(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
At noon on this date in 1862, William Robert Taylor was hanged at Lancaster Castle before a large crowd (some reports place the number at 100,000) for a shocking spree of violence that took four people’s lives, three of them children. In the 38yearold man’s pocket was a handkerchief which, he was promised, would be delivered to his wife after his death.
The story that ended with Taylor’s execution began in October 1861, when he rented a shop in Manchester, England, from the real estate agency Evan Mellor and Son. The following month, Taylor complained to Mellor about the boiler, saying it was broken and the pipes were leaking and might burst at any time.
Whether Mellor had the repairs done or not was never established for sure. But the fact of the matter is that a few months later, on one Sunday in January, the pipes froze and then burst, killing one of Taylor’s four children: Maria Jane, aged seven. She was badly scalded and suffered horribly before dying.
Taylor asked Mellor to give him £50 in compensation for the tragedy.* Mellor refused.
The two men had already come into conflict with each other because Taylor was months behind in his rent. Now, they were enemies.
The griefstricken family soon ran into further financial trouble. They were short on food, short on coal, and had to bury little Maria in an unmarked pauper’s grave because they couldn’t afford a funeral. Within weeks, creditors showed up to repossess everything they owned, taking even the laundry that was hung out to dry, and snatching a comb right out of of the oldest child’s hand as she was fixing her hair.
The Taylor family’s belongings were not worth enough to pay the back rent, however, and Mellor instituted eviction proceedings. Taylor had no legal or even practical basis for continued resistance, but he had the embittered vitor of pride and injury to pit against his Dickensian landlord. Stubbornly, Taylor insisted on remaining with his family at their home in Britannia Buildings rather than submitting to a workhouse, even though by this time they were hungry and cold and had no furniture and nothing to wear but the clothes they stood in.
And Taylor pere had a seething grudge against Evan Mellor.
On May 16, 1862, Evan Mellor arrived at his offices at St. James’s Chambers, South King Street, and was met in the stairwell by William and his wife, Martha Ann Taylor. Both of them were armed, Martha with a gun and William with a carving knife ten inches long. Without warning, William Taylor stabbed Mellor in the chest eleven times, once penetrating the heart. The dying man stumbled downstairs and a porter saw him and rushed to his aid. In response, Martha Taylor shot the porter. The couple fled from the scene.
The porter recovered from his injury, but Mellor died a short time later. The Taylors were eventually caught and taken to the police station. William’s response to his arrest was, “Thank God, I have now finished my work.” He gave the police the keys to his home at Britannia Buildings and told them to use the smallest one to unlock the back bedroom.
When two police officers arrived at residence and went in the back, they discovered a tragic scene: lying on the floor were the bodies of the Taylors’ three children. They had been washed and their hair had been combed carefully. They were dressed in long, clean white nightgowns with black sashes, and had black ribbons tied around their wrists and necks. Labels pinned on their chests gave their names and ages: Mary Hannah, age 11, Hannah Maria, age 6, and William Robert Jr., age 4. On the back of each of the labels was an identical note reading:
We are six, but one at Harpurhey Cemetery lies, thither our bodies take. Mellor and Son are our cruel murderers but God and our loving parents will avenge us. Love rules here; we are all going to our sister, to part no more.
(The Taylors kept their silence as to the manner of the children’s deaths. Authorities had the little ones autopsied but could never fix on a cause: their organs were healthy, their bodies unbruised, and there were no evident indications of either poisoning or suffocation.)
William was charged with the murder of Evan Mellor, and Martha with being an accessory to murder. (She told police that she and not her husband had killed Mellor, but the evidence proved otherwise.) They appeared at their joint trial dressed in mourning. In court, no mention was made of Mary, Hannah and William Jr.’s deaths.
There was no question of William having committed the crime; multiple witnesses had seen what happened, he’d been arrested with the bloody knife still in his possession, and he had confessed. His lawyer had no alternative but to plead insanity: that William’s mind had snapped under the weight of his grief and financial ruin. The defense attorney stressed that, although his client was a killer, this didn’t mean he would be dangerous in the future:
He asked them carefully to consider the character and circumstances of the murder itself. Horrible as it was, fierce and violent as it was, it was of such a nature as could hardly be accounted for by any of the ordinary mental conditions in which men are placed. They were not dealing with a man who up to this time had given any indication of a ruffianly or brutal disposition; but with a father of the deepest affection who succeeded in inspiring the woman standing beside him with a devotion almost unparalleled. They were not dealing with a bloodthirsty man.
It didn’t work, and the judge’s summation seemed calculated to crush any empathy the jurymen might have felt for the murderer. William, he remarked, was “acting under a strong feeling of resentment” and so he was “a perfectly sane man, acting under a sane impulse.”
Guilty (left), not guilty (right).
In the end, Martha was acquitted of being an accessory to Mellor’s murder after her defense counsel called the eyewitness testimony into question, but William was convicted of murder.
Mary, Hannah and William Jr. would have been consigned to a pauper’s grave like their sister, but the community took up a subscription and raised £60 to pay for their funerals and a fine headstone, next to where Maria is buried in Harpurhey Cemetery.
Their father lies buried elsewhere, in a mass grave with other executed convicts.
Phrenology fans will surely enjoy the Liverpool Mercury‘s September 15, 1862 gallows reportage.
Hanged along with Taylor on the same occasion was a Lancashire trade unionist named John Ward. Ward and some fellow bricklayers had by cover of darkness destroyed some 18,000 bricks belonging to a combative boss. Britain’s grand tradition of machine wrecking was by this point no longer a capital crime by its own right, but returning from a satisfactory operation the masked workers were challenged by two policemen in Ashton-under-Lyne and one of those cops was shot dead in the resulting affray. Ward paid that forfeit.
* Historical inflation measurements get a little dodgy when the increments are centuries, but this 50 quid would equate to a demand for several thousand pounds today.