"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Trials of Christopher Slaughterford: An 18th Century Tragedy

The following is the tale of how one seemingly completely ordinary young Englishman earned an unenviable place in the legal books--and, more importantly to our modern generation--his own Wikipedia entry.

Christopher Slaughterford was born in Westbury, Surrey, sometime in 1684. His father was a miller. He spent his early life apprenticing at a farm in Goldaming, after which he served other farmers in that neighborhood. Slaughterford was hard-working, honest, clean-living, and eager to succeed. He had an good reputation, and seemed as inoffensive and respectable a character as could be found.

Before too long, he had saved enough money to buy a malt-house in Shalford, which earned him a healthy living. The future was certainly looking bright. Slaughterford had a aunt "keeping house" for him, but he naturally now began looking for a wife to take her place. Equally predictably, the single ladies of the area saw this steady and successful young man as an excellent catch. When his attentions turned to a pretty servant girl named Jane Young, she welcomed his courtship. The pair were often seen together, socializing with friends or taking strolls in the countryside.

Early in October 1708, Jane went to her employer, Elizabeth Chapman, with some exciting news: she and Christopher were getting married! Mrs. Chapman was happy for her young servant. She wished Young well and admired her trousseau. When Jane left the Chapman home, it must have been with a light heart indeed.

Instead, this simple tale of rural romance turned to dark tragedy. On the evening of October 5, Jane and Christopher were seen together. And then the girl vanished. No one knew what became of her until about a month later, when her body was found in a pond near Slaughterford's home. A surgeon's examination found several wounds to her head, which led to the common assumption that the unfortunate young woman had been murdered.

The local community instantly settled on one suspect, and one suspect only: the dead girl's sweetheart. It is unclear why so many people were immediately convinced that the hitherto exemplary Slaughterford would commit such a brutal act against the girl he planned to marry, but convinced they were. In the words of the "Newgate Calendar," "a clamour was raised against him, and every person believed that he had murdered her."

But why would he do such a thing? Nobody could say. The common assumption was that Christopher had tired of his lady love, and could think of no other way to be rid of her than by turning to murder. There was absolutely no evidence of any such thing, but that didn't stop this theory from quickly being accepted as fact. It was an alarming example of how easily public perceptions can be swayed.

For his part, Christopher vehemently denied having anything to do with Jane's death. He insisted that he had no idea how she met such a grim fate, and he was determined to prove it. On his own initiative, Slaughterford presented himself to the local authorities for examination. After a justice of the peace heard all the available evidence, he had no problem dismissing the case. As far as the law was concerned, Christopher was left with his good name unsullied.

Unfortunately for Slaughterford, his neighbors felt differently. Lack of evidence be damned, the community continued to insist that he was a murderer. They just had to find a way to prove it. And so they did. Dark stories began to be told of Christopher's behavior after Jane's disappearance. One woman claimed that when she asked him what had become of his "whore," he replied, "I have put her off, do you know of any girl that has money your way? I have got the way of putting them off now." Another woman said that before Jane's body was discovered, she asked Slaughterford what he would do "if Jane Young should lay such a child to you as mine here." She alleged that he sighed, saying that was now impossible, and burst into tears. Then a neighbor of Christopher's said he had seen a man and a woman walking together on the night Jane vanished. He did not see the couple well enough to identify them, but the man was wearing clothing similar to that worn by Slaughterford. Shortly after he passed by the couple, he claimed to have heard a woman scream.

This lurid gossip seems like remarkably weak reasons to hang a man, but the community had whipped themselves up into a legal lynch mob. They knew--even if they couldn't exactly say how they knew--that Slaughterford was a murderer, and they were determined to send him to the gallows. So intense was the uproar that the authorities decided it was necessary to have a formal trial at the next assizes. In the meantime, Slaughterford was held in custody at Marshalsea prison--probably at least in part to prevent his neighbors from taking the law into their own hands.

At his trial, Slaughterford's aunt and the apprentice who lived with them swore under oath that he had been at home for the entire night that Jane disappeared. The previously-described "witnesses" brought forward their dubious testimony. The judge and jury, realizing there was not a scintilla of hard evidence against the defendant, quickly returned an acquittal.

This verdict did nothing to quell the fury of his accusers. One way or another, they were going to make Slaughterford pay for his crime. Local residents convinced Jane's family to bring a private prosecution against him. This brought particular hazards for the accused: if he was found guilty, he was unable to lodge an appeal to the monarch, since the case was brought by an individual, not the Crown. If Christopher lost this case, there was no hope for him.

Neighbors took up a collection which financed the lawsuit, as the Young family was far too poor to do so on their own. In the summer of 1709, the riddle of Jane's death was again brought before the law. For Christopher Slaughterford, this was a case of the third time being anything but a charm. Although no additional evidence pointing to his guilt had been found, the jury--all consisting of local men--knew that they were there not to try the case, but to deliver a conviction. Accordingly, they declared Slaughterford guilty, and sentenced him to die. It was the first time in modern English history that someone was to be executed for murder based solely on circumstantial evidence.

Slaughterford was hanged in Guildford High Street on July 9. He maintained to the very end that he was completely innocent. Shortly before his execution, he wrote a statement: "Being brought here to die, according to the sentence passed upon me at the Queen's-Bench bar, for a crime of which I am wholly innocent, I thought myself obliged to let the world know, that they may not reflect on my friends and relations, whom I have left behind me much troubled for my fatal end, that I know nothing of the death of Jane Young, nor how she came by her death, directly or indirectly, though some have been pleased to cast reflections on my aunt. However, I freely forgive all my enemies, and pray to God to give them a due sense of their errors, and in his due time to bring the truth to light. In the mean time, I beg every one to forbear reflecting on my dear mother, or any of my relations, for my unjust and unhappy fall, since what I have here set down is truth, and nothing but the truth, as I expect salvation at the hands of Almighty God; but I am heartily sorry that I should be the cause of persuading her to leave her dame, which is all that troubles me. As witness my hand this 9th day of July."

As a final gesture of contempt for the proceedings, as soon as the executioner put the rope around his neck, rather than wait to be pushed off the gallows, Slaughterford took the fatal leap himself. There is a local legend that his ghost was subsequently seen in the area with a noose around his neck and crying, "Vengeance! Vengeance!"

The mystery of Jane Young's death may have been legally closed, but it was by no means resolved. There are a number of obvious questions in this case. If Slaughterford was indeed guilty, what motivated this hitherto law-abiding young man to kill his fiancee? If he was innocent, what made so many people so convinced of his guilt that they would literally hound him to his death? Why did no one at least address the possibility that someone else might have murdered her?

And was this even a murder at all? Presuming that Jane died the night she disappeared, her body, when discovered, must have been far too decomposed for any sort of proper post-mortem. It is conceivable that while walking home alone, she accidentally fell into the pond and drowned, with the suspicious marks on her head and neck being caused after her death from rocks and other materials in the pond.

Whether this was an instance of justice finally being done or (as most legal analysts believe) an example of judicial murder, this was a remarkably perplexing case.

1 comment:

  1. The mob is a frightening thing, and I don't mean Mob (though that may be the less frightening of the two.)


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