James Stockwell was a Huddersfield farm labourer who was found guilty of the murder of 15-year-old servant girl Catherine Dennis in August 1891.
He was born in South Crosland around 1859, the son of local grocer Mark Stockwell and his wife, Sarah (née Haigh).
At some point, he served for 8 months in the 14th Regiment of Foot (now known as the West Yorkshire Regiment) before purchasing his own discharge.
He married Sarah Ann Garside of Stainland in mid-1881 and they had one son:
In July 1883, he was found guilty of assaulting his wife and served two months hard labour at Wakefield Prison. The prison register describes him as having sandy/red colour hair and being 5' 5¼" tall.
In November 1888, together with teamer Henry Ibberson, he was found guilty of "keeping three horses and carts standing longer than necessary to load or unload" after the horses were seen "to stand on the highway for 25 minutes without anyone in charge." The pair were fined 2s. 6d. each.
By the time of the 1891 Census, they were living on Reinwood Road, Lindley.
Stockwell had been out of work during August 1891 and had reportedly become a heavy drinker.
On Friday 21 August 1891, he had visited the Royal Oak public house before going to Ivy Hotel, Linthwaite, where he asked for food and drank more ale. Mrs. Brook, the landlady of the Ivy, departed around 2pm to visit Huddersfield, leaving Stockwell in the kitchen eating a potato pie with his penknife. 15-year-old Welsh servant girl Catherine Dennis was left solely in charge of the inn.
Stockwell remained at the inn, although hidden from view in the kitchen area, so seemingly no witnesses saw him inside. However, he was seen exiting the building and walking away towards Yew Tree Lane at around 4pm.
Shortly afterwards, a local butcher boy arrived to deliver meat but found the inn apparently empty. Concerned that he wouldn't get paid for his delivery, he spoke to neighbours who were surprised that Catherine wasn't around. A search was made of the inn and her body was discovered on the upper landing — she had bled to death from a single deep knife wound to the neck and there was evidence of an attempted rape.
A local man named Iredale, who had visited the inn during the afternoon, suspected that a suntanned stranger he had seen entering might be responsible for the outrage. As news of the murder spread, a number of people walking past the Ivy came in to view the murder scene and Iredale believed he had seen the stranger again with another man amongst the onlookers. Together with a companion, Iredale tailed the two men to Slaithwaite where he informed the police — the men were arrested but later released when it became apparent they were innocent.
Initially, perhaps due to shock, Mrs. Brook had forgotten that Stockwell had been in the inn, but remembered the following day and alerted the police. After witnesses came forward to state that the suntanned stranger — likely an artist passing through the area — was at another public house at the time of the killing, police focused their attention on Stockwell and discovered that he had gone missing.
The manhunt lasted over two weeks, before an emaciated Stockwell returned to his mother's house and was duly arrested. He had spent the time hiding in the Crosland Moor area and sleeping in haystacks, but had struggled to forage food.
At his trial, the jury took only 10 minutes to find Stockwell guilty of murder — his lawyer had freely admitted that Stockwell had been there around the time of the murder but claimed that no evidence had been produced to prove his client was responsible. It was also stated that Stockwell family had a history of hereditary insanity and that his sudden disappearance might have been related to that. Although Stockwell pleaded "not guilty", a fellow prisoner testified that Stockwell had confessed details of the crime to him.
James Stockwell was executed on 5 January 1892 at Armley Prison in Leeds.
His mother was admitted to Wadsley Asylum on 24 October 1891 and died there on 13 March 1892, aged 57.