Murdered by a travelling showman

The Illustrated Police News' depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Illustrated Police News’ depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

Robert West was a travelling showman, running a coconut shy at the fairs that toured around England. Originally from Oxford, he was around 44 years old, and was used to a peripatetic life.

He had arrived, in his caravan, at the village of Handsworth Woodhouse near Sheffield at 11.30pm on Friday night, 23 August, his intention being to remain and set his shy up at the village feast that weekend.

He started quarreling with his wife Emma, which often happened as the result of Robert’s tendency to drink. Their son – one of their six children – realised Robert was drunk, and was arguing as a result of jealousy over his wife’s perceived behaviour. The son went off for a walk to get away from them.

While he was out, at 1am, West went running up to Police Sergeant Ford of the West Riding constabulary, as he was passing the caravan on his patrols.

“I’ve murdered my wife!” West shouted, and PS Ford ran with him to the van, where he found Emma lying on the floor, almost decapitated. By her side was a large knife, and the floor was covered in blood.

West was taken into custody at Sheffield, and immediately made a written confession. However, he had, in front of PS Ford, first said that he was “satisfied” with the murder, and “regretted that he had not also murdered the man whom he alleges to have been intimate with his wife”.

In the police court, Robert cross-examined Emma’s mother himself. She had got very upset, and shouted, “You bad, bad man, you murderer, you villain!”

Robert responded, “You can talk, but you are as bad as every one of them.”

“Am I, you bad villain? You murderer of my poor daughter!” screamed his mother-in-law.

Robert muttered,

“I am very glad I did it, and I am only sorry I did not do both of them. All I want is to die now, and the sooner the better. I shall then be out of the way. I told her I should do it, and I am glad I did it. I wish I’d done the other one as well.”

PS Ford then explained that as he had walked Robert to the police station after the murder, he had said,

“This thing has been brewing, it will be 12 months next Sunday, When we was here at the feast last year I began to find out of her tricks. There’s another I intended to do first; that’s Leicester Jack, and then her, but he kept out of the way, else I should have done him first.”

Robert West was committed to the Leeds Assizes on the charge of leaving murder. As he left the dock to be committed to Wakefield Prison, he said, “Goodbye, all of you!”

The travelling showman travelled no more. He was found guilty of murder at the Assizes and was executed at Armley Prison in Leeds, on 31 December 1889.

Webb's entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Webb’s entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sun 25 August 1889, Illustrated Police News, 31 August 1889, Capital Punishment UK, Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive.

 

Advertisements

What an ass: Goodyer Long, who had sex with a donkey and lived to tell the tale

donkeyPoor Goodyer Long. Not just saddled with that name, but also saddled (appropriately) with a rather unpleasant conviction – that of bestiality with a female ass.

Bestiality was not that unusual an offence in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with criminal records detailing many cases, but usually involving boys in their teens or early twenties, trying to find an outlet for pent-up sexual desires. However, in the 1830s, there seems to have been several cases involving older men that were viewed less sympathetically than those involving the young – one 57-year-old man was executed in Bodmin in 1834 for the offence, and several other men were convicted at Exeter around the same time.

Goodyer was not a young man with no other way of dealing with his sexuality; he was a married man in his late 50s. But still, he was convicted of this capital offence “on the clearest evidence” at the Lent Assizes in Norfolk on 8 April 1837, and duly sentenced to death. The judge stated that he held out “no hopes of mercy”. He was due to be executed on 29 April, but instead was sent to the prison hulk York where, with the “exception of one indifferent muster”, he conducted himself well.

One would think that his offence would quickly alienate him from his local community – who would want to stick up for a man who stuck… well, never mind the rest of that sentence.

Yet the community DID rally round Goodyer. 29 inhabitants of the villages of Fundenhall and Tacolneston (listed as Tawlnestone) – including the rector and churchwardens, as well as the delightfully named Righteous Reeve – signed a petition to argue that he should not be executed. His wife, listed as Mary Long (actually Maria, nee Andrews), and sister, Mary Filby, also signed the petition and stuck by him.

Why did they think he deserved clemency? They actually tried several tacks. He was “usually” of good character; he was a drunk who, after a few, didn’t know what he was doing (even when an ass of any kind was involved); there was nobody at his trial to support him; his age was a mitigating factor… and lastly, the killer tack – he “may” have been suffering from insanity.

The prison ship, or hulk, York, where Goodyer Long was sent.

The prison ship, or hulk, York, where Goodyer Long was sent.

The petition, and the varied reasons for mitigation worked. On 21 April, a week before he was due to be hanged, Goodyer’s sentence was reduced to transportation for life. But again, he was sent back to the prison hulks.

He was received on the Leviathan – which had previously seen battle at Trafalgar – at Portsmouth on 1 June 1837, and then, on 14 April 1840, he was transferred to the hulk York, in Gosport, where it seems he served three years, living alongside some 500 other convicts on the ageing ship.

He was never transported. Perhaps surprisingly to modern eyes, on being discharged from the hulk, Goodyer returned to Norfolk. With few resources and a criminal record, he may have had little alternative. In 1851, he was in his home parish of Fundenhall, aged 72 and in receipt of parish relief, living with his wife. He died there two years later.

 

Sources: The National Archives (TNA) HO 17/75/58, 18 April 1837; 6 December 1843; The Bury & Norwich Post, 12 April 1837; 1851 census for Mill Road, Fundenhall, Norfolk (via The Genealogist); BMD Deaths, Norwich, 1853 (first quarter), 4b 203.

The Condemned Criminal Tolerates Consolation

“The Home Secretary has issued orders for the execution of Bucknell, convicted at the late Somerset Assizes of the brutal murder of his aged grandfather and grandmother, at Creech St Michael’s, to take place at Taunton Gaol, on Thursday morning next, the 26th instant.

“The wretched criminal, it is said, appears extremely callous, and to have no conception of the enormity of his guilt.

“He is respectful to the reverend chaplain, but seems rather to tolerate than wish for his spiritual consolation and assistance.”

Liverpool Mercury, 23 August 1858

21-year-old John Baker Bucknell was executed at Taunton on 26 August. He had been convicted of housebreaking in March 1857 and given a 10 month gaol sentence.

The following year, he was convicted of murdering innkeeper John Bucknell, aged 72, and his wife Betsy, 74. He was described by the Taunton Courier of 11 August 1858 as an “unfortunate young man”.

Bringing a Murderer to Life

Broadside of Robert Blakesley's execution, 1841

Broadside of Robert Blakesley’s execution, 1841

Look at a criminal broadside from the 19th century. There are the drawings – generic depictions of people hanging, of gaols, of crowds, together with more personalised portraits of the murderer, or the victim.

There is the text – the melodramatic, overly detailed, story of the crime, the penitence of the murderer before he or she is dropped into oblivion.

These are the forerunner of the tabloid newspaper; designed to be bought, read, thrown away.

But now they are in museums, sold in auctions, a historical artefact. The individuals that are written about in these broadsides are somehow lost to us in the present. They are abstract, viewed from a historical distance, fictionalised by their broadside-producing contemporaries.

I own a broadside – and admit to being fascinated by the stories they tell and how they tell them. But can I build a picture of real people, living ordinary lives, from the dramatised story presented on this sheet of paper?

My broadside is from 1841. It relates to the execution of Robert Blakesley after being found guilty of the murder of James Burdon in the City of London.

It’s not the only broadside produced about Blakesley; the British Library has written about one it holds, which was produced prior to Blakesley’s trial, at his first committal hearing. That broadside assumed his guilty even though he had not yet been tried.

Blakesley was found guilty of stabbing James Burdon, landlord of the King’s Head in Eastcheap. He was depicted as mentally ill, a man who regularly abused and assaulted his wife.

The British Library states that Blakesley had tried to stab his wife; when challenged by Burdon, his brother-in-law, after “months of marital strife”, he stabbed him. Burdon died; Sarah Blakesley miscarried her baby, it was said, and died some time later.

Blakesley had been arrested in September 1841, was tried at the Old Bailey on 25 October 1841 and executed on 15 November.

Yet on the night of 6 June 1841, when the census was taken, a more domestic, peaceful scene was suggested.

At Eastcheap, James Burdon, aged 35, was listed as the head of his household. He was living with his wife Eliza, and their four-year-old son James. Also with the Burdons were Eliza’s widowed mother, Ann Adkins, and her sister Sarah, still unmarried and aged 25.

Also at the premises was Robert Blakesley, listed as a 25-year-old cattle dealer (he was actually 27, the 1841 census often rounding up or down to the nearest five years).

Robert was accepted as part of the Adkins family, and he married Sarah exactly three weeks after the census was taken – at St Stephen Walbrook church on 27 June 1841. Their witnesses were James and Eliza Burdon.

Robert and Sarah were only married for three months before the murder occurred.

Eliza Burdon gave evidence at Blakesley’s trial. She painted a similarly domestic scene to the census; on the evening of 21 September 1841, a Tuesday, she had been in the King’s Head bar with her sister Sarah. James Burdon was fast asleep at the end of the bar, his back against the window.

At 10.05pm, Blakesley walked in, “sprang” at Sarah and stabbed her in her right side, saying, “My wife or her life”, before turning around and stabbing James to death while he slept*.

The cosy domestic scene in the family pub was subverted by this sudden, unexpected, act of violence committed by one who had only recently been welcomed into this family environment.

Worse still, he had killed a man who was sleeping peacefully at the end of a long day working to maintain that family.

Blakesley’s own family were called on to testify at his trial. His father James, a respectable cloth factor based in the City, and a member of the Blackwell Hall, stated that his son had been brought up in his “establishment”, but that after a serious illness when aged about five, he had suffered from fits and been anti-social, struggling to make friends and interact with people.

Robert was sent away to school at the age of eight. The saddest part of his father’s testimony was his description of going to watch his son at school, through a blind in the schoolmaster’s room:

“I was sent for by the schoolmaster, to see how my son would stand by the wall when the other children were at play. I looked through the blind, and I saw him stand there for, I think, half an hour, while the children were all frolicsome and at play together.”

It conjures up an image of a lonely boy, different from others his age, and unable to connect with them.

His father removed him from school at the age of 13, to come and work for him; but Robert disappeared frequently, and when he returned seemed not to know where he had been, or what he had done.

His father explained:

“I have seen him agitated, some scores of times, his eyes starting and his lips quivering, and I have said, ‘Halloo, Robert! What are you about?’ He has looked and said, ‘Oh papa! Nothing particular.'”

This was a man whose older brother, on whose the family’s hopes rested, had died at the age of 20. He had the pressure of his parents now on him, and seems unable to cope with it. Yet his father clearly loved him very much, and refused to get him sent to an asylum because he did not think his son was “vicious”.

His sudden attack on his wife and his brother-in-law were an extension of his disappearances and fits of insensibility at home. Somewhere in there was still the lonely boy wondering how to fit in and always remaining on the outside.

He destroyed the family who had let him join them, and destroyed the hopes of his loving father in the process.

Yet the criminal broadsides produced after his death, and the carrying out of the death sentence, do not let the 21st century reader picture Robert as a three-dimensional man – the 27-year-old with a long history of emotional problems who, another witness said, was “on terms of the greatest affection with every member” of his family.

For a bit of insight into Robert’s complex character, other historical sources have to be studied and compared. His father’s shocked, but loving, testimony at his son’s trial, and the domesticity presented in the census return, conjures up a real man, rather than a criminal caricature.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Images from The Genealogist and Ancestry.

* The British Library refers to Sarah dying of her wounds several weeks after James Burdon’s death. Although the Old Bailey states that she was stabbed in her side, and she did not appear as a witness, neither can I find evidence for her death.

 

Horror and entertainment at the gibbet: Charles Dickens’ day out

Marie_Manning,_murderer

Marie Manning, hanged with her husband Frederick outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol on 13 November 1849 – witnessed by Charles Dickens.

“I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane…The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators…

“When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked onto the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour.

“Fightings, faintings, whistling, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.

“Nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits.”

Charles Dickens, 18 November 1849

The Trials of Selina Wadge

A post inspired by a recent trip I made to Bodmin Jail.

image2Selina Wadge is commemorated in Bodmin Jail by a rather strange, blank faced, waxwork depiction of her in an old jail cell. She is shown throwing a child into a well while an older child looks on, equally blankly (see photo).

The waxwork display fails to bring to life the sheer poverty and desperation of Selina’s life – the trials and tribulations she underwent in her fairly short life.

She was born in the first quarter of 1852 in Altarnun, a village some eight miles from Launceston in Cornwall, the daughter of Thomas Wadge and his wife Mary. Thomas worked, like many local men, in the local mines; at the time of Selina’s birth, he was a tin streamer; ten years later, he was a copper mine labourer. Selina was baptised on 18 June 1852 at the village church of St Nonna.

1861 census entry for the Wadge family in Altarnun (via Ancestry)

1861 census entry for the Wadge family in Altarnun (via Ancestry)

In 1878, she was 26, single, and the mother of two illegitimate sons – John, aged six, and Harry, a crippled child of two whose disability meant he was unable to walk.

She looked after her boys as best she could, but on more than one occasion, had to be admitted to Launceston Workhouse as a pauper.

After her last admission to the workhouse, she left there on 8 June 1878, and returned to Altarnun to stay with her parents. When living at home, she occasionally went out to work in order to try and maintain her boys, with her mother helping out with childcare.

At some point in the previous couple of weeks, Selina had met a former soldier, James Westwood, and started a relationship with him. They had arranged to meet on 22 June 1878 in Launceston.

The day before, Selina hitched a ride into the town with her sons with a local farmer, William Holman, telling him she was going to meet Westwood – ‘I am going to meet my man’ – apparently unaware that Westwood had written to Selina to cancel their meeting, due to work commitments.

Holman dropped Selina and the boys off at Orchard’s coal stores, which was just outside Launceston, with Selina saying that she would walk the rest of the way.

But when she reached Launceston, at around 11am according to her own testimony, Selina had only one son, John, with her.

She went to visit her older sister, Mary Ann Boundy – then 28, but already widowed – who was an inmate in the workhouse, reaching there at about 12.30pm.

She told Mary Ann, without being asked, that Harry had died from a head abscess and throat complaint and had been buried ‘near the church door at Altarnun’, his coffin made by John Trehane in the village.

Selina only spoke to Mary Ann for around half an hour before leaving at 1pm. She told her sister that she was going to stay in Launceston that night, and return to Altarnun the next day.

That evening, Selina was met by neighbours from Altarnun at the Pennygillam turnpike road, with John by her side. On being asked where Harry was, Selina said that he was at Launceston; she then said goodbye and continued on the road to Launceston, while the neighbours went in the opposite direction towards Altarnun.

However, at around 9pm, she was calling at a lodging house in Tower Street, Launceston, having previously slept there on a couple of occasions. The lodging house keeper, Harriet Parker, therefore knew the family, and spotted that Harry was not with his mother. She asked where it was, and Selina answered, ‘it died out at mother’s’.

The next evening, she returned to the workhouse, this time with an order from the parish to be admitted. She was put in the receiving ward to sleep.

The following morning, a Sunday, the workhouse master, Daniel Downing, and his wife, the matron, Louisa, asked for more information from Selina.

Putting the blame squarely on James Westwood, she stated, ‘The man took it away from me, threw it in the water, and drowned it’.

Extract from registers of prisoners tried at the Assizes at Bodmin - Selina's entry is at the bottom (via Ancestry)

Extract from registers of prisoners tried at the Assizes at Bodmin – Selina’s entry is at the bottom (via Ancestry)

Despite it being later argued that Selina was a loving mother to her son Harry, her use of ‘it’ rather than ‘him’ suggests either that she saw him as an object rather than a boy, or that she was already distancing herself from her son, talking about him as an ‘it’ so that she would not have to think too deeply about what had happened.

Superintendent Barrett from Launceston was called, and he came and asked Selina where Harry had been when she went to the lodging house.

Selina answered that she had been walking with a man on the Tresmarrow road (where she had lived six years earlier) together on the Friday afternoon, and,

‘he took away my little boy, went into a field, and came back and told me he had thrown it in a pit where there were railings, and had drowned it. He came after us, saying he would drown us too.’

She then gave the policeman Westwood’s name and address.

But after he left, Selina turned to the matron and said,

‘Oh, Mrs Downing, I did it. I drowned the child; I put Harry into the water. There was no man with me; no one but my little Johnny, and he began to cry.’

An investigation had, by this time, been launched, and soon Harry’s body was found at the bottom of a 13-foot deep well shaft in Mowhay Park. The lid had been replaced on the well, suggesting that this was no accidental death.

The body was identified by the next door neighbour of Selina’s parents, a Mary Wakeham, who described Harry, when alive, as ‘a fine, healthy child’. A post-mortem suggested that he had died of suffocation, although this might have been due to drowning rather than violence beforehand.

Selina had confessed, and now she was charged with murder, and was taken to Launceston police station, telling the constables that Westwood had promised to marry her if she got rid of her disabled son.

Bodmin Jail

Bodmin Jail

The trial of Selina Wadge took place at the Cornwall Assizes held at Bodmin on 26 July 1878. She was found guilty of murder, the jury taking just three minutes to make their decision. She was held in the condemned cell at Bodmin Jail, guarded by female prison officers.

On 15 August, at 8am, Selina Wadge was hanged by William Marwood – hers being the first private execution at Bodmin. Her last words were ‘Lord deliver me from this miserable world.’

Selina’s trials in life were over, but those for her remaining son, John, may not have been. He was not looked after by family members after his mother’s death (his grandparents were still living in 1901), and may have continued to be an inmate of the Launceston workhouse until he was old enough to work.

The 1911 census records a John Wadge of the right place and date of birth, a former carpenter, listed as an inmate of the Plymouth workhouse. If this was Selina’s son, poverty continued to be an issue into the next generation – no doubt not helped by John’s inauspicious early years, and the witnessing of the death of his little brother at the hands of his mother.

Sources: Bodmin Jail, Ancestry, and the Cornwall Gazette, 28 June 1878, page 5.

 

A Bloody Anniversary: 50 years since the last UK execution

On this day fifty years ago, the last hangings in the UK took place. To mark this anniversary, here’s Criminal Historian’s list of key dates in the history of execution in Britain.

William Calcraft, from Irregular Shed's Flickr page

William Calcraft, from Irregular Shed’s Flickr page

4 April 1829: Shoemaker William Calcraft, aged 29, was sworn in as Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex following the death of John Foxton.

He had previously been employed by Foxton to whip young offenders.

He was paid a guinea a week, plus an extra guinea for each execution he carried out.

His first execution was prior to his swearing in – he hanged Thomas Lister and George Wingfield on 27 March 1829.

He retired in 1874, and died five years later.

Marie Manning

Marie Manning

13 November 1849: Frederick and Marie Manning became the first married couple since 1700 to be hanged together. Convicted of killing Marie’s lover, Patrick O’Connor, in Bermondsey, south London, they were hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

2 April 1868: Frances Kidder, aged 25, was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain. She was executed at Maidstone Prison, and a crowd of 2,000, including her husband, watched her die.

Frances was convicted of drowning 11-year-old Louisa Kidder Staples – her husband’s illegitimate daughter – in a dyke near New Romney. There was some sympathy, though, towards her – her husband was said to be a cruel man who, while Frances was in custody, started a relationship with her 17-year-old sister.

Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison

26 May 1868: Fenian Michael Barrett became the last man to be executed in a public hanging.

He caused an “atrocious” explosion in Clerkenwell that killed seven people, and was hanged outside Newgate Prison.

The Daily News reported that he was hanged,

“in the presence of one of the smallest crowds that has for a long time assembled in front of the Old Bailey to witness a public execution”.

29 May 1868: The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act scrapped public executions.

The entrance to Maidstone Prison. © Oast House Archive

The entrance to Maidstone Prison. © Oast House Archive

13 August 1868: The first private hanging in the UK took place.

18-year-old Thomas Wells was hanged at Maidstone Prison for the murder by shooting of Mr Walsh, the master of Dover’s Priory Station, where Wells had been porter.

Wells had shot Walsh after the latter warned him about the danger of practicing with firearms – Wells’ practice being, according to the press, a “silly and mischievous habit”.

It was the first private hanging within prison walls, with a black flag raised outside the wall to signify that the hanging had been carried out.

25 May 1874: William Calcraft carried out his last hanging – of James Godwin (27), who had been convicted of killing his wife Louisa after an argument.

11 August 1875: The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act didn’t apply on Jersey – the last public hanging there took place seven years after the act was passed, and saw Joseph Le Brun executed.

Pierrepoint - not a fictional character...

Pierrepoint – not fictional…

26 September 1932: Yorkshire-born Albert Pierrepoint (27) was appointed as Assistant Executioner at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, although due to the relatively low number of hangings in Britain, the first execution he attended was in Dublin.

Within ten years, he was styling himself the Official Executioner of Britain – a job he had wanted since he was 11 years old. Both his father and uncle had worked as executioners.

Pierrepoint combined his executioner role with being a grocer and then pub landlord. He also became a macabre celebrity, telling his story to the press, despite the Home Office’s disapproval.

He retired in 1956 to Southport, where he died in 1992.

Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis

13 July 1955: Ruth Ellis (29) became the last woman to be hanged in Britain, after her conviction for the murder of her lover, David Blakely. She was arrested at the scene of the crime, after shooting him dead.

Ruth was hanged at Holloway Prison in north London.

6 May 1958: The last hanging in Wales was carried out, when Vivian Teed (24) was executed at Swansea after murdering 73-year-old postmaster William Williams with a hammer.

20 December 1961: Robert McGladdery (26) is hanged at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, following his murder of teenager Pearl Gamble after a dance. He becomes the last person to be hanged in Northern Ireland.

15 August 1963: The last hanging in Scotland took place, when Henry Burnett (21) was hanged at Aberdeen. He had been convicted of killing merchant seaman Thomas Guyan, his lover’s husband.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Allen

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Allen

13 August 1964: It was on this date that two men, Gwynne Owen Evans (24) and Peter Allen (21), were executed – at the same time, but in different prisons – making them the last people to be executed in the UK.

They had been convicted of the murder of van driver John Alan West, known as Jack, who had been killed in Cumbria on 7 April. Evans and Allen, both of whom had previous criminal records, had intended to rob him. Although they blamed each other for West’s death, they were both found guilty of murder.

Evans was hanged at 8am at Strangeways Prison in Manchester. At the same time, Allen was executed at Liverpool.

9 November 1965: The death penalty for murder was suspended for five years, as a result of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act.

16 December 1969: The death penalty for murder was formally abolished, following a House of Commons vote.