All too often histories of crime focus upon what happened in the big cities such as London, Manchester, and New York. Part of the reason for this is that, as is especially the case with London, more records are available and many of them are digitised (see the Old Bailey Online website, for example). So, whenever I find a notorious story from near where I live in West Yorkshire, I feel that it is kind of my civic duty to bring it to people’s attention (even though having a criminal associated with your local area is not, I suppose, something to take particular pride in…).
The following case, which recounts a notorious murder committed by one John Terry from Wakefield, West Yorkshire comes from The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters, which was published in four volumes between 1804 and 1809. In their form, structure, and content the volumes resemble earlier eighteenth-century compendia of the lives of criminals such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734). Smith and Johnson’s earlier works focused solely upon the lives and crimes of the criminals, while accounts of the felons’ trials are almost non-existent in their works. The Criminal Recorder is different in this respect however, for it is written ‘by a Student of the Inner Temple’ and the majority of each of the accounts contained therein is devoted to the criminals’ trials (the Inner Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, and to become a barrister one still has to be a member of one of these Inns of Court).
We know nothing of John Terry’s early life apart from the fact, at the time of his being committed to trial at the York Assize Courts, he was listed as an apprentice from Wakefield. Terry, along with another apprentice named Joseph Heald, were tried and found guilty of the murder of a sixty-seven year old woman, Elizabeth Smith.
Elizabeth was a respectable woman who lived in Wakefield, and although relatively poor, she maintained herself in her humble dwelling by keeping cows and selling the milk to local residents. However, two of her cows died and she found herself almost on the point of destitution. Being a pillar of the local community, however, her neighbour granted her some monetary assistance, and her son who lived in Leeds also gave her eighteenth guineas with which to purchase more livestock. The whole neighbourhood was happy for her, and the following day she resolved to go to Leeds and purchase two more cows.
At night, however, Terry and Heald met together and resolved to break into Elizabeth’s house and steal the eighteenth guineas. While she was sleeping, the pair broke into her dwelling and, although Terry only ever wanted the money, Heald became inexplicably enraged and began beating the sleeping Elizabeth upon the head, and then took a razor and cut her throat.
The pair got the money and made a quick escape. They were arrested soon afterwards by two of the town’s constables, T. Shaw and S. Linley. Terry instantly confessed to everything, although Heald was adamant that he was not present at the burglary. The judge and the jury did not believe Heald’s tale of innocence, and both men were found Guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged on 21 March 1803.
On the evening before the execution, as the gaol Ordinary was administering the sacrament to Terry, the latter admitted that he had indeed been lying at his confession, and that Heald was never with him, and that if they did hang Heald, then they would be hanging an innocent man. Terry said that he only accused Heald of being with him in the hope that he might get a lesser sentence or even, having become an informant, a full pardon. When he realised that he was not going to get away with the murder he felt it his Christian duty to admit to his lies.
The Judge was immediately asked to review the case, although he recommended that the execution of both men should still go ahead because the circumstantial evidence against Heald was strong.
The execution of both men went ahead. But just before their execution, Terry implored the officials and the public spectators present not to hang Heald. But Heald was hanged in spite of these protestations. Did the town of Wakefield hang an innocent man based upon the lies of another? We will never know!
The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: J. Cundee, 1804-09), 4: 335-340.