Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Pawn Tickets Catch Murderer

A man who committed murdered a relative of his wife's employer during a burglary in 1832 was caught when police found evidence he had pawned the stolen items.

20 year old plasterer John Thomas was originally from Oswestry in Shropshire and in December 1831 arrived in Everton to be with his new wife Elizabeth, who was a servant to Mr and Mrs Okell. They lived in Breck Road, which was then Breck Lane and part of Everton which was a village in its own right and not part of Liverpool. They ran a spirit vaults in Liverpool at Seddon Street, still in existence near the junction of Duke and Paradise Streets.

On the afternoon of Monday 9th January 1832 Elizabeth and Sarah Okell were in an upstairs room together when Sarah opened a drawer containing some silver plated cutlery. The following morning Sarah went to the spirit vaults, leaving her 25 year old niece Ellen Bancroft in the house. The property had some damp and Elizabeth had suggested that her husband may be able to fix the patches, but when he did go around on the premise of looking at them the next afternoon he had other ideas. Taking a poker that was next to the fire he hit Ellen over the head then forced open the draws and stole some of the sliver.

Thomas had waited until his wife had left the house before committing the act. When it happened she was at the spirit vaults with Sarah, having taken some caps there which she had been asked to make. At around 8pm Thomas went there to collect his wife, whispering something that Sarah was unable to hear. A couple of hours later Sarah returned to Everton, where she saw Ellen being removed to the Infirmary in a car. She had been found around 7pm by Sarah's nephew Samuel, who had climbed in through a kitchen window and found her sat in a chair covered with blood, while a bloodied poker was lying on the floor by her side. Ellen was conscious but confused and a doctor who attended dressed the wound before arranging for her to be taken to the Infirmary.

When Sarah went upstairs, she found that the dressing table draw had been smashed open and the cutlery was missing. Four spoons had already been pawed by then, having been taken by a man matching Thomas's description to Mr Little's pawnbrokers in Liverpool. On the Thursday evening police went to Mr & Mrs Thomas's lodgings, taking both into custody in relation to the assault and burglary. A search of the room found some damning evidence was found by way of a chisel which was the same size as what had been used to force open the draws, as well as pawn tickets for items of a similar nature to what had been stolen. 19 shillings was also found in Elizabeth's purse, the items having been pawned for 20 shillings.

Ellen lingered on in the Infirmary until the evening of 15th January, when she slipped away. She had been conscious the previous day though when Thomas was taken by police to see her and she identified him as the man who had come to the house to check the damp and then assaulted her. The inquest began the following day and lasted for three days, which included a visit to the Infirmary by the Coroner's jury to view the body. After a verdict of wilful murder against Thomas was returned he was committed to the Lancaster Assizes for trial but Elizabeth was discharged, having apparently been no more than an unwitting accessory to the crime. Ellen was buried in her home town of Weaverham, near Northwich, a week to the day after she was attacked.

At his trial on Friday 9th March there were plenty of witnesses who gave damning testimony against Thomas. In addition to the police evidence, a local resident said she had seen Thomas pacing back and forth along Breck Lane at about 4pm on the day of the burglary, while a joiner working at a nearby property positively identified him as having left the Okell's house, as did a stonemason who saw him running. The pawnbroker's assistant identified Thomas as having pawned the spoons, while Mrs Okell confirmed that they were the ones that had been taken. Dr Horton, surgeon at the Infirmary stated that Ellen's death was as a direct result of the wound.

After the prosecution closed their case, there was little defence Thomas could offer and in summing up, the judge said that if the jury were satisfied Thomas had entered the house and struck the fatal blow there was only one verdict they could return. It took just a few minutes for the foreman to announce a verdict of guilty. Thomas showed little emotion as the judge donned the black cap and sentenced him to death, telling him to spend the few moments left in this life to seeking mercy and forgiveness.

Thomas's execution took place just three days after the verdict, on the morning of Monday 12th March in front of a crowd of 3,000. On reaching the scaffold he shook hands with fellow convict William Heaton, who had been sentenced to death after murdering a man in Burtonwood. Both men were hanged simultaneously at 8.15pm, the Lancashire Advertiser  reporting that Thomas struggled a little. After being cut down, Thomas's body was sent to Liverpool where it was to be used by surgeons for dissection.

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