The Electric Constable Captures a Poisoner

The Electric Constable Captures a Poisoner

When former domestic servant Sarah Hart was murdered on New Year’s Day, the pursuit of the prime suspect became the first ever case in which the electric telegraph was used to capture a killer. On 1 January 1845, Mary Ann Ashley of Bath Place, Salt Hill, a suburb of Slough in Berkshire, spotted a man visiting her next door neighbour, Sarah Hart. Two hours later, she was sitting by the fire in her home when she heard a scream. Grabbing a candle, she made her way into her garden, and saw the man leaving again. She spoke to him as he struggled to open the gate, but he left without responding. Thinking she could hear moans, Mary Ann entered her neighbour’s property and found Sarah Hart lying on the floor. Her clothes were dishevelled and she was foaming at the mouth. Despite efforts to revive her, Sarah died soon after. The man visiting Sarah that afternoon was her former employer and lover, John Tawell. Aged 61, he was a respectable merchant and a married man. He was also a member of the Society of Friends. Sarah had been nursemaid to his children, after the death of his first wife, and she had had two of her own children with him. When he married again, Sarah was dismissed, but Tawell continued to pay for his illegitimate family. Their children, Frederick, aged 5 and Sarah, 4, were both in the house when their mother died. The post-mortem revealed that she had been poisoned with prussic acid.   When John Tawell left the house on the evening of 1 January, he was...
Who Killed Constable Cock?

Who Killed Constable Cock?

On Monday 27 November 1876, the trial of John and William Habron opened at the Manchester Assizes Court. Aged 23 and 18 respectively, the brothers were charged with the murder of PC Nicholas Cock. If convicted, they would hang. At midnight on 1 August earlier that year, Constable Cock was shot on duty in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, one of the ‘most respectable suburbs’ of Manchester, which was ‘covered by villa residences of some considerable pretensions’. He had been standing at a junction of three main roads, known as West Point, on the edge of his beat, when two shots rang out in the dark. The officer, aged 21, fell to the ground and later died of a gunshot wound to the chest.   The local press described Cock as: ‘a very active officer, punctual in the discharge of his duties, and as he had only been in the force some eight months he was no doubt anxious to commend himself to the consideration of his superior officers’. In court, Cock’s superior officer, Superintendent James Bent, also praised his fallen colleague as, ‘one of the most respectable and active officers in the force’. On the fateful night, as soon as he had heard the terrible news, Superintendent Bent had known immediately who the culprits were: the Habron brothers.           John, Frank and William Habron were labourers, originally from Ireland. They worked in the nursery garden of Francis Deakin, close to the scene of the murder. After PC Cock’s death, Superintendent Bent proceeded straight to the outhouse where they stayed, and arrested them. He found percussion caps in the...
‘A Cold-Blooded Tragedy’

‘A Cold-Blooded Tragedy’

‘It appeared…a most startling thing that at so short a distance from Manchester, and in one of the most respectable suburbs of the town, in a public highway, well lighted…a policeman could have been shot down in his duty’ (Manchester Courier, 28 November 1876)   At midnight on Tuesday 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was on duty in a leafy suburb of Manchester. It was a dry and cloudy evening, with little moonlight. The police officer had left Chorlton-cum-Hardy an hour earlier, and was approaching the end of his regular beat, at the intersection of three main roads, known as West Point, which bordered Chorlton, Old Trafford and Whalley Range. As he walked along a wide footpath overhung with trees towards the ‘Jutting Stone’, which marked the limit of his beat, two men accompanied him for the last few yards: another police officer, PC James Beanland, and law student, John Massey Simpson, who was on his way home after a night out.   The three men exchanged pleasantries before Simpson left. When he was 150 yards away, he heard two loud shots ring out in the night. The student turned round to see flashes of light behind him in the pitch dark and screams of, ‘Oh, murder, murder; I’m shot, I’m shot’ rang out in the night. Simpson rushed back where he had left the officers to find 21-year-old PC Cock slumped on the pavement near the garden wall of a large house. Even in the dim light, he could see the unmistakable stain of blood spreading across the police officer’s chest: Nicholas Cock had been shot.   PC Beanland blew...
The Silent Killer

The Silent Killer

A keen collector of ‘crime artefacts’, I was thrilled to find an authentic Victorian laudanum bottle in an antiques emporium, and for only £6. It now sits alongside my poison bottle in my study. Recently I attended a conference on poison and poisoners, it piqued my interest in the lethal substance once sold in my precious bottles. Self-Medication was rife in the Victorian era and laudanum was the drug of choice for many. The narcotic was the most popular derivative of opium and was easily available over the counter. A mixture of powdered opium and alcohol (usually brandy) and flavoured with spices, laudanum was widely used as a stimulant. Costing about the same as a pint of beer, the Victorians bought laudanum from the local druggist a pennyworth at a time, to relieve the rigours of life. As well as being an effective analgesic, it was used to alleviate a variety of ailments, such as rheumatism, coughs, insomnia and diarrhoea. Highly addictive, the body soon became accustomed to the drug, requiring a higher dose to achieve the desired effects.     For some, laudanum was used to combat depression and ‘low spirits’ and, according to contemporary journalist Angus Reach, the most habitual users of laudanum were women. In 1862, Elizabeth Siddal, artist, poet and wife of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, died of a laudanum overdose. Other Victorian celebrities who took the drug included Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. Laudanum was also widely used for babies and young children. Druggists sweetened it with syrup or treacle and sold it as concoctions such as ‘Godfrey’s Cordial’, to make...
A Grisly Discovery

A Grisly Discovery

Whilst clearing out his mother’s loft, Richard Anderson came across a cardboard box with some very sinister contents: a package of brown paper and old newspaper, and a long piece of string. A label revealed that the items were evidence collected in the Amelia Dyer trial, in 1896, after she was arrested in Reading. Richard’s ancestor, Detective Constable James Anderson, was one of the investigating officers on the case, and the objects had been kept in his family home for 120 years. Here’s the story behind the grisly artefact: On 30 March 1896 bargeman Charles Humphreys navigated up the River Thames near Reading, towing a boat of ballast. He was moving slowly towards the Clappers footbridge, when he spotted a brown paper parcel floating in the water. Leaning over the side of the barge with a hook, Charles and his mate dragged the package through the water towards them. Humphreys’s companion unravelled the damp parcel, which had been tied with macramé twine. He cut through two layers of flannel and pulled back the sodden fabric to expose a child’s foot and part of a leg.     Later, the police unwrapped the parcel to find the body of a baby girl, aged between six months and one year, swaddled in layers of linen, newspaper and brown paper. Around her neck was a piece of tape, knotted under her left ear – she had been strangled. Her corpse had been weighted down with a brick. On examination of the dried brown paper, Detective Anderson found a name and an address: ‘Mrs Thomas, of 26 Piggott’s Road, Caversham.’ This led to...
Murderous March

Murderous March

I was preparing a talk on Murder at Reading Gaol recently, when I realised that all the heinous events I was researching had a link with March. Not only were there trials and executions, but also some of the worst murders in the town’s history took place during this inauspicious month. Prior to 1971 in England and Wales, the most serious crimes were tried in the assize courts. Assizes were held twice a year, usually in Lent and Winter. Therefore, many trials took place in March, and as there was never much time between the serving of the death sentence and its execution, they too were in the same month. In Reading, 15 out of the 29 hangings between 1800 and 1913 were carried out in March.     The first public execution at the ‘new’ prison in Reading, which opened in 1844, was that of Thomas Jennings, on 22 March 1845. Earlier in the month, the 37-year-old farm labourer from Thatcham had been convicted of poisoning his young son with arsenic. Eleazar, aged 3, had died on Christmas Day of stomach pains and an exhumation of his body, following the sudden death of his younger brother in January, had confirmed the authorities’ suspicions. A year later, on 20 March, William Spicer was ‘launched into eternity’ by executioner William Calcraft, after having been found guilty of murdering his wife. Elizabeth Spicer, 60, had been found slumped in the cellar of the couple’s home. Her husband had alleged that she had fallen, but an analysis of the blood spatter pattern, had led to his conviction. The next execution at Reading Prison,...