Most people have used the expression "You betcher life!" at some time or other. Nobody has meant it seriously—or almost nobody. There was a sportsman once who did mean it. He literally bet his life and lost the bet and tried his best to pay off. His name was Tom Shelton, and he was a prizefighter in the old bare-knuckle days in England.
On September 14, 1812 Mr. Shelton found himself before King George III's judges and a jury at the Quarter Sessions in London, charged with assault. His victim, a constable named Croker, showed up in court with a broken nose and two black eyes.
Constable Croker found the boxer trying to hang himself from a lamppost in the Hampstead road. Looking on and uttering encouraging cries was an intimate friend of Shelton's who happened to be the winner of the grimmest wager on record.
The constable had arrived just in time. Shelton's first try had not come off. The big handkerchief he had knotted around his neck (called a Belcher in honor of the celebrated fighting Belcher brothers, Jem and Tom) had come loose and down went Shelton to the ground.
October 15, 1961
"Up again, quickly!" cried his friend, and Shelton was climbing the lamppost again when Constable Croker brought him down with his cudgel.
It was then that the intruding constable got his broken nose and black eyes from Shelton, who was still indignant when he went into court and brought a counterplea of assault against Croker.
Shelton's case was that the law officer had struck him three times with the cudgel before he retaliated. (This was true: Croker was knocking him down from the lamppost.) He also pleaded that Croker had not shown his credentials before hitting him, but his main defense was that he had a perfect right to hang himself as he had lost a bet made in good faith, and his life belonged to himself. Or, rather, to the winning gamester.
He and his good friend and gambling partner had been enjoying a day in the suburbs and a considerable imbibing of gin (known popularly as "blue ruin"). Come evening they took to shooting dice at a public house, and Shelton first lost his money, then the clothes on his back.
As a last resort, he put up his life and lost again. What was a sportsman to do but pay off? The winner agreed with enthusiasm.
The jury disagreed with him—the winner—and Shelton. He was found guilty of assault, but after the appeal of a weeping wife, with four young children, the judges used their merciful prerogative and let Shelton go. The winner of the bet seems to have been in no legal trouble at all.
Shelton went on to have a series of fights against some of the leading pugs of his time. He fought at 12 stone 7 (175 pounds) and was considered a good man in his day. But gambling was always his weakness. Through it he lost his business as a pubkeeper and had a hard time of it after that.
On June 21, 1830 he took a dose of prussic acid, and this time there was no Constable Croker. Maybe Shelton had lost another bet. History, being ignorant of the details, is silent.