(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1887, a teenager named Joseph Morley was hanged for the brutal murder of his 24-year-old landlady, Martha Bodger. He had been only seventeen at the time of the crime.
Morley, a journeyman blacksmith, lived with a married couple, Martha Bodger and James Mears Bodger, along the Romford Road in Essex. James worked as a gardener at nearby ominous Hainault Lodge.
The Overlook Hotel-esque lodge is no longer extant and its former site has been turned into a nature preserve.
Joseph had been living with them since early in 1887 and had caused no trouble in the household.
James last saw his wife alive on October 11, 1887. He rose at 4:00 a.m. and, at 5:40 a.m., took a cup of tea to his wife. He set off for work at 5:45, reminding Joseph to make sure and shut the front door on his way out.
Just a few minutes later, the neighbors heard screams coming from from the direction of Martha’s bedroom.
The noise was cut off abruptly, and did not resume. One of the witnesses, next-door neighbor Thomas Briant, tried the Bodgers’ front door, but it was locked and no one answered. Briant’s niece, who was present, said she heard the sound of a man’s heavy footsteps coming from the kitchen. Briant also worked at Hainault Lodge and, uncomfortable with the situation, he decided to go there and tell James what had happened, just to be on the safe side.
While Briant was hurrying to the lodge, his niece stayed inside and heard someone leaving through the Bodgers’ front door. She looked out and saw Joseph Morley walking away from the house at an unhurried pace, evidently en route to his job at a blacksmith’s shop 200 yards away.
When Thomas Briant told James Bodger about the noises, the worried husband and father rushed home to see what had happened. The sight that greeted him in the bedroom was something from a horror movie. As Linda Rhodes and Kathryn Abnett describe in their book, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barking, Dagenham and Chadwell Heath:
Martha was lying on her back across the center of the bed. Her nightdress was pulled up towards her waist, leaving her lower body exposed. Her legs hung over the side of the bed facing the door, the feet not quite touching the ground. There was blood everywhere — across her throat, on the floor, and across the walls. The blanket, counterpane and sheet lay on the floor, and were also saturated with blood.
Next to Martha’s body lay the couple’s six-month-old baby, Amy Elizabeth. Little Amy was covered in blood but unharmed, and giggled when she saw her father. The murder weapon, James Bodger’s razor, was under the bed. The killer had wielded it with such force that the blade had snapped off the handle.
Martha was beyond help; she was already dead by the time her husband found her. The doctor counted four long, deep cuts across her throat as well as a gash on her face and defensive wounds on her left hand. She had also suffered a blow to the side of the head. There was no evidence of sexual assault, in spite of the position of her clothes. Her purse was by the bed with no money missing.
James had no doubt who must have killed his wife, and went storming off to Joseph Morley’s place of work. Morley flatly denied having had anything to do with the matter, but his boss noticed some small spots of blood on his coat.
Closer scrutiny revealed additional stains on his coat and pants, as well as on his shirt, which had been turned inside out. Morley claimed the blood was from a cut he’d gotten when he fell off his bicycle the night before, and produced deep cuts on both hands that he said were from yesterday’s accident. But the same doctor who had examined Martha’s body had a look at Joseph’s hands and said the cuts were very recent, an hour or two old at the most.
He was placed under arrest for murder. Morley, with a “dreamy unconcerned manner,” followed the police constable to the station.
At his trial in early November, Morley’s attorney argued the case against him was only circumstantial. Forensics of the 1880s could not have identified the source of the bloodstains on his clothes, or even proven they were human. Nevertheless, he was convicted, and shortly afterwards he confessed his guilt.
Deploying the timeless “blame the media” gambit, Morley claimed he had had lately been obsessed with reading about murders and other crimes in the news, particularly a case in Suffolk where a vicar had been murdered with a razor in his own bed. He said he had yielded to an irresistible impulse to kill Martha and he deeply regretted his actions. He denied any sexual motive for the crime.
He was hanged by executioner James Berry, who told reporters that Morley was the youngest person he’d had to hang so far in his career. After a good night’s sleep, Morley enjoyed a breakfast of fish, bread and butter before mounting the scaffold. He died quickly and easily, and a reporter who viewed his corpse afterwards said it looked as if he had passed away peacefully in bed.
James Bodger remarried two and a half years after his first wife’s murder, and his second marriage produced a son. Unfortunately, Bodger’s life would be a short one: he died of influenza in 1894, aged only 33.
Amy Elizabeth was brought up by her aunt and uncle. She stayed in the local area, married in 1912 and lived a long life, dying at age 90.