My fourth book, A Gallows Guest List was published in December 2015.
As with my first three books, it is a collection comprising in the main a number of intriguing but relatively little-known cases, with one or two more-celebrated ones.
In this collection of true-crime cases from the 18th and 19th centuries, Grahame Farrell invites the reader to an in-depth look at a selection of murderers who were given an offer they couldn't refuse – a date with the hangman. It includes two who were convicted of a less serious crime, and concludes with two whose names, for different reasons, never reached the guest list.
Told with Farrell's usual clear and captivating style, these chronicles are sure to enthral all lovers of historical true crime.
In 1670, the heavy-drinking and rather outspoken Member of Parliament for Weymouth in Dorset, Sir Richard Coventry, was reminded during a House of Commons debate that King Charles II had declared his fondness for, and determination to promote, the English theatre.
During the debate, on the subject of a proposed tax on playhouses, Sir Richard, no great admirer of the king, made a statement in support of such a tax. When a rival MP, Sir John Birkenhead, rejoined that the theatre had afforded Charles great pleasure, Sir Richard voiced his belief that His Majesty's interest in the theatre only extended to the more attractive actresses. In fact, he couched his reply in the form of a very unflattering question.
“Do you refer to the male or the female players?” he wryly asked of Sir John.
The meaning of Coventry's question was clear. Not only had Charles procured two mistresses, Moll Davies and Nell Gwyn, from the thespian fraternity, but who was to say that his sexual interest was restricted to female members of the acting profession?
Sir Richard Coventry's unparliamentary language may have crossed the line and ruffled Westminster feathers, but all was soon forgiven and forgotten, the general attitude among Members being along the lines of “Well, that's Coventry for you”.
The king, however, was decidedly not amused. He decided to teach Coventry a lesson.
That very night, as Sir Richard and his manservant made their way home, they were set upon by serving soldiers from the Duke of Monmouth's regiment, and given a good beating. Sir Richard also received a vicious slash across his nose from a knife, leaving a deep cut which would leave a permanent scar. King Charles had got his revenge – Monmouth's men had carried out their orders well.
In the House of Commons, there was outrage when news of the assault reached Members. That an MP should be physically attacked and permanently disfigured for voicing an opinion, however extreme, during a parliamentary debate was felt by all to be completely unacceptable.
If King Charles had not directly ordered the attack, he had surely given it the royal seal of approval; the culprits were arrested, and promptly given a royal pardon by the king.
MPs were furious. They decided to fight back.
Early the following year, 1671, Parliament passed An Act to Prevent Malicious Wounding and Maiming. Its provisions were encapsulated in the following lines of content:
Any person on purpose and malice forethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cutting out or disabling the tongue, putting out an eye, slitting the nose or lip, or cutting or disabling any limb or member of any subject, with intention in so doing to maim or disfigure him; such a person, his counsellors, aiders, and abetters, shall be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy
In plain language, such an assault was now a hanging offence.
The new Act was very specific in its provisions, and differed from legislation relating to a similar offence, the crime of ‘mayhem’, which punished anyone who injured or maimed any part of the body which would prevent the victim from fighting back – which in practice meant arms, hands or legs. In honour of Sir Richard Coventry (a popular man, respected for his parliamentary work despite his disrespectful tongue), the Act quickly came to be referred to as the ‘Coventry Act’.
Essentially, it made it a capital offence to commit a premeditated physical assault which led to a permanent visual injury to the face; and there was to be no let-off by allowing a felon to stand in the dock and quote the prescribed verses from Psalm 51 through the legal farce known as Benefit of Clergy. Parliament had made its position very clear to King Charles.
Let us now fast-forward to the year of our Lord 1720. Fifty years had gone by since the Coventry Act had been passed by an angry Parliament, and, because the records have long since been lost, it is not known if any felon had ever been convicted under its terms, but it is generally assumed that there had not been a single prosecution. Mr. Arundel Coke, gentleman and lawyer of Bury St. Edmund's in Suffolk, had, at some point during those fifty years, married one of the sisters of a wealthy fellow-lawyer, Mr. Edward Crispe.
Lawyer Crispe had, of course, written his will. He was childless, his only relatives being his three sisters, who would each have an equal share of his property, and, more importantly, an equal share of three hundred pounds a year, a substantial sum in 1720. The wife of Mr. Arundel Coke was, of course, one of these future beneficiaries. Once in her hands, since she, as a married woman, had few if any property rights, the annual sum of money would, by law, pass into those of her husband, as would the property.
But Mr. Coke had financial problems; his expenditure had greatly exceeded his considerable income, debts were mounting, and he needed money fast. If only his brother-in-law's first one-hundred-pound instalment could pass to Coke's wife without delay! All would be well, and financial ruin averted. Mrs. Coke's one hundred pounds would be worth about £20,500 in 2017 – for many, far more than a year's salary, paid in one lump sum, and a welcome supplement to his normal income.
But Edward Crispe was infuriatingly fit and well, and Arundel Coke saw with regret that his wait for Crispe's legacy would be a very long one. He knew that he would be impoverished well before then, and possibly sitting in a debtor's prison.
After much brooding on the issue, he reached the conclusion that there was only one solution to his predicament. Crispe's departure from this world must be hastened, and the sooner the better.
On New Year's Day 1721, after a Christmas spent in worry over his future, Mr. Arundel Coke welcomed each of his four guests in turn as they arrived for the supper to which he had several days previously invited them. The guests (each of them a relative of Mr. Coke) comprised his other brother-in-law Mr. Brown with his wife and daughter, and Mr. Edward Crispe.
When all present were comfortably settled at table, a hearty meal, plentiful wine, and a deal of table-talk were enjoyed.
At 10 pm, when the male members of the party were assembled in the parlour for after-supper drinks and man talk (the ladies having withdrawn upstairs), Mr. Coke proceeded to announce that he had had a bright idea. He wished to call on a mutual friend of his and Mr. Crispe's, the genteel Mrs. Fanny Monke, and he declared his wish that Crispe should come with him, adding that they would be back shortly. Edward Crispe acquiesced, and the two lawyers left the house, leaving Mr. Brown behind to amuse himself.
Their journey took them through the churchyard of St. Mary's Church – very close, in fact, to Mrs. Monke's house – and after they had crossed the churchyard in the darkness, Coke stood dithering outside the residence of Mrs. Monke, as if reluctant to knock on her door. Then suddenly, and unaccountably, he let out a loud whistle and shouted “Hello!”
Seconds later, from behind a neighbouring porch, a figure crept up behind the pair, brandishing what, despite the darkness, was clearly a billhook, with a curve at the end of its short metal shaft, and a barbed hook at the front, pointed, end. It had, in effect, the exact appearance of a fishhook, but was about the size and weight of a machete.
Edward Crispe, unaware of the man's presence, was immediately struck from behind by a blow to the head, and fell stunned to the ground. His assailant then got to work with the billhook, slashing at his face in an obvious attempt to kill him; Crispe, drifting almost immediately into unconsciousness, offered no resistance. Soon his face was covered in blood and deep wounds, including a cut to the nose.
And what of Arundel Coke during the perpetration of this outrage?
He had hurried hastily away. But this was not the fear of a man concerned now with his own safety; the loud whistle and the shout of “Hello!” that Coke had given, moments before the attack, will have made it clear to the reader that the unknown assailant was acting on Coke's orders. Arundel Coke had orchestrated the assault on his brother-in-law. He had not delayed long enough to hear Crispe's cry of “God damn him!” as he rushed away.
As the blows rained down on the now-unconscious Edward Crispe, it quickly became clear to his attacker that Crispe was beyond salvation, and now lay there with the stillness of a corpse.
Now it was time for the assailant to quit the crime scene before he was seen; he made off rapidly in the opposite direction to that taken by Arundel Coke, who shortly afterwards arrived back at his house to explain to his Mr. Brown, as casually as he could, but in fact a little breathlessly, that Crispe had decided to forego the visit to Mrs. Monke and to go straight home for the night. Only ten minutes had passed since their original departure from the Coke residence.
Mr. Brown was still ensconced alone in the parlour when Mr. Coke returned. More drinks were poured, and the two gentlemen were fully immersed in their enjoyment of each other's company when, about twenty minutes after Coke's return, there was a loud knocking at the front door, which the servant answered. Moments later, into the drawing room staggered the blood-soaked figure of Edward Crispe!
The deep cuts and abrasions to his face, and the huge loss of blood, showed that he required medical attention immediately, and a doctor was summoned.
In my book Gaslight Villainy, I described how the first police officer at the scene of the mysterious death of Dr. Lyddon of Faversham, Kent was a Sergeant Sargent. Competing with the sergeant in terms of an unfortunate combination of surname and profession was the physician who came to minister to Arundel Coke's stricken guest shortly after Crispe's dramatic return to the house, namely, Mr. Sturgeon the surgeon, whose treatment included some on-the-spot stitching up of the cut on Crispe's nose and the patching up of a cut extending from his neck to his lower lip. Ludicrous name or not, surgeon Sturgeon's early intervention saved the life of Edward Crispe. To Mr. Coke's well-hidden consternation, Crispe would live to tell the tale of what had befallen him in St. Mary's churchyard. He could only hope that Crispe did not suspect him.
But Crispe could not speak of it yet. His mouth was so injured that speech was too difficult and painful. Did he know of his brother-in-law's involvement in the assault? It would seem not, otherwise he would surely not have sought sanctuary in his home.
Once sufficiently recovered, Crispe announced that some farm workers had come across him, and he had signalled in which direction he wanted to go, whereupon they had ferried him back to Coke's house. With Crispe now well enough to walk, he, Dr. Sturgeon and the Browns took their leave.
Arundel Coke had failed in the attempt on Crispe's life, and would now have a long wait for the other man's money, but it seemed that he was safe from legal retribution. As far as anyone knew, he was as innocent of involvement in the assault as the babe unborn. Mr. Crispe evidently didn't suspect him.
But Coke's past was about to catch up with him, and he had not reckoned with a certain John Carter and a certain Robert Moon.
It would seem that Coke had been planning, or at least considering, the killing of his brother-in-law for several years. He had sent for Robert Moon about three years before the assault on Mr. Crispe. As a working man, Moon did not procrastinate at the summons of a gentleman and had gone to Mr. Coke's house immediately. Coke had asked him one simple question: could he kill a man for money?
A shocked Robert Moon had replied that he could not do so under any circumstances nor for any consideration. At that, an irritated Arundel Coke had dismissed him.
About eighteen months later, Coked had summoned John Carter to his house, and had put to him more or less the same question.
John Carter had a far greater incentive than Moon to take on a contract killing. He was a blacksmith whose business was failing, and he was desperately short of money. Coke now added further pressure by introducing a veiled threat; Carter's house and forge were owned by Edward Crispe, and the property would, on Crispe's death, pass to Coke, who now dropped a large hint that any repairs to Carter's home and business (which Coke, as the heir to that property, would then be liable for) would not be undertaken if Carter declined to take up his offer. A forge in bad repair would not be good for business – assuming that the business survived until then.
But, to Coke's frustration, John Carter, like Robert Moon, had wanted nothing to do with the proposal. Like Robert Moon, he had walked out, and, again like Moon, had thought and said no more about the matter, pre-occupied as he was with the more pressing issue of economic survival.
Until, that is, news reached both of them of the near-fatal assault on Mr. Edward Crispe. Coke had mentioned Crispe by name in the course of his conversations with both men, and, without directly saying so, had implied that Crispe was the intended target. Now, independently of each other, both men put two and two together, and went separately to the authorities.
The game was now up for Mr. Arundel Coke; and here the eccentricities of Seventeenth-Century English law, having spilled over into the Eighteenth, came to the fore to colour the course of events in this unique case.
The authorities responded quickly. A constable was dispatched to arrest Coke and bring him before the justices of the peace.
Coke indignantly poured cold water on the allegations of Carter and Moon regarding his search for a hired murderer. He had, he claimed, merely spoken to them both about certain work-contracts with various wealthy employers on his client list who were seeking skilled workers. But although an allegation by one man might be considered questionable, two such claims, made independently, had a decided ring of truth.
Worse still, Edward Crispe shortly afterwards regained his power of speech, and he backed up the allegations by voicing his belief that his brother-in-law's whistling and his shouting of “Hello!” were clearly a signal to the assailant. Coke, he now insisted, must surely have been involved in the attack. When Crispe had shouted “God damn him!” immediately after being struck on the head, he was clearly referring to his brother-in-law, and not the attacker. Coke was promptly arrested.
On what charge, though?
The crime was clearly one of attempted murder, but such a misdemeanour was not a capital crime at the time. Of course, if the murder attempt had succeeded, things would have been easy for the Crown, and the outcome of a successful prosecution obvious – death by hanging. What should the authorities do with a man who had clearly premeditated and organised a vicious assault that had so nearly led to the victim's death? Imprisonment and a fine, the usual punishment for attempted murder, seemed in the eyes of the authorities to be woefully insufficient retribution.
The solution lay with the little-used Coventry Act; Edward Crispe bore the scars of a cut nose and upper lip. Arundel Coke would therefore be charged with contravention of the Act, and the punishment, if he were found guilty, would be death by hanging.
He was placed in Bury St. Edmund's prison. As a lawyer, Coke was aware that, with three witnesses ready to testify against him, there was little point in denying his role in the assault on Crispe. Beseeched to confess by his sobbing wife who was visiting him in prison, he made a detailed confession to the gaoler, William Wetherall.
He also named his accomplice. John Woodbourne was a labourer, and regarded by all who knew him as an unsavoury character who would not have scrupled to take on a contract killing when Arundel Coke, having failed with Carter and Moon, summoned him to his house several days before the attack and offered him £20 (over £4,000 in 2017). On the strength of the confession, Constable Willet was instructed to find Woodbourne and arrest him. Later that day, with assistance from none other than the aforementioned blacksmith Carter, Willet brought Woodbourne before the magistrates.
Notwithstanding his brutish reputation, John Woodbourne had suffered an attack of conscience shortly after the crime, and he likewise readily confessed to the assault.
Coke and his hired hitman were held on remand to await their trial.
It took place on Tuesday, 22nd March at the Suffolk Spring Assizes in Bury St. Edmunds itself. The presiding judge was Sir Peter King, the Lord Chief Justice. English criminal trials did not at the time allow a prisoner to have legal representation in a court of law. Coke and Woodbourne's chance to defend themselves would, in line with legal procedure, come towards the end of the trial when they would be entitled to each make a speech in their own defence. They were pitted against an experienced team of four prosecutors, Messrs. Lee and Raby, and Sergeants Branthwaite and Selby.
Woodbourne was charged with the felony of slitting the nose of Edward Crispe with the intention of maiming and disfiguring him, after lying in wait for the purpose. Coke was charged with aiding and abetting.
A considerable number of people were called to testify in an attempt by the prosecutors to demonstrate, independently of the prisoners' confessions, that it was Coke and Woodbourne who had been responsible for the assault; but the key evidence came from Dr. Sturgeon. He had treated the injured man almost immediately after the assault, when the injuries were fresh, and he testified as to the presence of a cut to Edward Crispe's nose. This single wound was enough to demonstrate that the attack was in contravention of the Coventry Act.
It was a basic but successful use of medical evidence; after half an hour's deliberation, the jury found both men guilty. Sentencing was delayed until the following day, however, when Sir Peter King, having pronounced sentence of death, asked each of them in turn whether there was any reason why the sentence should not be carried out.
The frequent answer, whether true or false, to such a question was “I am innocent”, although many gave no answer at all and shook their heads. John Woodbourne, who was a labourer and not a lawyer, had nothing to say in his defence, and had accepted his fate.
Arundel Coke, who was a lawyer and not a labourer, gave a very different answer, one that tested the very efficacy of the law relating to malicious wounding, in an attempt to have the verdict overturned.
The Coventry Act embodied the notion of malice aforethought, in other words a deliberate wounding and disfiguring of the victim. But, argued Coke, there was no premeditated attempt to wound, maim or disfigure Edward Crispe; Coke's instructions to Woodbourne had not been to disfigure him but to kill him, and Woodbourne had attempted to carry out these instructions, and had left the crime scene thinking he had succeeded. The cut to Crispe's nose had been merely incidental to the murder attempt; there was wounding, but no malicious wounding. Therefore, said Coke, he and his agent Woodbourne had not contravened the provisions of the Coventry Act, and could not be hanged.
He and Woodbourne should instead be tried for attempted murder, declared Coke, and for this they would each receive the aforementioned fine and short period of imprisonment.
Coke's defence was by no means a ludicrous one. It was an example of “strange in fact but true in law”. He stressed that a criminal charge must follow the letter of the law, and he raised the subject of legal precedent by pointing out that there had been previous trials in which a verdict of Not Guilty had been announced because the crime had not been committed strictly within the parameters of a particular law. Attempted murder was morally far worse than inflicting a cut to a man's nose, but it did not fall within the orbit of the Coventry Act.
Arundel Coke's legal ambush had caught the Crown on the back foot. All now rested with Sir Peter King and the prosecution counsel to digest this turn of events and to make what they could of it.
Coke had been very astute in saving his strategy until the sentencing hearing, knowing that only a mind trained in law would be able to grasp the fine details, whereas a trial-jury might miss the point. Now those legal minds got to work to try and rescue the situation.
Before long, they had come up with a response.
Because Coke had chosen hacking to death as the means of murdering Edward Crispe, cuts to the body – including the nose – were an inevitable feature of the murder attempt. Woodbourne could not hope to avoid inflicting wounds to Crispe's person while succeeding in murdering him with a heavy, sharp-pointed instrument. The cut to the nose was inflicted in the course of a premeditated murder attempt, and an unavoidable concomitant of that attempt. Therefore – murder attempt or not – the cut to Crispe's nose was part and parcel of a premeditated assault, and fell within the terms of the Coventry Act.
It was a legal sleight of hand, and a piece of questionable intellectual juggling, every bit as brazen as Coke's argument in favour of acquittal; and against the grain of most Eighteenth-Century criminal trials, it relied on the spirit of the law, and not the letter thereof.
The Crown's argument was no less valid than that of Arundel Coke, though, and in one respect they were right; if a man were to shoot at a wildfowl and accidentally kill a passer-by, that would be an accident and not a capital crime. If, however, the same man were to trespass onto the other man's property in order to shoot at a game bird owned by the other man with the intention of killing and taking the bird, and missed the game bird but killed the man, this would be a capital offence since the accidental killing took place in the course of a felony.
This reasoning proved sufficient to satisfy the authorities that the cutting of Edward Crispe's nose was premeditated (which it clearly wasn't) and that it had occurred as a concomitant of another felony (which it unquestionably had). Arundel Coke and John Woodbourne were both sentenced to death.
In fact, in terms of the strict letter of the Coventry Act, it is impossible to decide on the question of premeditation in this case. Clearly, the intention was to kill, and there was no clearly-formed intention to disfigure. But it is hard to see how Woodbourne could have hoped to kill Edward Crispe with a heavy, pointed weapon like a billhook without inflicting cuts to his face or body in the process.
A fortnight later, on 31st March 1722, John Woodbourne was hanged in front of a baying crowd in Bury St. Edmunds. Arundel Coke's legal gymnastics during his sentencing hearing had been seen as outright effrontery, and public opinion was completely against the pair. Few if any tears were therefore shed for Woodbourne.
Nor, indeed, for Arundel Coke, who, wishing to avoid public opprobrium and to exit the world with his dignity intact, used his status as a gentleman to somehow buy a private execution. He was hanged on the same day as Woodbourne, but out of public view.
The Coventry Act survived them by a hundred years, not being repealed until 1828, but never used again in a court of law. Coke and Woodbourne are therefore the only felons known to have been hanged under its terms.
Attempted murder, the offence for which we might have expected them to be charged, did in due course become a capital crime, and remained so until 1861 when the Criminal Law Consolidation Act reduced the number of hanging offences to four: Murder, High Treason, Piracy, and Arson in a Royal Dockyard. The Act was not quite in time to prevent Martin Doyle from becoming the last person to be executed for attempted murder, on 27th August of that year.
If you liked that chapter, you can purchase the complete book at Amazon now.
You can purchase A Gallows Guest List from Amazon now through Amazon’s various country-specfic sites.