Lyon Levy was put on trial at the Old Bailey numerous times throughout his lifetime, but only one of these trials ever resulted in a guilty verdict. Lyon was ultimately able to slip through the net of the justice system due to luck and unreliable witnesses.
The year of his birth varies fairly significantly, ranging from 1764 to 1772. However, the later birth dates appear in his first few trials, whereas the earlier birth dates appear in the last two trials we have records for in 1814 and 1816. Therefore, it is possible that he was providing an incorrect date of birth in order to make himself appear younger than he was, and then in his later trials, older than he was, so that he may receive leniency should he be found guilty due to his apparent youth/old age.
His place of birth is unknown. As his trial documents show that he was Jewish, it is possible that he was born elsewhere and migrated to Britain, although he may also have been born in London to Jewish parents. Given that during one of his trials one of the witnesses claimed that he did not initially suspect that Lyon was Jewish, the latter is probably more likely. His records show that he worked as a hairdresser or “journeyman barber”.
Over the course of his life, Lyon was tried at the Old Bailey at least eight times, for crimes ranging from larceny, receiving stolen goods and counterfeiting money. In his first Old Bailey trial in 1784, he was accused of stealing a guinea from a man who had asked Lyon to weigh some coins to determine if they were real or not. The court found Lyon not guilty because he had not forcibly taken anything from the alleged victim, and because there was no proof the guinea in Lyon’s pocket belonged to the victim. Interestingly, according to the trial document, the victim, John Tobin, apparently said when Lyon claimed he had not stolen from him, “My God, says I! How can you have the assurance to look in my face; (I did not take him to be a Jew, but I was told so afterwards)”. The fact that he felt mentioning Lyon was Jewish was relevant to the case, and the fact that he associated being Jewish with what he believed was a lie, is potentially indicative of the prejudices Jews may have faced in late eighteenth-century London.
His next Old Bailey trial, in 1794, involved a number of different witnesses, and a certain degree of confusion over the details of Lyon’s living and working situation. Again, however, it was felt relevant to mention during the trial Lyon's Jewish background and connections. After lengthy questioning to ascertain the details of the situation, and after receiving evidence from seven different people, Lyon was this time found guilty of coining offences and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment and a fine of 1s.
Lyon seems to have paid the fine of 1s. and served his twelve month sentence at Newgate prison. Upon release from prison, Lyon found himself at the Old Bailey a further six times, in 1796, 1797, 1801, 1812, 1814 and in 1816. He was charged in these trials with crimes of stealing and receiving stolen goods, however in every one of these subsequent trials he was found not guilty. In two of these trials, the main witnesses failed to appear at court, and Lyon successfully convinced the court that the main witnesses in the 1814 trial were unreliable. The 1814 trial is also noteworthy because he was tried alongside his son, Samuel Levy, who was also acquitted of the crime.
Because of the sheer number of Old Bailey trials Lyon attended following his imprisonment without being found guilty, it is difficult to judge what impact this punishment had on his criminal behaviour. It remains possible to argue that he was frequently and unfairly suspected of criminal activities throughout his life because of his heritage, given that witnesses in at least two of his trials felt his Jewish background was relevant to their evidence against him. Another potential view, which is perhaps more likely, is that he was a serial criminal who was able to slip through the justice system through a mixture of absent or discredited witnesses and luck. At the very least, his imprisonment did not stop the accusations of criminal activity, but it is of course unknown whether or not he would have been found guilty again had the trials of 1797 and 1816 been able to question witnesses.
Given that two of Lyon's trials were for grand larceny and that he was accused of receiving stolen goods five times, there does appear to be a degree of consistency in the crimes he was tried for, which gives more weight to the view that he was a serial criminal who only managed to escape justice through a mixture of luck and discredited witnesses. In addition, if prejudice against him by the authorities purely because of his Jewish background had been a significant factor in his numerous court appearances, then it would have been unlikely that he would have been found not guilty of criminal activities by the court as frequently as he was. Whichever account is closest to the truth, what remains clear is that even after his imprisonment, Lyon for many years was unable to escape the attention of the criminal justice system.
From Lyon’s criminal register we know that he was around 5' 5" in height, had hazel-coloured eyes, dark brown hair and a dark complexion. We also know from his trial documents that he was Jewish, and that in 1794 he had a wife and one or two children. In the 1794 trial, a man who knew Lyon described him as a “hard working young lad”. The fact that he had a young family does not seem to have deterred him from engaging in criminal activities, as he was found guilty in 1794 of producing counterfeit coins, not to mention the many subsequent trials he attended where he managed to escape conviction. In fact, from his 1814 trial we know that he had a son called Samuel who was accused alongside his father of theft, and so it is possible that Lyon actually involved his children in his criminal activities, rather than his children acting as a reason for him to cease his criminal behaviour. It appears that his son Samuel was transported to Tasmania in 1824 for theft, and that prior to this he had another conviction for theft as well. In this way, we can possibly see the impact that Lyon’s criminal activities had on at least one of his children’s lives.
Lyon’s final Old Bailey trial was in 1816, and it is unknown what happened to him after this. There are death records for a Lyon Levy in London in 1837, 1841 and 1843, any of which could be the criminal we are looking at. Given that he was born in the mid-1760s to mid-1770s, any of these dates would make Lyon in his 60s or 70s when he died, meaning he probably survived until a relatively old age. It remains unclear exactly why Lyon is not found at another trial at the Old Bailey after 1816, given his previous track record of appearances. It may possibly have something to with his age, as in 1816 he would have either already turned 50 years old, or would have been approaching that age, and so it is possible that his older age encouraged him to cease his criminal behaviours.
At two of Lyon’s trials, the witnesses testifying against him felt the fact that he was Jewish was a relevant piece of information for the court to be aware of. Although the evidence seems to suggest that Lyon was repeatedly engaging in criminal behaviour and often escaped conviction, the fact that he was Jewish probably did contribute to his behaviour and his experiences of the criminal justice system. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, Jewish communities suffered a significant degree of negative stereotyping – one such stereotype was an association with criminality. Therefore, it is possible that Lyon, like many other Jews in eighteenth century Britain, was frequently accused of crime because he was Jewish, which could partly explain Lyon’s high number of court appearances. Alternatively, it may have been the case that the perceptions of Jews at the time created a certain degree of isolation from the far larger Christian population in Britain, which may have been one factor that pushed Lyon towards his criminal behaviour in the first place.
The use of witnesses formed a vital part of court trials during this period, yet the case of Lyon highlights their sometimes problematic nature. In two of Lyon’s cases, he was found not guilty simply because the witnesses did not attend the trial, and so the prosecution had no evidence to use against him. In another trial, two witnesses testified against Lyon, but he successfully called into question the quality of the witnesses’ characters by highlighting their previous criminal and immoral behaviour, which the court found convincing enough to disregard their evidence and find Lyon not guilty again. This reliance on witnesses as the sole form of evidence, although mostly unavoidable without the development of forensic science, meant that criminals like Lyon who probably re-offended many times throughout their lives could "slip through the net" of the criminal justice system and avoid receiving convictions for their crimes.
Larceny, Receiving Stolen Goods, Coining, Imprisonment, Fine, Recidivism, Old Age
This page was written by Alex Traves with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.