(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1823, 40-year-old farmer John Newton was hanged for the murder of Sarah, his wife, who was heavily pregnant with their fifth child.
What happened is this: George Edwards, a local man, stopped by the Newton house and asked John for repayment of three shillings owed him for a lamp he’d sold the couple. In response, John flew into a rage, saying he had already given Sarah the money to settle the debt. This wasn’t the first time she’d done this, he told Edwards, and she had to be taught a lesson. He called Sarah into the room and threatened to thrash her.
Edwards was aghast and begged John not to hurt his wife, saying he’d rather forget about the three shillings altogether than have John do something so stupid. The three of them sat down and shared several jugs of weak beer — Edwards refusing to depart until John promised he would not hurt Sarah. As he left, he warned John that if he abused his wife, he, Edwards, would never speak to him again.
In the early hours of the next morning, John showed up at Edwards’s house and asked him for directions to the doctor’s, saying Sarah was suffering from pregnancy-related complications and “a bad job has happened.” When the doctor came, however, he found this wasn’t the case at all. Sarah had, in fact, been brutally beaten. Although she was given medical attention, she died at around midnight.
In Nicola Sly’s book Shropshire Murders, she notes,
The medical witnesses all agreed that Sarah Newton had died as a result of blood loss and, since the newspapers of the time seemed strangely reluctant to detail her injuries, it can probably be assumed that she had a miscarriage, caused by the beating and kicking she had been given by her husband.
Newton’s defense was three-pronged: first, he pointed out that Sarah had previously hemorrhaged after giving birth. Second, he claimed she had attacked him and he had hit her only in self-defense and only a few times with an open hand. Third, he presented various witnesses to suggest he had been insane at the time.
None of these arguments impressed: the jury deliberated all of two or three minutes before finding him guilty of willful murder. John said, incredulously, “I have lost my life for three shillings.”
John Newton wasn’t the only person to face trial in connection with his wife Sarah’s death, however. After John’s execution, the coroner who handled Sarah’s death inquest was brought up on charges of malpractice.
The coroner, a man named Whitcombe, had dismissed half the jury before the case was over because he considered the investigation to be “trifling.” He tried to persuade the rest of the jury members that Sarah had died “by visitation of God” before settling for an open verdict. He had Sarah’s body dissected before the inquest jury could examine it, and his own inspection of the body was judged to be perfunctory. Whitcombe had also failed to call George Edwards to the stand during the inquest, even though he was an important witness; Whitcombe also had an improper private interview with the defendant.
Whitcombe’s jury judged him culpable of “gross violation of his duty,” but in view of the fact that he had retired from his post in the meantime, he was not punished.
From the Caledonian Mercury, April 7, 1823
EXECUTION OF JOHN NEWTON, FOR THE MURDER OF HIS WIFE.
After this unfortunate man had been conveyed from the place of trial to the jail, on Saturday evening, he continued for many hours in a state of great agitation and mental distress.
On Sunday he attended divine service in the chapel of the prison, where he conducted himself with propriety. On the more near approach of the hour of dissolution his feelings again became more agitated.
At about a quarter after 12, on Monday, he was brought towards the scaffold, exclaiming, as he passed along, “I have lost my life for three shillings.” Having ascended the lodge of the jail, where he passed a few minutes in prayer with the chaplain, and some fellow prisoners, he was conducted to the scaffold; when, looking towards the immense multitude assembled, he exclaimed in a very loud tone, several times, “John Bolton!” “John Bolton, of The Hem!”
A voice appeared to answer from the crowd; and the prisoner then exclaimed, “John Edwards, are you come from Severn Hall?”
While on the scaffold, he said to the crowd, “This is a sad death to die, my lads, for a young man lie me; God bless you all.”
“I would give all the world it had not happened.”
He exclaimed two or three times, “Don’t hang me.” “I hope, gentlemen, you’ll not hang me yet.”
Occasionally he ejaculated, “Lord have mercy on me!”
Previous to being turned off, he put off his shoes (which he wore slipperways) from his feet; and when the drop fell he died instantly, and apparently without a struggle.
The unhappy man occupied a farm of about 170 acres, had been married about ten years, and has left four children. He told a gentleman who visited him, he had been a very bad husband at all times; that when he committed the fatal act, he struck and kicked his wife several times; and that, but for the interposition of Providence, he should, under the influence of his ungoverned feelings, at the same time have sacrificed the life of the child who interposed its cries in behalf of its mother: this addition to his crimes was happily prevented by the poor child outrunning and escaping from him. The unhappy criminal was a large and very muscular man. -Salopean Journal
Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.