The Remarkable Case of Anne Greene


It was true, that on a cold December day in 1650, among a large crowd of people gathered in an Oxford cattle yard, a young, terrified girl of twenty-two years of age was cruelly executed. Her crime? The poor lass was a scullery maid to Sir Thomas Reade, living below stairs at his sumptuous manor house in Duns Tew, Oxfordshire.

It seems that a lecherous grandson of Sir Thomas – one Geoffrey Reade – had taken advantage of her vulnerability and she gave birth to his stillborn child which Anne concealed in her confusion and fear about what to do. Anne was charged with the infanticide of her son.

The wealthy family who employed her to administer to their beck and call, quickly closed ranks to isolate her and allowed her to be imprisoned, tried and found guilty of murder. They strove relentlessly to distance her from any association with Sir Thomas Reade’s grandson and left her to be sentenced to death by hanging without any mitigating intervention to lessen that unjust verdict.

I said ‘cruelly’ executed for two reasons; one being the outrageous injustice to Anne by the family, but also the nature of the execution itself. Hanging in 1650, meant being pushed from the rungs of a tall ladder once the rope noose was securing your neck to the beam. There was no drop, no snapping of the neck, just slow own body-weight strangulation.

Indeed the only assistance friends and sympathizers can offer you is to hang heavily onto your legs and pull you faster to a tightened strangulation and possible neck snap – others would try beating you to unconsciousness in an attempt to hasten your death.

For thirty minutes of agonizing torture, the ‘Oxford Scholar’ writing the contemporary account reported that apart from some of her friends thumping her breasts, there were, “others hanging with all their weight upon her legs, sometimes lifting her up, and then pulling her down again with a sudden jerk, thereby the sooner to dispatch her out of her pain.” It is reported the the sheriff had to restrain them for fear that the rope would snap.


The above woodcarving, to be found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, presents the observer with more than just the execution taking place as Anne is pushed from the ladder. Its heading  “Behold God’s Providence” and the strange imagery in the top left-hand corner, take us to the reasons why this tragic case became such an important and remarkable event in medical science rather than legal studies.

Anne was destined to be dissected for medical science in a long-standing Oxford ritual of a young assistant under a professor’s stern gaze, nervously dissecting the body in the anatomy class as part of their training.


Fortunately, before it was to be Anne lying on such a table, a slight rattle was heard in her throat as the coffin lid was taken away and instead of a dissection, Dr. William Petty and Dr.Thomas Willis realized that life had not been totally expunged from Anne Greene and so they sat her up, forcing her mouth open so they could siphon hot cordial down her throat, thereby making her cough.

From that moment on, she was massaged, manipulated, and even tickled with a feather down her throat and all kinds of ingenious ideas were pursued to allow life and warmth to flood back into this poor girl – literally – as one technique was a hot enema into her bowels. If you return to the image in the top left hand corner of that woodcarving, you will see two figures in a bed – this is Anne Greene being kept warm by another woman beside her.

The miraculous part was how fast all this body heating and other stimuli speeded Anne to recovery and she was able speak within twelve hours and within a day was able to carry a conversation. Also remarkable was the return of her memory despite concerns that this part of her brain would never have recovered from its ordeal and trauma.

Carefully monitored by the Oxford anatomists, Anne was eating normally within a month, her eye-sight was not damaged and her memory – even of the executioner placing the blanket over her head – had returned.

Pardoned by the Sheriff of Oxford, on the basis that divine providence had intervened – her father found it necessary to raise money by charging people to come and talk to her, so he was able to pay the bills for her care and even had to pay legal expenses to the Sheriff for her pardon – so not all was sweetness and light after such a cruel and terrible ordeal.

Indeed Sir Thomas Reade had previously served as a county Sheriff himself and could have easily had such a fee waived or discreetly settled if he had any conscience at all. It seems he didn’t.

Anne Greene returned to live in the country, married and had three children.  Meanwhile, William Petty and Thomas Willis became famous for their medical miracle.

Anne did, however, take away a souvenir which she kept upstairs in her country cottage.

It was that very same coffin pictured in the woodcut – but there is no record of whether it was used fifteen years later when she died while in child-birth, aged thirty-seven.

I had hoped to learn of some news and action to punish Mr. Geoffrey Reade for his dastardly behaviour- but nothing is known except that his grandfather, Sir Thomas Reade, who was instrumental in prosecuting Anne and covering up his grandson’s involvement, died shortly after her execution and remarkable recovery. Hardly poetic justice but maybe ‘what goes around comes around’ after all.

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Carding, Hell Houses & The Devil

CARDING The brothel fire that caused the deaths of four teenage sailors and the young women they accompanied, plying their trade in Stockton in 1827, was unfortunate to say the least – but one hundred and ninety years ago when this took place – excessive  alcohol consumption, smoking and taking drunken sexual pleasures on horse hair mattresses in houses made of wood was pretty much a recipe for such a tragedy.

Once a fire took hold in those conditions, suffocation was fast and furious. This was not an rare occurrence by any means but what made this one stand out for moral crusading at this time was not the sin of the brothel or demon drink and certainly not smoking (which was good for you!),  but the sin of playing cards – the sin of gambling.

“Carding” was the path to hell and more and more gambling establishments were taking hold, often associated with ‘houses of ill fame.’ These were known as ‘Hell Houses’. Consequently, any opportunity for broadsides and the newspapers, to rally against the paraphernalia of gambling, whether cards or the newly imported disgrace from France – the roulette wheel – was taken up with vigor.

The Bow Street Runners – the legendary enforcement officers of the period – became skilled in raiding and closing down such ‘hell houses’, whilst the ‘hell house’ proprietors became equally skilled in quickly dismantling their gambling equipment and wheeling out the ‘innocence’ of a high-end brothel back-drop, so sinful was gambling by comparison. It was a battle-field as revealed by a famous exposé run by the Sunday Times newspaper in November of 1823, who ran with the headline;


True, this is hardly comparable to ‘carding’ – in ‘The Back Row, Stockton’. We are now in the upper echelons of London’s Pall Mall.


Source: Sunday Times (London: England), Sunday November 16th, 1823, pg.2; issue 57

To emphasize how seriously they were taking this journalistic ‘first’, they even quoted Virgil to bring home the classic encounter faced between heaven and hell:

The gates of Hell stand open night and day

Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;

But, to return to light and golden skies,

That is the task, ’tis there the labour lies.”

The ‘posh’ nature of many of these London ‘Hells’ was deliberately stripped of its lustre – once the high-end proprietors were charged with ‘keeping a common gambling house – At least a Pall Mall and a Stockton ‘Hell’ were equal before the law.

The Times then cited some infamous, known murderers and confidence tricksters, associating them with such establishments on the basis that this is what despicable, immoral rogues tended to do when not  being despicable, murdering or scamming – they frequent a  gambling hell described by the Sunday Times thus:

“The hell is usually a very splendid apartment, in which the frequenters are treated the choicest viands and the most costly wines, at the expense of the house; at least this is the case in those of the most respectable – or, as we should call it, of the deepest and most destructive class. Before a stranger can be admitted, he must pass three, four or even five sets of doors, strongly barricaded on the inside, and watched by cunning cerberi and club-armed bullies.”

 Source: Sunday Times (London: England), Sunday November 16th, 1823, pg.2; ( issue 57)

Whatever the class of gambler, the theme was consistent – God will strike you down and the Devil will be waiting to take you to another kind of hell. This classic broadside message is so clearly portrayed in the following Rothbury incident where a scene of nakedness and sexual promiscuity in a brothel is lasciviously described, and suddenly there is a police raid. Far from worrying about the sexual activities, they followed their moral duty to evict the card gamblers who were sitting aside from the promiscuous cavorting.  One gambler whispers to his colleagues;

“They’ll not let us play in a brothel so we’ll go to Betty Powell’s grave, they’ll not find us there.”

The party of six gamblers left and some of the women left with them as they made their way to the churchyard where they sat around their late friend, Betty Powell’s gravestone and leaving the women holding the money stakes – they gambled. The women in particular worried about these men gambling on consecrated ground – but they laughed and toasted ‘…the health of “Old Nick.”

As they did so, a stranger appeared at their side and bid them a fine evening and wondered if he might join their game. They agreed and were especially welcoming when the stranger produced a bottle and bade them drink. One gambler asked his friend if he was going to toast the Devil again. The friend smiled and, raising the bottle to his lips, said:

“Sainted Devil, may thou live long as the superintendent of our festive board and afford us all the spree at thy command. Here’s to thee Mr. Devil and to the stranger whose provided for us.”

The skies darkened, thunder struck and a blast of violent wind scattered all of them – except the stranger-  smashing their bodies into the gravestones and railings.


Some died, others had broken thigh bones and one woman ‘stake holder’ identified as  Mary Oxley, went completely mad.

In case any readers are left in any doubt about the grave sin of ‘carding’ and gambling of any kind, the broadside publisher, Thomas Mather of Morpeth, certainly leaves you in no doubt with his pictorial representation above.

Finally I leave you with the man himself, as frequently pictured waiting for his next culprit – gamblers in particular!1-DEVIL_CROP_RESIZE_picmonkey

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Conversations (And A Cuddle) With A Ghost


I think it’s about time we had some ghostly goings on. Part of my time is spent tracking down contemporary as well as old tales about ghosts and the supernatural. So here is a spooky experience I documented in 2008. *

This is Georgina setting the scene as a thirteen year old in 2007:

“It was pitch black. I woke up feeling a cold breeze on my face and I was really thirsty. Mum and dad were fast asleep, so I quietly went downstairs, got my drink but the cold breeze was worse. It was then I noticed that the back door was wide open and I could hear distant barking.

I went out and I saw Rio barking at something and there was a figure in the back of the garden – a man – and next to him was a dog.

I was so scared. Rio didn’t go towards them which was strange, and he suddenly stopped barking and ran inside to his bed whimpering. I sort of looked at the man, he was just standing there – I blinked again – he was still there, very tall standing with his dog looking up at him.

I ran inside and locked the door. I didn’t wake mum and dad. They were cross when I told them in the morning, but I felt the house was okay and I had Rio with me.”

Georgina was unaware that mum,  Leslee and dad, David – had already been experiencing unexplained events for the last few months and were now convinced that the home they had moved into in the summer of 2006 was haunted and told me it was not the first time that the back door had been unlocked and left open – but they had never seen a man and dog at the end of the garden.

Their story begins at the end of August 2007 when Leslee’s older daughter Layla and her boyfriend were visiting for a barbecue and drinks in the garden. Conversation got round to séances and how Leslee’s recently deceased mum had joked about trying to contact them from the ‘other side.’ They decided to hold a séance to contact ‘mum’ with the usual requests to knock once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’ – but nothing happened and all ended with foolish laughter and more to eat and drink.

About a week later, Leslee and David were in the kitchen, very late at night, about to go to bed when Leslee said “Sssshh – I can hear something!” David listened, and agreed, he too could hear something. It was a kind of distant thumping noise. They thought it might be next-door’s rabbit out in his garden hutch – its name was actually Thumper, and he was fond of making such a noise. This noise, however, was too loud for rabbit, David thought. It was somehow just in the air,  in the distance, yet at the same time, in their kitchen.

Leslee thought David was mucking about but he assured her it wasn’t him. Leslee told me;

“I started knocking back – so when ‘it’ knocked twice or three times – I did twice or three times back. Then I started doing four and then ‘it’ matched what I was doing, so if I did six ‘it’ would do six, I did two, ‘it’ did two. David said to me ‘I don’t like this’, and went upstairs to check if Georgina was playing around – she was fast asleep.”

Leslee decided it might be her mum actually trying to communicate after their failed attempt, so said: “Mum is that you? One knock for yes and two for no.”

 Two knocks immediately followed Leslee’s question.

“So it’s not your mum,” said David. “Hang on a minute, this isn’t right – it’s really weird.”

Leslee persevered, “Is there somebody here?” One knock was the reply. Leslee and David continued with the questions and, over the next hour and a half, began to accept that a supernatural force was in communication with them.

By all their “yes” and “no” knocks, they ascertained it was a man who used to live there and although the house only dates from the 1970’s, he had been there many more years before the house was built, living on that same site but David and Leslee failed to establish an actual date.

“By going through people’s names,” David told me, “we learnt he was called Paul, that he lived here and he said he died before he should have done. He was not murdered; it seems to be as a result of an accident. He had a family and a dog and they are all long dead.”

As the questions continued, family dog, Rio suddenly got up from his bed and sat transfixed – staring, absolutely rigid.

Leslee said, “Where are you?” then realising Paul could not answer that question, she quickly added, “Are you in the kitchen?”

No answer at all.

“Are you near our dog?” One knock followed. Rio was very nervous and shifted uneasily, staring at something unseen close to David and Leslee.

Then it all finished. The communication was broken, Rio went back to his bed and David and Leslee were left with all kinds of thoughts whirling around in their minds. A conversation with a ghost is quite an experience to mull over. One thing was certain; they agreed not to tell Georgina of their experiences.

During the week that followed they had endless trouble with Rio. He had been successfully trained as a puppy not to go upstairs – his territory was down in the hall and the kitchen area but over the week that followed the communication with Paul, he kept running upstairs at night and moving around the bathroom.

Leslee told me, “The dog was driving us nuts because he kept coming upstairs.  I could hear him pattering around and going into the bathroom like he was scared of something to the point where I’m putting stuff at the top of the stairs to block it – but he would not stay downstairs.”

Rio, it should be revealed – is no puny little dog but a Bull Mastiff/Great Dane cross – a hunting breed of great renown. Tall, heavy and, it seems, now scared of ghosts.

After a week of this, David and Leslee heard the tapping again when they were in the kitchen. They had not dared start it again themselves after all the trouble with Rio.

“Is that Paul?” Leslee asked.

One knock followed.

“Do you like dogs?”

One knock.

“Do you like Rio?”

One knock.

“Do you go and see Rio?”

One knock.

“You are scaring him,” said Leslee, “will you stop doing that? Please leave him alone.”

One knock confirmed a yes.

David told me how bizarre it all felt and the more they “talked” they worked out that Paul was unable to go upstairs – he had no concept that the upper part of their house existed.

After that night, Rio was content to stay downstairs. The story ends however when Leslee’s older daughter visits and she and David confide in her what has been going on. Layla was incredulous and could not believe what they told her until they began a session to contact Paul whilst she was with them.

As Leslee began the one-knock-two-knock conversation, Layla accused David of banging the wall, so he stood clearly away from any wall with his arms folded while Layla and Leslee sat at the kitchen counter area on stools.

“Are you near us?” asked Layla.

One knock confirmed yes.

“Are you in the corner of the kitchen – tell us where you are?”

This was not a question Paul could answer, but suddenly David felt absolutely frozen – the temperature plummeted.

“Are you by the oven?”

Two knocks for no.

“Are you by the bin?”

No, again.

Then Leslee now feeling distinctly cold herself, looked directly at Layla. They were both sitting one seat apart at the breakfast counter ever since David got up to demonstrate it was not him knocking. They both knew what the next question had to be.

“Are you sitting between us?”

A  measured pause followed – then one knock.

Leslee told me, I’m going cold now just thinking about it.”

Remarkably laid-back, Layla asked a totally unexpected question, “Would you like a cuddle Paul?”

A single knock followed and Layla reached over and cuddled the empty air between them – then it was over – the temperature changed and the silence was heavy – Paul was gone and did not come back.

In the summer of 2008 while digging at the end of David and Leslee’s garden to build a summer house, contractors unearthed the bones of a dog just at the spot where Georgina had seen the tall man with the dog.


*All my authentically researched and recorded spooky and supernatural tales from my local county have been put together in a title called Buckinghamshire Stories of the Supernatural, by Countryside Books.





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Flexibles, Snappers, Nippers & Twisters……alias……Handcuffs


If you fancy this special prize for designing a new generation of handcuffs, I’m pretty confident entries are now closed given that it’s well over 100 years since this offer appeared in Vol.1., No. 1., of a brand-new publication called The Modern Detective magazine issued on Wednesday March 9th, 1898, price one penny, but certainly have a doodle if you wish, you never know,  you may be the one with the breakthrough design for the 21st century.

In fact, I have tried to locate the winning design, but The Modern Detective; Vol.1., No.1., seems to be the only one ever published. Somewhere there could be a stash of drawings featuring radically re-designed handcuffs, hidden in an old desk waiting to be discovered.

The editor and the proprietor – a certain Inspector Maurice Moser, (who always liked to refer to himself as: ‘late of Scotland Yard’)  –  did not, it seems, manage to produce a second issue of the magazine.


 He did, however have some pretty solid fixations on handcuffs, their origins and their future development. He frequently made the interesting observation that engaging in “…a prolonged struggle with low and savage ruffians” in order to secure their wrists with, “… heavy, unwieldy awkward machines,” (by which he meant English handcuffs – known as the “Flexible”  as represented in the competition drawing above) – was almost handing such ruffians a seriously potent weapon to assault you with. He recounts this story:

On the occasion of my arresting one of the Russian rouble note forgers, a ruffian who would not hesitate to stick at anything – I had provided myself with several sized pairs of handcuffs, and, it was not until I had obtained the very needed assistance, that I was able to find the  suitable “darbies” * for his wrists. We managed to force him into a four-wheeler to take him to the police station, when he again renewed his efforts and savagely attacked me, lifting his ironed wrists and bringing them down heavily on my head, completely crushing my bowler hat.”(Source: The Strand Magazine, Vol. 7. Issue 37, January, 1894, pp.94-98.)

*“darbies”  – police slang for handcuffs, thought to date back to a unscrupulous, illegal, money-lender called Darby or Darbye,  in the 16th century who would ‘bind you’ in bond agreements that were rigid and unyielding – ie: Darby’s Bonds)

So, he had a point in asking the English reading public with any design skills and an interest in grabbing five guineas (worth around two thousand pounds today) to get sketching and designing.

Moser had often spoken of America ingenuity as the way forward with what he also termed “contrivances”, and indeed the USA were to lead the way by 1912 with George Carney’s invention of the swing cuff, the bow- style cuff with serrated teeth that we’ve all seen mimicked in twentieth century kids’ toy handcuffs. The style that allowed police officers to quickly close the cuff onto wrists of different sizes and without having to unlock them first. Here is Carney’s original 1912 patent drawing:



 Unfortunately for Maurice Moser, we are still at the tail-end of the previous century, so that was yet to come. Maybe England could have got there before Boston’s George Carney had Moser been more organised with his competition entries!

So, at this moment in time, there were certainly other designs available – here’s the “Snapper”


The small loop snaps around the wrist, the officer holds the larger loop as a handle to control the prisoner. There was a similar, slightly more lethal skin-trapper, that worked on the same principle called “Nippers” which also used a handle and a pincer movement loop system.


Strictly, outlawed by Moser and indeed became prohibited in Great Britain anyway, was any police use of The “Twister” as this was deemed to incorporate a form of torture as the chain twisting possibilities were seriously dangerous to the arrested prisoner from an over-zealous officer.


So, for Inspector Moser, it needed a fresh start and when he describes the current police issue, “Flexible” you can understand why;

They weigh over a pound and have to be unlocked with a key in a manner not greatly differing from the operation of winding up the average eight-day clock, and fastening on to the prisoner’s wrists, how? The fates and good luck only know! This lengthy, difficult and particularly disagreeable operation , with a prisoner struggling and fighting, is, to a degree, almost incredible.”  (Source: The Strand Magazine, Vol, 7. Issue 37, January, 1894, pp.94-98)


Moser’s competition was to not just find a new design but it had to be lighter, more portable and should be able to be used by one officer without the need for additional assistance – so there’s your brief – get designing.

Last word from Inspector Maurice Moser, ‘late of Scotland Yard’:





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The Murder That Never Was (Or Was It?)

ENSLEY MURDER_RE-SIZE_1    Some events are so random, that we would never think them possible until proven otherwise. Here is a real case from nineteenth century America that England’s favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes, would have been proud to solve.

Wealthy bachelor, Charles Ensley lived alone in his Tennessee home. He led a quiet life but was well-known in the neighbourhood as a polite, friendly man, in his late forties.

On the 16th June 1887, he was discovered by his servant, dead in his living room.

He was lying fully clothed on a couch, as if asleep, but it was soon clear that he had been shot dead. A bullet hole was discovered directly behind his left ear. He had apparently been shot in the head by an unknown assailant whilst taking an afternoon nap on the couch.

The house had not been broken into and the room was tidy and as neat as always. Mr. Ensley’s possessions had not been stolen. What was the motive and where was the weapon?

The weapon was soon found as it turned out to be a rifle displayed on hooks over the fireplace. The ball-style bullet taken from inside Ensley’s head belonged to that same rifle. It was not loaded, but appeared to have been the weapon that discharged that same ball.

Who would have been able to enter the house without suspicion and use the rifle to shoot their victim and why? Why was he still wearing his expensive watch and his wallet was intact? Time of death was estimated around 3 pm in the afternoon.

The immediate name in the frame was Ensley’s cousin, John Avery. As Ensley’s only known relative and next-of-kin, he was to inherit around $100,000 dollars. That would be worth around two million dollars today and with a decent exchange rate, could have reached one and three quarter million pounds sterling, so the existence of a motive was never in doubt.

Avery protested his innocence but could not provide a clear account of his movements, so it was not long before he was charged with his cousin’s murder. The State of Tennessee against Avery, in Henry County, was to prove a protracted affair.

There was no evidence to link Avery with the murder, it was merely a charge based on motive – which his defence claimed was not motive but supposition as he was not even in the vicinity at the time of the murder even though he could not prove it. Despite pleading ‘not guilty’ and strenuously protesting against lack of evidence, he was found guilty of his cousin’s murder in the first degree and sentenced to death by hanging.

Avery’s appeal to the Supreme Court won a stay of execution based on legal errors committed by the circuit court in Henry County. Indeed, twice, Avery won a mistrial ruling and four years had now passed with all these legal shenanigans.  It was then that a lawyer called Wallis appeared on the scene and agreed to take on Avery’s defence in his re-trial due for early August 1891.

Anyone familiar with actor Tony Shaloub’s performance as Adrian Monk, the homicide detective in the United States television series, simply called ‘Monk’, might like to factor that memory into the next sequence.

After studying the case at length, Wallis had a bizarre brainwave and, the day before the new trial was to begin, he arranged for a reconstruction of the murder scene in that same room taking eight reputable local citizens with him to act as witnesses to what was to happen.

His attention to detail was obsessive. He wanted the room to be exactly as it had been on the fateful afternoon back in 1867. He had Charles Ensley represented by a white sheet on the couch – with a charcoal outline of his body position at the time he was discovered. He also re-hung the rifle with the same ball shot loaded inside.

The other detail that puzzled the witnesses, was his precision in re-placing the same, heavy clear glass water pitcher on its high shelf just to the other side of the couch ensuring it was full with water and placed directly in front of the window as it had been at the time of Ensley’s murder.

Being August it was around ninety degrees in the shade – so the witnesses were beginning to tire with the heat and what appeared to be extraordinary behavior by Wallis as he adjusted, and reviewed the positioning of all these items until he appeared satisfied.

The time was early afternoon, just before 3pm as Wallis asked the sceptical group of witnesses  to wait and be patient.


At around 3 pm, there was a faint puffing sound and a sharp rifle report as a single ball-shot embedded itself into the couch and into the image of the late Mr. Ensley’s head.

As Wallis was to explain to the court the following day, and supported by his eight witnesses, the rays of the sun had used the water-jug as a means of magnifying the heat directed onto the rifle with such an intensity, the cartridge chamber could do no other than fire the lethal shot without the rifle being touched by human hand.

Avery lived a long life as a very wealthy man, although skeptics remain, adamant that Wallis’s experiment was merely a coincidence and Charles Ensley was murdered by his cousin John Avery.

I think I’m with Monk, sorry, I mean Wallis, on this one.


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Like A Rat in a Trap: The Bierton Gibbet


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.


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.



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Apple Pips, Stout & A Kwaker On The Train

JOHN TAWELLPlease hold your fire on my ‘typo’ in the title – its moment will come. Meanwhile, the above mentioned John Tawell provides us not only with a classic moment in the history of crime detection, but a circus of hypocrisy that takes some beating.

Here was a man who struggled for high social respectability and wealth and nearly made it against all the odds.

However, he was so flawed as an individual, so selfish, callous and dangerous that, instead, he ended his life as a notorious murderer, hanged in public outside County Hall in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England.

The tragic victim was his mistress, Sarah Hart and there was possibly another victim, his first wife, but it was never proven. The year of this tragic murder was 1845 on New Year’s Day.

He was 61, married to his second wife, with a stepdaughter and fifteen month old son living in their sumptuous Hertfordshire home – The Red House – in Berkhamstead, (now a  listed building).

His mistress Sarah Hart was 40 years of age, a single mother bringing up his two children, living in a small cottage in Bath Place, Salt Hill near Slough in Buckinghamshire and trying make ends meet with little more than one pound a week from Tawell who would visit every three months to begrudgingly part with twelve pounds ten shillings for his children’s welfare.

Poor Sarah had to keep up the pretence to neighbours that her husband worked abroad, and it was her father-in-law, a Quaker, that made these occasional visits and shared a glass of stout with her.

What happens to Sarah is horrific, for on that New Year’s Day, she is to die in agony after drinking poisoned stout supplied by her lover Tawell, who leaves her writhing on the floor of her cottage, whilst he, dressed in his adopted style of a Quaker, rushes away to catch a train from Slough Station to London, Paddington.

Tawell had arrived at Sarah’s around 4.30pm and by approximately 7pm, Sarah’s neighbour, Mrs. Ashley, was startled by a blood-curling scream coming from Sarah’s cottage – the children were upstairs in bed and clearly their mother was dying. A local surgeon, living close by was called and he pronounced her dead.

To his credit, the surgeon, Mr. Champneys, soon realised that Sarah’s visitor had to be caught and told Mrs. Ashley to safeguard the bottle of stout and glasses and he set off in pursuit of Tawell. Meanwhile Tawell had sped along, his long Quaker greatcoat flying, and clutching his distinctive ‘Wideawake’ hat as he made haste towards Slough railway station, taking a diversion via an omnibus to Eton, but leaping off after a matter of yards and running back to the station and was directed by the superintendent to the correct platform for the 7.42 pm  train to London, Paddington.

Fortunately, Mr. Champneys arrived at the railway station in time to see Tawell getting into a first-class carriage. He quickly explained his suspicions to the station superintendent but there was not the time to authorize stopping the train departing – so depart it did with the rogue Tawell.

Now it is at this point in the story that John Tawell enters the annals of criminal history – not as the murderer of Sarah Hart – as that had yet to be proved – but for the means by which he was apprehended for questioning by the police.

The new invention of the age was the five needle electric telegraph and very recently such a communication line had been opened up along certain railways routes and Slough to Paddington was one of those routes.

It was decided that a message should be sent to Paddington alerting the police to what had happened. The irony for Tawell was that as he sped towards London feeling more secure now he had escaped Salt Hill, crucial information that would lead to his arrest was overtaking him electronically and would reach Paddington before he did. This was the first time that the police had used such a technique in pursuit of a suspect.

Returning to my “typo title alert” at the beginning of this blog – this is its moment!

This new communication telegraph system was, as yet, unable to transmit certain letters and they happened to be the letters “Q” and “U”.  So here was the message that arrived on that fateful day to the Paddington operator.


The telegraphist at Paddington was somewhat confused by KWAKER but realised after the same message was re-transmitted twice more that he should substitute Q for K and U for W


A message was returned to Slough that the police were alerted and are following him onto an omnibus.

When eventually arrested – Tawell denied he had been anywhere other than London on New Year’s Day and when confronted with the suspected murder charge he replied with his characteristic conceit:

You must be mistaken; my station in life must rebut any suspicions which might be attached to me”.

He denied knowing Sarah Hart and repeated his arrogant position, “Thee must be mistaken in the identity, my station in life places me beyond suspicion.

Gradually, as the evidence of his visit to Salt Hill was proven, he created other reasons for being there to see this woman who he claimed used to be in his employ and who was begging money from him and threatening to kill herself and he, being a kindly man,  travelled to give her assistance financially and morally. He claimed she pretended to take poison and lay down to bluff him, so he left unaware she had meant it after all.

His arrogance took a severe beating when the police were able to prove he had purchased prussic acid from a chemist in London on the day of the murder and the same poison was found in Sarah’s stomach. Also found in Sarah’s stomach were a large quality of apple pips and these pips were Tawell’s last hope to wriggle out of the murder charge.

At Tawell’s trial, Mr. Fitzroy Kelly, Tawell’s defence council turned to the jury and merely uttered the words, “Apple pips”.

To allay their puzzled expressions, he explained that Sarah’s gluttonous consumption of apples at New Year time – pips and all – had created a version of prussic acid as apple pips contain a concentration of such a poison. Sarah, he claimed, had died from eating apple pips and his client was innocent, merely using the prussic acid he had purchased the day of the murder as a treatment for his varicose veins.  “Apple Pip Kelly” – as the media dubbed the lawyer became somewhat of a media celebrity whilst apple growers rose in anger against him as their sales slumped.

However, it took the jury only thirty minutes to find Tawell guilty and he was sentenced to death. So alongside his record book entry for the electric telegraph apprehension, he also became the last person to be publicly hanged outside Aylesbury County Hall.

The saying went that he may have been the last man to be hanged in public at Aylesbury, but he was the first man to be hanged by the electric telegraph anywhere!


There is a detailed ‘back-story’ to Tawell’s life which cannot be explored here but all his bitter entanglements and misplaced sense of grandeur seemed to stem from his teenage obsession with the Quaker movement whilst he worked for a wealthy Quaker widow in Norfolk  – It was 1801 and he was 17 years of age and from that moment on saw himself as a ‘booted and suited’ grand figure of a Quaker. Moving to London in his early 20’s and working for another Quaker business, he had managed by 24 years of age, to be accepted within their movement, known as the Religious Society of Friends, but was soon thrown out for sexual misconduct. He was also tried and sentenced as a forger and transported to Australia in 1814 for fourteen years. Seventeen years later, he opened the first privately owned pharmacy in Sydney. Affairs and sexual indiscretions continued and his knowledge of poisons was thought to have let him get away with poisoning his first wife. He was never truly accepted into the Quaker’s Society of Friends, and was regarded as ‘The Counterfeit Quaker’ – an accusation that upset him deeper than any murder charge could ever do so.

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