Black Cap in Court

And then there were none by Agatha Christie

published 1939

[A retired judge has been found dead]

‘That’s the end of Mr Bloody Justice Wargrave. No more pronouncing sentence for him! No more putting on the black cap! Here’s the last time he’ll ever sit in court! No more summing up and sending innocent men to death. How Edward Seton would laugh if he were here! God how he’d laugh!’

His outburst shocked and startled the others.

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch

published 1951

During a half-hour of incomprehensible argument about the relevance of some item of evidence, Benjy had thought a good deal about the black cap. Where did they keep it? he had wondered, and concluded uneasily that the Judge had it tucked away somewhere handy. Somebody had put it there that morning, ironed out freshly, just in case. Who laundered it? Did they wear a different one every time? Who made them and how much were they and who paid? Cut on the cross like that, they would take quite a bit of stuff. Imagine Himself going along to have it fitted! That would be a treat for a wet Monday! What did they look like anyway? He still imagined a compromise between a jockey’s cap and a deerstalker, perhaps with a sort of wimple attached to add dignity. What were they made of? Satin? Watered silk? Or pongee like the remnant with which he had strangled Rachel Bolger?

observations: Last week’s Death Walks in Eastrepps entry mentioned the black cap worn by judges in English courts when they pronounced the death sentence, and here are two more examples of its being mentioned. The Christie extract featured in a previous blog entry, and the second one sounds like a spoiler but isn’t – it comes on the second page of the murder story (which has also featured before).

The black cap is one of those mysterious items that we really don’t know much about: Benjy’s questions above seem valid. This is the definition from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

Black cap or the Judgment Cap, worn by a judge when he passes sentence of death on a prisoner. This cap is part of the judge’s full dress. The judges wear their black caps on November 9th, when the Lord Mayor is presented in the Court of Exchequer. Covering the head was a sign of mourning among the Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Anglo-Saxons. (2 Sam xv 30)
The Biblical reference has David, mourning: ‘he wept as he went, and his head was covered and he walked barefoot.’ 

I consulted an expert on this, who said: 

A judge would show a sign of mourning when passing the death sentence? This doesn't sound right. Would a judge not rather show a sign of confident righteousness? Possibly, but not inevitably, tinged with sadness, at the dismal state of the human race, but not mourning. If a judge was mourning at passing a sentence, where would we be?  Good reasons for David to mourn - at the fact that his son has turned against him and is trying to usurp him...but, difficult to tease apart mourning and sadness.
--- and the leading Biblical scholar Robert Alter actually translates it as 'with his head uncovered' (my emphasis), he thinks the earlier version is doubtful.

Wikipedia says:
Although it is called a "cap", it is not made to fit the head like a typical cap does; instead it is a simple plain square made of black fabric. It was based on Tudor Court headgear. When worn, it is placed on the head on top of the judicial wig, with one of the four corners of the black fabric facing outward. The death penalty has now been abolished in England and Wales, but the black cap is still part of a judge's official regalia, and as such it is still carried into the High Court by each sitting judge when full ceremonial dress is called for.
In the nature of things, there aren’t really any pictures of it – on Wikipedia there is a blurred photograph, presumably taken illicitly, from a 1912 trial, apparently showing a judge in the black cap, but it is very unclear. The picture above is from a TV drama.

Clothes in Books was quite rude about The Wooden Overcoat in the earlier entry, so perhaps we should redress the balance by saying there were a couple of good moments:

1) the jolly young couples decide to see if they can work out who did the murders –including themselves among the suspects – and come up with algebraic results:

Here are the final scores. Peter and Hugo tied with 3M + 2O. Fan and I get 2M + 2O and Rex gets Msqrd + 3Osqrd…
M and O are means and opportunity.

2) One character’s alibi is: 

‘I was with the Colonel. All night long’.

‘Is this true, Colonel?’

‘Sir’ said the Colonel, looking gratified, ‘must refuse answer. Honour of a lady.’

With thanks to TKR.


  1. Much of my reading is based in a non-UK setting, but where I have read UK fiction, it's been primarily post-abolition of the death penalty, so I can't recall encountering the "black cap" in my reading. Interesting post though.

    I can recall as a child been driven many times along the A6 from Luton to Bedford and being morbidly fascinated by the lay-by where James Hanratty committed murder and rape. Hanratty was one of the last people to receive capital punishment in the UK - 1962.

    1. I know just what you mean, as a child I was fascinated by murder reports & histories in a rather surprising way. Perhaps we're lucky it led us to literary interests rather than anything else.

      It turns up quite often in golden age books - when I first came across it, again as quite a young person, the wording was ambiguous, and I thought the guilty party wore the hat, and I remember thinking 'well that would give away what was going to happen to him before the sentence was pronounced.'

    2. You mean you don't partake in violent criminality when not blogging? Just me then....

    3. Like I'd admit it on the blog.

  2. Moira - Really interesting discussion of the wearing of the black cap. To me anyway, its history is all the more interesting since its exact history isn't clear if I may put it that way. And of course, I'm quite pleased that you've mentioned one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels. Such interesting characters and buildup of psychological suspense in that one.

    1. Thanks Margot, I really enjoyed trying to find out more about it, even though I didn't get far!

  3. I have both of the books you mentioned, and I am not sure how I will like either of them. The Christie book I just bought recently. The black hat I had read about recently also, but don't know where. Interesting topic.

    1. I found it fascinating, trying to find out more. I wonder if the UK exported the custom to anywhere else in the world?

  4. Frightfully sorry to keep you waiting, Mater, but I had to say a word to Biggy. He's having a rotten time, and that old Jeffreys of a judge looks as though he was getting measured for a black cap.

    Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison

    1. Excellent find Lucy. Is it Harriet he's getting measured up for? I have a memory that somewhere Lord Peter says that if she had been hanged, he would have committed suicide. Which seems a bit much, even for DLS's idea of a great love affair. I must see if I can find the ref.

  5. The black cap appears in the "Blackadder Goes Forth" episode "Corporal Punishment" when Blackadder is tried for shooting a carrier pigeon. General Melchett, the presiding judge -- for whom the pigeon was a prized pet -- asks for the black cap immediately on taking his seat. The accused quips, "I love a fair trial."

    1. Thanks for that, nice extra snippet of information on the subject.


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