Cheshire Observer (19/Dec/1891) - The Shocking Murder of a Flintshire Girl

The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.



Before Mr. Justice Wright at the Yorkshire Assizes at the Leeds Town Hall, on Tuesday. James Stockwell, 32, farm labourer, was charged with the murder of a girl named Catherine Dennis, a servant at a public-house at Linthwaite, near Huddersfield (but whose home was in Flint), on the 21st August last. From the singular circumstances under which the crime was committed, great interest was manifested in the case, during the hearing of which the court was crowded. Prisoner, who was accommodated with a seat in the dock, replied "Not Guilty" when the charge was read over to him. Mr. Harold Thomas and Mr. Edmondson appeared for the prosecution; the prisoner was defended by Mr. Mellor and Mr. Palmer. The facts, as stated on behalf of the prosecution, were shortly as follows: The house at which Catherine Dennis was employed was the Ivy Inn, Linthwaite. On Friday, the 21st August, the prisoner, who was a teamer, went with two other men named Brooke and Dransfield to the Ivy Inn, where the prisoner, who was in the habit of visiting the house, had something to eat. Subsequently the three men went to another public-house, where they had something to drink, but later on returned to the Ivy Inn, arriving about a quarter to one in the afternoon. About five or ten minutes to two the landlady, Mrs. Brook, left in a carrier's cart to go to Huddersfield. At half-past two the prisoner and the girl were seen in the kitchen by two men named Hirst and Iredale, and subsequently a man named Walker saw Stockwell and the girl together in that apartment. Five minutes afterwards the girl was seen in the taproom, the prisoner, it was suggested, remaining in the kitchen. The last time the girl was seen alive was at a quarter-past three at which time Hirst and Iredale left the house. What subsequently transpired there was no direct evidence to show, but about half-past four the prisoner was observed to leave the public-house by the back door and go in the direction of Huddersfield. The person who saw him leave the Ivy Inn was a boy named Beevers, who was taking some meat to the house, and who, finding no one in and getting no answer to his calls, drew the attention of the neighbours to the fact. Some of the neighbours entered the house and were horrified to find the dead body of the girl on the landing with her throat cut. From that day — the 21st August until September 7th, a period of 17 days — Stockwell was missing. During that period he was wandering in the woods with scarcely anything to eat. On the 7th September he presented himself at his mother's house, where, on that day, he was arrested, his mother having given information to the police as to his whereabouts. When arrested his weak condition was unmistakable evidence of the hardship he had undergone during his hiding. To the police he said, "I haven't had anything to eat for six days; I must have been asleep all the time."

Mr. Mellor said there would be little dispute on the direct evidence ; the difference would be on some of the inferences drawn therefrom.

A large number of witnesses were called. Some of them spoke to a stranger dressed in a black coat, white overalls, and a billycock having entered the Ivy Inn about a quarter-past three, and left about half-past four; but Mr. Mellor said he was not going to make any point about this mysterious stranger.

Mr. Haigh, surgeon, described the condition of the body.

One of the witnesses was Arthur Thompson, who said he had been sentenced at the assizes for burglary and had been in trouble before. He was in prison in Wakefield awaiting his trial previous to the assizes, from the 7th of September to the 8th of October. During that time he was located in the hospital, and saw the man Stockwell. He was with him about four weeks, and was acting as nurse. Stockwell said "Shall we be altogether in this room ?" and witness said "Yes, we are in association here." He asked witness what he was there for, and Thompson replied "For getting drunk." In reply to a question put to him Stockwell said "I have done a murder." Witness said " Nonsense; we do not want to speak about that, it's close upon supper time." Nothing more was said about it that day, but it was spoken of constantly and daily for a month. The next morning Stockwell complained about his legs being stiff, and witness asked him what was the matter. Prisoner told him that he had been sleeping in a haystack. Witness asked what for and how long ? and Stockwell told him sixteen days, and that he had nothing to eat during that period. Witness could scarcely believe him, and asked him again, but Stockwell stuck to the story. Witness went so far as to tell prisoner he was mad, but he repeated that his story was true. On Wednesday, the 9th of September, witness asked him who he had murdered, and the conversation of that day was detailed by witness as follows: — He said she was a young girl. I said "How old," being inquisitive like, and he said "About 17 or 18." I asked him if he had been keeping company with her, and he said "No ; he had never seen her before to his knowledge." I asked him what incited him to do it, and he said "I must have been mad. I had been drinking very heavily for two or three days, and when I am under the influence of drink I act like a maniac." I asked him how he knew that, and he said his friends had told him so. I then asked him how it occurred, as I was getting interested so to speak, and he said "I was drinking in the Ivy public-house with another man. This man left me, and then this girl began tormenting me by knocking my hat off and pulling my ears, and in a moment of passion I ran and got hold of her, and she ran upstairs." I said "Did you run after her ?" He replied "Yes." Then I said "Was there no one in the house, landlord or servants?" and he said "No." I said "Did you catch hold of her ?" and he said "Yes." Then he suddenly stopped, the curtain fell, and he would say no more.

Mr. Thomas : I did not understand your last remark.

The witness : He would not say any more.

Did you ask him ? — No.

Did he never mention that part of the affair again ? — No. He spoke of sleeping in the hay more, but not of that afternoon.

Cross-examined : Wilson, the other nurse, was present, and could hear what had been said, and had taken part in the conversation.

Mr. Mellor, addressing the jury, contended that apart from the incriminatory statements of the prisoner there was absolutely no case beyond one of suspicion against the prisoner. There was a long interval of time between the prisoner being last seen at the Ivy Inn and the time at which the crime was committed, and there was not the slightest trace of blood on the man's clothes when he was apprehended. As to the prisoner's disappearance for so long a period, what more natural than that a man with a mind diseased, as he could show this man's was likely to have been, should try to evade the justice which he supposed was hunting him down? The character of the incriminatory testimony that day was new to him. If evidence such as that which had been received that day were to be generally received, the results might be of a disastrous character which could not be sufficiently estimated. The evidence of the inmate in Wakefield gaol was at all events of a tainted character. The evidence was that of a man who had an acquaintance with police courts, and who could tell what thought of revenge or of a desire to ingratiate himself with the authorities, actuated the habitual convict ? This, however, was only one part of his case. He had another — he had a dual defence. The family history of this wretched man was a terrible history of a family afflicted with the scourge of insanity. His grandmother died in an asylum. The taint broke out in the prisoner's mother at the age of 32, the same age the prisoner now was at. His sister showed the same symptoms, and such was the way in which the present dreadful affair had affected her that she had to be removed to an asylum. Again, the prisoner's uncle died in an asylum. He would show them that early in life the prisoner gave evidence to his parents of that same terrible disease having broken out. He would show them that his head was cut open when in early manhood, and thus his failing was aggravated, and he also developed a craving for drink which must have intensified the original disease. The night before the murder, at twelve o'clock, the prisoner was found lying dead drunk. He was awakened, and then his conduct was that of a maniac. When he got home his conduct was still more extraordinary. He said that two policemen were following him, and he accused his sister-in-law of taking money from him. Thus in his wild way he went on until they found him drinking as early as seven o'clock next morning, and continuing throughout the day up to the time of the murder. Where was the motive which could have prompted this murder. There was, at any rate, one incident in the case which they could clearly feel satisfied upon, and upon which they could rejoice. There was no suspicion whatever that the poor girl had had her last moments embittered by an act of outrage.

Evidence was given by the prisoner's father, brother, and sister-in-law, who spoke to the taint of insanity in the family, and to the strangeness of the prisoner's conduct, especially when he gave way to drink.

Mr. Kaye, medical officer of health for Huddersfield, and Mr. Peter MacGregor, surgeon and physician, of Huddersfield, the latter of whom had attended the prisoner's mother and sister, spoke to the prisoner's mind not being of the average capacity, and stated their opinion that he was suffering from epilepsy.

Mr. Harold Thomas, in addressing the jury, I said he did not think he was misrepresenting his friend when he said that the defence had practically admitted that the prisoner was the man who took away Dennis's life.

His Lordship, in summing up the evidence, said he thought the jury would have no doubt that the prisoner was in the house at the time the murder was committed. If the matter rested there, that in itself would be a strong case of circumstantial evidence. But over and above this were the prisoner's statements to the- policeman and to Thompson. For his own part he could not very well see how Thompson could have invented the story. He had been in prison ever since the night before the murder. He had no access to newspapers, and he could scarcely have known anything except through the prisoner. There was in further corroboration the fact that the prisoner was seen leaving the house by the back way very shortly after the murder, and the further fact that he stayed away sixteen days, and though he had money in his pocket only lived on a few beans. If they thought prisoner had committed the deed they were then to ask themselves, "Was he to be excused on the ground of drink ?" They would be violating their oaths as jurymen were they to Bay that there was evidence of the prisoner being so intoxicated as not to know what he was doing. There was no pretence to anything of the sort. As to the more serious question of insanity, were they to make inquiry it would probably be found that a great many of the prisoners tried at those Assizes were the children of parents in whose families there had been hereditary insanity. But to make that a defence to every charge would be loosening the hold which society had upon the most dangerous of the criminal classes — namely those with the taint of insanity who at present were held in check by the dread of punishment. He was very far from stating that capital punishment should be passed upon the prisoner. Even if he was sentenced to death there would be still room for the clemency of the Crown. The Queen, through her responsible advisers, would obtain the opinion of the best medical practitioners on the state of the man's mind, and whether he was responsible for what he did at the time of the murder.

The jury retired at five o'clock, and after an interval of ten minutes returned to court with a verdict of "guilty."

His Lordship, in passing sentence of death, said the jury had performed a painful duty in giving the verdict they had given. It would be for the Crown to consider whether there were any circumstances in the case, or in the prisoner's history, which would move the Crown to extend to him its clemency.

The prisoner was then removed from the dock.