John Terry (d.1803): A Yorkshire Murderer

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).

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John Terry’s entry in The Criminal Recorder (1804-09)

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.

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A “true” likeness of John Terry in The Criminal Recorder (1804-09)

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!

References

The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: J. Cundee, 1804-09), 4: 335-340.

Charles Kinnaister: Executed for the Murder of Australian Aborigines (1838)

Broadly speaking, criminals fall into three types: heroes, buffoons, and brutes.[i] The categories are just as applicable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they are today – ‘heroes’ would be men like Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber of 1963, buffoons would be the types of offender featured in television shows such as America’s Dumbest Criminals (1996-2000), while the ‘brutes’ would include people such as Geoffrey Dahmer (1960-1994). This website usually deals with the criminal-as-hero types: outlaws and highwaymen whose crimes fall under the category of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘social banditry’,[ii] although I have featured the cannibal Sawney Beane whose story was inspiration behind the popular horror movie, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). It is about a set of brutes, or ‘monsters in human shape’,[iii] who were executed in nineteenth-century New South Wales that we turn our attention to today.[iv]

Outside of academia, the history of British colonialism is usually conceived of as one in which the colonisers – the British – committed atrocities against the indigenous population without any consequences. That the British were responsible for some ghastly humanitarian crimes during the time that they had an empire is certainly true, but the colonisers’ hands were not completely free to do as they pleased, as the execution of Charles Kinnaister and his men in 1838 for the murder of Australian aborigines illustrates.

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Cook’s Map of the Coast of New South Wales and Botany Bay (1770)

A penal colony was established at New South Wales in 1788 following the “discovery” of the region in the 1770s by Capt. James Cook. Britain’s criminals, which previously had been shipped off to the Americas, as the eponymous title character of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), were now shipped off to Australia instead, a decision no doubt arrived at after the American colonies had declared their independence from Britain in 1783.

Charles Kinnaister, and his accomplices, William Hawkins, James Parry, Edward Foley, James Cates, John Russell, and John Johnson had all been transported in 1837. While transportation was designed to be a punishment, one of the ideas behind it was that some of the felons transported could serve as labourers for the local citizens, and thereby help to build up the colony. The men alluded to above were set to work as shepherds to a family of landowners in New South Wales.

One day, in the course of their duties, the men, along with one native free man called John Fleming (who, as Jillian Barnes notes, is usually left out of accounts of these murders)[v] rode beyond their masters’ lands and encountered a group of Australian aborigines. There were thirty of them in total. Kinnaister and his crew,

Tied them together with a rope, with the exception of one woman. This was done without a word being uttered, and with a cool and bloody determination. When all were thus secured, one end of the rope was tied around the body of the foremost of the murderers, who, having mounted his horse, led the way, dragging the terrified group after him, while his infamous companions guarded them on all sides.[vi]

The victims were dragged some distance and were then butchered with knives and swords,

‘Till all lay a lifeless mass, in death clinging to each other in the throes of natural affection’.[vii]

The murderers attempted to conceal their crimes as best they could by setting alight to the bodies. But after the fire died down, fragments of bones remained.

A professional police force in Britain had only been recently established in 1829, and the detective agency would not be established until 1842. Needless to say, policing and detection in the colonies was oftenn less efficient than it was in Britain. At this time period, Europeans still believed that God directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murderers. It is a belief expressed in the account of this crime in The Chronicles of Crime (1841); despite the men’s attempts to conceal their foul deeds,

The vengeance of providence was not to be thus thwarted; and although for a time these miscreants imagined they had effectually disguised their horrible work, circumstances led to their detection and apprehension.[viii]

It was birds that brought about these men’s arrest. After the murders, birds of prey were seen circling the place where the outrage had been committed. Some stock-men went to investigate and found the half-burnt carcases. Kinnaister and his accomplices were immediately suspected, owing to their past conduct, and upon examination the men admitted everything they had done.

The most ‘whole’ body that was left unburnt by the men was that of an indigenous man named ‘Daddy’. So it was for his murder that the men were indicted for. The next part of the story is where the racial prejudice in the minds of some of the colonialists becomes most apparent. Despite Kinnaister’s and his men’s admission of guilt, and the strong circumstantial evidence against them, an association was formed by some of the rich colonists to get the men acquitted. The best legal counsel was hired, and the defence lawyers argued that the murders were necessary because

They had been formed with the ostensible project of preserving the property of the settlers from the incursions of the [natives].[ix]

The defence convinced the jury, who found the men Not Guilty. It was a case of blatant racial prejudice, something which was acknowledged at the time. Camden Pelham, who recorded this event a few years later in The Chronicles of Crime, expresses his regret and shame that racial prejudices contributed to the acquittal.[x]

The prosecution did not rest, however, and two months later arraigned the men again, and this time they were justly found Guilty by the jury. The vile criminals were then hanged on 15 December 1838.


References

Header Image: Kinnaister and his Accomplices Murder the Aborigines. From Camden Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime (London, 1887), p.473.

[i] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.54.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Pelican, 1969).

[iii] Camden Palham, The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar. Being a Series of Memoirs and Anecdotes of Notorious Characters who have Outraged the Laws of Great Britain from the Earliest Period to 1841 (London: T. Tegg, 1841; repr. London: T. Miles, 1887), p.472.

[iv] Scholarship on this case includes the following articles: Patsy Withycombe & Jillian Barnes, ‘Representation and Power: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words – “Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts” 1841’ Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues 18: 2 (2015), pp.62-67.

[v] Barnes, ‘Representation and Power’, p.67.

[vi] Pelham, Chronicles of Crime, p.473.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

The Newgate Calendar

People in the eighteenth century believed that they were living in a crime-ridden society. In addition to Capt. Alexander Smith’s and Capt. Charles Johnson’s criminal biographies, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, a series of books were printed in London entitled The Newgate Calendar.

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A man being publically whipped in the Sessions House Yard. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

There is no single authoritative text of The Newgate Calendar as there have been many versions of works bearing the name since the eighteenth century, so a brief history is offered here. Newgate Calendars were named after the infamous London gaol, Newgate, which was first built in 1188, and subjected to numerous renovations and rebuilds in its history until its demolition in 1904.

There were various criminal ‘calendars’ compiled from the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as The Tyburn Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register (1705), and The Chronicle of Tyburn; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches (1720).

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The Execution of William Dodd. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

The first publication that bore the name of The Newgate Calendar appeared in 1774, entitled The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, and published in five volumes. Five years later, there was The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, dedicated to the magistrate, Sir John Fielding (1721-1780), the co-founder of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first dedicated law enforcement agency.

Another publication, The New and Complete Newgate Calendar appeared in 1795, whilst William Jackson’s The New and Complete Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactor’s Universal Register, appeared in 1818.

Like Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar contains biographies of the most notorious criminals. For its sources, the various versions often directly plagiarised contemporary criminal narratives, in particular the ‘Last Dying Speech’ broadsides which contained news of convicted felons. In the words of the 1784 edition, The Newgate Calendar comprises:

All the most material passages in the SESSIONS PAPERS, for a long series of years; together with the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Capital Convicts, and complete narratives of all the most remarkable trials. [1]

And some familiar faces appear in the pages of The Newgate Calendar such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1734), Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), and Dick Turpin (1705-1739). The claim to provide ‘complete’ and ‘true’ accounts of all the trials of these offenders, however, is a little suspect. Despite the claims of the Proceedings (upon which, as we have seen, The Newgate Calendar was based), for instance, to provide a ‘fair, true and perfect narrative’ the publishers of these works had the final say in their content, and they had to be entertaining so they could be profitable. Hence ‘greater attention [was] paid to murders, robberies, and thefts from the person (involving titillating details of prostitutes’ interactions with their clients)’ in order to ‘make the Proceedings appeal to a wide audience,’ and thereby proving profitable.[2]

(For a discussion of how ‘true’ their accounts are, bear in mind that some of these authors thought that Sir John Flastaff was a real person…)

The accounts of each offender, like the broadsides and criminal biographies that they were taken from, were very formulaic in style. They begin with an account of the offender’s birth and parentage, and then describe his/her descent into a life of sin and depravity. Crime, if you have read some of the other posts on this site, in the eighteenth century was viewed as a sin. Criminals were not necessarily inherently wicked: they were people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, which is why a lot of criminals are portrayed sympathetically in the accounts (murderers apart). [3] Hence in the case of the burglar Luke Cannon, it was ‘an early attachment to bad company, an early introduction to the paths of vice, [that] led with rapid success to his ruin’. [4]

At the close of the narrative they are hanged for their crimes. [5] In a world that lacked a professional police force, one of the aims of the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar was (as well as providing sensational entertainment), to function as moralist texts. Readers were supposed to shun the examples of sin and vice and avoid making the same unhappy mistakes that had led the criminals to the gallows.

In fact, the title page of the 1795 edition contains a short piece of verse which is illustrative of its aims:

The crimes related here art great and true,
The subjects vary, and the work is new,
By reading, learn the ways of sin to shun,
Be timely taught, and you’ll not be undone. [6]

It might be supposed that The Newgate Calendar was cheap entertainment for eighteenth-century readers. However, this is not the case: firstly, all editions of The Newgate Calendar were multivolume sets, and accompanied with fine engravings. Although we do not know the prices for the individual editions of The Newgate Calendar, comparisons can be made with the prices of other works. Volume three of Alexander Smith’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1719) cost half a crown, an expensive amount in the 1700s. Similarly, Charles Johnson’s Highwaymen addressed ‘gentlemen’. We are talking about a literate and sophisticated audience who read these books.

There were further publications bearing the name of The Newgate Calendar during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A major early nineteenth-century version was edited by two layers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, in 1824, and given the name The Newgate Calendar; Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages upon the Laws of England since the Eighteenth Century, with a revised edition appearing in 1826.

After Knapp and Baldwin’s editions followed G. Thompson’s Newgate Calendar of 1840, which at first glance appears to be a virtual plagiarism of Knapp and Baldwin’s version. The penny dreadful version, The New Newgate Calendar, was then published weekly between 1863 and 1865, and then Camden Pelham published, in two volumes The Chronicles of Crime; or, the New Newgate Calendar in 1887.

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Penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1864) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection].

The last large-scale five volume compilation of The Newgate Calendar was printed by the Navarre Society in 1927, whilst the Folio Society has more recently reprinted a selection of the most famous trials in two volumes, The Newgate Calendar, and The New Newgate Calendar (1951).

The legacy of The Newgate Calendar can be seen in any bookshop today. This publication, along with criminal biographies, initiated the whole ‘true crime’ book industry.

More importantly, however, criminal biographies and The Newgate Calendar paved the way for a form of literature that we still read today: the novel. Whereas fiction before the eighteenth century tended to focus upon the lives of aristocrats, such as Don Quixote (2 Vols. 1605, 1611), criminal biography primed readers for reading about ‘real life’. Hence it is no surprise that the first English novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), often made the protagonists of his novels, not Kings and nobles, but those from low life: prostitutes (Moll Flanders, 1722), pirates (Captain Singleton, 1720).

Thus although nobody today prints accounts of criminals in the same way as the publishers of The Newgate Calendar did, it has to be remembered that there would be no novels were it not for eighteenth-century criminal accounts.


References

[1] The New Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg, 1795), 1.
[2] Robert Shoemaker ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’ Journal of British Studies 47: 3 (2008), 563.
[3] John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 351.
[4] The New Newgate Calendar, 16.
[5] For a critical discussion of these accounts see Andrea Mckenzie Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007) and Lincoln B. Faller Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987).
[6] The New Newgate Calendar, 1.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This post has been adapted from a chapter in my MA Thesis which was completed under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.


Sweeney Todd's Chair [Source: Yesterday's Papers].
Sweeney Todd’s Chair
[Source: Yesterday’s Papers].

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the ‘demon barber,’ (originally entitled A String of Pearls) is perhaps one the most famous penny bloods of the nineteenth century. The story is set during the 1780s ‘when George the Third was young’. It begins when a young gentleman returns from overseas intent on marrying his fiancée, Johanna. He is carrying a gift of a string of pearls which he intends to give to her. Before visiting her, however, he decides to go for a shave. Both the gentleman and the pearls go missing. Investigations begin into the missing gentleman’s whereabouts, and suspicions are raised in London when Todd attempts to pawn a matching set of pearls because he cannot give ‘satisfaction as to how he came by them’. Subsequent investigations into Todd’s business reveal that there are many valuable items of all descriptions kept within his residence. The outcome of the subsequent investigations reveals a horrifying truth. The owners of the valuables have all been killed by Todd. With the collusion of his neighbour, Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie manufactory in which she has imprisoned numerous subterranean workers, the victims’ bodies have been served up as meat in her veal pies.

The mystery of the novel centres around the chair in which his unfortunate customers sit to be ‘polished off’, for ‘there is some horrible mystery connected with the chair’. The chair is revealed to be a mechanical device which facilitates the speedy disposal of the victims’ bodies into an underground vault:

There was a piece of the flooring turning upon the centre, and the weight of the chair, when the bolt was withdrawn, by means of a simple leverage from the inner room, weighed down upon one end of the top by a little apparatus, was to swing completely round, there being another chair on under the surface, which thus became the upper, exactly resembling the one in which the unhappy customer was supposed to be ‘polished off’.

There was an image which accompanied the text that illustrated exactly how the intricate machine worked (see above).

Todd’s modus operandi may have had particular resonance for working-class readers whose lives were beginning to be dominated by machinery and manufactory. Thompson writes that ‘one after another, as the nineteenth century ran its course, old domestic crafts were displaced’ by machinery. Indeed, anxiety over the effects that machinery was having upon working-class people’s livelihoods in the early nineteenth century led to Luddite rebellions between 1811 and 1812, and machine breaking riots amongst farm labourers in the 1830s. The chair, the intricate mechanical device which takes away people’s valuables (their livelihoods), and finally disposes of them in the subterranean ‘pie manufactory’, represented ‘an expression of profound social anxiety…the growing perception that the sanctity of selfhood is threatened by the aggressive commercial forces generated by the industrial city’. Nevsett explains that the use of the term ‘pie manufactory’ is significant:

Todd runs an extremely tiny corporation…he murders his barber shop clients and sells their bodies as ‘veal pies’ with the help of Mrs. Lovett…and a nameless sequence of subterranean ‘pie manufactory’ workers who may not leave the factory floor and are quietly killed when they become exhausted or unmanageable.

Penny dreadfuls, targeted as they were towards the working classes, thus expressed working-class fears surrounding urban living and industrialisation. This is true in both The Mysteries of London and A String of Pearls where these fears were as Crone says, ‘clothed in everyday dress’.


  • Crone, R. Violent Victorians (MUP, 2012).
  • Hobsbawm, E. (1952). ‘The Machine Breakers’. Past and Present 1(1).
  • Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848:2005). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nevsett, R. (2014). ‘Welcome to the Pie Manufactory: Sweeney Todd and The String of Pearls’. ETHOS. [Internet] http://www.ethosreview.org/cultural-interventions/welcome-to-the-pie-manufactory-sweeney-todd-and-the-string-of-pearls/ [Accessed 04/08/2014].
  • Powell, S. (2004). ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies: The Corpse, Urban Trade and industrial Consumption in the Penny Blood’.
  • Prest, T.P. (1846). ‘A String of Pearls: A Romance’. Mack, R.L. ed. (2007). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Thompson, E.P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin