(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1786, Joseph Richards or Rickards was executed in Kentish Town, London for the murder of his former employer, Walter Horseman, whom he attacked on February 11.
Graham Jackson and Cate Ludlow described the crime in the most graphic terms in their book A Grim Almanac of Georgian London:
At around 2:00 a.m., Mary Horseman of Kentish Town was woken by the sound of her ten-year-son calling out that his father, London milkman Walter Horseman, needed her… Mary found her husband sitting on his bed. By the light of the moon, which was flooding through the large bay windows, she could see that he was quite black with blood, which covered him from his face to his waist. “Lord bless me,” he said. “Something has run over my face!”
“Run over your face?” she responded. “Why, you are nothing but blood!” She ran for a candle, and when she returned, the light revealed a truly hideous sight: her husband was cut to pieces, his forehead, eyes and nose smashed. His skull, which was broken, was described in court as “cut and mangled in a desperate manner.” The two sections of the skull had broken apart, and his eye sockets had been smashed into shards.
There was nothing to be done for Walter, but amazingly, he lingered until the 19th, over a week after the assault. Due to his head injuries and the fact that he’d been attacked while he was sleeping, he wasn’t able to provide any useful information as to what happened.
The murder weapons were left behind at the crime scene: they proved to be a wooden hedge stake and an iron bar, which was “jellied” with gore.
Only a few farthings were missing from the house. The Horsemans’ four-year-old daughter, who was sleeping in the same room as her father, was not harmed. Suspicion quickly fell on Rickards, the Horsemans’ former apprentice, whom they’d recently sacked for laziness. He had no alibi for the night of the murder, a night watchman saw him near the Horsemans’ home about an hour after the attack, and Mary identified the hedge stake as one he had cut several days before the attack.
Nevertheless, he seemed confident and didn’t bother to leave the area. In fact, in an incredible display of chutzpah, he actually visited his ailing former master and shook his hand before Walter died. Perhaps his cockiness — or obliviousness — was a product of his immaturity; in an age of doubtful record-keeping, we can’t be sure of Joseph Rickards’s age but he was certainly quite young. Mary Horseman speculatively pegged the ex-apprentice as an 18-year-old; the London Times (Feb. 24, 1786) thought that he did “not appear to be more than sixteen years of age.” Although even 16 would be quite old enough to hang in Bloody Code London, the magistrate felt constrained on account of the boy’s age to caution his jurors against excess confidence in the confession he ultimately produced:
I should not for one, though he is very near the state of manhood, chuse to rest singly and merely on his confession, as he is not at full age, though he is above that age of discretion, which the law assigns to be at the age of fourteen years, and certainly it is near the time that human reason is supposed to be mature.
On the 20th, the day after Walter’s death, Rickards was arrested. Within a day he had admitted to concealing himself in a large cupboard in one of the bedrooms in order to beat his former boss to death in his bed. (The trial records are here.) He tried to shift some of the blame to Mary Horseman, claiming they had frequently kissed and he had “laid hold of” her breasts, and that she had told him she wished her husband was dead.
He was hanged in a field across the way from the Horseman family’s dairy — a pathetic spectacle, to judge by the account of the Public Advertiser (Feb. 28, 1786), during which he recanted his allegations against the milkman’s widow.
In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction: He had no book, nor did he employ the short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the deceased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London: he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears, and when he came to the place of execution wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence. He desired his hat might be given to one, and his buckles to another man; and he also made some other trifling dispositions.
One of the Sheriffs, and a great number of their officers on horseback and on foot, attended on the above occasion. Considering the nature of the criminal’s offence, and the disposition of the English to behold spectacles of horror, the crowd was not near so great as might have been expected, owing, no doubt, to the fall of snow, and going so early. The body of the malefactor was conveyed from Kentish Town to Surgeons Hall for dissection, without a shell, and covered only with a coarse cloth, which by the motion of the cart was frequently so removed, that the head and different parts of the body were frequently seen by the passengers on the road and in the streets.
The anatomization, and accompanying public lecture on the late Rickards’s thorax, was performed by a “Dr. Cooper” (General Evening Post, Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 1786); this would appear to be the budding anatomist Astley Cooper who was only 17 years old himself at this time — just at the outset of a scintillating medical career.
Click here for the full page image from the 1871 Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising “cocks”, or “catchpennies”, a large and curious assortment of street-drolleries, squibs, histories, comic tales in prose and verse, broadsides on the royal family, political litanies, dialogues, catechisms, acts of Parliament, street political papers, a variety of “ballads on a subject”, dying speeches and confessions. The same story is also to be found here and here.
Old Bailey, February 24th, 1786.
Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.
Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.
The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.
The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.
Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.
The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.
Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.