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By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2012 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
MURDER IN CHURCH
South Brent, 1436
The majority of facts surrounding any violent death in the fifteenth century are bound not to survive, but that does not detract from the gravity of one of Devon's most notorious murder cases, one which a contemporary, Bishop Lacey of Exeter, called 'a crime without parallel in our time and in these parts'. One evening in June 1436 the Revd John Hay, who had been Vicar of St Petroc's Church, South Brent, for eight years, was officiating at a service and had just said Vespers at the Festival of Corpus Christi, when there was a commotion in the building. One of his parishioners, Thomas Wake, entered the building, seized Hay and dragged him from the altar through a small doorway in the side of the church. There, with the help of a few partners in crime, he put the unfortunate man to death, either by beating him or stabbing him with a sword.
The nature of Wake's motive is anybody's guess. Rumour has it that though Hay was a man of the cloth, he may have been something of a womaniser, and was suspected of having an affair with Wake's wife. The latter was apprehended, and duly hanged, drawn and quartered for his sacrilegious misdemeanour. Whether any of his accomplices suffered the same fate is not recorded.
It has been claimed that South Brent shares the sorry distinction with Canterbury Cathedral of being one of only two places of worship where such a barbaric deed has occurred, the instance at Canterbury being the notorious murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in December 1170. However, a similar incident was recorded at St Winwaloe Church, Poundstock, Cornwall in 1356, when the Rev William Penfound was hacked to death on the chancel steps during a service there. Thankfully such occurences were rare, even in medieval times.
On 11 September 1436, Bishop Lacey reconsecrated the church and churchyard. He also sought to draw a line under the murder by dedicating three altars.
The door through which the murderers dragged Hay is thought to have been a small opening in the north wall of the chancel, an outline of which can be seen on the outside of the building. It was bricked up when new chapels were added at a later date. Sadly, John Hay was not allowed to rest in peace. Fragments of his tomb, with recumbent effigy, were discovered in the church in 1870 – a mutilated head is now all that remains of the figure.CHAPTER 2
SET UP TO PAY THE PRICE
Masters often used to ask their servants to undertake rather unusual jobs, but for sheer unpleasantness few can match the despicable behaviour of Arthur Tucker, a farmer at Hatherleigh in the early years of the nineteenth century. One of his maids was Jane Cox, a spinster of about thirty who lived with her mother Mary.
Aged forty-seven, Tucker already had a wife and eight children. A couple of years earlier he had had a brief affair with Elizabeth Treneman, whom he had employed as a servant for two years. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, John, who took his mother's surname. As soon as he knew she was expecting his child, Tucker turned Elizabeth out of the house. Mother and son lived in the nearby village of Northlew, and Tucker paid the parish authorities 1s 10d per week for their maintenance. Though he was reasonably well off, he wanted to be free of both this financial burden and the social stigma of having an unwanted child whom everybody in the area knew was his.
One day in June 1811 he came to Cox and asked her to do something for him. Ever ready to help, she accompanied him to a cowshed where he showed her a piece of paper concealing some powder in the wall. Handing it to her, he offered to pay her £1 if she would take it to young John Treneman. Cox suspected something was not quite right and, being a devout Christian, went home in tears to read her Bible. Her mother was very concerned and, being ignorant of what was going on, thought she must be ill.
Hoping Tucker would forget the errand, Cox thought no more about it for a few days. Then on 25 June she met him again and, when asked if she had done what he requested, told him she had lost the powder. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out some more, suggesting that she should mix it with some sweets and then give it to the boy. Realising it would be difficult to get out of the deed if she wished to keep her job, she walked the 3 miles to Elizabeth Treneman's house and offered to take John out, telling his mother she wanted to buy him a present at the fair. With grave misgivings she took the little boy with her, gave him the powder and sweets, and returned him home. The powder was arsenic, and later that day he developed lockjaw. Within a couple of hours he was dead. He was laid to rest in Hatherleigh churchyard three days later.
Cox and Tucker were both arrested and charged, the former with murder and the latter with inviting, procuring, aiding, counselling, hiring and commanding her to commit murder. At the Exeter Assizes on 9 August Cox made a full confession of her crime, which, if it had been considered carefully, amounted to little more than obeying orders from her employer, foolish and wicked though they may have been. There was no other material evidence against Tucker, and as a man of some social standing he was able to call several witnesses who testified to his good character. As a result he was acquitted.
After her arrest, Cox had confessed to committing murder, and said she did not mind being transported to any part of the world. If she had been led to believe that as an unwilling dupe she was unlikely to pay the full penalty of the law for her crime, she was to be sorely disappointed. Guilty was the verdict, and she was sentenced to be hanged at Exeter gaol on 12 August.
She was led on to the gallows, and there she addressed the crowd who had come to see her execution. She told them that Tucker had been able to persuade her to commit an abominable crime, for which she admitted she deserved to die. Her only regret was that the person who had instigated her to the commission of it was not there to share her fate with her. One can but hope that his conscience – if he had one – never ceased to trouble him afterwards. Her body was sent to a local surgeon, Robert Patch, for dissection.CHAPTER 3
THE VIOLENT SAILOR
In view of the exciting and often dangerous career Robert Finson led while serving in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, it seems ironic that his ultimate fate should have been so ignominious.
Born in about 1776, he served against the Spanish in the Mediterranean Fleet in 1797 while Admiral Jervis, later Earl St Vincent, was Commander-in-Chief. Later he was involved in the blockade of Cadiz, and it was at this time that he came to meet his future brother-in-law. Both men were on board a vessel anchored off the coast of South Devon when Finson was introduced to his colleague's sister Mary and their father – they had come to visit him while he was aboard. Finson became friendly with them, and was invited to the man's wedding. Soon after this he proposed to Mary. Some of his shipmates were aware of her flighty reputation and warned him to think twice, especially as she was already carrying a child of which he was almost certainly not the father. Despite this, they were married in 1801.
During a period of peace the following year Finson was paid off by the Royal Navy. He and Mary made their home at her father's house in Babbacombe, Torquay. A young doctor made frequent visits to the family home in order to treat her father's leg, but Finson became suspicious and wondered whether the doctor was having an affair with his wife at the same time.
He became restless, and was unable to obtain the work he wanted as a mechanic. After being encouraged by his wife, who may have had her reasons for wanting her husband a good distance away, he decided to return to sea. This time he became a fisherman off the Newfoundland coast, where there was intense rivalry between the English and Portuguese. He was involved in several fights during this period, but on one occasion nearly suffered a much worse fate. During a fierce gale he was thrown overboard and driven away from the ship, but the crew saw him in time and sheared back in his direction. He was able to grab the forechains and haul himself back on the deck. There were further adventures to come, including being captured by the French and held prisoner for eighteen months.
After a while he decided that he had had enough of the seafaring life and returned home. Now he found it even harder to settle down. His mother-in-law died at about this time, and his father-in-law found endless fault with him, complaining that he was enjoying the life of a gentleman simply by living off his wife's earnings. After all Finson had been through during the previous few years, perhaps he felt he was entitled to an easier life. He thought Mary was being a spendthrift, and was annoyed that she would never tell him how she fared with the housekeeping. By this time there were two small sons to provide for as well.
The domestic arguments became more frequent and more violent. On 4 November 1816 Finson became so angered by Mary's perpetual nagging that he threw a saucepan of boiling water over her. She chased him out of the house, wielding a hatchet, shouting obscenities and threatening to cut his head off. Next day they had a quarrel about his clothes. He refused to take his shirt off for her to wash, saying there was no need as he had two in the wash already, and he did not see why he should put another clean one on until the day he was going to die. She retorted that she wished 'that would be today'.
Things quickly went from bad to worse. On the day after their public confrontation, there was a violent altercation about their ten-year-old son Robert's dog, which Finson would not allow into the house. When it came in, he chased it out, then seized young Robert and hit him about the head repeatedly for bringing the animal indoors in defiance of his orders. Next, he picked up a towel in the kitchen, wiped his hands and face, and threw it on a pile of ashes in the fireplace. When Mary asked him what he had done that for, he snapped back, 'Because I had a mind to.'
She moved closer as if to hit him, and he grabbed hold of her by the hair. In self-defence she picked up a knife and threw it at him, hitting him in the face. He checked his reflection in the mirror to see if he had been cut and finding he had not, turned to leave the house. As he did so, Mary threw a brush at him which narrowly missed him, crashing against a dresser. He threatened to knock her down, but after advancing towards her he changed his mind and turned towards the door again. She followed him outside to the gate, wielding a fender in her hand, shouting and screaming all the time. He aimed a punch at her but missed, and they went back into the house. She called him 'a murdering rogue', which ironically turned out to be the final self-fulfilling provocation. He lashed out at her, knocking her to the kitchen floor.
Young Robert and his nine-year-old cousin, Agnes Lane, watched in horror as Finson took a knife from his pocket and stabbed his wife repeatedly in the neck, chest and arm. The boy had been sitting by the fire trying to revive it with a pair of bellows; he now threw them at his father in desperation and ran off to seek help from the neighbours. Mary collapsed in the doorway and died instantly from loss of blood.
Finson wiped his bloodstained hands on Agnes's head, then ran upstairs to attack his father-in-law who was still lying in bed. After striking him with the knife and mistakenly leaving him for dead, he went downstairs again, tried to kill himself by forcing one knife after another into his chest, then crawled away to his bed to die. He came close to making a success of his suicide attempt, to the extent that his bowels were partly hanging outside his body, but he passed out and lay there unconscious until the neighbours called a doctor who came and dressed his wounds.
Two days later Mary was buried at St Mary's Church. Her husband was kept handcuffed to his bed for ten days to prevent him from doing further mischief to himself or to anyone else. He went on trial at Exeter Assizes in March 1817. One of the witnesses called was his doctor, Mr Pollard, who told the court that Finson had said his life was a burden to him and he wanted to shoot himself. Another, Mr Bailey of Devon County Hospital, said that the prisoner had been a patient there a year previously and was treated for a complaint which was probably venereal in origin. He had been unhappy, but they did not think he was insane.
The jury only took a few minutes to reach a verdict of guilty. In summing up, Mr Justice Holroyd refused to be swayed by evidence that Finson was in an abnormally low state of mind at the time of the murder, and said his actions could only be explained by 'his having given way to an unruly and brutish passion'. He was hanged on 24 March.CHAPTER 4
THE FATAL TRIANGLE
The relationship between Rebecca Smith, her husband Edward (a rigger), and her lover, John Green (a porter) was a peculiar one which could only ever end in tears – or worse. It was known to some of their friends and neighbours in the Dock area of Plymouth, later Devonport, that all three sometimes shared a bed. Also common knowledge was the fact that Edward would sometimes let his wife sleep with Green for the price of some beer. At one stage she left her husband and their two children and settled with Green in Ireland for about eighteen months, before returning to her husband in Plymouth.
Green evidently hoped to persuade Rebecca to return to him, and took to making a nuisance of himself by hanging around outside the Smiths' house in Fore Street. On 16 October 1817 she agreed to go with Green to his local public house, the Lion and Anchor, in Cherry Gardens Street, Plymouth Dock. It was thought that she might have planned to tell him that it was all over between them.
According to Sarah Coates, the landlady, both were regular drinkers who often retired to the back parlour. On this occasion they sat drinking for about three-quarters of an hour, before Green came into the taproom to light his pipe from the fire. He then went back to join Rebecca, taking some warm beer which he said would be good for her sore mouth.
Five minutes later Rebecca staggered into the taproom, blood streaming from a severe wound in her neck. The other customers helped her into a chair and sent for a surgeon, J.G. Sparkes, to come and attend to her. By the time he arrived she was already dead. In the meantime Sarah Coates's husband Joseph, the landlord, had entered the back parlour, to find Green wiping blood from his face, hands and clothes. When Coates asked him in horror what he had done, Green replied that Rebecca Smith had tried to cut his throat, so he attacked her in self-defence.
A constable was sent for, and he decided to make a thorough search of the premises. Looking around the back parlour he found a white- handled knife, about 8 inches long, concealed beneath some paper in the grate. The point was broken off and it was still wet with blood.
Green was held in custody and tried at the Spring Assizes in March 1818. It was established that the knife belonged to Eliza Simeon, who was one of Green's fellow-lodgers, and that she had left it in his room not long before the murder took place. Anne Wilson, a neighbour of the Smiths, recalled hearing a conversation in which Rebecca had told Green that 'you mean nothing but to murder me'. Green replied, 'I value not my own life, but I don't wish to hurt you.' She reminded him that the last time he saw her, 'you said the next should be my last'.
Green's bloodstained clothes and the knife were shown to the jury. It was apparent that he had invited Rebecca to the Lion and Anchor with the intention of murdering her unless she agreed to return to him. He offered no defence or explanation in mitigation of his crime, and the jury took only a few minutes to find him guilty.
In passing sentence, the judge told him that it was 'a most horrible and atrocious act. You had taken her from her husband, and she had again returned to him, but you still followed her from known motives. You had determined to murder her if she did not quit her husband to live with you again in a state of adultery. The taking of the knife from your own lodgings is strong evidence of what were your intentions, unless she complied with your wishes'.
Aged forty-two, he was executed at Exeter gaol on 23 March 1818.CHAPTER 5
THE KILLING OF A MOTHER-TO-BE
East Worlington, 1823
In the summer of 1823 twenty-year-old farm labourer John Radford from East Worlington was told by his girlfriend, Sarah Down, that he was going to become a father in a few months' time. Radford was illegitimate himself and had never had much money to spare. From the age of seven he had been apprenticed to a local farmer, Robert Westacott, who was one of the parish overseers of the poor. That he was going to be responsible for another mouth to feed was the last news Radford wanted to hear. However, he and Sarah decided they would get married. As she had only been expecting for about six weeks, they had plenty of time.
Excerpted from Devon Murders by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2012 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Murder in Church, 1436,
2. Set up to Pay the Price, 1811,
3. The Violent Sailor, 1816,
4. The Fatal Triangle, 1818,
5. The Killing of a Mother-to-Be, 1823,
6. Friend by Name but Not by Nature, 1827,
7. 'By the Lord's Mercy You'll Hang Me Innocent!', 1829,
8. The Murderer and the Book of Poetry, 1830,
9. An Infanticide, 1832,
10. Death after the Fair, 1835,
11. A Gamekeeper's Violent End, 1839,
12. Death of a Tax Collector, 1853,
13. The Glove-maker and the Chimney-sweep, 1854,
14. The Torquay Baby Farmer, 1865,
15. The Shoemaker, His Wife and Her Lover, 1865,
16. Extra Drill Led Him to Kill, 1869,
17. The Angry Butcher, 1877,
18. The Man They Could Not Hang, 1884,
19. The Riverkeeper and the Poachers, 1887,
20. Atrocity at Peter Tavy, 1892,
21. The Paranoid Painter, 1900,
22. Anger on the Farm, 1904,
23. Death of an Artist, 1905,
24. An Unsuitable Youth, 1908,
25. The Work-shy Ex-sailor, 1912,
26. The Thwarted Naval Stoker, 1913,
27. The Soldier and the Schoolgirl, 1916,
28. The Killing of Sister Catherine, 1916,
29. The Fatal Attraction of Two Cousins, 1920,
30. Shooting on the Moor, 1927,
31. The Body in the Allotment, 1927,
32. Massacre at West Charleton, 1936,
33. Holiday of Death, 1937,
34. Mother and Son, 1938,
35. The Fatal Kiss, 1952,
Bibliography and References,