They cut his throat from ear to ear
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare.
He lives in Lyons Inn.

So wrote one Theodore Hook or perhaps William Webb (opinions differ), in commemoration of the Elstree Murder, otherwise known as the Gill's Hill Murder, which took place on the 24th October 1823, one of the most celebrated murder cases of the early nineteenth century. It was once known as England's "most literary murder" as a long list of writers including Thomas de Quincey, George Borrow, Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Carlyle all produced their own treatments of the affair. Charles Dickens in particular wrote his own account if the murder as The Elstree Crime which appeared in Sketches of Gentlemen and once again in Martin Chuzzlewit, whilst Walter Scott made a special point of visiting the scene of the crime in 1828.

Jack Thurtell and William Weare

Born on the 21st December 1794 John Thurtell, commonly known as Jack Thurtell, was the second surviving son of Thomas Thurtell, a prominent Norwich businessman who served on the City Council and later became the Mayor of Norwich in 1828. Having spent some time in the navy, Jack Thurtell later went into business on his own account, rather unsuccessfully it must be said, as he spent much of his time consorting with various "sporting characters" and indulging his passions for prizefighting and horse racing and gambling on the outcomes of both. It was during the course of his gambling activities that Jack made the acquaintance of a sometime solicitor, waiter and cardsharp named William Weare. According to the later testimony of Joseph Hunt, by "cheating him at cards", Weare had not only stolen Thurtell's money but had "made him the laughingstock of London's gamblers".

John Thurtell desired revenge and invited Weare to spend the weekend at the house of his friend, William Probert, at Gill's Hill Lane in Hertfordshire. He even hired a gig for the occasion and on the 24th October 1823 the pair made the journey from London north along Watling Street to his Probert's house. As far as Weare was concerned, the plan was to spend the weekend doing a little shooting with perhaps a little gambling in the evening. As far as Thurtell was concerned, the plan was that Probert and Hunt would later join them at the cottage where they all intended to murder and rob Weare.

For whatever reason, Thurtell couldn't wait until reaching Gill's Hill Lane and once he drew near the Wagon and Horses Inn on Watling Street he confronted Weare, drew his pistol and fired, but the shot missed and only grazed Weare's cheekbone. It seems that Weare then tried to make his escape and jumped out of the gig. However Thurtell soon caught up with him, attacked him with a penknife and cut his throat. Then, just to make sure that he had indeed killed his quarry, he then rammed the muzzle of the gun into Weare's skull. By the time that Hunt and Probert finally caught up with Thurtell, the deed was already done and the body hidden behind a hedge.

All three then went to Gill's Hill Lane where Thurtell sat down and had a pork chop for dinner. The three friends then returned during the night to collect the body which they placed in a sack and dumped it in a pond in Probert’s back garden. The next day they thought better of this as a hiding place, fished it out and dumped it in another pond some distance away beside the road to Elstree.

The conspiracy unravell'd

After killing Weare, Thurtell had stashed the gun and the knife in a hedge and was later unable to find them in the dark when he returned for the body. The next morning a gang of roadmenders discovered a pool of blood on the roadway and found the weapons in the hedge, and promptly alerted the authorities. Meanwhile Weare's friends soon raised the alarm when he failed to appear after his weekend away. Since Thurtell had made the mistake of hiring a gig drawn by a particularly distinctive grey horse with a white face, several people remembered seeing it and its occupants were thus soon identified.

Both Probert and Hunt were arrested and questioned. William Probert rapidly turned King’s Evidence in return for a pardon, whilst Hunt also confessed and took the authorities to where the body might be found. Thurtell's lodgings were searched where they found a matching pistol to that discovered in the hedge, whilst Thurtell himself was soon tracked down and arrested in London.

The Elstree Murder attracted a great deal of coverage in the press, mainly because all of the participants came from respectable families, which enabled the press to cover the case in lurid detail under the guise of moralising on the fatal effects of gambling combined with the equally ethically suspect sporting activities of the 'Fancy'. The Observer in particular went overboard with its coverage, copiously illustrated with portraits of those involved. To capitalise on the public's interest the Surrey Theatre in London produced its own dramatic reconstruction of events under the title of The Gamblers, and took to exhibiting what it claimed was an identical horse and gig to that featured in the original murder. Thurtell himself even gave an interview to The Times in which he proclaimed his innocence and insisted that "I never committed any serious crime in my life", a statement which elicited a response from one John Barber Beaumont, the managing director of the County Fire Office who begged to differ as he was pursuing fraud allegation against him.

Such was the extent of the media coverage that the trial judge felt moved to complain that "if these statements of evidence before trial which corrupt the purity of the administration of justice in its source are not checked, I tremble for the fate of our country." Notwithstanding such opinions Thurtell and Hunt both found themselves on trial at the Hertford Assizes before Mr. Justice Park on the 6th January 1824; Thurtell being charged with murder and Hunt standing accused of being an accessory after the fact. Thurtell was particularly eloquent in his own defence and tried to place the blame for the killing on Probert, whilst Hunt could hardly utter more than a single sentence in court. Not that it made much difference. On the following day, both were convicted and sentenced to death.

The fate of the participants

Thurtell was duly hanged at Hertford Prison on the 9th January 1824 in front of a crowd of some fifteen thousand people. As he stood on the scaffold the prisoner governer a Mr Wilson said, "Good bye Mr. Thurtell, may God Almighty bless you" to which Thurtell replied, "God bless you, Mr. Wilson, God bless you." At two minutes past midday the hangman, one James Foxen, pulled open the trapdoor and his neck broke "with a sound like a pistol shot" according to one contemporary account, although this seems rather unlikely, the noise was probably just the sound of the trapdoors crashing down.

Jack Thurtell's body was sent to London for dissection at Surgeon's Hall in accordance with his sentence. Even his public dissection attracted a large crowd, many of whom made away with various bits and pieces as souvenirs. Indeed as far as is known his skeleton remains in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons to this day. A wax figure of him was displayed in Madame Tussaud's for about 150 years, and since it was modelled by Madame Tussaud herself, his figure is believed to still be in storage.

Although William Probert escaped prosecution, his notoriety preceded him and he found great difficulty in earning a living. He was later convicted of horse stealing in the following year and was hanged by the very same James Foxen at Newgate Prison on the 20th June 1825. Fortunately for Joseph Hunt his sentence was commuted to one of transportation to Botany Bay. After obtaining his ticket of leave he later settled in Bathurst, New South Wales where he married a doctor's widow, had two children, became a pillar of the local community and died of old age in 1861.

William Weare was buried at St. Nicholas Church in Elstree where he joined another celebrated murder victim, Martha Ray, who was also buried there after being shot dead by James Hackman on the 7th April 1779.


SOURCES

  • John Thurtellwww.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/thurtell.html
  • John Thurtell (1794-1824), the Infamous Murderer
    http://www.zentus.com/kraushaar/johnthurtell_murderer.htm
  • Colin Wilson, A murder mystery: why do some killings dominate the headlines?, The Times January 28, 2006
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1072-2013170,00.html
  • Angus Fraser, ‘Thurtell, John (1794–1824)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
    [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27414, accessed 1 March 2007

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