Am I wrong to have a favourite murder? I wish no one any harm, let alone a deliberate violent death, but as a criminologist, I encounter the occasional (historic) example that contains a satisfying element of poetic justice – as far as the murderer is concerned – sadly, of course, not for the tragic victim.
Anyway, if such an unlikely question were ever asked of me, i.e. to name my favourite murder case – it would have to be that committed by eighteenth century rat-catcher and occasional chimney-sweep, Edward Corbet who brutally murdered local farmer Richard Holt in the English village of Bierton, in the county of Buckinghamshire, England on June 7th, 1773.
In my defence – crimes of past centuries can be claimed to hold a fascination for the contemporary reader for at least two interesting reasons:
One is how little human nature has changed. Greed, lust and sheer wickedness are, unfortunately, always with us. Most modern crimes have been mirrored in past times, certainly as far as motive is concerned. It seems, however, that we learn little from them, and many victims today are as vulnerable and exploited as they ever were in the past – possibly more so, given the immediacy and penetrative intensity of social media into our lives every minute of every day – some of which carries dangerous, exploitative and devious motivations.
The other reason for our fascination is to note the many changes that have occurred across the centuries. For example, the public spectacle of a hanging as both entertainment and a deterrent, possibly followed by the display of the executed felon inside a metal gibbet until it is putrid and, finally, just a skeleton, no longer features as part of the criminal justice process in England. I dare say there are still supporters out there who would wish it to be brought back.
There is possibly a third reason in this particular case – Corbet’s dog, which really makes a very special contribution to the whole story. Corbet’s success as a rat-catcher was due in large part to his hard-working dog, who, on his master’s command, would shoot like a rocket into bundles of hay, chasing out the rats which Corbet would catch in a large sack, picking them up with his bare hands as fast as he could. Many more would be killed by his dog in the chase. A good dog with rats was worth a great deal in earning potential.
The Act of Murder
When Corbet was working at Richard Holt’s farm, clearing rats from the barns, the farmer’s daughter Mary, was seriously ill and died. Holt, who was a widower, sunk into a deep, grieving despondency and left Corbet to his own devices and Corbet decided to take advantage of Holt’s vulnerability.
During the night of June 7th, 1773, Corbet crept back to the Bierton farmhouse from his cottage in the nearby village of Tring, and, peering through the candle-lit window, saw Richard Holt praying before the coffin containing his recently deceased daughter.
Corbet waited until the distraught farmer went to bed and then using his experience as a chimney sweep, climbed onto the farmhouse roof with a nearby ladder and dropped down the chimney into the farmer’s bedroom, intent on looking for goods to steal. He was aware that Richard Holt owned a very fine pocket-watch and gold chain.
Rather than creep quietly on past to see what he could find in the cottage – he immediately bludgeoned Richard Holt to death as he slept. A cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
After scouring the farmhouse for valuables and collecting his spoils in his rat-sack, he left by the front door, closing it carefully behind him so no-one would suspect a break-in and went back to his cottage in Tring.
Early the next morning the milk-boy arrived and rather than wake Mr. Holt during this tragic time of his daughter’s death, he had a key that had been entrusted to him by the farmer during her illness.
He was surprised to find the door unlocked and even more surprised when a small, very distinctive terrier trotted out and gazed at him.
If a dog could be puzzled, this one probably was.
He’d shot inside the cottage as soon as his master had left last night – cleared any rats he could find – only to discover he had been shut in – at last his master had come to let him out.
The hastily assembled neighbours soon found a blood trail leading from the front door to Richard Holt’s brutally beaten body. They recognised Corbet’s dog and encouraging the terrier to ‘find your master,’ it led them all to Corbet’s cottage where the stolen loot was soon discovered in Corbet’s possession.
The dog merely wagged its tail, pleased to have provided such a useful service.
Corbet’s guilt was a foregone conclusion: The rat-catcher was found guilty and condemned to death on the gallows and then to be hung on a gibbet.
The Bierton Gibbet
The eighteen-foot Bierton gibbet that was erected in the village was large enough to serve as a gallows to execute the prisoner and then function as a gibbet from which an iron cage containing his dead body could be suspended for all to see.
A GIBBET CAGE
The spectacle of an eighteenth century hanging was an excuse for all kinds of merry making, laughter and excitement.
Village executions were pure theatre – the ‘reality television’ of its day. Lots of small market stalls would be set up selling refreshments and snacks such as nuts or meat puddings (known as ‘trotters’) – possibly some sparrow pie and for the kids, candies, lemonade and refreshing peppermint water. People would journey from miles around to witness an execution. The added bonus of a second act to the theatrics with an iron gibbet, made it even more popular.
When Corbet’s gallows death was officially pronounced by the local doctor to shrieks and cheers of approval by the crowd, his body was encased in a tight-fitting iron cage and hung high up on the gibbet’s arm where it could be seen for miles around.
The worst part of this highly symbolic deterrent was yet to come. After the celebrations of the day, the body slowly began to rot and putrefy over the following weeks and months and there was no mistaking the horrific stench for those downwind of the gibbet This gibbet hanging was in the last week of July and it promised to be a long hot summer in Bierton.
Cottage windows had to stay shut and the first sight many children saw on a sunny morning when they sat up in bed, would be Corbet rotting inside his gibbet cage. The disgusting smell of Corbet’s maggot-ridden body engulfed the whole village. Not surprisingly, this was the last time a gibbet was used in Buckinghamshire.
The executed Corbet, or rather parts of him, literally hung about in the village of Bierton for over twenty years, his skull even outlasting some of the disintegrating irons that had caged him.
Generations of villagers would pass him every day, even incorporating him into any travel directions they would give to passing strangers:
“You want the Hulcott road you say? Pass the Chalk-house Arms, turn to your left by the horse trough, keep ahead until you see Corbet’s Piece, then turn right and you’ll be on the Hulcott road,”
Villagers eventually created a new footpath that ran from the Chalk House Arms along the back of a distant row of cottages to avoid having to walk past the corner of the field known as Corbet’s Piece. Its name today is Gib Lane but few people living in the splendid modern houses bordering this route would have any inkling about its real pedigree.
And speaking of pedigree, a quick ‘shout out’ to the memory of Corbet’s dog that made sure that not only was his wicked master caught like a rat in a trap, but that he ended up rotting to pieces inside one.