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The Australian National University

Criminology by the stars

On September 24, 1605, Edward Gresham drew up this horoscope (transcribed opposite from British Library, Sloane MS 3857, f`100v) for George Benson. So why list it as this month’s featured event? Because it would be almost another 150 years before Protestant England adopted the Gregorian calendar. For a majority of Western Europeans it was already October 4, 1605. What was the purpose of the horoscope?

Gresham noted next to the scheme that Benson had “uppon [Sunday] last loste unto of his pocket 40s. in mon[n]ye.” Like any astrologer worth his salt, Gresham was able to use the celestial situation at the time of the crime to construct a profile of the offender, and he also recorded that he advised Benson the pickpocket was “som comon harlott with whom he had to do she is of low & small stature fatt bodyed round face fleagmatick complexion but comly brown coullor.” From his London rooms in Thames Street, Gresham had acted as a kind of consulting detective on hundreds of similar occasions. However, he would abruptly shut up shop after people believed that his wickedly good expertise had allowed him to predict (rather than reconstruct) the crime of the century, the Gunpowder Plot (the failure of which is still cause for remembrance on the fifth of next month).

Dr Mark Dawson is currently working on early modern English criminal identification as part of a larger project concerned with human variation and social discrimination in Stuart England. An essay detailing astrology’s role in this discrimination will appear in Cambridge’s Historical Journal later this year.

Updated: 17 January 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School / Page Contact:  Web Publisher