“A remarkable instance of a person being tried for murder on the pretended information of a ghost.”
This was the headline above an article in the Chelmsford Chronicle dated 9th April, 1784. The minute I saw it, I knew it was tailor-made for this blog. I often spend a considerable amount of time browsing through 18th-century newspapers. It’s nearly always time well spent. Besides, I enjoy it. However, on this occasion I felt I had truly struck gold.
The story concerns a farmer who was returning from Southam market in Warwickshire, when he was murdered on his way. The next morning, a man went to the farmer’s house and asked his wife whether her husband had come home the evening before. The anxious woman said that he had not and she was beginning to feel terrified that something had happened to him. Her visitor now told her an extraordinary tale:
“Your terror, said he, cannot equal mine, for last night, as I lay in bed, quite awake, the apparition of your husband appeared to me, showed me several ghastly stabs in his body, told me he had been murdered by such and such a person [here he gave the person’s name], and his carcass thrown into a marle-pit.”
Needless to say, the woman raised the alarm and the pit was searched. Sure enough, they found the farmer’s body, and its wounds exactly matched the description the man had given of them. What happened next seems barely credible, even given the widespread belief in ghosts at the time. The man whom the ghost had “accused” was at once apprehended, brought before a justice, and committed for trial on a charge of murder. What’s more, according to the newspaper report, “the jury would have convicted, as rashly as the justice of the peace had committed him, had not the judge checked them.”
The presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Raymond, stepped in to bring the process to a halt:
“I think, gentlemen, you seem inclined to lay more stress on the evidence of an apparition than it will bear. I cannot say that I give much credit to these kinds of stories, but be that as it will, we have no right to follow our own private opinions here; we are now in a court of law, and must determine according to it; and I know not of any law now in being which will admit of the testimony of an apparition; nor yet if it did, does the ghost appear here to give evidence.”
He then instructed the court crier to call the ghost as a witness. This the crier did, calling three times. Unfortunately, at least for the prosecution, the ghost failed to put in an appearance. The judge therefore dismissed the case with the following words to the jury:
“Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner at the bar, as you have heard, by undeniable witness, is a man of the most unblemished character; nor hath it appeared, in the course of the examination that there was any manner of quarrel or grudge between him and the party deceased. I do believe him to be perfectly innocent; and as there is no evidence against him either positive or circumstantial he must be acquitted.”
What of the man to whom the ghost had apparently told his tale? The judge made the obvious inference:
“From many circumstances which arose during the trial, I do strongly suspect that the gentleman, who saw the apparition, was himself the murderer; in which case he might easily ascertain the pit, the stabs, et cetera without any supernatural assistance; and on such suspicion I shall think myself justified in committing him to close custody, so the matter can be further enquired into.”
The article ends by relating that the man was taken immediately into custody and his house searched, producing various proofs of his guilt. He at once confessed the murder and was tried and executed at the next assizes.
Was this a true story, or a piece of “false news” that was going the rounds and appealed to the editor as something that would amuse his readers? There is no means of knowing for certain, but I rather suspect the latter; especially since the article ends by stating that it should be, “a sufficient caution to others, not to be over hasty in giving credit to the testimony of apparitions.” There’s also a notable lack of names in the story. The dead farmer, the man accused of his murder, and the accuser are none of them named, which would surely not have been the case if it was a direct report of an actual trial. It all sounds more like the kind of story that somebody tells while propping up the bar in the local hostelry.
Still, I would just love it to be true! Wouldn’t you?