidence artist almost as soon as he sets foot in London the day after his father’s death, Jeremy is brought before Sir John as an accused pickpocket. It does not take long for Sir John to determine that the lad is innocent, and he soon recruits him to assist in a murder case.
Cook paints a believable picture of eighteenth-century London, including both the low-lifes brought before Sir John’s bench and the idle rich who are friends and family of the victim. There are prostitutes and pimps, playboys and slave traders, and literary figures like Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Sir John is portrayed as a complete human being, not merely a proto-detective who happens to be blind. In this book he mourns the recent passing of his older brother, prepares himself for the death of his sickly wife, and puts up with a love affair between his housekeeper and one of his favorite constables. He encourages a young Irish Catholic physician who faces religious discrimination, and as magistrate he struggles with the contradictions between justice and mercy. In this fictionalized account Sir John knows how to train his assistants and how to make best use of their eyesight, but he also occasionally curses his own inclination to ignore his blindness. In other words, at times he could have used a long white cane; without one he sometimes trips, stumbles, or bumps into things.
Blind Justice is not great literature, but it is an enjoyable book to pick up for a quick read. Your librarian liked it enough to make sure we have the whole series in our collection. All eleven Sir John Fielding Mystery books are also currently available in accessible formats through the National Library Service and its network libraries.
Both of the history books cited by Kenneth Jernigan are available in accessible format through our library catalog, THE BLIND CAT <www.nfb.org/theblindcat>, and a modern edition of Biography of the Blind is available in Braille and Talking Book formats from the National Library Service.
Three nonfiction books devoted to Sir John and Henry Fielding appeared during the twentieth century, but none are yet in the tenBroek Library. A sale copy of one (The Life and Work of Sir John Fielding by R. Leslie-Melville) is proving hard to locate; the others (Hue and Cry: The Story of Henry and John Fielding and Their Bow Street Runners and Henry and Sir John Fielding--The Thief Catchers, both by Patrick Pringle) are currently on order. Unfortunately, we have not been able to identify a source of accessible copies of any of these.