(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1887, 63-year-old Charles Smith was judicially hanged at Oxford Castle Prison by James Berry. He’d brutally murdered his wife in front of their children that February.
The Smith family were Gypsies: Charles, his wife Lucy, their 17-year-old daughter Oceana (known as Oshey) and their 11-year-old son Prince Albert. As Nicola Sly notes in her book Oxfordshire Murders,
The lifestyle of Gypsy families in 1887 was not one to be envied. The traveling people were at the mercy of the weather all year round, whether the heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter. Forced to scratch a living any way they could, many supplemented their meager income with a little poaching or petty theft. Thus they were very rarely welcomed in any area and were always in fear of the local police who almost invariably moved them on wherever they tried to settle.
According to this account, Lucy had borne many children, but only four lived long. By the time of the murder, one of the children had died and one, a daughter named Elizabeth, had grown up and left home.
Charles’s siblings regularly got in trouble with the law, and at least one of his siblings was transported for sheep theft. He and Lucy, however, were somewhat more fortunate: Lucy possessed a valid peddler’s license. In the 1881 censuses, both had their occupations listed as “hawker.” Charles made baskets, skewers, roasting forks, meat stands and pegs which his wife sold.
Throughout their lives Charles and his family traveled around Oxfordshire, pitching a tent wherever they could find a place, and in February 1887, they were camped on public land near Headlington. They’d been there before and were friendly with some of the local residents, including a couple coincidentally also named Smith.
Charles was a violent man who regularly beat his wife and children; Oshey stated he beat his wife every day, and Prince Albert would later testify, “He has been knocking my mother about nearly all his life.”
At one point the domestic violence had gotten so bad that Lucy had gone so far as to take out a formal complaint against her husband for cruelty. She never followed up on it, though.
On the 18th of February, Kate and George Smith, who lived in a nearby cottage, visited the tent and noted Lucy was visibly bruised. They asked Charles why he’d beaten her and he wouldn’t give a reason, but said it was over something that happened thirty years before.
The visitors advised him to forgive and forget, but Charles acted surly and hostile for the rest of the day. Lucy was so frightened of him that for a long time she stayed outside the tent in the bitter cold, and only partially dressed, rather than go inside where her husband was. At bedtime she finally came in.
In the early hours of the next morning, Charles began shouting at his wife, waking the children. As Oshey and Prince Albert watched in horror, their father picked up a hammer and attacked Lucy, beating her on her head, back and legs until he was too tired to do it anymore. Then he laid down and went peacefully asleep.
Mortally wounded, Lucy crawled out of the tent to get some water from a nearby stream. She never returned, and eventually Oshey went out to check on her and found her dead.
When Charles realized what he’d done, he sank to his knees beside Lucy’s battered corpse and sobbed, crying, “My wench, my wench!”
Oshey and Prince Albert ran for help, going to the same neighbors who’d visited the night before. When Kate Smith answered the door, Oshey blurted, “My Mammy’s dead. He’s been and killed her with the hammer.”
Kate and George rushed to the scene of the crime. Charles had dragged Lucy’s body into the tent and lain it out on some straw. He told them Lucy had “fallen down” and died. George told everyone he was going to fetch a doctor, but instead he went to the police, returning with two constables. By then Charles had calmed down and said casually, “Good morning. I have got a dead ‘un this morning.”
One of the constables searched the tent and found the bloodstained hammer concealed under some straw. Charles, whose coat was also bloodstained, was placed under arrest for the willful murder of his wife. The autopsy showed she’d died of a fractured skull; Charles had hit her head with the hammer three or four times.
At the ensuing trial in April, Oshey was the star witness against her father, although Charles kept shouting that she was telling lies and was a “nasty, wicked wretch.” Prince Albert testified also, as did Kate and George Smith.
The defense argued that Charles had no intention of killing his wife and there was no motive, and so it was a case of manslaughter. However, the jury returned a verdict of murder.
After he was condemned to die, Charles turned to religion for solace, praying with the prison chaplain. Some of his relatives came to visit, although Oshey and Prince Albert stayed away. His eldest daughter Elizabeth made the strange observation that “when he was a drunkard there was not a kinder man living, that something or somebody turned him into a teetotaler, and from that time he had been a cruel wretch.”
While walking to the scaffold, Charles fainted on the trapdoor just before James Berry drew the bolt. The hanging went smoothly and it was judged he died quickly and painlessly.
As for the orphaned Oshey and Prince Albert, it was recorded that “through the noble hearted philanthropy, of Miss Skene, of this City, the girl Oceana has been placed in a Home in York, and boy the Prince Albert, through the same thoughtfulness, will also be brought up to acquire the means of earning an honest livelihood.”
On this day..