Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Grafting Guile of the Jockeying Judas

                 All this coming and going of strangers in the small village of Radlett had not gone unnoticed by the locals and before long Mr Probert received a visit from the local constabulary. Two Bow Street Runners, Mr Simmonds and Mr Ruthven, called on Mr Thurtell, placed him in handcuffs and conveyed him to the Essex Arms Inn, Hertford, where the magistrates already had Probert and Hunt in custody. The accused were examined separately and there was a great discrepancy in their accounts of what had occurred. 

Map of Thurtell's movements

Thurtell denied knowing Mr Weare, he had not invited anyone to go shooting at Radlett, had only spent ten minutes walking with Hunt in Gill’s Hill lane, and knew nothing about any gunshot. Mr Ruthven, the Runner, then showed him the pistol, which had bloodstains on it and remnants of Weare’s brains still in the barrel, one of a pair, the other discovered at Thurtell’s lodgings in London. Thurtell turned pale and was visibly shaken. A witness, Cogswell, was produced who identified Thurtell and Hunt as the gentlemen who had purchased a pair of pistols in his pawnshop on October 24th. Ruthven had also found a carpetbag and a backgammon board at Hunt’s lodgings and a shirt, embroidered with a ‘W’, in the stables at Probert’s cottage. Hunt, fearing that the game was up, made a deal with Mr Noel, Weare’s solicitor, that in return for immunity, he would show the authorities where Weare’s body was hidden. At 9 am on October 30th, the Justices and Hunt went to Hill’s Slough, Elstree, where a sack containing the naked corpse of William Weare was recovered. 

The Pond at Elstree

The body was taken to the Artichoke Inn, Elstree, where on the next day, Hunt and Probert were brought before Mr Benjamin Rooke, the coroner. Probert flatly denied any knowledge of the murder, gave a story that entirely contradicted that of Hunt, fell to his knees in tears before the magistrates and cried, 
I am totally innocent of the murder. I did not know of the man's coming any more than the man in the moon.” 
Nonetheless, Probert, Hunt and Thurtell were formally charged with the murder of Mr William Weare, with Thurtell further charged with defrauding the County Fire Office. There followed a period when evidence was gathered, fifty-four witnesses gave statements and a case was put together. Probert, in a bid to escape the consequences of his involvement and save his own neck, turned King’s Evidence and his name was removed from the indictment. The coming trial received a great deal of interest in the popular press, which set up a chain of one hundred ‘express horses’ to relay the news to London, and spectators from across the country gathered at Hertford, where every available room was rented out to the curious. 

The Trial at Hertford

On January 6th 1824, Mr Justice Park (the bad-tempered Judge already mentioned) struggled through the crush in the courtroom and took his place at the bench. The prisoners were brought in and Probert was formally acquitted and a request was made that Hunt should also be allowed to turn King’s Evidence but Park dismissed the move, and the jury was sworn in. Thurtell and Hunt stood in the dock and Probert was placed in the witness box. 

Pierce Egan - Recollections of John Thurtell - 1824

On the first day, the testimonies of the various witnesses were presented, and the cold-blooded actions of the murderer and his accomplices was emphasised – the singing of songs and the calmly taken meal –although there was some unexpected humour too. Susan Woodruff, Probert’s cook, was asked about the supper,
Was it postponed?
No,” she answered, “It was pork.

Hunt, Probert and Thurtell

When Thurtell took the stand he launched into a carefully prepared, theatrical production, learnt by heart, full of gestures and bluster, but when he came to the evidence itself he resorted to his notes and stumbled and muttered his way through, completely destroying the good impression he had made and wearing the patience of the jury and the court, who became so indifferent that open conversation broke out and Thurtell’s voice was drowned out. When Hunt was called, he was in such a poor state that he could barely speak, and an officer of the court read out the paper that had been prepared for him. Probert made such a bad impression that a reporter wrote,
The face of Probert is marked with deceit in every lineament; the eyes are those of a vicious horse, and the lips are thick and sensual … His grammar was very nearly as bad as his heart.”
At the end of the second day, the jury retired for a mere twenty minutes to consider their verdict. In tears, the foreman returned and gave a guilty verdict, the judge passed the death sentence, Hunt collapsed in sobs whilst, with characteristic bravado, Thurtell took a pinch of snuff he had been holding in his fingers. The condemned men were taken to their cells and the crowds remained to watch the executions. 

Thurtell in court

On the evening beforehand and in recognition for his assistance in recovering Weare’s body, Hunt was reprieved and his sentence was commuted to transportation for life; he was sent first to the hulk prison ship ‘Justitia’ and then to the ‘Countess of Harcourt’ which departed for Australia on March 16th. She landed at Botany Bay in due course, Hunt served his time, was released, married and started a family, eventually became the Chief Constable of Paramatta, and died in 1861. 

The Execution of John Thurtell

At noon on Friday January 9th 1824, John Thurtell was taken out to the scaffold at Hertford, before a vast crowd, many of who were sympathetic toward him. A white cotton bag was placed on his head, and as the church clock made its final strike of twelve the noose was put about his neck. The bolt was pulled, the drop opened and Thurtell died immediately. Some who were present say they heard his neck snap, like the crack of a pistol shot. The body was put into a gig and taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where Dr Abernethy public dissected it; crowds of thousands went to see the sight, and it remained on display until it was too decomposed to risk the health of the public by exhibiting it further.

Sketches made from Thurtell's body

William Probert had originally intended taking a box and watching Thurtell’s hanging, but Rev Lloyd dissuaded him and pressed money for a chaise to London on him. He found himself an outcast in society and wandered the country with his wife, unable to find work as his itinerary was published in the press. In February 1825, he was living at Ruarden, Gloucestershire with his mother, when he stole a horse from a miller, Mr Meredith, a distant relative by marriage. He was arrested 120 miles away, in London, where he had sold the animal for twenty guineas. Meredith traced the horse to London and went there himself, where he identified it as his property. 

Probert Trial - Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1825

Probert was brought to trial at the Old Bailey on April 7th 1825, his defence was that due to the constant publishing of his movements in the press he had not been able to get work or settle in peace, and had been forced to steal the horse as he had no other means of finding money to feed his family. The jury’s verdict was guilty of horse-stealing, and he was sentenced to death. He remained in prison until June 20th 1825, when he was taken to the gallows, in much distress and with much shaking, where he was hanged before a great crowd of spectators, most of whom felt that he had finally received the justice he had long deserved.

Probert Sentenced to Death

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