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I was wondering when the expression "judge, jury, and executioner" was first used. It appears in "A Study in Scarlet" (1887), but I don't know how to look for earlier usage.

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  • Nice first question. Welcome to English Language & Usage. Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 14:54
  • OED has "judge and jury" going back to at least 1646 (there's also a 1576 reference which is in verse and slightly different).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 16:16

6 Answers 6

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The earliest I can find is Daniel Defoe, "Memoirs of the Church of Scotland" (1717)...

...make every private Sentinel, every Musquetier, both Judge, Jury, and Executioner.


For future reference, OP might like to hang on to this Google Books link. Enter the target phrase "in quotes", then use Search Tools to keep whittling down the date range until you've got the earliest one. Re-search without quotes, to find any earlier instances phrased slightly differently.

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  • Thanks for the link! I had tried to use ngram before asking the question, but failed, and I now see that Books is a more useful resource.
    – John
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 16:18
  • @John: Glad you found the link useful. You might also consider clicking on the "up arrow/triangle" icon above my pitiful 0 score, above the tick indicating you've accepted the answer. I must admit I didn't actually follow my own advice and re-search pre-1717 for any earlier references that might have been relevant. I'm guessing Defoe was probably the first for this exact form, but it's such an obvious thing to say it could have been used centuries before and simply not written down in any surviving indexed digitised form we can easily access. Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 16:28
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Slightly earlier than the Defoe reference, we have William Congreve's play, The Double-dealer, published in 1706 but first produced in 1693. It contains the lines:

But in this Court, what Diff'rence does appear!
For every one's both Judge and Jury here;
Nay, and what's worse, an Executioner.

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  • Hoist by my own petard! In my own answer text I suggested searching for just the key words "unquoted", but admitted in a comment I hadn't bothered to do that in this case. Since Robusto rarely if ever posts answers these days, I guess that makes you the site's top "citation archaeologist". Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 17:27
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Contemporary with the quote from Defoe is this from a political monthly:

"...the King issued out a printed Order, for all Whigs to shoot or destroy, by the Way they would, any that should be charged with Concern in any Riot in Time to come; which constituted any malicious Man, the Accuser, Judge, Jury and Executioner of his Neighbour;." - The Political State of Great Britain, for October 1717 (Vol.XIV:398)

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Published a year before Congreve's The Double-dealer, but evidently written 12 years after Congreve's play was first produced is William Grimston's play, The Lawyer's Fortune: or, Love in a Hollow Tree (1705), which includes these lines:

Florida. Oh! Thou wild Monster of Mankind, whose Venom Breaths it self thus to the Destruction of they Betters!

Friendlove. Peace, Madam, If I had Kill'd him it had been but Justice.

Florida. And must you make your self Judge, Jury, and Hangman? tho' the last might be a proper Office for you, yet I am sure you have no Right to the former; Oh, thou Villain!

This formulation—with a hangman in place of an executioner—thus appears to have reached print first, but not to have been presented to audiences first. A note in the Dictionary of National Biography (1903) observes that Grimson's play was "ridiculed by Swift and Pope," suggesting that it may have provided "judge, jury, and hangman" less of a boost into popular usage than Congreve's play may have done for "judge, jury, and executioner."

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Normally you find information about when a word appeared for the first time in the online etymological dictionary etymonline.com. For judge (noun and verb) the information is around 1300. But the word has a history back to Romans times. Latin judex, genitive judicis gave French juge and English judge. Jury and executioner also have Latin sources.

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I suspect that the original source is in literature from before 1850, because the themes of many Shakespearean (e.g. Othello) and Greek tragedies considered the hubris of the power of judge, jury and executioner in a single person or entity. However, I haven't a literary source yet.

Looking at legal decisions, I found the phrase used by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in 1858 in the tort case of Brown v. Perkins, 12 Gray 89, 97 (Mass. 1858). There the court said:

Whenever that which is a common nuisance obstructs, injures or annoys a person under such circumstances that he cannot wait for the slow process of the law for his remedy, he may do that which relieves him from the impending peril, and which results in an abatement of the nuisance, but which is not technically an abatement of the nuisance. If we go farther than this, and say that any person may go beyond what the law authorizes him to do, and himself execute the law; then we are under a government of men and not of laws; and the legislative, instead of entrusting the execution of the laws to the executive and judicial departments, makes every individual to be judge, jury and executioner in his own case. A nuisance is not different from any other illegal act; a person injured may not execute the law, but he may relieve himself from impending peril. Is it a greater offence to commit a nuisance than to murder a man? Could the legislature say in case of murder, that any one might make hot pursuit and kill the offender? Yet he would be doing no more than the law would do.

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