Themed Set: More like Drop-shire

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.

A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

In English crime as in culture and commerce, the capital city can’t help but throw its shadow over the rest, and small wonder. Who could deny London her laurels as one of the world’s great hives of true crime: haunt of gallant highwaymen and underworld kingpins, skulking servants and reprobate lords, fantastical escape artists and the mysterious Whitechapel murderer. So it is for executions, too, although a site like ours might attribute London’s primacy as much to the convenient digitization of Old Bailey records as to the notoriety of the Tyburn tree or the Dickensian ribaldry under Newgate’s gallows or the legend of Jack Ketch.

Suffice to say that, wherever one lays the reasons, London’s gravitational force drags the eyeballs.

For this week’s series, it’s time to do justice to the everyday criminals who plied their trades outside the Great Wen. Specifically, we’ll be off to the Welsh frontier to meet some Shropshire malefactors whose long-ago crimes waft the moldy bouquet of that West Midlands county’s distinctive cheese.

The sequence of March execution dates upon which this post series hangs (ahem) is more than coincidence, for the pattern of executions in Shropshire — as is generally true outside of London — tracks sittings of the intermittent assizes.

This juridical innovation predated the Magna Carta and somehow persisted until disco: traveling judges commissioned by the state to hold courts of oyer and terminer in six different regional circuits. Shropshire was part of the Oxford circuit with Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herfordshire, Monmouthshire, and Gloucestershire; typically, Shropshire’s assizes were held in its centrally located county town, Shrewsbury, twice per year — once during Lent, and again in the summer. At these assizes the mobile barristers would plop down, straighten their wigs, and in the course of a few weeks try all the pending felony cases that had stacked up since their last visit. Then they would pick up and move to the next county in the circuit.

When there were many capital cases in the queue, assizes could turn downright bloody — but in more normal times, their product was predictability. Thanks to the assize schedule, 18th and 19th century Shropshire hangings almost all take place in either March-April, or July-August. Head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org and browse their logs of historical executions: see what I mean?

With due appreciation to the court’s metronomic regularity, the next few days will be dedicated to a selection of Salopean March noosings … common crimes, to be sure, and maybe a bit out of the way — but for those who touched them every bit as rich with malice and majesty and madness as ever a London footpad could design.

* Keeping sheep by moonlight: a euphemism for hanging in chains.

** This fate befalls the titular tortured scientist in Frankenstein: he wastes three months in prison on suspicion of murdering his friend awaiting “the season of the assizes”, at which point “I was obliged to travel nearly a hundred miles to the county-town, where the court was held.”

1824: Richard Overfield, wicked stepfather

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1824, only three days after his indictment, Richard Overfield was hanged in Shrewsbury, England for the murder of his three-month-old stepson, Richard Jr.

The child died on September 21 the previous year. Overfield’s wife, Anne, rushed to the doctor’s after finding her little son in apparent agony. When she kissed the baby, she noticed his lips were white-colored and blistered and tasted bitter.

Little Richard Jr. died later that day in spite of the doctor’s attempts to save him.

“Overfield, it turns out,” notes Samantha Lyon in her book A Grim Almanac of Shropshire,

worked in a carpet factory and so had access to sulphuric acid. This he stole to administer to the baby. The already terrible picture this forms is made all the more grotesque when you know how sulphuric acid kills: the acid is so corrosive that it burns the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach when ingested. It can, and often does, cause the sufferer to experience severe thirst and to have difficulty breathing.

The motive came out during the trial: Overfield knew when he got married that Anne was pregnant with another man’s child. This was, in fact, why he married her in the first place.

The parish didn’t want to pay out welfare for yet another illegitimate baby, so they offered Overfield a lump sum of money to marry its mother. Any baby born more than a month after marriage would be considered legitimate and its purported father would have to support it.

Overfield accepted the parish’s offer, but although the baby bore his name, he told Anne he would never accept her son as his own. And since he already had the lump-sum payment, well …

“There seems to have been absolutely no step-paternal feelings on the elder Richard’s part,” notes David J. Cox’s book Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Shrewsbury and Around Shropshire:

[He] was heard to frequently express a hatred for the infant and on several occasions was reported as stating that he would not support his wife or her ‘bastard child.’

Matters came to a tragic head …

At his trial Overfield tried to blame the family cat: he’d seen it lying on top of the baby’s face, he said, and shooed it away, and little Richard started choking shortly thereafter.

Beyond that, he had little to say for himself. The jury showed its contempt for his so-called defense by convicting him after only five minutes’ deliberation.

Overfield made a full confession and expressed public repentance for his crime. He calmly accepted his fate.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.