Rather Ten Innocent Should Suffer, Than One Guilty Escape

face of a prisoner

In the early-nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein, the trial of the servant-girl Justine for murder of the Frankensteins’ youngest child is a perversion of justice. Victor Frankenstein retrospectively describes the trial as a “wretched mockery of justice.”^ Victor declares:

it is decided as you may have expected; all judges had rather that ten innocent should suffer, than one guilty should escape^

Shelley here has recast a passage from William Blackstone’s influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). Blackstone’s Commentaries states: “it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”^ In late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain, this formula was a subject of considerable dispute involving, among others, William Paley, Samuel Romilly, and Jeremy Bentham.^ ^

The travesty of Justine’s trial and Victor’s harsh words about the justice system may reflect Shelley’s bitter experience in Chancery Court from Jan. 24, 1817 to Mar. 27, 1817. By that proceeding, Lord Chancellor Eldon deprived Shelley of custody of his children. A first draft of Frankenstein was completed by late March or early April 1817.

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