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Title: The Bravoes of Market Drayton Author: Arthur Conan Doyle * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1202661h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2012 Most recent update: July 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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To the north of the Wrekin, amid the rolling pastoral country which forms the borders of the counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire, there lies as fair a stretch of rustic England as could be found in the length and breadth of the land. Away to the south-east lie the great Staffordshire potteries; and farther south still, a long dusky pall marks the region of coal and of iron. On the banks of the Torn, however, there are sprinkled pretty country villages, and sleepy market towns which have altered little during the last hundred years, save that the mosses have grown longer, and the red bricks have faded into a more mellow tint. The traveller who in the days of our grandfathers was whirled through this beautiful region upon the box-seat of the Liverpool and Shrewsbury coach, was deeply impressed by the Arcadian simplicity of the peasants, and congratulated himself that innocence, long pushed out of the great cities, could still find a refuge amid these peaceful scenes. Most likely he would have smiled incredulously had he been informed that neither in the dens of Whitechapel nor in the slums of Birmingham was morality so lax or human life so cheap as in the fair region which he was admiring.
How such a state of things came about is difficult now to determine. It may be that the very quiet and beauty of the place caused those precautions and safeguards to be relaxed which may nip crime in the bud. Sir Robert Peel's new police had not yet been established. Even in London the inefficient "Charley" still reigned supreme, and was only replaced by the more efficient Bow Street "runner" after the crime had been committed. It may be imagined, therefore, that among the cider orchards and sheep-walks of Shropshire the arm of Justice, however powerful to revenge, could do little to protect. No doubt, small offenses undetected had led to larger ones, and those to larger still, until, in the year 1828, a large portion of the peasant population were banded together to defeat the law and to screen each other from the consequence of their misdeeds. This secret society might have succeeded in its object, had it not been for the unparalleled and most unnatural villainy of one of its members, whose absolutely callous and selfish conduct throws into the shade even the cold-blooded cruelty of his companions.
In the year 1827 a fine-looking young peasant named Thomas Ellson, in the prime of his manhood, was arrested at Market-Drayton upon two charges— the one of stealing potatoes, and the other of sheep-lifting, which in those days was still a hanging matter. The case for the prosecution broke down at the last moment on account of the inexplicable absence of an important witness named James Harrison. The crier of the court having three times summoned the absentee without any response, the charge was dismissed, and Thomas Ellson discharged with a caution. A louder crier still would have been needed to arouse James Harrison, for he was lying at that moment foully murdered in a hastily scooped grave within a mile of the court-house.
It appears that the gang which infested the country had, amidst their countless vices, one questionable virtue in their grim fidelity to each other. No red Macgregor attempting to free a clansman from the grasp of the Sassenach could have shown a more staunch and unscrupulous allegiance. The feeling was increased by the fact that the members of the league were generally connected with one another either by birth or marriage. When it became evident that Ellson's deliverance could only be wrought by the silencing of James Harrison, there appears to have been no hesitation as to the course to be followed.
The prime movers in the business were Ann Harris, who was the mother of Ellson by a former husband; and John Cox, his father-in-law. The latter was a fierce and turbulent old man, with two grown-up sons as savage as himself; while Mrs. Harris is described as being a ruddy-faced pleasant country woman, remarkable only for the brightness of her eyes. This pair of worthies having put their heads together, decided that James Harrison should be poisoned and that arsenic should be the drug. They applied, therefore, at several chemists', but without success. It is a remarkable commentary upon the general morality of Market-Drayton at this period that on applying at the local shop and being asked why she wanted arsenic, Mrs. Harris ingenuously answered that it was simply "to poison that scoundrel, James Harrison." The drug was refused; but the speech appears to have been passed by as a very ordinary one, for no steps were taken to inform the authorities or to warn the threatened man.
Being unable to effect their purpose in this manner, the mother and the father-in-law determined to resort to violence. Being old and feeble themselves, they resolved to hire assassins for the job, which appears to have been neither a difficult nor an expensive matter in those regions. For five pounds, three stout young men were procured who were prepared to deal in human lives as readily as any Italian bravo who ever handled a stiletto. Two of these were the sons of old Cox, John and Robert. The third was a young fellow named Pugh, who lodged in the same house as the proposed victim. The spectacle of three smock-frocked English yokels selling themselves at thirty-three shillings and fourpence a head to murder a man against whom they had no personal grudge is one which is happily unique in the annals of crime.
The men earned their blood-money. On the next evening, Pugh proposed to the unsuspecting Harrison that they should slip out together and steal bacon, an invitation which appears to have had a fatal seduction to the Draytonian of the period. Harrison accompanied him upon the expedition, and presently, in a lonely corner, they came upon the two Coxes. One of them was digging in a ditch. Harrison expressed some curiosity as to what work he could have on hand at that time of night. He little dreamed that it was his own grave upon which he was looking. Presently, Pugh seized him by the throat, John Cox tripped up his heels, and together they strangled him. They bundled the body into the hole, covered it carefully up, and calmly returned to their beds. Next morning, as already recorded, the court crier cried in vain, and Thomas Ellson became a free man once more.
Upon his liberation, his associates naturally enough explained to him with some exultation the means which they had adopted to silence the witness for the prosecution. The young Coxes, Pugh, and his mother all told him the same story. The unfortunate Mrs. Harris had already found occasion to regret the steps which she had taken, for Pugh, who appears to have been a most hardened young scoundrel, had already begun to extort money out of her on the strength of his knowledge. Robert Cox, too, had remarked to her with an oath: "If thee doesn't give me more money, I will fetch him and rear him up against thy door." The rustic villains seem to have seen their way to unlimited beer by working upon the feelings of the old country woman. One would think that the lowest depths of human infamy had been already plumbed in this matter; but it remained for Thomas Ellson, the rescued man, to cap all the iniquities of his companions. About a year after his release, he was apprehended upon a charge of fowl-stealing, and in order to escape the trifling punishment allotted to that offense, he instantly told the whole story of the doing away with James Harrison. Had his confession come from horror at their crime, it might have been laudable; but the whole circumstances of the case showed that it was merely a cold-blooded bid for the remission of a small sentence at the cost of the lives of his own mother and his associates. Deep as their guilt was, it had at least been incurred in order to save this heartless villain from the fate which he had well deserved.
The trial which ensued excited the utmost interest in all parts of England. Ann Harris, John Cox the younger, Robert Cox, and James Pugh were all arraigned for the murder of James Harrison. The wretched remnant of mortality had been dug up from the ditch, and could only be recognized by the clothes and by the colour of the hair. The whole case against the accused rested upon the very flimsiest evidence, save for Thomas Ellson's statement, which was delivered with a clearness and precision which no cross-examination could shake. He recounted the various conversations in which the different prisoners, including his mother, had admitted their guilt, as calmly and as imperturbably as though there were nothing at stake upon it. From the time when Pugh "'ticed un out o' feyther's house to steal some bacon," to the final tragedy, when he "gripped un by the throat," every detail came out in its due order. He met his mother's gaze steadily as he swore that she had confided to him that she had contributed fifty shillings towards the removing of the witness. No more repulsive spectacle has ever been witnessed in an English court of justice than this cold-blooded villain calmly swearing away the life of the woman who bore him, whose crime had arisen from her extravagant affection for him, and all to save himself from a temporary inconvenience.
Mr. Phillips, the counsel for the defense, did all that he could to shake Ellson's evidence; but though he aroused the loathing of the whole court by the skillful way in which he brought out the scoundrel's motives and character, he was unable to shake him as to his facts. A verdict of guilty was returned against the whole band, and sentence of death duly passed upon them.
On the 4th of July 1828 the awful punishment was actually carried out upon Pugh and the younger Cox, the two who had laid hands upon the deceased. Pugh declared that death was a relief to him, as Harrison was always, night and day, by his side. Cox, on the other hand, died sullenly, without any sign of repentance for the terrible crime for which his life was forfeited. Thomas Ellson was compelled to be present at the execution, as a warning to him to discontinue his evil practices.
Mrs. Harris and the elder Cox were carried across the seas, and passed the short remainder of their lives in the dreary convict barracks which stood upon the site of what is now the beautiful town of Sydney. The air of the Shropshire downs was the sweeter for the dispersal of the precious band; and it is on record that this salutary example brought it home to the rustics that the law was still a power in the land, and that, looking upon it as a mere commercial transaction, the trade of the bravo was not one which could flourish upon English soil.
ANN HARRIS, JOHN COX THE ELDER, JOHN COX THE YOUNGER,
ROBERT COX, AND JAMES PUGH Convicted of Murder.
The case of these diabolical criminals, as it was proved at the trial, which took place at Shrewsbury on the 2nd of August 1828, before Mr. Justice Gazelee, scarcely finds a parallel in the whole series which we present to our readers. It exhibits the dreadful features, of a mother and father-in- law combining to procure the commission of murder, to save their son from justice; and that son, the object of their solicitude, procuring the conviction of those by whose means he had been before saved from an ignominious end, for the offence to which they had made themselves parties on his behalf, to relieve himself from the due reward of further crime committed by himself.
It appeared that, in the neighbourhood of Market Drayton, on the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire, there existed a dreadfully depraved set of people; and that a gang, to the amount, it was said, of from forty to sixty, was confederated for general purposes of plunder. The nucleus of this gang consisted of several persons, closely knit by ties of relationship, of connexion, and of neighbourhood, as well as of guilt; while the general depravity of the district enabled them, as occasion required, to add to their numbers, to almost any extent. One of these persons, by name Thomas Ellson, was in 1827 taken up for stealing potatoes; and, whilst in jail upon that charge, an accusation of sheep-stealing was brought against him. The chief evidence upon which this latter charge, a capital one, depended, was that of a man who had occasionally joined in the proceedings of the gang, named James Harrison. It became, therefore, the object of the friends of Ellson to get this man out of the way. First, they determined to poison him; and Ellson's father-in-law, John Cox, went to an apothecary's shop to buy arsenic for that purpose. The boy in the shop refused to sell it to him, unless some one else were by, which, as there was no one else in the house, could not then be the case; and Cox, probably not liking such formal proceedings, retired.
The next step was one of the most extraordinary in the whole case. Ann Harris, Ellson's mother, who had married a second husband of the name of Harris, went to a woman living in Drayton, whom she knew, and asked her if her husband were not going to Newcastle. The woman answered that he was. "I wish then," said Harris, "that he would buy me an ounce of arsenic." "What do you want it for?" "I want it to poison that damned scoundrel, James Harrison."— The woman upon this remonstrated — assured her it was a very wicked thing to poison James Harrison,— and, after some conversation, old Ann Harris went away, promising that she would not carry out her expressed intention.
Poison having failed, it was determined to have recourse to more direct means; and Ann Harris and old Cox subscribed fifty shillings apiece, to hire Cox's two sons, and a young fellow of the name of Pugh, to put Harrison to death! Harrison lodged in the house of Pugh's father, and, it was said, occupied the same bed with Pugh himself. On the night of the murder, Pugh, to use his own expression, "'ticed" Harrison out of the house, to go and steal some bacon. At a spot previously agreed upon, they met the two younger Coxes; and proceeding to a remote place, Pugh seized Harrison by the throat, while John Cox, the younger, took hold of his legs, and throwing him down, they strangled him. Meanwhile, Robert Cox was digging the grave!
The wretched man thus disposed of, everything remained perfectly quiet and unsuspected. It was generally supposed that he had gone out of the way to avoid giving evidence on Ellson's trial; though it seems very extraordinary that, after the latter had been acquitted, the non-return of Harrison excited no suspicion. No supposition of his death, however, appeared to have arisen, and the murder was discovered only by the means of Ellson himself. As soon as this fellow came out of jail, the Coxes, Pugh, and his mother, at various times, sometimes when several of them were together, and sometimes separately, told him all that had taken place, vaunting to him how they had saved him. The very night of his release, old Cox, one of his sons, and Pugh, bragged to him, that "if it had not been for them, he would not be there,"— and the next day, when he was at his mother's, Robert Cox came thither, and said to her with oaths and abuse, "If thee doesn't give me more money, I will fetch him, and rear him up against thy door!"— alluding to the murdered man!
Nothing, however, transpired till towards the end of June 1828, when Ellson was taken up for stealing fowls, and then, in order to save himself from the punishment attending this offence (at the most seven years' transportation), he told all that the guilty persons had told him; and on his evidence they were apprehended.
Such are the facts of this revolting case; but we must describe some of the peculiarities of the trial itself.
The five prisoners were placed at the bar: old Ann Harris stood first;— she seemed what would ordinarily be called a smart old woman — her features were small and regularly formed, and her countenance was remarkable only for a pair of exceedingly keen and sparkling black eyes, the expression of which, however, was certainly in no degree indicative of ferocity. Old Cox stood next to her, and his countenance presented a most unpleasing, almost revolting, aspect. It was easy to believe the current story that he was at the head of the gang at Drayton — the very patriarch of all the thieves and scoundrels in that part of the country. He had, undoubtedly, brought his sons up to robbery as to a trade, and he had now hired them to commit murder! The two sons were next to him, and were not remarkable in their aspect. Pugh was last — and he was an ill-looking fellow enough, though not strikingly so.
As the trial proceeded, one of its peculiarities soon became apparent. This was that a vast proportion of the witnesses were of the closest kindred to the accused. And what was more horrid, was the fact of the father of the murdered man being called to speak to the identity of the body, which, having lain in the earth nearly a year, was so totally decomposed as to be recognizable only by the clothes; but to this the father added that "the colour of the hair was that of his son!"
It shocked all present greatly, when the father and mother of Pugh were called to speak to some minute facts with regard to the night on which Harrison was murdered, with reference to his leaving their house, where he lodged. The chief evidence was what the prisoners themselves had told to Ellson; but he being a person of execrable character, it was necessary to support his testimony by every corroborative circumstance that could be proved. Accordingly, in the early part of the trial, these wretched old people were brought forward to give testimony to facts bearing against their son's life: they were but very slight, but, as far as they went, they were confirmatory of the main story; and it is difficult to say whether the extreme coolness and composure with which the parents gave their evidence were not still more dreadful than if they had been violently affected.
Besides Ellson himself, there were also his wife, who was the daughter of one and the sister of two of the prisoners, and his sister, who was the daughter of another, called as witnesses! These young women also gave their evidence without strong emotion, although they certainly seemed far more impressed with the position in which they stood than the other witnesses named.
Ellson was calm, decided, and firm, to a degree which gave rise to unmingled disgust in every one who heard him. It will be recollected that the crime had been committed to save him — Pugh certainly committed the murder for hire; and the Coxes, perhaps, might have had some interests of their own mixed up with his;— but, even as regarded these last, the first object had been his escape; and his mother undoubtedly had dyed her hands in blood, solely to save her child.
The witness was a fine, well-looking fellow of about five-and-twenty — and, undoubtedly, until the severe cross-examination he underwent caused a struggle — though a perfectly successful one — to keep down his temper, his countenance was rather agreeable than otherwise. His story was clear, consecutive, and, no doubt, true. Each individual concerned in the transaction had, immediately on his release from jail, very naturally told to him, for whose sake it had been committed, all the circumstances regarding the murder. Pugh appears to have been the most detailed in his account, and to have rather bragged that it was he who "'ticed un out o' feyther's house, to steal some bacon,"— and that it was he who had "gripped un by the throat." In some instances, the Coxes were present during these recitals, and at others they spoke of the subject to Ellson themselves. While this part of the evidence was going forward, the strongest horror was excited against the perpetrators of the crime — so treacherous as it was in its concoction, and so coldly cruel in the manner in which it was carried into effect. Moreover, the idea that Pugh certainly altogether, and the two young Coxes in great part, had committed this murder for hire was a circumstance of a character so new, and so awfully depraved, that the story carried the auditory along with it, and they forgot altogether the scoundrel who was telling it. But when he came to speak of his own mother, what must have been their sensations! Her guilt, dreadful as it was, almost disappeared; the thought could be only of the unnatural and ungrateful villain, who, to save himself from a light and temporary punishment, was thus giving to the gallows the mother who had born him, for a crime caused by her extravagant affection for him. He repeated twice or three times, in answer to the questions of the examining counsel, who felt it necessary to make the matter quite clear, that his mother had told him that she and old Cox had given fifty shillings a piece to have Harrison murdered. He said this as calmly as any other person would narrate any indifferent fact — and his mother's eyes were on his face all the time!
Mr. Charles Phillips cross-examined the witness at great length, very severely, and very skilfully: he drew from him that he had been in jail repeatedly, almost constantly, for theft of all kinds and descriptions; and he drove him into attempts to shuffle, very nearly approaching to prevarication, on several minor points, not connected with the case. But, regarding the case itself, he was not shaken at all; and although the universal sensation in the court must have been that of loathing and disgust for the mercenary cold- bloodedness of the proceedings to which he had had recourse, no serious doubt could for one moment be entertained that he was telling the truth.
The jury under these circumstances were compelled to return a verdict, consigning the wretched prisoners to a violent death.
The extreme sentence of the law was immediately passed upon the convicts, and their execution was appointed to take place on the following Monday, the 4th of the same month.
On the next day, a reprieve was granted in the case of Robert Cox, one of the sons, upon grounds which do not appear to have been well understood at the time, and he was transported for life. A respite for a week was also granted in the case of the elder Cox, and Ann Harris, who had been convicted only as accessories before the fact; but the awful punishment of death was left to be carried out in its due course upon Pugh, and John Cox the younger. The former, after his trial, declared his sense of the justice of his sentence, and that he regarded the termination of his career as a happy one, for that he constantly saw Harrison by his side; while the latter, with cold-blooded firmness, urged him to keep up his spirits, for that "he could die but once."
The execution had been appointed to take place at mid-day; and at a few minutes before twelve o'clock all the convicts, together with Ellson, were drawn up in the inner yard of the jail. Pugh and Cox were then pinioned; and while Ann Harris, old Cox, and his son Robert, were reconducted to the jail, Ellson was carried to a spot from which he must witness the conclusion of this dreadful scene. The authority by which this course was adopted, may well be doubted, for the miserable wretch was undoubtedly entitled to his discharge, as the indictment against him had been withdrawn; but it is probable that it was thought that the example afforded by such a proceeding might tend in some degree to check the thirst for crime, which appeared to exist in that district of the county.
The miserable convicts were directly afterwards led to the scaffold, dreadfully agitated, and uttering ejaculations imploring mercy for their sins; and all being in readiness, the drop fell, and they were launched into eternity.
The sentence of the wretched mother of Ellson, and of old Cox, was subsequently changed for that of transportation; and with this bare recitation of its facts, we shall close the scene upon this frightful case.
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