The 19th century deaf relay interpreter

old court house

In the third part of our interpreting history series Anne Leahy and Cormac Leonard look at two court cases in which deaf intermediaries facilitated communication between sign language users and court-appointed interpreters.

In this interpreting history series, we first discussed the common law pedigree of hearing interpreters before schools and standard signed languages were available to deaf people. Then came the transition of the role away from legal foundations toward social, educational, and religious authorities. In this third article, we introduce the next innovation: well-educated deaf people also working as language experts in courts.

In 1816, an uneducated deaf woman named Jean Campbell (alias Jean Bruce) was accused of throwing her three-year-old daughter off the Old Glasgow Bridge. She was unable to read, and wrote her name as the backward initials “C. J.,” so the court called Robert Kinniburgh, headmaster from the Institute for Deaf and Dumb in Edinburgh, to communicate with her.

The Caledonian Mercury reported that she used no formal signs, yet had a detailed conversation with Kinniburgh through gestures. He testified she had “a conscience in a certain degree…strong natural affection towards her children” and “understood the distinction of right and wrong.” He emphasised that she did not understand the legal process, could not swear an oath to God, and struggled with abstract concepts and things she had never seen before. The prisoner knew she had been in custody for seven months because of the accident, but did not comprehend the pleading procedure.

newspaper extract 1817

The next expert witness called was John P. Wood, Esq., a former Braidwood pupil. He was now 55 years old, a well-respected author on history and genealogy, and an auditor with the Scottish government. Wood’s involvement at the trial is known to deaf historians through newspaper reports. His original written opinion delivered to the court has only recently been found. Like Kinniburgh, he also used gestures to interview the prisoner. He agreed that she knew “the distinction between right and wrong,” yet did “not understand the nature and consequence of pleading Guilty or Not Guilty” and that she insisted the child’s death was accidental.

Transcription of Affidavit

Mr. Wood has received a summons to attend the Court of Justiciary respecting the true state of Jean Campbell alias Bruce. She appears to him that she does not understand the nature and consequence of pleading Guilty or Not Guilty; at the same time it appears to him that she knows the distinction between right and wrong so far as to consider herself liable to punishment of the death of her child was [illegible] by her wilfully throwing it into the river and that she has been imprisoned in consequence of the death of her child, which she states was occasioned by her falling over the ledge of the bridge accidentally in consequence of her gown unwrapped in which the child was being loosened.

It seems from the wording of Wood’s statement, that he dictated it to a third party. Analysis is ongoing to compare it with other documents written by John P. Wood. With this supporting expert testimony from both Kinniburgh and Wood, the commissioners determined Campbell/Bruce was not fit for trial, and dismissed her case.

verdict 1817Transcription of Verdict

Lord Pitmilly and Lord Succoth in respect of the verdict before recorded Assoilizes the Pannel Simpliciter and Dismisses her from the Bar.

In 1884, a 33-year-old deaf woman named Margaret Gilliland was assaulted by a hearing couple who had been drinking in her apartment. An argument had broken out between them, and the husband was alleged to have stabbed her in the groin. The case was heard at the Quarter Sessions in Drogheda, Ireland. Margaret was apparently quite literate, and gave a clear written account of the incident the next morning to the local Clerk of Petty Sessions.

Transcription of Written Testimony from Newspaper Article

Margaret Gilliland deposed — I remember last night, 26th inst; between twelve and one o’clock, Mr and Mrs Coyle, who I now see, came into my room; they had a bottle of whiskey; there was a dispute about religion; Mr Coyle stabbed me with a sharp knife; I screamed; there was no person in the room but the three of us; there was an old woman overhead in a room who came down stairs, and I showed to her my clothes; I was bleeding when the old woman came down; Mr and Mrs Coyle was gone; when Coyle stabbed me his wife was lying on the floor drunk; I don’t know where Coyle put the knife because it was dark; I knew Coyle and his wife since January last and could not be mistaken in them; there was light in the room when I was stabbed, a lamp; I extinguished it.

She did not seem to understand the “dumb alphabet” as used by Thomas Hewson, a barrister who was sworn as interpreter at the trial. Hewson proposed a solution: his deaf older brother Maurice, who understood both “signs” and the “dumb alphabet”, could assist.

maurice hewsonMaurice Hewson was an earlier graduate of the same school Margaret had attended – the Claremont Deaf school in Dublin. Now in his early 40s, he had been head deaf missioner in Dublin and elsewhere since 1867. His involvement in mission work lasted at least 50 years and he was a key figure in the Dublin Protestant Deaf and Dumb Association, and other community ventures.

Maurice Hewson was sworn as the second interpreter for the trial, and the brothers became the first known official deaf–hearing legal interpreting team in the UK or Ireland. The process is familiar to us now, but was revolutionary at the time. Margaret Gilliland gave evidence in “signs”, which were interpreted into the “dumb / finger alphabet” by Maurice. Thomas then read his fingerspelling and relayed it into spoken English for the court, and vice versa.

The Drogheda Argus exclaimed that “the examination was the most curious and interesting piece of pantomime ever performed before the court, in the rapidity of the movements of the two mutes, play of features, hands, and arms, being so rapid and jerky as if they were being operated on by electric shocks.” Newspaper accounts also reported that Margaret’s answers were clear and intelligent. The Hewsons apparently had practice in this form of communication, and successfully allowed Margaret to testify. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.

There is a common theme of these and other cases where deaf people were called to assist in 19th century courtrooms: the difference of education or life experience between the witness and the deaf intermediary. 200 years ago, deaf expert witnesses and lay legal interpreters began the foundation of teamwork between trained deaf and hearing professional interpreters today. After centuries of developments opened the legal system to deaf people, and advancements included members of the Deaf community in delivering access, the story of interpreter history is much richer and deeper than we previously imagined.

Want to read more? See An interpreter in the missioner era and The History of Interpreting

cormac leonardCormac Leonard is a full time Irish Sign Language / English interpreter. He has been registered as a PhD candidate with Trinity College Dublin since 2014. He has 10 years’ experience of professional ISL (Irish Sign Language) / English interpreting in a range of settings including conference, legal, medical and educational interpreting. He has also been the Secretary of the Council of Irish Sign Language Interpreters (CISLI). He is keenly interested in the history of the Irish Deaf community and that of interpreting in Ireland.”

anne leahyAnne Leahy has been an American Sign Language–English interpreter for 26 years. Returning to her academic roots of research and writing, she offers her historical work as inadequate repayment to the communities which have given her decades of rich experiences. For more information, see Interpreter History, also on Facebook.