Monday, 29 June 2020

Death of a Grocer

When a widow died days after being beaten by a man she cohabited with, there was no conviction as a postmortem had not taken place.

One May evening in May 1845, fourteen year old Margaret Johnson was in bed in a room above the grocers shop that was run by her mother Elizabeth, a widow. Her two younger half brothers, aged eleven and seven, were asleep beside her. Their father was Thomas Davis, with whom Elizabeth now cohabited.

The children's sleep was interrupted by the sound of Elizabeth and Thomas arguing. Elizabeth ran upstairs and tried to seek solace with her children, but Thomas came after her and the quarrel recommenced. When Elizabeth tried to leave, Thomas stopped her and when she threw a drawer on the floor, he struck her upper body and kicked her leg.

A passing policeman was alerted by the screaming of the younger children and Thomas invited him in. Elizabeth pleaded to be allowed to leave but the policeman persuaded her to remain, in return for a promise from Thomas to cease any arguing and violence.

For the next three days Elizabeth remained in bed and spent most of the time retching. A surgeon attended but she expired. She was buried in St Mary's Cemetery.

The family had only been in Liverpool for a month or two and they returned to Ledbury in Herefordshire, where Elizabeth had Thomas and the three children had resided until the previous year. Elizabeth's sister Hannah Meadows, wife of a carpenter, agreed to take Margaret in as her own. The two boys were placed in lodgings by Thomas who then left the town, leading to them being taken into the care of the workhouse when rent became due.

All three children had told those looking after them that their mother had come to her death by foul means and rumours began to spread around the town. Of particular interest was that Thomas had refused to write to inform any of Elizabeth's relatives of her death until after her burial.  Thomas was a former excise inspector and on 3rd November the Hereford Times published a paragraph urging him to return to Ledbury and clear his name. He did so on 10th November, handing a letter to Superintendent Shead, before absconding.

The following day magistrates sent for the two young brothers from the workhouse. They and Margaret were examined separately, leading to a warrant being issued against Thomas for 'felonously, wilfully and with malice aforethought, killed Elizabeth Johnson at Liverpool in the county of Lancaster by striking and beating her on the head, back and other parts of her body, of which several mortal bruises and wounds the said Elizabeth Johnson did die.'

On 13th November Thomas was apprehended by Superintendent Shead at Ross-on-Wye and appeared before magistrates the following morning where arrangements were made for him to be taken back to Liverpool. Reporting on his appearance at the Police Court in Dale Street, the Liverpool Mail described Thomas as 'tall, elderly and of decent exterior.' 

Margaret recalled the violence that ad been carried out by Thomas to her mother. This was corroborated by the two boys. All three said that there were black marks on the breasts and legs, where Elizabeth had been struck. However the surgeon who attended said that he was of the opinion that Elizabeth was dying of congested fever brought on by a low mood. He said that he had not been told of any injuries although they could produce the symptoms he had seen. Two neighbours who had laid out and washed down the body deposed that they had seen the bruising, and Thomas was remanded in custody.

At the South Lancashire Assizes on 9th December, the charge was reduced to manslaughter. However with no postmortem having taken place, and no medical professionals having observed any injuries, a not guilty verdict was returned and Thomas was freed.




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