e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

>Blasphemy

>Voltaire did it. Thomas Paine did it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton did it. Bertrand Russell did it. Kathy Griffin does it. Some people thought R.Crumb was doing it, when really he was just illustrating Bible Stories without censoring them. The artist Andres Serrano did it, on the National Endowment for the Arts’ dime. Adam Darski, better known as “Nergal”, the frontman for Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth, did it. Thomas Pooley did it.

Thomas Pooley?

Thomas Pooley, who lived in the village of Liskeard, was a well-digger of eccentric beliefs. He thought the earth was a living, thinking animal, and he feared that, if he dug too deeply in it, he might penetrate its skin and wound vital parts. He professed a belief in one great and wise “Almighty Power,” but experience with his fellow men taught him to dislike Christians and “Christian Bible tyranny.” He did not, however, interfere with the Christian beliefs of his loving wife, or the Christian education of his children. One of his odd beliefs, which resulted in his imprisonment, was that burning all the Bibles and spreading their ashes over fields would cure potato rot. Although Pooley was an exemplary father and husband, and an industrious worker, he had a reputation for being mentally unbalanced and a village freethinker. But he was ignorant of freethought literature. Holyoake, who went to Cornwall to study his case, wrote solemnly that, if Pooley had “had the advantage of Freethinking books, he might now be of sound mind.”

For fifteen years, Liskeard and its environs had been annoyed by chalked inscriptions on walls and gates, expressing sentiments that offended religious people. Pooley was thought to be the culprit, but no one ever saw him to the writing. One day, the Cornish Times ran this ad: “BLASPHEMY. Any person who has seen a man writing blasphemous sentences on gates or other places in the neighborhood of Liskeard, is requested to communicate immediately with Messrs. Pedler and Grylls, Liskeard, or with the Rev. R. Hobhouse, St. Ive Rectory.” Soon after, the Reverend Paul Bush filed a criminal complaint against Pooley, asserting that he had blasphemously libeled the Holy Scriptures, the Christian religion, and God. Pooley may have been guilty of chalking the messages, but not even Bush ever saw him do it; Pooley was only seen in the vicinity, and he believed in God. Bush, who was rector of Duloe, swore that he had read on a gate the words: “Duloe stinks with the monster Christ’s Bible-Blasphemy — T. Pooley.” Some children erased all but the first and last words. No proof was ever offered that the printing was in Pooley’s hand, but these words on the gate constituted the first count in Pooley’s indictment for blasphemy.

A second count consisted of similar gate-writing. When Pooley was summoned before the Liskeard magistrates, he walked into court with a rope around his neck and told the judges to pull it “and have done with it.” To the constable who took him off to jail to await trial Pooley angrily said, “If it had not been for the blackguard Jesus Christ, when he stole the donkey, the police would not be wanted, and . . . he [Christ] was the forerunner of all theft and whoredom.” That remark added a third count to his indictment for blasphemy. A fourth count was derived from his often stated belief that the ashes of Bibles would cure potato rot.
[Blasphemy: verbal offense against the sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie by Leonard Williams Levy pp. 467-8]

Pooley was convicted on all four counts and sentenced to serve 21 months in prison. Well-healed British atheists and freethinkers adopted the case as a “cause”, although they generally dismissed Pooley himself as mad. The irreligious literati pointed out that new anti-Christian tracts were published and circulated in London on a weekly basis, but their authors were not brought up on charges.

Five months into his sentence, Thomas Pooley was pardoned by the presiding judge at his trial, John Coleridge. The year was 1858. There would not be another blasphemy prosecution in Britain for more than two decades, but the law under which Pooley was charged, arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced stayed on the books — and blasphemy cases continued to be argued in the courts until late in the 20th century, including one case by British Muslims trying to have Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Versus legally banned, and the law itself was not abolished until 2008!

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