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.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Alleged Murderer Granted Bail

British legal history was made in 1957 when a man charged with murder was granted bail. When he returned to court for his trial, he was found not guilty.

On the morning of  Tuesday 16th April 1957 Thomas Harding visited Dr Gibson's surgery at 170 Upper Parliament Street and reported that his wife was ill. 36 year old Harding was actually divorced but had been living with Veronica Chen, a barmaid aged 31, for three years. Most of these were at 128 Falkner Street but for the past few weeks they had been at 239 Smithdown Lane.

At 1pm Dr Gibson called at their home and found 31 year old Veronica unconscious. He arranged for her to be taken to Sefton General Hospital but she never came around and died shortly before midnight. The matter was referred to the Coroner and detectives arrested Harding the following morning. He was taken to Prescot Street police station, where he made a statement that the previous Friday evening, Veronica had returned home drunk and with bruises on her face. 

Further enquiries were made and when Harding was told by detectives were not satisfied with his explanation, he admitted striking Veronica with the back of his hand, causing her to stagger and hit her head against the wall. An hour after making this admission, the postmortem results were returned, which showed Veronica had died of a cerebral haemorrhage following a skull fracture, and had received several blows to the head.  

Confronted with this new information, Harding replied that he wanted to make a full statement as to what had happened. He said that Veronica had returned home 'rotten drunk' and refused to say where she had been, leading to him hitting her several times and throwing her on the bed. On being told that he would be charged with murder, Harding stated "I admit hitting her harder than I ever hit her before because I lost my temper, but I did not think she would die."

Harding was remanded in custody for seven days when he appeared at the Magistrates' Court on the morning of 18th April. When he was committed for trial at the Crown Court on 31st May, his defence counsel suggested that there had been no intent to cause serious harm and as such it was a case of manslaughter. The magistrate however said that the murder charge must stand and it was up to the prosecution to decide at the Assizes if they would accept a lesser plea. 

On 11th July British legal history was made when Harding was granted bail, the first time ever for a defendant charged with murder. Judge Laski, after hearing representations and reading documents, said that this was not a capital murder charge (meaning that Harding would not face the death penalty) and as such was willing to grant bail providing adequate sureties were arranged.  Harding was then released pending his trial in November. 

At the Crown Court on 5th November, Harding pleaded not guilty to murder and was defended by leading Q.C. Rose Heilbron. Medical evidence showed that the skull fracture could not have been caused by a fist, but more likely by falling against a wall. This, coupled with Heilbron's submissions that there had been no intent to cause serious harm, led to the jury finding Harding not guilty. With the Crown having gone solely for the murder charge, Harding was freed. He died just two years later and was buried in a public grave in Allerton cemetery.